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Rhythm and Rhyme in Children’s Poetry—Perfect… or Not?


Last week I visited Nancy Polette’s class for adults on Writing for Children and talked about my journey from Reader to Writer. I came to the part where I had written some board books for Highlights Press, and said how important it had been to them that my verse was absolutely perfect in rhyme and rhythm. That’s when one of the students brought up a question that I’m sure many aspiring children’s poets ask.

He said, “I hear it all the time, make your rhyme and rhythm perfect! But,” he said, “I read many books of children’s poetry and books in verse, and they are not written with perfect rhythm and rhyme!” He wanted to know why we say to make your poetry perfect when so much of what we see published is not so.

I’m sure that I didn’t answer his question very well then. So I thought I’d put some of my thoughts about it here.

I enjoy rhyme in children’s poetry, whether it’s a collection of poems or a picture book in verse. I like it when the rhythm is right on, and the rhyme isn’t forced. It bothers me when words are switched around to make them rhyme, and when the rhythm trips me up. It interrupts my thoughts, and it interrupts the story. And I’m not sure why some of those books get published.

That’s how I feel, and I know that editors who say that they don’t want to see any poetry, really mean they don’t want to see bad poetry—‘bad’ meaning imperfect rhythm and rhyme. And they do see a lot of it. So an author who is talking to beginning children’s writers about writing poetry or books in verse would be neglect if they didn’t pass that along to their listeners.

Yes, there are many rhyming books for children, and they’re not all done very well. But the children’s authors who write poetry and do it well, with good rhyme and rhythm, have books that are on the ‘best books for children lists,’ and that are nominated or win awards. And those are the kinds of books that editors are looking for.

So, one reason for writing perfect rhyme and rhythm is in the competition. Your book is going to compete with the thousands of picture books that cross an editor’s desk each day/week/month. And by working to make your book the best that you can, you’re working your way past that first reader and past all of those manuscripts, toward the editor’s desk.

Talking more on the topic, the student said that often 'when he reads a book where the rhyme is perfect, it’s boring!' Some years back, the general opinion in the publishing world was that younger kids liked rhyming poetry, but older students did not, and preferred free verse. I remember that I disagreed, and I still do. I think that if rhyme is done well, it’s fun. It can also be a learning tool for older children as well as younger ones—for example, when learning the names of the states, or learning musical notes.

Boring? If a rhyming poem for older children is very long, and written in simple verses of four lines throughout the book or poem, it would probably be a bit boring. But it can be fixed! You can add detail, and rich language. You can ‘change it up’ a bit in places, with a repeating phrase or repeating lines. Put a twist at the end.

For younger children, such as the 0 to 2 year-old group that the Highlights board books target, rhyme should be perfect, because it makes it easier for them to understand, and to learn. Most board books at this age are concept books, designed to teach the child something. They are short, to go with the short attention span of a two year-old. Verse that follows the same pattern, and the same rhyme scheme become familiar to them, and they expect it. Not all board books are written for this young age.

If you’re thinking of writing for this age, or any age child, I would suggest getting a book about the developmental stages of children. As a former nurse who worked with children, I have a medical book that shows this. There are many other books for parents on child development including the ‘What to Expect When Your Child is…’ books.

As a child grows he has better comprehension, and you can add some unexpected rhythm—maybe an added syllable in just the right place, like a grace note in music. Or extra syllables to speed things up. But before you do, write perfect rhyme and rhythm!

I think that before you ‘break the rules,’ you should ‘learn the rules.’ If you do that, then when you do make exceptions you’ll understand why it works. And it will make your poetry better.

Perfect rhyme, and perfect rhythm, isn’t easy! And it isn’t quick. But it’s worth the effort. So don’t give up! And maybe someday your collection of poems or picture book in verse will be on that list of ‘best books for children!’  Read More 
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Dissecting a Poem

Melody, from NAME THAT DOG!
Between new babies and other family matters, my blog has taken a back seat this month. I decided to get in a late contribution to poetry month by going through how I wrote, and re-wrote, one of the poems from my picture book, NAME THAT DOG!

My inspiration for Melody was my friend’s dog, Mellie. Every time I would go to Karen’s house, Mellie barked like crazy, even before I got the front door! I told Karen, “You don’t need a doorbell. You have Mellie!”

My first idea was to write about a dog who loved to ‘sing,’ and with his barking he would get all of the dogs in the neighborhood to join in. I called him Maestro, like the leader of an orchestra. Here’s the first draft:

Maestro
He sings along
When I play the piano
He hits the high notes
In perfect soprano.
He can hold it long
He can sing it low
Dogs follow the lead
Of my dog, Maestro.

Ok, I wasn't really happy with this poem--yet. Here are some reasons why.

Rhythm: This poem didn’t just roll off your tongue with that easy rhythm.

The stress fell on different syllables in the lines. I try to have each line stress the same syllable, either the first or the second usually, to make it easy to read. It doesn’t always work out that way, but at least it feels right when you read it out loud. The stress here falls on the second or third syllable, and doesn’t line up in order. The last line puts the stress on the word ‘my,’ which doesn’t feel natural. In addition, the lines don’t have the same number of syllables. It doesn’t always have to be exactly the same, but I felt that it was too far off.

Imagery: I didn’t feel that the end result put any special pictures or images in the reader’s mind. Ok, maybe a piano, maybe an orchestra conductor. Boring!

Language: Word choice, or language, is what creates the images that the readers see when they read a poem. It’s also what makes the reader feel something when they read a poem. I definitely thought I could do better here.

So I started to make my lists. I made a list of words of ways that a dog makes noise: bark, howl, yap, etc. I made a list of words that were synonyms for ‘sing:’ croon, tra-la-la, chant, hum, wail, moan…. I made a list of types of music: country, opera, pop, rock, rap…. I made a list of musical instruments: piano, saxophone, flute, violin….

I decided to re-name my dog Melody, after Mellie, who barked whenever someone came up the walk, and made her a girl like the real Mellie. I looked at my lists, and tried to relate the different words to a dog, in particular to a dog who liked to ‘sing.’ Here’s what I ended up with.

Melody
She sings when I play the piano.
She croons to the saxophone blues.
She wails to that sad country music
And moans to the nine o’clock news.
She boldly increases her volume,
enjoying the voice that she’s found,
And sings a duet with the doorbell—
That howling, melodious hound.

Poems are meant to be read out loud! I ended up with a much better rhythm, and a poem that was fun to read. The language was fun, too. And the images are there in every line for the reader to enjoy. I hope that you enjoy these poems, as well.  Read More 
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Math and Poetry?

A former teacher, and fellow writer, put the thought into my head that math and poetry are related. It's something that I never thought of, but what she said kind of makes sense.

Math is a science. It gets to the point, or the answer, using the shortest route to get there. When doing a math problem every step counts, or you end up with the wrong answer.
Poetry gets to the heart of things, using the shortest route, with meaningful words, without explanations. In poetry, every word must count.

There is a pattern to math, just as there is in poetry. The pattern of a poem creates its rhythm. Read More 
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The Value of Music in Writing for Children

I write poetry and stories for children. I do not write music. Our son, Dan, and our daughter, Sarah, write and perform their own songs. Our son Kevin writes music. Maybe someday I'll give it a try. Of course it would be songs for children. My husband played drums and had a band in high school. All of our children play instruments, and some were in choir and musicals. I've learned how to line dance and to think rhythm.

There's a lot to be said for music if you write for young children. Rhythm, pacing, and a musical quality are important in picture books. . Read More 
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