Should My Picture Book Rhyme?
Updated: Jan 2
I don't know where the idea comes from, but for some reason when people start to write a children's picture book, many of them immediately think it has to rhyme. Maybe this is because so many of our childhood favourites rhyme, and there's something about those texts that really stick with you. For instance, I can still recite parts of Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein and Ludwig Bemelmans's Madeleine to this day - but I also loved Eric Hill's Spot books as a kid, possibly even more so than the other books, and that text doesn't stay with you in the same way. But that doesn't make Spot any lesser of a book than the others, particularly if a child loves it (hello, lift-the-flap fun!). So let's look at what rhyme vs. prose really means to a reader.
The Positives & Negatives 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 really involved in the story
- 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 and Negatives of Prose Text
+ More freedom with sentence structure
+ Easier for an editor to see potential and improve
+ Easier to translate into other languages
- Not as easy to get kids to join in with a reading (but not impossible)
The fact is, when a rhyming text is good, you get a wealth of positives from it at the reader's end. But when it's bad, it's the complete opposite: it's a hinderance. So you have to get the rhyme just right. Whereas with prose, you can still have all the positives of a rhyming text - maybe not in the same way - and you don't run the same risk of the text not working.
I think it's because of this that there are a lot of blog posts online telling authors not to write in rhyme; that editors and agents don't want books in rhyme. I don't think this is necessarily true or good advice. The problem is, editors and agents see a lot of bad rhyming texts. And as an agent or editor, it's unthinkable to take on a text with a decent story but a terrible rhyme and ask the author to re-write it. Whereas it's much easier to look at a prose text to see how it can be improved. Fact of the matter is, when a rhyming text doesn't work, it really doesn't work and everything else around the story falls apart.
So how do you assess if a rhyme isn't up to scratch? Have a look at your (or someone else's) rhyming text and answer the following questions:
Does it read like someone would naturally speak?
Can you easily read the rhyming text aloud?
Is the rhythm solid (e.g. no points at which it loses its flow)?
Does it feel like certain plot points/names were chosen specifically to fit the rhyme? Or does the rhyme seem to dictate the story?
If you answered "no" to questions 1, 2, and 3, or if you answered "yes" to question 4, then there is probably something wrong with the text. In most cases, there's probably more than one thing wrong with the text. In regards to point 4 - sometimes this is a rule that can be broken, but only when done well.
What if you still really want to write a rhyming picture book? I say go for it, but maybe write it in prose first. Remember you are writing a story - not a rhyme. Make sure you have a solid story structure and plot, then apply the rhyme to it. If all your rhymes are based on "he / she / we / me / be", then you have a problem because your sentences probably aren't in a normal word order, and the language is going to be bland. Also, you shouldn't be reaching for the thesaurus too often because you shouldn't use an obscure word to put into a rhyme. Kids might be learning new words every day, but these should still be accessible words. I know a rhyming book that used the word "intrepid" to make a rhyme work, and it just felt so wrong.
For the younger crowd, there are also books with rhymes that work more like a song than an actual narrative. The story is very loose, and there's lots of repetition. So bear in mind that a rhyming picture book doesn't need a strong plot, but can work more like a song. Personally, these are the rhyming books I prefer because they are fun and usually have colourful and engaging illustrations (Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, anyone?).
Want to read some great picture books in rhymes? 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