Thursday, 8 June 2017

When Rhyme becomes Crime - A ReadItTorial

Pants and More Pants - Possibly the finest examples of flowing and perfect rhyming ever to don a pair of Y-Fronts
On the blog we've always made a point of providing honest opinions and reviews, sometimes brutally honest and lately as we sit down to assess our latest book stack, Charlotte and I have noticed a worrying trend.

Rhyming books are a cornerstone of children's early years fiction, and through glorious wordplay and rhyming, kids begin to discover the joy of language - and how it can be used to entertain and delight a reader if a book is a particularly polished example of a rhyming story.

Just lately though we've both had issues with some children's books that feel a bit 'bread and butter'. For want of a better term I coined the phrase 'bread and butter' to mean books that feel like they exist purely because of the author (or in some cases illustrator) being fairly well established, rather than books that stand up on their own merits.

In one week, we counted four rhyming stories for 3-6 year olds that had busted meter (ie they didn't 'flow' at all when read, almost as if the timing of each line was being thrown down a flight of stairs like a knackered piano).

Pararhymes too (thanks @pintofsimilar for that lovely word) squeeze in far too often - rhyming "Frown" with "Ground" is something that feels a wee bit cheeky, and in the particular book we found that example in, it wasn't the only 'rhyme crime' - there were around 8-10 more that didn't work either.

The problem with 'bread and butter' books is that it feels like here's a book that exists in place of something else, perhaps by a novice first time author or illustrator whose work was passed up in favour of a book that perhaps was written under some sort of multi-book deal? I wondered if some authors and artists no longer need to go through the pitching process, and automatically get a green light for any ideas they come up with - even if those ideas aren't (whisper it) particularly any good.

Rhyming is ridiculously tough to get right, and then you've got the whole issue of rhyming books not translating very well, or being a fairly 'niche' market compared to, say, beautifully written and descriptive prose.

Jonny Duddle's "The Pirates Next Door" - Sublime rhymes to go with his glorious art. That boy dun guid!

We deconstructed a few rhyming books to see if the story would have actually worked without the rhymes, and in most cases removing the cleverness of trying to fit rhyming couplets around a story completely robs the book of any further interest - so if the only thing holding the book up are those rhymes, they have to be absolutely spot on, surely?

In my own amateur scribblings I've written quite a few rhyming stories and they are not easy at all. I sit there like a metronome tapping them out as I read, wondering if adding or dropping words will somehow improve the flow. In some cases I change meter - and then realise that I'm going to be the only one who understands that meter change, so have to revert back to a pattern that flows right the way through from start to finish.

Worst of all is when you realise that writing rhyming stuff for children means that you still have to work within a fairly reasonable corridor of acceptable language too, making the whole thing doubly tough. You might find a clever word or two tucked into your internal dictionary, only to realise that kids won't have the foggiest idea what that word means - so you're constantly balancing a whole stack of factors that are working against you from the outset. Fun!

With those 'bread and butter' books, again I just imagine trying to pitch certain stories to a commissioning editor or an agent and I think this is where I'm quite often surprised that certain books make it as far as print - particularly when new authors are constantly reminded that they need to find their voice, provide work that stands out, feels original, takes a plot in new and unexpected directions  - only to go away and pick ten books off a picture book stack that all have the same basic theme or plot (cripes, who the heck would even want to write another pirate or bear book given how saturated the market is with the things? How do you even approach that as a writer?)

But ah, when authors get it right - as with the example we've provided within this article - rhyming books have a delicious magic power over kids, the power of repetition and recall - the power of being read for the sheer pleasure and entertainment of reading something that just trips off the tongue. The added bonus that through rhyming early years stuff kids may find an appreciation for poetry (both rhyming and non-rhyming) later on, just falling in love with the way language sounds, can be used, and can be twisted to do your bidding.

Don't give up on the rhymes - but also (both editors and authors) please treat your audience (both adult and child) with enough respect to know that they absolutely will spot a stinker a mile off, and those are most likely to be the books they never return to once they've chugged their way through them.