You have an idea for a picture book! That’s great! And you want it to rhyme! Why is everyone running away from you?
Here’s a handy list of reasons why KidLit experts will reflexively push you away from rhyme. Does this mean you CAN’T do it? Never! Rules are meant to be broken. And there are lots of bestselling rhyming books out there. But below are the reasons why we want you to question whether or not your book MUST rhyme.
1.) Rhyming is super hard. Telling a complete story in 500-1000 words is hard enough. But add the necessity of perfect meter? That’s like doing gymnastics, and then deciding it’s not difficult enough so you light the uneven bars on fire. Which, good for you, if you’re Simone Biles. But you better be sure, because if you’re off by even a LITTLE, you’re going to set your manuscript on fire.
Take a look at authors like Anna Dewdney, Chris VanDusen, Mem Fox or Sandra Boynton. If your rhymes aren’t as clean as those, they’re not market ready. You can also listen to rap, (some) slam poetry, or musicals for some really strong writing dependent on rhyme. Even on Twitter, the Limericking account offers a near daily tutorial based on the day’s news. There are role models out there, and you should be holding your work against theirs if you think rhyming is an absolute must for you.
2.) Only Dr. Seuss is Dr. Seuss*. He’s one of the bestsellingest authors OF ALL TIME, and as agent and genius Jennifer March Soloway is fond of reminding us, no one is going to be him, again. Ever. He has the benefit of precedence, a money-hungry, business-savvy estate, movies based on his works that exponentially expand his reach and popularity every year, and a once-in-a-generation talent. There will never be a graduation display at a bookstore that does not feature Oh, The Places You’ll Go. Even the most perfunctory of kids’ sections will carry a Seuss title or three.
So, I think it’s cool that you dropped a bunch of acid in Baja too, but your weird off-kilter rhyming book full of nonsense words will probably slip through the cracks, because Mr. Geisel already has that corner of the market covered.
*Note: is it a bummer that he was a big ol racist? YES. Will that effectively stop his legacy? Seemingly not.
3.) Most stories don’t need it. One of the main things I ask writers when they have an MS in rhyme is, WHY does this story demand to be told in rhyme? Does the form inform the function?* If you don’t have a reason, then just focus on the story. Story telling is hard enough, and most early picture book manuscript drafts suffer from a lack of proper, satisfying story arc as it is. What do I mean by proper story arc? I mean a beginning, a conflict, rising action, a climax and a resolution. That’s a lot!
For picture books that accomplish this with minimal words, take a look at Ed Vere’s BANANA!, or Jon Klassen’s I WANT MY HAT BACK. You can also (cough cough) read my book (coughs more violently), Also an Octopus, which is a story about how to tell stories by telling a story about an octopus.
It is also easy to ignore plot altogether when writing in rhyme. As my agent (best agent) Jennifer Laughran noted: “I would add that generally speaking, many manuscripts I get that are in rhyme are setting a scene, but they aren’t telling a story. It will be like ten stanzas about how Silly Sally is scared of Biff O‘Malley but they just go around in circles rather than progressing to fisticuffs or WHATEVER. Most people who write this kind of manuscript have not done the NEXT thing, which is to dummy it out and figure out what the pictures would be OF. Because if it is just Silly Sally staring stupidly at Biff for 14 spreads, that’s a problem. Every page turn has to move us forward, and every stanza has to give us something in the way of character AND plot progression. Which is hard when you are trying to figure out what else rhymes with Sally.”
4.) It can be an immediate deal breaker. Don’t have an agent yet? I wish you the best of luck in finding one! It can be a really long and hard process for lots of writers. And it can be made even HARDER with bad rhyme. Why? Agents get TONS of queries every day. A big part of their job is keeping up with them. So, there’s a lot of stuff that can be a quick deal breaker. Lots of that is personal and subjective to each agent, but one thing I’ve heard consistently is that bad rhyming (which is often bad meter) is a quick and EASY no.
(It is also almost impossible to sell rhyming books in translation, because the words won’t rhyme anymore.)
Want to know if your manuscript has healthy / clean meter? Have someone ELSE read your work out loud. If they stumble while reading it, it’s likely because the meter is off. Don’t read it yourself, because you know how it’s SUPPOSED to sound. And even most writing partners are dynamic readers, and so they’ll manage to make an uneven draft sound passable. If you REALLY want to test a manuscript, find a terrible reader, someone with little to no emotional inflection, and ask them to read it out to you. The mistakes will jump right out at you in their voice.
There are also short cuts like slant (or near) rhyme, that can feel lazy, and are tricky to read correctly. They really only function if your performance of the text is perfect, like in Kendrick Lamar’s Swimming Pools.
Even Lin Manuel Miranda has gotten roasted for using some slant rhymes in Hamilton! You know, the musical with amazing lyrics that won basically every single Tony? But again, the play benefits from professional performance. Your book will not. Your book will be read by anyone who picks up it, including learning readers, and as such it should sound good no matter who performs it.
5.) There’s a million ways to make rhyming sound stupid. And your meter being off is only the beginning. Rhyming makes cliches even more difficult to avoid because things like Cat and Hat and Fat and Rat and Sat and Mat have already been rhymed together into the ground. It induces eye rolls all the easier because rhyme is a pattern we all know how to follow, which makes words predictable. It’s hard to make it fresh.
Mac Barnett’s Guess Again! is a book whose premise is completely predicated on subverting our expectations through rhyme, which makes it both a delightful kids’ book in its own right, and also a pretty solid satire of rhyming books in general. He, and Adam Rex (master illustrator and excellent rhymer himself) take what could be boring, predictable kids’ book rhymes and make them something weird and fun and fresh.
Rhyme can also push you into wonky syntax that doesn’t quite make sense, and is easy to mock. Like Yoda talk, but you’re not Yoda, so it’s weird, not cute. An example I always think of is in (my favorite Disney Movie) Mulan, when she’s singing about her imminent meeting with the matchmaker:
Hear My Plea
Help me not to
make a fool of me
Why does this stick out? Because WHO has ever said “Help me not to make a fool of me?” That bit of weird tongue twistery is demanded in order to stay in form for rhyme. And it feels weird every time I hear it. BUT the thing about both Hamilton and Mulan is that they have 2 other hours to couch a little bit of weird rhyme here and there. There’s NO WHERE TO HIDE in a picture book manuscript. Remember you have, like, 500 words! If THIRTEEN of them are off (as in Mulan) that’s a significant passage!
Am I dream pooper? Yes. I’m sorry I’m like this.
Is this good advice? Yes.
Am I your Real Dad? No. I’m also not your boss, or god.
Can my advice be ignored entirely in the face of lots of new rhyming picture books all the time? Absolutely.
If you master rhyming rules, are you allowed to break them? Yes, that’s the rule for all rules.
Is sticking to prose the best idea? Yes, for you, for me, for most of us.
Are you good at rhyming and also writing a picture book and at a level at which you are likely to be published and make millions of dollars and retire onto your own private island? Probably not, but I’d love for you to prove me wrong.