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Are You a Rhyme Criminal?

You have a great idea for a children's picture book, and you've decided to tell it in verse. Children love poetry because they can anticipate the rhyming words and say them along with the adults reading the book to them. You already know that picture books are for an audience who cannot read, so it’s understandable that ‘reading’ along with adults and guessing the rhyming word is fun for children. In addition, good poetry is musical to the ear and a pleasure to listen to. But then someone in your critique group warns you against writing in verse. Why? Because it's a well-known fact that many agents and editors throw their hands up in despair when they see yet another rhyming picture book manuscript on their desk. 

If you’ve been to writers’ conferences, you’ll no doubt have heard that publishers don’t welcome rhyming manuscripts, but a quick browse through the picture book section in the library will show you that this is not entirely true. The reason they don’t like rhyming picture books is simple – most writers fail to master the elements of good poetry. Unless someone has taken poetry classes and understands the differences between rhythm and rhyme and how they work together, they should not attempt to write a rhyming picture book. Good picture books are difficult to write, good rhyming picture books even more so. So, it may be a good idea to consider the following questions: have you taken a poetry class, and do you know how to scan poetry? If not, it's better to write in prose.

There are thousands of picture books that are hugely successful without rhyming text. Very often, writers who don’t know how to write poetry have not read their manuscript out loud and don’t realize that it doesn’t trip off the tongue in the way they think it does when they’re reading it in their head. In addition, they are rhyme criminals without even realizing they are committing a crime! Here are four types of rhyme crimes to watch out for when writing in verse:

1. Playing around with the stress of words just so that they will rhyme. For example: ‘below’ might rhyme with ‘sideshow’ but the stress in ‘below’ is on the second syllable, not the first, as it is in ‘sideshow’. These two words cannot be used as rhymes.

2. Inversion. Poetry must sound natural, like speech. Classic poems may play around with word order, but contemporary poems don’t, and picture book poetry should never do so. Words like ‘did/would/will’ normally appear in inversions and sound unnatural. For example:

“She checked for those words and found where they hid,

with the slash of a pen, delete them she did!”

3. Letting the rhyme dictate the story, instead of the other way round. Have you ever had a great idea, sat down to write the story in rhyme and then bumped up against a problem – you can’t find a rhyming word where you need one. What to do? You end up choosing one that takes your story off in a wildly different direction to the one you originally set out to write. Does this sound familiar?

4. Inconsistent meter or rhyme schemes because you don’t know what meter is, nor how to scan for it.

What's the takeaway of this article? If you've never learnt how to write poetry, it’s probably best you don’t diminish your chances of being published by writing in verse. If you have studied poetry and know how to write it, then full speed ahead!

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Louanne Piccolo