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Picture Books: Sound Off

One of the defining characteristics of picture books is that they are designed to be read aloud.

They are a way for parents to share art with children through story and illustration. So the way your picture book sounds is very nearly as important as the story you’re telling. Now many picture books are written in verse with the sentences having an even, defined meter and employing rhyme. Not all picture books do this. Rhyme is not a defining element of picture books. But meter comes very close to being one as use of metrical language to make sentences sound better can often be found in picture books that are predominantly prose.
Let’s Pull Some Lines Apart
Read aloud the following lines. They each say very similar things, but while you read them, listen to how they sound. Do any of them sound like they might belong in a picture book?

1.    The woods were deep and dark and old.
2.    The ancient woods of shadows deep stretched far into the night.
3.    An old growth forest spread across the land, and few ever entered it.
4.    Undergrowth in a forest is a sign of a healthy canopy and proof the forest is at a later stage of development.
Now, let’s consider how these sentences sound. And let’s do it first by identifying the meter, if such exists. Meter is a fixed pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a sentence. For the sake of easy identification, we’ll make the stressed syllables bold and the unstressed syllables italic. Now let’s see if we have a pattern.

1.     The woods were deep and dark and old.
The woods were deep and dark and old.

As you can see, the meter in this line is a very simple regular pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. Each foot of this meter is one unit of unstressed and stressed. This kind of metrical pattern is fairly common but hard to tell a whole story in as it can quickly become dull and sing-song.
2.    The ancient woods of shadows deep stretched far into the night.
The ancient woods of shadows deep stretched far into the night.

We can see some metrical language here but it is considerably more complex than in the first sentence. The line begins with the same pattern as the last line, feet of unstressed and stressed. But then we make a change as we move from the subject of the sentence to the action. We get a pair of stressed syllables booming along to grab the reader’s attention before the rest of two unstressed syllables and ending on a stressed. If you could write this pattern consistently, you could actually make a rhyming picture book with it, but even in a book that doesn’t rhyme, this use of a metrical pattern gives the sentence a special sound when read aloud. It sounds grave and mysterious.
3.    An old growth forest spread across the land, and few ever entered it.
An old growth forest spread across the landand few ever entered it.

In this last sentence we are using a more normal conversational voice. The meter is not even or repeating, for the most part. There are some nice sound things happening with the use of vowels mostly but not because of the meter. This wouldn’t be a bad sentence to read aloud. It doesn’t sound clunky or awkward, but it lacks the musical feeling you can find in the earlier sentences. This might appear in a prose picture book, but never in a rhyming picture book as the meter is far too uneven and conversational.
4.    Undergrowth in a forest is a sign of a healthy canopy and proof the forest is at a later stage of development.
Scant undergrowth in forests is a sign of a healthy canop*y and proof the forest is at a later stage of develop*ment.

This again is normal conversational patterns of stresses and rests. It has even less patterning than the sentence before and makes no effort to use similar vowel sounds to make the sentence more fluid to read aloud. It also uses weak verbs. It’s not grammatically incorrect, but it really wouldn’t be a sentence often found in a picture book. This kind of sentence with no concern for sound works better in a book not meant to be read aloud.
So which is right?
They’re all right. The only time meter becomes an unshakable rule is when you decide to write a rhyming picture book. In all other cases, meter becomes something you can play with a bit to give your prose read-aloud story a pleasant sound, but the form is far less binding on the writer. This is one of the reasons virtually all agents, editors, and writing instructors will recommend against trying to write rhyming picture books. The co-demands of rhyme and meter make the whole process much harder, and easy to mess up. And the most horrible part is that it’s entirely possible that you cannot tell how bad your meter is.
The ability to write even, perfect meter is actually exactly the same skill as the ability to recognize even, perfect meter. But there are ways to see if you’re managing it. Read your work out loud, always. That will help you find some of the worst issues, but it will not point out all the problems. We know how we want the book to sound, so we’ll just read it as if the meter really works. We’ll force the stresses where we want them. And that makes us deaf to the problem. So the only possible way to find most problems is to have someone else read the book to you. Hold a copy in your hand and listen for every single time the book “sounds funny” as they read it. Mark those on your copy. Those are the places where you have a problem. Now, eventually the person reading aloud may “figure out” the meter you’re going for and adjust the reading accordingly, so you’ll tend to catch fewer problems at the end of the manuscript than at the beginning. You might try having someone else read only the last half of the manuscript and see if you hear more problems.
This is Important
If someone is reading your picture book out loud and they stumble over the words, that reader didn’t make a mistake. You did. The reader didn’t read it wrong. You wrote it with flaws. Most stumbles happen when the reader’s brain was anticipating the right lyrical choice and don’t find it on the page. They try to read what you’ve written but it glitches for them. Meter is the most common issue when this kind of glitching happens. The reader doesn’t know the problem is meter. The writer probably doesn’t know the problem is meter, especially if the sentence makes perfect sense grammatically. But clunky meter will cause read-aloud problems.
Does that mean you need to go take a poetry course? No. It means you need to mark all the parts that make readers trip and rewrite the sentences. Try rewriting each problem sentence a dozen times, just as an exercise. Read each of them aloud. Some versions will trip off the tongue better than others. Choose the one that sounds best when read aloud. Then read it with the rest of your book (because a sentence might be fine alone but problematic with other sentences that have a different meter or tone).

Keep doing this until the section that caused the problem is smooth when read aloud. This can take time. Don’t resist it.

Your patience will be rewarded.

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