Children love rhyme. The rhythm of the text, the way the words bounce off the tongue can be especially appealing to young children who are mastering language and reading. There are two vehicles for verse in the children’s market: poetry and rhyming stories. Both have special guidelines.
Rhyming Stories. Often at writers’ conferences editors will say they don’t like stories with rhyming text. That’s not exactly true — rhyming stories are published all the time. What these editors are really objecting to is bad rhyming text. Too many writers try to copy [tag-tec]Dr. Seuss[/tag-tec], the master of the rhymed story. They imitate the form of his work but not the substance. The rhyme is a vehicle to tell the story, not the other way around. It must still follow all the rules of a good picture book: a strong opening, believable characters, an interesting plot, a satisfying ending. Every word must advance the story – you can’t throw in extra phrases simply to complete the rhyme. Consider the opening lines of The Cat in the Hat. In eight short lines Dr. Seuss establishes setting, mood and conflict. Few books written in prose do so much with so little.
Roy Gerrard is another author who writes engaging stories in rhyme. His text is more sophisticated and appeals to slightly older children. Rosie and the Rustlers, an old West adventure story, begins like this:
Where the mountains meet the prairie, where the men are wild and hairy,
There’s a little ranch where Rosie Jones is boss.
It’s a place that’s neat and cozy, and the boys employed by Rosie
Work extremely hard, to stop her getting cross.
Again, the opening lines tell us a lot about the setting and establish Rosie as the main character. The droll tone of the book is evident by the end of line one.
Notice that the meter differs in the above examples. It doesn’t matter what meter you choose to tell your story, as long as it fits the subject and reading level.
What’s more important is that the meter has some kind of pattern — these books must work when read out loud. A good test is to have someone unfamiliar with your story read it into a tape recorder. Note where this person stumbles over lines or has to stretch words to fit the pattern. These are the places that need revision.
Poetry. [tag-tec]Children’s poems[/tag-tec] tell little stories or highlight moments of life. The best poems evoke strong visual images or emotions. If your poem is funny (children love humorous poetry) give it a punch line at the end that surprises the reader.
Don’t try to do too much with a poem. Pick a little event from a child’s day (catching the school bus in a rainstorm, taking a math test) and explore feelings involved.
Take an ordinary situation and turn it into an extraordinary episode (as Shel Silverstein did in “Jimmy Jet and His TV Set,” a poem about a boy who turned into a television). For funny poems, action is key.
If your poems are quieter you can add more description, but don’t get so caught up in flowery language that you lose your reader.
The best way to learn how to write good poetry is to read it. Some books to study: Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein; Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne; The Random House Book of Poetry for Children selected by Jack Prelutsky.
Writing poetry can be a great warm-up for writing prose because every word is so crucial. And remember, your poems must sound good when read aloud as well as look good on the page, so use the tape recorder test as you did for your rhymed stories.
This article excerpted from Children’s Book Insider, The Newsletter for Children’s Writers. Visit now for more info and a special offer.