Rhyming picture books


I’ve obliquely touched on the question of rhyming picture book texts in this blog before, most notably in this blog post about Julia Donaldson on her appointment as Waterstone’s Children’s Laureate, and in the comments section of this blog post about Axel Scheffler.

The success of Julia Donaldson’s texts are a real proof of the power of rhyme as a story-telling medium.

Many of my own children’s very favourite picture books and board books – We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Goodnight Moon, Duck in the Truck, The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, Peepo – rhymed and scanned.

My children learned these texts fast, and could recite them by heart. Even new texts were predictable – when an adult reader paused before a rhyming word, they were able to supply that word, or at least guess at it.

When I am looking at rhyming texts, I am really looking for three things:

1. A consistent, clear rhyme scheme with words that really rhyme… and, ideally, rhyme in many English accents. Many texts that I receive rhyme only if you speak RP English (or at least the accents of Southern England), so I always run the text through my head in a Scottish accent (I am from Edinburgh) as well as an attempt at a US accent and an Australian accent.

2. Consistent, clear scansion. This is really key, and a point on which so many texts I see fall down. I tend to use slash-and-breve notation when I’m looking at a rhyming text, and will think to myself, for example, “OK, so this is trochaic tetrameter” (like Wadsworth Longfellow’s Hiawatha), but you don’t, to write a good rhythmic text, have to know your spondee from your iamb. Julia Donaldson said (somewhere – I can’t find it now) that she gives her texts-in-progress to her husband, and asks him to read them aloud. If he hesitates over where to put the stress, then she revisits the line. I think this is a great discipline.

3. And finally, a real story. We’re a UK-based company, and our production of books printed in full-colour depends on our selling rights to other countries. So rhyming, rhythmic texts have to be translated. If, essentially, all that they are IS their rhyme and rhythm, then they are much less likely to be of interest to foreign-language publishers. Most publishers do try to translate rhyming, rhythmic texts into rhythmic rhyme in their own languages. Here are the first four lines of “(new-window)The Gruffalo: in English:

A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood.
A fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good.
“Where are you going to, little brown mouse?
Come and have lunch in my underground house.”

And here they are in German:

“Die Maus spazierte im Wald umher
der Fuchs sah sie kommen und freute sich sehr.
‘Hallo kleine Maus, wohin geht die Reise?
Bei mir im Bau gibts Götterspeise.’”

If you speak German, you’ll see that the sense is the same but the word-for-word translation has been sacrificed to the exigencies of the rhythm and rhyme.

But publishers don’t always translate rhyming texts into rhyme, and, even if they do, it’s going to be harder work for them to find the right translator, and something will inevitably be lost. Many are therefore hesitant to take on a rhyming text. So, as a publisher, you have to consider whether there is enough to the story for it to survive if it were translated into prose. I think that most children want a picture book to tell a story, and I find that that’s what most of our translation rights publishers are looking for too. In fact story can be the most important thing in a picture book – more important than words: The Journey by Aaron Becker is an example of a picture book with a story in it that relies on no words at all.

This is not to say that there isn’t room for poetry for children: I was particularly proud, when I was at Macmillan, to publish lots of poetry for children, including an illustrated edition of Charles Causley’s poetry for children, but I published it as poetry for children (with accompanying line illustrations), and not in picture book form: because the illustrations were in black and white, it was financially viable to print this book for the UK alone.

And I am not saying that there isn’t room for highly-wrought, lyrical language in picture books: I was also particularly proud, when I was at Scholastic, to publish Jeanette Winterson’s The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me. Here’s her description of Bethlehem:

“Oh but it was a musty, rusty, fusty, pudding of a town turned out for a show, its people cussed and blustering, all buy and sell and money, taking their chance while the going was good before the goods got going again. Taxes, and everyone here to pay up, and everyone had to be put up, for this one night, so that even the mice were renting their mouse-holes, and there were travellers hanging out of birds’ nests, their beards full of twigs and old worms, and the ant hills were full up, and the bee hives had three families apiece, and there was a man tapping on the frozen lake asking the fish to let him in.”

This is prose, but it’s very close to poetry. It just doesn’t have a formal rhyme scheme or scansion, which makes the prospect of translating it less challenging.

At Nosy Crow, we’ve found books that, from our perspective, meet the three criteria above. One we’ve published already is Tracey Corderoy’s Hubble Bubble, Granny Trouble, illustrated by Joe Berger

The first four lines of this story read:

“My granny’s kind of different…
She wears such funny hats.
She’s got a huge menagerie
of cats and frogs and bats!”

The image at the top of this blog is a spread from the book.

Tracey’s working on two follow-ups to this story (which sold remarkably well), and has also written a rhyming text that will be illustrated by Steven Lenton in 2013, called Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam.

Another author whose ability to create really compelling rhyming and rhythmic text attracted us to her is Caryl Hart, whose The Princess and the Peas illustrated by Sarah Warburton will be published later this year:

Here are the first four lines of this book:

“Lily-Rose May was a sweet little girlie.
Her eyes were bright blue and her hair was so curly.
She lived with her dad in a beautiful wood.
She was kind and polite and was usually good.”

Of course there are exceptions (and, who knows, we may even publish them!), but generally, for Nosy Crow, rhyme and rhythm need to be the engine that drives a really good plot.


12 Responses to “Rhyming picture books”

  • A fantastically informative post, and one which amply answers the question I posed on your previous post about Axel Scheffler. Thank you! A couple of authors (including a lovely one of your own) have told me how difficult it is to get published in verse, but I’m determined to do it eventually. I’m currently working on a series about ‘Maurice the Monster’ – ‘Maurice the Monster and the Ooze’ (in which Maurice and his sister hatch up an ingenious plot to ensure that Maurice can eat his favourite food) is pretty much finished, and I’m now writing ‘Maurice the Monster and the Pet Itch’ (in which Maurice succeeds, against the initial wishes of his family, in obtaining a small pesty pet).

  • An interesting post. As an ex primary teacher I know how much young children love rhyming stories and how they can learn from them.
    I now write picture books myself and the first two to be published are both in rhyme. I often get my husband and long-suffering friends to read my texts out loud for me, but I’ve not yet thought of asking people with different accents to give it a go. Great idea!
    And thank you for the timely reminder that a good story must always drive the rhyme. I’m off to check my current WIP does just that.

  • Before I wrote this, I asked people on Twitter for their favourite rhyming picture books. Here are some suggstions:

    scransom: Giraffes Can’t Dance

    katapel: Hairy Maclary, Green Eggs and Ham, Edward the Emu, Duck in the Truck and The Gruffalo,

    cazapr1: Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book

    pramhall: Slinky Malinki and Hairy Maclary and Some Dogs Do

    kjstansfield: Not Last Night But the Night Before (Colin McNaughton) Down by the Cool of the Pool (Tony Mitton) and a Squash and a Squeeze

    The_Smoe: Cat’s Ahoy

    katepaice: Pass the Jam, Jim “I once read it to my 2 year old 17 times in a row, and I still don’t hate it!”

    northcountryboo: Peepo, What the Ladybird Heard and Faster Faster! Nice and Slow

    janey0142: Hairy Maclary and Room on the Broom

    lucycoats: The Cross With Us Rhinoceros, Snake Supper, Each Peach Pear Plum, The Jolly Postman and Mr Bear’s Car

    SheenaDempsey: Each, Peach, Pear, Plum!

    Nornan: What the Ladybird Heard is a favourite rhyming book in our house at the moment

    annerooney: Each Peach Pear Plum, Green Eggs and Ham

    SarahTFergusson: Room on the Broom! “Love knocking loudly on something every time after the line ‘The witch tapped the broomstick…‘”

    JonDavisIllust: What The Ladybird Heard

    PipHaz: Hairy Maclary

    BrigdeAnne: Hairy Maclary

    WorldwideFP: Stick Man

    FlossieTeacake: Each Peach Pear Plum, Peepo “Ahlberg all the way… plus la Donaldson, of course”

    GeeMarks: Little Rabbit Foo Foo “The tops!”

  • The French translation of Hubble Bubble, Granny Trouble, soon to be published by Gallimard Jeunesse, is another example of publishers translating rhyming texts into rhyme:

    ‘Ma grand-mere n’est pas tout a fait comme les autres…
    … Elle porte de droles de chapeaux.
    Elle a toute une menagerie chez elle:
    des chats, des chauves-souris et des crapauds!’

    (apologies for lack of accentage – in haste)

  • HOW did I not put Hairy Maclary on my list? Took Lovely Teen Daughter on a bookshop visit not so long ago. She disappeared, and was to be found later, sitting on the floor amidst a pile of HM books, rediscovering the joy of them.

  • One of my greatest picture book influences is Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell. It is not a “rhyming” book, it does not have a classic rhythmical structure, yet the rhythm and flow of his text are spectacular. I love it!

  • And some more reminders of great rhyming books from Twitter:

    aitcheldee: “Current rhyming favourites inc. Mr Magnolia, One Fish Two Fish, Monkey Puzzle, Aliens Love Underpants. PS One I struggle with as fellow Edinburgh native is “again” & “strain” in Duck in the Truck. Always forget to Anglicise it.”

  • I love ‘Someone Bigger’ by Jonathan Emmett and Adrian Reynolds, and one of my favourite books is Malachy Doyle’s and Joel Stewart’s ‘When a Zeeder Met a Xyder’ which plays around with rhyme in a Lewis Carrolly/Edward Lear-type way.

    I’ve been avoiding writing in rhyme for a while (although my latest picture book with Barefoot is in rhyme; I wrote it over three years ago) but you’ve now got me feeling all inspired to
    write more again. I wrote a blogpost back in March on how NOT to write a rhyming picture book:

    Thank you for the post. Really interesting to read,
    Clare (Juliet Clare Bell)

  • A fantastic and very encouraging post with brilliant advice! I have found so many blogs and websites warning against rhyme, so it was lovely to see it being celebrated as a storytelling medium. I’ve just completed my first rhyming picture book which I’ll be sending off to publishers in a couple of weeks. I enlisted the help of friends to read the text aloud and, thanks to your advice, tried it in different accents. Brilliant advice thanks!

  • Great advice, will get others to read it out loud. I did read one of my stories, that I made into a mock up book to a class of children I was visiting, they liked it and the teachers liked it too. Children, teachers and parents (and me) love rhyming text. I understand the reason for publishers being reluctant, though not sure if there is an answer to this.

  • Amazing how everyone loves rhyming text but every publisher on the web that you can find hates it and will not publish it.

    Why doesn’t someone tell Taylor Swift to stop grossing 200 million a year on tour singing her bad, awful, rhyming poetry!

    …since disjointed, disheveled and spoken prose is now considered the only publishable “poetry.”

    Those that can; do. Those that can’t form little confederate groups at publishing houses to block any true talent from emerging that might compete with their lustless musings of twittable banter in prosaic nonsense. Typical “American” style version of a marketplace; the worst possible outcome in all ways unless you are multi-talented and break through in song.

  • Fantastic and thank you Kate for all of your help.

    I’ll keep working on the three rules. I have every book mentioned here, with of course exception to those not released yet, and it’s these that inspire me to write for my kids.

    I know McFeather will come good even though I’ve ventured down the the wrong tunnel on this occasion!

    Many, many thanks.
    Steve Cleeves

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