By Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh
Rhymes are naturally easy for the brain to process. Their innate musicality makes their messages easier to absorb. They have a calming effect because rhymes set up an expectation and fulfill it each time a verse is completed. And kids love them.
So why are rhyming books so hard to sell?
Well, there are common pitfalls to rhyming. But there are secrets to salable rhyme, too!
The pitfall: Something rhymes just for the heck of it.
“That’s the way” and “What a day” rhyme, but if they don’t tell the story, then the rhyme is doing what I call “treading water.”
Try first writing in prose, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Then, rewrite in rhyme.
The pitfall: Some rhymes hit the wrong syl-LAH-bles.
Pop singers can contort words to make them fit a rhyme scheme, but picture book authors are teaching language, so words need to come out naturally when they’re said and heard.
If the word you want doesn’t fit the rhythm, think a little longer. It’s worth it!
The pitfall: Characters say old-fashioned things.
Mother Goose was written hundreds of years ago. Kids today don’t speak the same way. So even if “a wagon of blue” rhymes with “Allyson Sue,” it’s going to sound odd.
Test your writing by asking, “Would a child in my audience say this?”
The pitfall: There are made-up words to fit the rhyme scheme.
Made-up words work when they’re important to the story. But making them up because the writer couldn’t figure out how to finish a verse usually feels…unfinished.
Your readers are still learning language, so giving them real words is a real service.
The pitfall: The rhythm could be more interesting.
The first rhyme I write is usually predictable.
I go into it again and get more creative. Listen! Israel’s All Around has a rhythm that echoes the beat of a ball hitting Ping-Pong paddles (pock, pock, pock!). I thought of that one while taking a walk and beating out rhythms as I went.
The pitfall: There are too many words.
The youngest readers tend to be the ones who learn from, and love, rhyme the most. If a story goes on too long or uses too many words on a page, it won’t hold that audience’s attention.
When I work on my story’s rhythm, I also deconstruct it, challenging myself to use as few words as possible. That means each word needs to be sparkling, alive, and exciting to say. Which brings me to my last and favorite pitfall and secret…
The pitfall: You stumble when you read it aloud.
Reading aloud is my favorite rhyming tool because it reveals problems and solutions, too. Just listen carefully. Sometimes, I even write while speaking aloud, and I come up with phrases that surprise me!
So rhyming isn’t easy to do well. But it’s also hard to do a backflip well. It’s hard to cook a soufflé well. It’s hard to do most great things well!
Yes, there is a whole lot to it.
But if you love it,
you can do it!
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Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh (www.jamiekiffelalcheh.com) is the author of Can You Hear a Coo, Coo?, A Hoopoe Says, “Oop!”, Listen! Israel‘s All Around, Kol Hakavod: Way To Go! , and Hard Hat Cat. She regularly writes cover stories for National Geographic Kids magazine.
Author photo by Daniel Alcheh. Book covers from Kar-Ben Publishing.