Picture books don’t have to have rhyme and meter. My all-time favorite picture book, the one I like to call “perfection in a picture book,” If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, has neither. The Cat in the Hat has both. Another of my favorites, Jamberry, is a rhyming picture book with a different meter on every two-page spread. Nancy Shaw’s Sheep books have loads of words that rhyme, but minimal meter. This works, too.
You can have rhyme without meter, and you can have meter without much rhyme (see Dr. Seuss’s ABC). There are lots of picture books in rhyme and there are lots of picture books in prose and I don’t think that one style is any better than the other. However, if you write a picture book in rhyme or meter, it needs to work. I’ll explain what I mean.
Making the Words Rhyme
First, the words need to actually rhyme. It is possible to fudge this a little, but it’s better not to. The easiest words to use are one-syllable words where there are lots of possibilities. For example, sheep, jeep, steep, beep, cheap, deep, sleep, etc. In Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss rhymed “ham” with “am,” as in Sam-I-am. Very easy to work with. Multi-syllable words just have to rhyme the final syllable, but for best results the words will have the same number of syllables (around, confound). If you separate the words far enough apart, you can fudge the rhyme or syllables slightly (around, sound) and it will still work. Fudge too much and it becomes obvious you’re cheating (around, now). I didn’t make that one up. Sigh.
The Importance of Meter
For most people, getting the words to rhyme is the easier part of writing rhyming text in meter. While working as a reviewer for Readers’ Favorite, I have seen way too many self-published picture books where the rhyming words were fine but the meter was a mess. There’s a knack to getting the meter right. Some authors have a good enough ear for rhythm and meter that they can write meter correctly either by ear or, even better, by knowing what they’re doing. Authors who aren’t confident with one of these approaches need an editor. Most books published by traditional publishing houses appear to have been edited to correct metrical problems (although occasionally mistakes slip through even the big houses). Self-publishing authors can hire an editor, but be aware that not all editors understand meter, so having your book professionally edited does not guarantee metrical perfection.
Finding a Good Editor
If you can’t hear the metrical problems yourself, you won’t be able to accurately judge an editor’s work. But here’s a hint: the meter in a picture book is directly connected to metrical concepts in music. You need an editor who is absolutely confident they are good with meter, and when you find one, it will likely turn out that the editor is also a musician.
Determining if an editor can tackle meter is not difficult. Just ask. If the editor treats your question casually and/or uses words like “probably,” they’re not the right person. The editor who understands meter will be extremely picky about it – hearing a metrical mistake in a picture book will grate on their ears as much as hearing a glaring mistake in a well-known passage of music. An editor who admits that they cannot stand to read books with sloppy meter is a keeper. Or if it just about kills them when their author friends refuse their help and publish picture books filled with metrical errors… hypothetically speaking, of course… Find an editor like that for your rhyming book.
Suppose you want to write a rhyming picture book. You can rhyme the words, but you are not a musician and you have no ear for meter. Do your best and then hire a good editor. You might not even appreciate all the little tweaks they make, but rest assured that others will. OR, suppose you do hear meter and maybe you play a musical instrument (better yet, you can sight read rhythmic notation), but you’re not confident in your ability to make your meter perfect. Good! Recognizing that you’re not there, yet, is a big step in the right direction. Go on to my next post (Writing Rhyming Picture Books Part 2) and see what you can learn. I’ll include suggestions of ways you can check your work when you’re done.
Quiz: How Good is Your Ear for Meter?
Take a look at this excerpt from a favorite in our house, Ten Little Dinosaurs. (The metrical errors in this book are intentional, and they make something silly even more hilarious.)
Six little dinosaurs jumping off a peak,
Archaeopyteryx dove and tweaked his beak.
One called the ranger and the ranger shrieked,
“No more feather-heads jumping off a peak!”
Here’s a quiz question: Find the metrical error in the passage above. How many syllables should the word have in order to make the meter work correctly?
The answer can be found at the end of my next post, but before you go there… If you need to check the answer to see if you got it right, I strongly urge you to get metrical help from an editor on your rhyming picture book. If you know your answer fixes the problem, there’s no need to check, but you might really enjoy my next post.