The Trouble with Rhyme
Children love rhyming poetry, and the pattern of even meter and rhyme can help children memorize poetry. If a children’s poet chooses to write rhyming poetry, an even, patterned meter must come along for the ride. Meter, in case you were unsure, is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables across a line of poetry.
In children’s poetry, meter is desired by more publishers than rhyme. In fact, if you go in search of publishers for picture books (which are often written very much like poetry), you’ll find a number of them who flatly will not accept rhyming text. This seems like an odd choice by a publisher, considering we know without a doubt that children love rhyming poetry and rhyming picture books. So why close the door on rhyme?
It’s A Big World
These days, successful books are often translated into a variety of languages for sale all over the world. In fact, these international sales can be essential for some publishers’ bottom line. But translating rhyming verse is difficult, especially if the goal is to continue to make the book rhyme after it is translated into the new language.
Attempting to keep rhymes in place often involves changing the actual content of the book or poem during translation, altering specific lines or sections but trying to keep to the overall meaning of the book. This is not what publishers (or writers) really want from international versions of books. Any time a book is translated into a new language, some subtle changes in what is in the text will occur simply because language and customs can affect whether the original content will work for a new audience, but with rhyming poetry, the extra level of difficulty inherent in rhyme can be a deal breaker, resulting in a book that really only works in English.
Consider, for example, this simple rhyme:
When I eat cheese,
it makes me sneeze.
In Spanish it becomes
Cuando como queso,
me hace estornudar.
In German it becomes
Wenn ich Käse esse,
muss ich niesen.
And in Swedish it would be
När jag äter ost
får det mig att nysa.
And it doesn’t get any better if we try out more languages. Each time the book is translated, the act of translation requires as much (or more) writing skill as crafting the original and this extra level of complexity adds time and cost. That’s why many book publishers who publish worldwide (1) are hesitant about poetry anyway (since even without rhyme, poetry can be a difficult form to translate) and (2) definitely don’t want to deal with rhyming verse in book form.
You say potato, I say tater!
Different languages aren’t the only challenge for rhyming poetry. Accents play a part in the struggle as well. Many times, I’ve seen writers complain that a publisher demanded a change when two words didn’t rhyme properly, even though they did rhyme when spoken in the writer’s natural accent. As we move from region to region across the United States, we see differences in which syllable is stressed, which letters are silent, and how vowels sound.
Sometimes even the number of syllables can change. For instance, the word “caramel” tends to have two syllables in all of the states west of the Ohio River, but three syllables on the east coast. And the kid-friendly word “crayon” has four distinct pronunciations depending upon where it’s said, sometimes with two syllables and sometimes with only one. That means that those words will be read differently when the book is in the hands of readers from different locations.
The problem is compounded when you realize that we don’t tend to hear our own accents. The way each person pronounces a word is the way to pronounce it, everyone else has an accent. This can result in editors insisting something doesn’t rhyme because it doesn’t rhyme for them. Even if we lean on dictionary pronunciation guides, these also have a specific accent bias (generally a fairly flat Midwestern accent).
But what if you want to create a poem that reflects your culture and tradition but it depends on pronunciations that are not going to sound “right” to an editor? Sometimes if you know you are going to do this, you can mention it in your cover letter, saying that the book is designed to reflect the culture and sound of your particular region. More and more, editors will consider this as a possibility, but you can see how it can result in hesitation over anything but a truly stellar bit of rhyming verse.
Even if pronunciation and translation are removed from the problem, we still have the issue of difficulty. Writing for children in metered, rhyming verse is hard, and the folks who think it’s easy are often the ones who don’t do it well or don’t do it well for very long. Often in long poems, the first verse follows a specific rhyme and meter pattern quite well, but then things get worse as the writer tries to keep the meter and rhymes correct in verse after verse. This can result in nonsense lines thrown in simply to meet the needs of the rhyme, and that is often the point at which a rejection happens. Many a delightful premise and good story have fallen apart when the writer struggled to meet the demands of the rhyme scheme at the cost of the content and meaning.
Consider the following:
When Mama is dancing
Her eyes close tight
Her smile shines bright
My favorite sight
Is when Mama is dancing
When Papa is dancing
His feet stomp the beat
His hair’s looking neat
It’s always a treat
When Papa is dancing.
There are definitely some things here an editor might like (though it is very rough because I wrote it in about five minutes). It has action and specific visuals. It would lend itself to lively illustration. It conveys mood, and the two different characters convey different moods. But it also has serious problems. Can you see the forced sections?
The poem depends upon three lines of matching rhymes. In the second verse, the line about Papa’s hair doesn’t really fit with the others. It isn’t about something specific to the moment when the parent is dancing. It also leads to questions in the mind of the reader. Is Papa’s hair always neat when he dances? Does he only dance if his hair is perfect? Why? What does the neat hair have to do with the dancing? Likely nothing. It’s simply there because “neat” is an easy rhyme with “beat” and “treat.” At least it doesn’t depend upon twisting sentences into knots to get the word that rhymes to hit where you need it.
Consider this even more problematic bit of verse:
I never thought I’d like a mouse
To live inside my neat, clean house
And terrorize my frightened spouse
And give the floor a urine douse
No dinky, stinky, slinky mouse.
Not only would an editor be hesitant to approve a line about mouse urine, but also the line has turned a verb (douse) into a noun in order to get the rhyming word at the end of the line. The logical, natural order of the sentence would be “douse the floor in urine” not “give the floor a urine douse.”
Writers (and new writers in particular) often craft this kind of rhyming verse that makes the rhyme more important than the content. In actuality, both the rhyme and the content are important. Forcing the words and sentences into unnatural forms (unless the whole poem is about the humorous twist and wriggle of language) will quickly get you a rejection. In poetry, because the form is so short, your total poem is only as good as the weakest line because that’s the line that will keep the poem from selling.
Don’t Give Up
If you love to write metered, rhyming verse, you should certainly do it, but write it with an understanding of the problems with selling it, and the challenges of writing it. Know it is a challenging thing to write and a challenging thing to sell. But when it works, when you’ve done the work and learned the form, and come to delight in the words, it is more than worthwhile. It is an art form that delights children and one that endures. If you love it and if you aren’t scared of a challenge, then go for it.
And know I’m cheering for you — always.
Related Links for Rhyme
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.