“Ask an Editor” is a forum wherein SCBWI members submit questions that are answered as part of our quarterly Kite Tales blog. This month, we feature a guest host, Renée M. LaTulippe, children’s poet, freelance editor, and founder/teacher of The Lyrical Language Lab.
Dear Editor – I’ve written a rhyming picture book, but now that I’m starting to search for an agent it seems a lot of them don’t want rhyming picture books. What should I do?
—Sam, Los Angeles
This is a question that gets a lot of airtime in kidlit writer circles, and for good reason. After all, we can all see how many rhyming picture books come into the world each year, so someone is writing and selling and publishing them, right? Seeing so many agents and publishers put up “No Rhyme Allowed” signs on their clubhouse doors is frustrating indeed.
It may help to first look at why the “no rhyme” rule exists in the first place. Through research and the many conversations I’ve had about this, I’ve boiled the problem down to two major reasons:
1) Rhyming texts are more difficult to translate.
2) Agents and publishers are gun-shy because they are regularly inundated with bad rhyming manuscripts.
Let’s take the first point: Publishing is a business, so of course publishers are concerned with their bottom line. They rely on selling foreign rights, and rhyming texts may seriously undercut that possibility, causing them to lose a revenue stream. And this concern trickles down to agents, who have the task of submitting those rhyming manuscripts to those publishers. Something is always lost in translation, and even more so when it comes to verse, and even more so when it comes to rhyming verse! A story needs to be extremely strong and compelling to withstand the rigors of translation, and many agents and publishers may not be willing to take that risk.
That brings us to the second point: bad rhyme. Writing rhyming picture books is notoriously difficult to do well and can bring even experienced writers to their knees. There are three major areas that often present problems in rhyming texts:
1) The rhyme dictates the story. The story and characters are suffocated by the constraints of verse and have no breathing room to develop organically. The result is a weak story that wouldn’t hold up if written in prose.
2) Inexpert meter. The rhythm is uneven, inconsistent, and choppy so that the reader stumbles, or it is so sing-songy that the reader gets bored. Worse, stresses are forced onto the wrong syllables just to “get the meter to work.”
3) Tired and forced rhymes. The rhymes are uninspired and cliché and/or exist just to make a rhyme and add nothing to the story and/or don’t make sense.
So what is a writer to do? Well, there isn’t much any of us can do about the first point. But for the second point, we can make sure our rhyming manuscripts are exceptional. That means studying the genre, reading successful rhyming texts, taking classes to learn the craft inside out, seeking expert feedback on our work, revising over and over, and even asking ourselves honestly if the story would indeed be better served by being written in prose.
But if writing in rhyme is your passion and you know you do it well, then by all means keep doing it! Just know that you may need to work harder to find those agents (and publishers) who are willing to give your rhyme a chance. They’re out there!
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