Monday 9 January 2023

How NOT to Write a Rhyming Picture Book by Juliet Clare Bell


Having received countless rejections (above) for unpublishable rhyming picture books before finally writing a publishable one, I thought I might share my top tips on how *not* to do it...

[1] Decide to have a go because you’ve seen lots of badly rhyming books out there and you’re sure you can do better.

It’s true. There are less than brilliantly-rhyming books out there…
BUT they are often written in-house by staff at the publisher’s, in order that a series can be made quickly, with an illustrator they already have in mind, and without having to pay an author. (Check out the copyright details in the book. Does it say Text © X-Publishers rather than Text © Author’s name?) I once received a rejection from a publisher saying “We like your rhyming story, but it’s the kind of thing we can do in-house”. You are not competing with these stories (or with stories published twenty years ago and no longer in print. Check when your 'competition' was written: publishing practice has changed). Give the publisher a rhyming story that no one else can write better than you. Yours needs to be as worthy of being published as one by Julia Donaldson or Jonathan Emmett (see his Someone Bigger, below).

[2] Let the rhyme dictate the story. 

It’s great to play around with a story and get carried off in unexpected directions (and you can have a lot of fun with a good rhyming dictionary –I love the Chambers Rhyming Dictionary, with a foreword by Benjamin Zephaniah). BUT if your story is taken hostage by the rhyme (your sweet little rabbit heroine turns into a nun because 'habit' is the only rhyme you can come up with), it probably won’t be a very satisfying story –even if your rhyming is great. If you write your story out in prose, you will soon see if it’s substantial enough as a story or whether the rhyme is carrying it. The plot and characters need to be as strong as for one written in prose. Clever rhymes can be fun to read once or twice but the book won’t stand up to endless repetition if there’s no substance to the story.

Would you want this poor rabbit changed into a nun because of the constraints of the rhyming picture book? (And you can see why I'm a writer and not an illustrator.)

[3] Use sentence structure like old nursery rhymes, or lyrics from a song. It was good enough for Old King Cole…

What’s wrong with Old King Cole calling for his fiddlers three (because a merry old soul was he)? Or with having five little snowmen fat (because each had a funny hat)? It’s easier to find a rhyme for three than fiddlers, and having fat at the end of the line scans better than ending with snowmen. So why not rearrange sentence structure wherever it suits you in order to make the rhyme work? Because… it’s lazy rhyming, it’s not how people speak and publishers don’t like it. If you have to make your sentence structure sound forced and unlike real-life speech, it’s not working. Old King Cole is great (and you can forgive a lot for a good tune), but it is of its time and it wouldn’t get a second glance from a 21st Century editor. 

These days, with his fiddlers three, Old King Cole would be published not.

[4] Don’t worry about meter and length of lines. Your readers will learn how to read it after they’ve tried it out five or six times. And then they’ll be able to enjoy it for years to come.

Except they won’t. No one’s going to work hard at reading your picture book, not a potential reader in a shop and certainly not an editor. Picture books are created to be read aloud. They have to sound right, and it’s especially true of a rhyming picture book. So read it aloud –LOUDLY, with feeling. Even if it is embarrassing. (I’ve even cut out a manuscript of mine and blue-tacked the lines of text onto someone else’s picture book where I thought they should go and then recorded myself reading it, to hear what it really sounded like with the breaks for page turns.) 

But even when you’ve read it aloud and feel happy with the rhythm and rhyme, you know how it should sound. Which also means you can read some words more quickly than others in order to fit everything into that line and scan it perfectly. So let other people (preferably not family and friends who are either going to love it –good or bad- because it’s written by you, or not love it and upset you –I’ve had both). (For hints on joining or setting up a critique group, click here.) If other people read it and bits of it don’t scan for them, you need to work on the scansion-even if you can make it scan perfectly. 

Scene from an SCBWI open critique meeting in Birmingham, UK

[5] Write a poem and call it a picture book. No need to think about the picture element and page turns. 

You’ve written a great poem. You want to get it published and you could submit it to a poetry anthology or you could send it to a picture book editor. Much better to get a whole book out of one poem, right…? Except that picture books are about the interplay of words and pictures. Readers will slow down to look at the pictures –you need to take this into account. It can work –with a brilliant poem, a fantastic illustrator and a great publishing team (see Jim by Hilaire Belloc and Mini Grey, below). But it will need all the elements of a great picture book (with exciting page turns and changes in pace, etc.).

[6] Don’t read other rhyming stories before you start to write because they might curb your creativity and you might be too influenced by them.

Much better to write straight off without reading what’s already out there. You’ll end up with something much more original… Except that you will learn a lot by reading a lot –the good and the bad (and think about why the bad is bad). I actually type out stories that I really like so I can look even more closely at the structure, words/syllables per line, internal rhyme, etc. Ones I’d definitely recommend are: Room on the Broom (Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler), Someone Bigger (Jonathan Emmett and Adrian Reynolds) and my personal favourite, When a Zeeder Met a Xyder (Malachy Doyle and Joel Stewart, below. When a Zeeder Met a Xyder actually uses rhyme more playfully –but you can use it more playfully once you really know how to use it). 

[7] Write in rhyme just for the sake of it.

It’s fun to rhyme and children love it, so why not write your story in rhyme? Well, it’s true, children do love it, when it’s done really well. But… you have to realise that you’re significantly limiting your choice of publisher by doing it. If you write out your rhyming story in prose, does it actually work better? Very often, removing the rhyming constraints opens up exciting possibilities and improves the story. If it’s not the very best way to tell that particular story, perhaps you should opt for prose? Never write in rhyme just for the sake of it. If you’re going to write in rhyme, do it because…
you can do it really well and you’re going to get feedback before you send it off; because it’s great and fun and good rhyming books are brilliant for children. Do it because you can’t not do it as it’s the very best way to tell that story.

Juliet Clare Bell’s rhyming picture book, The Kite Princess (see title page roughs, above) is illustrated by Laura-Kate Chapman and published by Barefoot Books and is out in autumn, 2012, in the UK and the US (with an accompanying CD of the story read by Imelda Staunton).

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