ON THE CRAFT OF RHYMING PICTURE BOOKS
GO, GIRLS, GO! AUTHOR
Today I’m happy to share an enlightening post on craft by Doubleday Books for Young Readers Editor-in-Chief, and Go, Girls, Go! author, Frances Gilbert. Many picture book authors face a challenge when writing in rhyme. Does the meter work? Does the rhyme feel forced? Is the story best told in rhyme? Frances offers helpful insights into her approach from both sides of the editor’s desk so please read on.
ON RHYMING PICTURE BOOKS BY FRANCES GILBERT
I’ve been a children’s book editor for over 25 years and one of the most common reasons I reject picture book manuscripts is that they rhyme badly. So why, for my first foray into writing a picture book myself, would I choose to write Go, Girls, Go! in rhyme??! Rhyming, we’re so often told – by editors, by agents, by fellow writers – is not encouraged. Bound to fail, hard to translate. But I love rhyming books. I love reading them, and I love publishing them. Turns out, I love writing them too.
The number one mistake in rhyming texts is when the rhyme overwhelms the story rather than serving the story. The monotony of a 32-page story all told in the same rhythm can wear a reader down after a few pages. As an editor, I often start these submissions thinking, “Okay, let’s see if this can be sustained . . .” and after a few stanzas say, “Oh please stop. I can’t do this anymore.” The sing-song-y-ness of “dah-duh dah-duh dah-duh, dah-dah” in line after line pummels a reader with sameness. It also encourages authors to make terrible word choices: odd or forced descriptions or line endings because that last word HAS. TO. RHYME. My test: Extract a line out of your rhyming text and ask yourself if you’d write it the same way if it DIDN’T have to rhyme. If the answer is no, it’s a bad line. The rhyming has to feel effortless.
Effortless AND creative. Listen to the “Hamilton” soundtrack. I know it’s a high bar, but learn from how Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote an entire musical in tight, creative rhyme full of variety and rhythm changes and surprises and cleverness and word-play delights. Internal rhymes, humorous rhymes, break-outs into a different rhythm altogether. A surprise around every corner. Now imagine if all two hours and forty-five minutes of “Hamilton” had been “dah-duh dah-duh dah-duh, dah-dah.” That’s not a ticket you’d have paid $300 for.
I broke “Go, Girls, Go!” into four primary sections, each one showcasing three girls, their vehicles, and the sound of their vehicles. It starts: “Emma drives a fire engine, / Meg conducts a train, / Jayla steers a big red tractor hauling loads of grain.” Those lines alone are not breaking any creativing writing boundaries. It’s a pretty standard A-B-B rhyme scheme. Had the rest of my text been in the same rhythm and rhyme scheme, it could have gotten old quickly. But my next two scenes actually don’t rhyme at all; they introduce the sound words and, after another page turn, end in a rallying cheer: “Vroom! goes Emma. / Hoot! goes Meg. / Clank! goes Jayla! / Go, girls, go!” The break from rhyming in these scenes, while still maintaining a bouncy rhythm, gives the reader a different reading experience for a few pages before launching into the next set of girls.
This is the pattern for four sets of girls, and then for the finale we break into a different rhythm and rhyme scheme, A-A-A-B this time: “Girls can race and girls can fly. / Girls can rocket way up high. / What about you? Give it try! / Go, girl, go!” It gives the reader an indication that the book is approaching a crescendo, and then it lands on one final cheer on the last page (which doesn’t rhyme with anything).
Did I plan this structure deliberately ahead of time? No, I just wrote it. But I followed this mantra the entire time: “Don’t bore your reader. Don’t wear your reader down. Let the rhyme serve the story.”
I was grateful that reviewers picked up on this: Booklist called the rhyming “propulsive”, which is the best descriptor I could have hoped for, with the style of the rhyme matching the forward-moving vehicles in the book. And Kirkus said, “With repeated readings, pre-readers will be reciting the words on their own,” which thrilled me, because rhyming can help kids quickly get the hang of reading along if the rhythm grabs them. And that leads to repeated readings, which is the test of any good picture book.
So don’t be afraid of writing in rhyme, but please remember: “Don’t bore your reader. Don’t wear your reader down. Let the rhyme serve the story.”
Follow Frances Gilbert on Twitter: @GoGirlsGoBooks
Click here to read more about Frances in an SCBWI Kite Tales interview by Christine Van Zandt.
Come back tomorrow (Wednesday) for my review of Go, Girls, Go!