I grew up with nursery rhymes, and although many see them as outdated, they are helpful for language acquisition and encourage children’s speech development. The verses are made up of patterns, they have a rhyme scheme, a specific meter, lots of repetition and they embed language with music. In my experience, this combination aids a child’s language acquisition and memorization process enormously.
As a former Pre-K teacher in an international school in Switzerland, much of my career focused on sharing stories and singing songs. Throughout those years, picture books were my friends and allies bringing lots of rhyme, rhythm, and repetition to the ears of my young students, many from non-English speaking backgrounds. I found it allowed them to learn a rich range of vocabulary, and feel confident to participate thanks to the predictability of rhyming words, and I guess, this is exactly why I am drawn to, and write in, rhyme.
In the Little Animal Friends rhyming board book series published by Amicus Ink, and illustrated by the talented Suzie Mason, I’ve used internal rhyming couplets in a simple quatrain on every spread. The first line, Little Panda is repeated, and the internal rhymes “winking, / blinking,” “stumbling, / tumbling,” “slipping, / gripping” are fun action verbs. Kirkus picked up on my choice of language in their review of Little Panda (2019) saying “Verbs such as “spies,” “bumbles,” “plodding,” “clambers,” and “dangles,” not typical toddler repertoire, are clearly signaled by the uncluttered pictures.”
One of the limitations of rhyme is the difficulty of translating it into other languages, so it is understandable that publishers are not always enthusiastic about acquiring rhyming books. However, here are a few of the benefits that children get from rhyming books:
Good rhyme and meter sings! It is magical to read and listen to. Sloppy rhyme and meter, on the other hand, is like tumbling down the stairs…it hurts and gets attention for all the wrong reasons.
Good meter creates a steady beat, which enables children to listen, imitate and then even innovate, creating their own poetry and stories and developing their language skills.
A storyline in rhyme tends to be shorter and more concise, though no less compelling than longer works. Words must be chosen very carefully, and this makes it perfect for early readers.
Young children’s early literacy skills are initially based on listening and speaking, not reading and writing. The more vocabulary they learn through listening and joining in with story and song, the better equipped they will be for the next stage of reading and writing.
My latest picture book, published by Creative Editions, is Yusra Swims, a NF biography in rhyme relating the story of Syrian refugee and Olympic swimmer, Yusra Mardini and is intended for ages 6 – 8 years. The sparse clipped quatrains leave plenty of room for my wonderful illustrator, Sally Deng, and enable children to access a tough topic in bite-size chunks of information, creating an opportunity to delve deeper into the subject through discussion with parents and teachers. Using so few words lends itself to show not tell, making it very accessible. I selected a trochaic meter to match the serious tone of the subject matter. A Trochee is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, so Trochaic dimeter is stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed, (tum, ti, tum, ti) however I mostly left the last ‘unstressed’ syllable as a pause or a breath.
My advice to writers who want to create picture books in rhyme is to make your best word choices, be concise, use surprising but perfect rhymes, flawless meter, simple grammar and above all leave room for your illustrator! In my experience, children aren’t afraid of unfamiliar words, when the pictures give them visual clues to their meaning.
It’s the magic that great picture books create for children that makes me proud to write for them.
So, rhymers, be brave, hone your craft, polish your manuscripts and write your very best books!
About the Author:
Julie’s debut board books Little Tiger and Little Panda illustrated by Suzie Mason, published in March 2019 with Amicus Ink. Little Hippo and Little Monkey joined the Little Animal Friends series in February 2020; a nonfiction picture book biography entitled Yusra Swims, Creative Editions, illustrated by Sally Deng in February 2020; a true story THE OLD MAN AND THE PENGUIN: A TRUE STORY OF TRUE FRIENDSHIP, Kids Can Press (Fall 2020) and nonfiction picture book bio SAKAMOTO’S SWIMMERS: HOW A SCIENCE TEACHER LED AN UNLIKELY TEAM TO THE OLYMPICS, Kids Can Press (Spring 2021). She is represented by Essie White of Storm Literary Agency.
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