Friday, 31 May 2013

In Praise of Rhyming Picture Books

I’ve written a run of rhyming picture book texts recently so I thought I’d write a post on the subject.

Here’s what I wrote about writing in rhyme in the Advice on Children's Writing page on my web site.
The use of rhyme can add enormously to a picture book's appeal and yet many publishers discourage new authors from submitting rhyming picture book texts. One of the reasons for this is that most picture books require foreign language co-editions to be successful and so the rhyme will be lost in translation. Nevertheless, many rhyming picture books are still published and some are even translated, with or without rhyme, into other languages. If you are writing a rhyming text, make sure that the story comes first, such that it would still make an appealing picture book without the rhyme. That way, it won't matter if the rhyme is dropped for foreign co-editions.
I think that last principle, that “the story comes first” is followed by all of my favourite rhyming picture book authors. Here are a few of those authors, along with some of my favourite examples of their work.

Dr. Seuss

The Cat in the Hat

illustrated by Dr. Seuss

When someone suggests that writing for children is easier than writing for adults, The Cat in the Hat is the book I usually refer them to to demonstrate otherwise. Although it’s a great read aloud for younger children, the book was written specifically to help six-year-olds read on their own and Seuss’s publisher, William Spaulding, gave Seuss a list of 348 words that every six-year-old should know, asking that the book's vocabulary be limited to 225 of these words. Seuss didn’t quite meet this requirement, he used 223 words from the list plus 13 words that weren’t. However only one word of the text, “another”, has three syllables, 14 have two and the remaining 221 are monosyllabic. Despite this simple vocabulary, Seuss came up with an incredibly engaging story, full of surreal, subversive humour, that rhymes and scans perfectly. It took Seuss nine months to write it; I doubt that many other authors of adult or children’s literature could achieve such a feat in a lifetime.

While Seuss’s talent is widely recognised in his native US, he’s not quite so well regarded here in the UK. Several people have told me that they didn’t read any of his books as a child as their parents frowned upon them. I think this may have something to do with Seuss’s illustration style, which I've always loved but which some parents still spurn as being too brash and cartoony. This is a shame because, regardless of the illustrations, much of his writing is unsurpassed.

Favourite couplet
"Look at me!
Look at me!
Look at me NOW!
It is fun to have fun
But you have to know how.”

Julia Donaldson

The Gruffalo

illustrated by Axel Scheffler

The Gruffalo was published when we were reading picture books to my oldest child and has been a family favourite ever since. Although Julia Donaldson has written many excellent rhyming texts, The Gruffalo is probably the best known and I think deservedly so. Not only does it read beautifully aloud, the story is elegantly structured with a perfectly-crafted resolution.

It’s a great example of the effectiveness of the rule of three in storytelling, with the book’s hero, mouse, encountering three woodland predators on his journey through the “deep dark wood” before bumping into the eponymous Gruffalo and retracing his steps to encounter all three again.

In most picture books the revelation that the Gruffalo is real (and not just a bogeyman the mouse has invented to deter predators) would be the big twist at the end of the story, but one of the things that makes this book so impressive is that Donaldson plays this trump card in the middle of the book and is still able to maintain the story’s momentum, keeping the reader engaged and entertained, right up to the final page.

Favourite couplet
“My favourite food!” the Gruffalo said.
“You’ll taste good on a slice of bread!”

Jeanne Willis

Bottoms Up

illustrated by Adam Stower

Although rude humour has always appealed to many children, when I first began writing picture books 17 years ago it was widely regarded as being inappropriate for picture books. Things have changed and there are now many picture books reflecting this appeal. Nevertheless, I still hear teachers and read reviewers expressing discomfort or even disgust at references to bottoms, underwear and bodily functions in picture books. Its detractors often describe rude humour as crude humour, implying that it lacks subtlety or finesse. However there’s no reason that a picture book with a rude theme cannot be skilfully written as Jeanne Willis’s Bottoms Up! ably demonstrates.

There’s a sense of mischief to many of Willis’s books and it feels like she is trying to see what she can get away with in this delightfully cheeky rhyming text. It’s the only children’s picture book I’ve come across to contain the word “willy”. I doubt that this word would have been deemed acceptable in a non-rhyming text, but only the most prudish reader would object to it's use in the amusing couplet “Do wombats think, “Ooh, I must cover my willy”? No, they do not, because that would be silly.”

Favourite couplet
Do kittens wear knickers?
Do bunnies wear bloomers?
Do calves put on bras to disguise their bazoomers?

Peter Bently

Cats Ahoy

illustrated by Jim Field

Peter Bently's picture books are full of ingenious plotting and rich language. When I read one I often find myself thinking I wish I’d written that!

Set in what looks like a Cornish fishing village, Cats Ahoy tells the story of a group of moggies who come up with a cunning plan to hijack a fishing boat and steal its bumper catch. One thing that distinguishes this book from most rhyming picture books is that the rhyme never seems to get in the way of the storytelling; each rhyme seems like a fortunate coincidence rather than the result of careful effort on Bently’s part. And, although the adventurous plot is appealing enough in itself, there’s a great twist on the final spread that makes you see the story in a whole new light.

Favourite couplet
As the bright rays of dawn were beginning to gleam
They sang “Yo-Ho-Ho and a Carton of Cream!”

Who are your favourite rhyming picture book authors?
What are your favourite rhyming picture books?
Post a comment to let me know!

For some excellent advice on writing in rhyme, check out this post on How *not* to write a rhyming picture book by Juliet Clare Bell.

My next rhyming picture book, Here Be Monsters, with gorgeous illustrations by Poly Bernatene, is coming out this October!