Thursday, 10 January 2019

"To Rhyme or not to Rhyme" - When did picture book commissioning editors and agents fall out of love with rhyming stories? A ReadItTorial

Our first ReadItTorial of 2019 was inspired by excellent poet and all round good egg Joshua Seigal who resides on Twitter as @soshuajeigal

Joshua's casual query to an agent was to ask whether rhyming children's stories were once again acceptable. It prompted a response from us that we've heard time and time again that publishing has 'fallen out of love' with rhyming stories, choosing only to publish rhyming PBs from a relatively small and well established 'elite' of arch-rhymers who seem to make it all look so easy.

Julia Donaldson - arguably one of the top bods when it comes to making rhyming stories that trip off the tongue - seemingly gets a pass despite the industry's usual warnings when it comes to would-be authors who feel they can cook up a rhyming storm just as easily as "The Gruffalo Lady" herself.

Joshua's poetry is awesome and funny, and kids love his work. But his tweets got us thinking about the rhyming stories we've read over the last few years, and how we've always looked for anything that can comfortably tick a couple of really important boxes.

1) Clever use of language, but absolutely pitch perfect meter. 

There is absolutely no wiggle room on this, not one tiny little bit. We've been notoriously tough on rhyming stories we've reviewed on the blog if they step away from this vital rule just to make a 'clunky' rhyme fit. It instantly breaks the rhythm of a piece of work for 'read aloud' parents. In some cases, and in quite well known children's books from major publishers we've encountered rhyming stories that feel like someone pushed a piano down a flight of stairs and wrote their piece to match the rhythm of that calamitous noise. Again back to Julia Donaldson and her stuff is so utterly well polished that this is rarely the case, so if your work does read as well as that, and is as polished as that, you're over the first hurdle.

2) There has to be a story in there that fits all the usual picture book rules.

Forget it if your rhyming story is too long, or goes into too much descriptive detail that could be picked up in the illustrations, or actually has zero plot at all but just features some cleverly composed lines. Kids still want a story, still want to be able to identify with the characters and the situations being described - and if the story rhymes then that's a bonus. Put it this way - if your story doesn't work when written in flat rhyming prose, it has naff all chance of working as a rhyming story.

3) Weirdly, rhyming books always seem to 'dilute' their main characters.

Again it feels like this is mostly because the writer has got so carried away with their cleverly rhymed lines that they've actually left out some of the most vital parts of what makes a picture book appeal to kids. Characters are (arguably) the most important part of a children's picture book story. These are the folk that your little darlings are going to be dressing up as on World Book Day, regardless of whether they're featuring in a story that tricks along with rhyming style. Even in some of the biggest and best rhyming picture books we've often been quite frustrated by the fact that characters rarely get any depth, definition or dimension and that's extremely puzzling. Think of a cracking example of a rhyming picture book...

The sublime "The Cat in the Hat" by Dr. Seuss imagine if your core character could be as easily and universally recognised as that hat-wearing feline.

4) Likewise, rhyming books also seem to skip hugely on their setting / world building. 

For most writers who aren't also illustrating their rhyming books, it's fair to say that they rely on their illustrator partners to do a lot of the scene setting and world building for them. Yet again it feels like a common occurence that we find a rhyming picture book that treats the setting as a thin veneer, which again can dilute a book down into just being an exercise in 'clever' use of language. That won't float with kids. They really do need to feel that they can invest in the world your book and story is set in.

5) The whole "Translation / world rights / practicality of writing in one language" thing for publishers.

It's probably the number one thing you'll hear from agents and publishers if you feel that your rhyming story is good enough to submit. The main reason that rhyming stories are a big 'nay' is because most rhyming texts are absolute GITS to try and shift into another language. Most publishers are interested in titles and IPs that they can turn into global successes (though again if a book is good enough, domestic sales in the country of origin can often outweigh the necessity to produce something that works in any language / culture / translation). Agents and publishers are very unlikely to trust that kind of thing to a debut unless it's amazingly phenomenally ground-breakingly good and they believe in it entirely. Again very rare for debut authors to find themselves in this enviable situation.

6) Rhyming stories are sometimes seen as being limited in appeal to certain age groups. 

Most folk have a fondness for rhyming stories from their childhood - but quite often they're referring to stories that they enjoyed as quite young kids. It feels like it's even rarer to find a rhyming picture book that moves beyond the EYFS age groups into, for example, 7 upwards (though again we'll state that age ratings / groupings on children's stories are hugely subject to further scrutiny almost on an individual basis). So could it be true that publishers no longer want stories that might only appeal to such a small age group perhaps, and that's why rhyming stories have fallen out of favour?

7) Overall, kids really, REALLY do love clever rhymes. 

It's been reflected in our Book of the Week choices throughout the history of this blog. It's been described anecdotally again and again by all the folk we have met and know that have any dealings with kidlit, whether reading to classrooms full of kids in nursery or school, or in public readings in libraries etc. Kids love rhymes. So how do we convince the publishing industry to invest more in rhyming stories and authors who can lovingly craft clever verse?

8) On the flip side, a lot of new authors (particularly of picture books) fall into the "Bad Rhyming" trap.

Over the years we've seen a lot of writing by folk wanting to get their first published picture book out there and into eager hands. More often than not these are rhyming pieces of work that break just about every single rule around rhyming text, with an attitude of "Yeah that'll do for a kids book".

Nonononononononono. It simply won't do. Don't assume that you can slide just about any rhyme under a kid's nose and get instant approval, and don't assume that just because we're championing rhyming here that it's always the right way to go for your story. Again harking back to points made above, try your story without the rhymes - just as flat prose - and see if it works just as well. If the answer is yes, go back over the previous 7 points and polish that durned thing until it's like something Elizabeth Taylor would've worn on her ring finger.

9) There are so many rhyming variations so if one method doesn't suit, try another. 

Most of the time we've seen rhyming stuff that rhymes every alternate line. That's fine. That's great. That's a good path to producing a nice easy to read fun picture book that kids will love. But it's not the only way. There are so many different types of rhyme to choose from that there are even ones we didn't know about. For example have you heard of some of these types?

End rhymes. The usual 'rhyming the last word in each line' type of thing

"He made the tastiest milk shakes
by liquidising rancid snakes"

Internal rhymes. Rhyming within the same line, then passing the next line over without one.

"I looked upon rolling seas, my boat cut through with ease
No storm to hold us up, we were on our way"

Slant rhymes (or imperfect, partial, oblique, off-rhyming). These are a bit sneaky and a lot of first-time rhymers seem to love 'em but don't overdo it with these, they can swiftly become really annoying.

"I'll be riding shotgun, underneath the hot sun, feeling like someone, WITH YOUR MUM!"

Eye Rhymes. Words that look like they should rhyme but are actually pronounced differently. Not great to use in picture books particularly if you want to read them aloud.

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Though art more lovely and more temperate
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
And summer's lease hath all too short a date."

(Temperate and Date wouldn't work as a read aloud rhyming pair)

So lots of choice! Choose wisely and your work will really pop!


10) Have fun - above all even if your ultimate aim isn't to get something published, and you've got a stack of rejection letters, that doesn't mean that kids won't still enjoy your work. 

Consider other means to get your poems and rhymes out there into the world. Elli Woollard (now a hugely successful children's author) started out by creating a fantastic poem blog called "Taking Words for a Stroll" (go google it) and this was a huge part of how she came to so many people's attention, tweeting about her poems and talking about them on social media. Book deals followed and...well the rest is history! So it definitely is possible - good luck with it folks!