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!’