Updated: Nov 1, 2021
For some reason when people start to write a children's picture book, many of them think it has to rhyme. I don't know where this idea comes from. Maybe it's because so many of our childhood favourites rhyme, and there's something about those texts that really stick with you.
I can still recite parts of Dr. Seuss's books, Shel Silverstein's poems, and Ludwig Bemelmans's Madeline to this day - but I also loved Eric Hill's Spot, possibly even more so than the other books, and that text doesn't stay with you in the same way. That doesn't make Spot any less of a book than the others, particularly if a child loves it (hello, lift-the-flap fun!).
But aside from how they sound, what does rhyme vs. prose really mean to a reader? There are some benefits of a rhyming text that a prose text can't bring, usually around language development. But a rhyming text has to be done right, and because of this, rhyming texts are harder to get published. So let's look at the positives and negatives of both:
The Positives of Rhyming Text
+ Promotes language development in young children
+ Helps non-confident adult readers as it gives them a flow and rhythm to the story
+ Great for reading aloud: repetition and rhythm can get kids involved in the story
The Negatives of Rhyming Text
- Difficult to translate into other languages
- If the rhyme doesn't work, it's really obvious
- There are more ways to go wrong with a rhyming text than with prose
The Positives of Prose Text
+ More freedom with sentence structure
+ Easier for an editor to see potential and improve
+ Easier to translate into other languages
The Negatives of Prose Text
- Not as easy to get kids to join in with a reading (but not impossible)
When a rhyming text is good, you get a wealth of positives at the reader's end. But when it's bad, it's the complete opposite: it's a hinderance.
It's because of this that there are a lot of blog posts online telling authors not to write in rhyme, and that editors and agents don't want rhyming books. But this isn't true or good advice. The problem is, editors and agents see a lot of bad rhyming texts, and it's unthinkable to take on a text with a decent story but a terrible rhyme and ask the author to re-write it. (And to be honest, most poorly written rhyming texts don't have a clear story at all.) Whereas it's much easier to look at a prose text to see how it can be improved. When a rhyming text doesn't work, it really doesn't work, and everything else around the story falls apart.
The biggest mistake of a rhyming text, though, is not in the rhyme itself - it's in the story.
Rather, it's the lack of story. Writers can become so intent on making a rhyme work, that the rhyme dictates how the story unfolds and things start to become nonsense. It's important to remember - there is nothing more important than the story itself. We might remember a few lines from Madeline, but what we really remember is the story: Madeline goes to boarding school and wakes up one night with appendicitis and has to go to the hospital. There is nothing about this plot that requires it to be told in rhyme - it just happens to rhyme.
I'll say it again for the people at the back: The rhyme is always secondary to the story. The biggest pitfall of a rhyming text is putting the rhyme before the story. This is what I see with the majority of rhyming texts sent to me, and fixing this requires re-writing the story entirely.
Those of you who haven't been scared away yet are probably wondering: But what if I really want to write a rhyming picture book? I say go for it, but to make sure you keep your story at the heart of your text. Try writing it in prose first or plotting it with bullet points - then tackle the rhyme. Remember: you are writing a story that happens to rhyme. So make sure you have a solid story structure and plot, then apply the rhyme to it.
Also, be careful using a thesaurus or rhyming dictionary too often - you don't want to use an obscure word to put into a rhyme. Kids might be learning new words every day, but these should still be accessible. I know a rhyming book that used the word "intrepid" to make a rhyme work, and it just felt so wrong. My favourite rhyming dictionary is rhymezone.com - it highlights common words so your eyes are drawn to those first.
Want to read some great rhyming picture books? Here are a few of my favourites:
For 3-5 year olds:
Troll Stroll by Elli Woollard and Benji Davies
Shark in the Park by Nick Sharratt
Kitchen Disco by Clare Foges and Al Murphy
The Lion Inside by Rachel Bright and Jim Field
Danny McGee Drinks the Sea by Andy Stanton and Neal Layton
Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
I Am Bear by Ben Bailey Smith and Sav Akyuz
For 0-3 year olds:
Everybunny Dance! by Ellie Sandall
Bear on a Bike by Hannah Shaw
Car, Car, Truck, Jeep by Katrina Charman and Nick Sharratt
This Bear, That Bear by Sian Wheatcroft
A Busy Day for Birds by Lucy Cousins
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle
Fox's Socks by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler