To rhyme or not to rhyme
To rhyme or not to rhyme - that’s the question I’m often asked by would-be picture book authors. And I can see why they’re confused. On the one hand, there are agents and publishers saying that they don’t want any rhyming picture book texts. On the other, there’s an impressive list of bestselling picture books that rhyme as hard as they can: The Gruffalo, Room on a Broom and Aliens Love Underpants are three popular examples.
So why do publishers say they don’t want rhyming texts when they obviously do? The most common explanation is that it’s to do with selling foreign editions (more of that later). But I suspect it’s also an attempt to stem the flood of unsuitable submissions. Picture books are so short and look so deceptively easy that beginners often decide to start with them and move on to longer books later. And because they’ve seen so many successful rhyming stories, they decide to write in verse themselves.
What they don’t realise is that writing short is far more difficult than writing long. It’s hard to use so few words to tell a story, and it’s even harder when you’re trying to make those words rhyme. Unless you’re very careful, you find yourself using weird phrases and convoluted sentences to make the rhymes work. You’re also likely to discover that your picture book about the moon must be set in June and inexplicably involve a spoon.
If you’re determined to write in verse, try following this four point plan. I can’t guarantee that it will get you published - there are too many other variables at work to do that. But it's based on advice I was given by a top children’s agent so it may improve your chances of success.
Read as many successful rhyming picture books as you can. This is a very specific form of poetry with strong, steady rhythms that are easy to read aloud. Notice how the stories work, and how authors use repetition to add to children’s enjoyment.
Think of your own story, and write it in prose to check that it works. No amount of clever rhyming will hide a hole in the plot so, if you’re still determined to write about the moon, it’s time to sort out exactly why that spoon is there.
Make sure your story has a main character children will love and give that character a problem children will understand. Pay particular attention to the ending because it’s a satisfactory end that gives a picture book that vital ‘read again’ appeal. It’s best if your main character solves the problem themselves. They can have a bit of help if it’s absolutely necessary, but they shouldn’t be passive victims who get rescued by someone else
Check the story works well when read aloud, and that all the words earn their keep. The illustrations and the text work together in a picture book so you don’t need to write lengthy descriptions of what people and places look like.
At this point, you may decide you like your story so much that you abandon the idea of rhyme and submit the prose version on its own. But if you’re still determined to write in verse, this is the time to put on your poet’s hat and get started. Read your work aloud to check the rhythm, and be prepared for plenty of rewriting and tweaking before you get it right.
When you are sure that both the prose and rhyming versions of your story are as perfect as you can make them, you can start submitting them together to publishers. The reason why you send both versions is that issue of foreign rights that I mentioned earlier. Full colour picture books are expensive to produce. In order to maximise their profits, publishers need to sell co-editions – versions of the book that have the same pictures as the original but the text in a different language. Unfortunately, poetry doesn’t translate well so a rhyming text that works brilliantly in English may be hopeless in Polish, Norwegian or Spanish. Your prose version will show that the story works without the rhyme – something that will increase the chances of selling foreign rights and, as a result, increase the chances of your story being accepted.
Once you've submitted your book, you face a long wait before you get a response. Try not to bite your fingernails too much while you wait. It's better to start work on your next story instead.