Why doesn’t rhyme – or at least, good rhyme – matter? Why do so many kids’ authors release stories that either don’t rhyme properly, don’t scan properly, or are cringe-worthy in some other way? And, even if they do rhyme well, why do many authors assume that rhyme can make up for lack of proper storytelling?
That’s a lot of questions, but it just happens that I’m passionate about rhyme. Maybe you are, too.
We all remember great rhyming books from childhood like Dr. Seuss’s (aka Theodor Geisel) The Cat in the Hat. Their rhymes are infectious and pull us into the story… and STORY is the important thing to remember here, because…
Just because it rhymes, doesn’t mean it’s automatically a great story.
There is no child in the world who is so infatuated with the sound of rhyming verse that they’re going to be won over just because your tale is told in poetic form.
In The Cat in the Hat alone, Dr. Seuss backed up his brilliant, sparkling, witty rhymes with a story that absolutely rocked in terms of mischief, merriment and sheer getting-away-with-murder on an otherwise rainy, dull day. No wonder this is a story that will last as long as the English language does (and some of the translations are apparently not bad, either).
I found a self-published book on Amazon recently that I’m not going to mention by name or link to because it’s just too, too awful. Not sure which of my two kinds of writers this person fits into, but it surprises me that she’s sold more than a single copy of this book, at $9 for each paperback copy.
This is a counting book, and here’s one of this writer’s couplets:
"Many arms were near me and I swam a faster rate
The octopi (octopus) were getting closer WATCH OUT there are eight."
Here’s another section:
"Looking down I saw the ocean floor it wasn't very even
Crabs were swimming all about look there are seven."
I hate to say it, but the ocean floor isn't the only thing uneven about this book.
The embarrassment of bad rhyme.
Bad rhyme is embarrassing, period. If you’re going to attempt a story in rhyme, or even just a page in rhyme, get the basics right. That includes not just making sure words end with the same sound, but also that the meter works – that the lines all scan properly.
Although it’s aimed at adults, here’s a great example of what I mean:
This picture includes a “rhyme” designed to help with Search Engine Optimization (SEO): “Use these tools and make them count / Every client hates a bounce.” Now, I get that it’s meant to be silly and light-hearted. I get that it’s not for kids.
But it doesn’t rhyme. To me, if it tries to rhyme but doesn’t rhyme, it isn’t clever, it isn’t funny… it just falls flat. I would be embarrassed to read it to kids. I’m embarrassed to look at it.
Look, I’m not an English teacher, and I’m not going to outline all the rules of rhyme and meter here, but you don’t need to be a super-genius to know that it takes more than a tool like RhymeZone (useful though it is) to figure out if two lines are going to sound good together.
Peeking at those two first lines up above, let’s see how many syllables there are in each:
"Many arms were near me and I swam a faster rate [13 syllables]
The octopi (octopus) were getting closer WATCH OUT there are eight." [14 syllables, if you don’t count “octopus”]
The lines may rhyme, but they don’t match up. The other two are even worse: “even” and “seven” just don’t rhyme in English, even if they look similar on paper.
What about my own rhyming stories?
Of course, it’s easy to make fun sometimes. Harder to write what I consider decent verse of my own. In terms of kids’ lit, Dr. Seuss set the bar almost way TOO high, back in the early golden days of illustrated children’s books.
I use rhyme a lot, but I never feel like I have to rhyme to win kids over. I don’t really have a formula for deciding if a story has to rhyme. Sometimes, rarely, stories actually come to me in rhyme, like the kids’ dilemma in We Didn’t Have an Etrog!
(What’s an Etrog? Doesn’t really matter, but it’s a citron, a lemon-like fruit that we use during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. See Wikipedia entry for more.)
We didn’t have an etrog, no, we didn’t have an etrog,
and yet, Sukkot drew near.
We had the other species three, / but no etrog yet, I fear.
Our etrog was growing, yes, our etrog was growing,
high up in an etrog tree.
We had to wait for it to turn / as yellow as yellow could be.
To me, this idea was interesting not because of the rhyme, but because of the concept of waiting for the etrog to ripen, something I’d never seen in another Jewish kids’ book. The vision for the story came to me very clearly: the children in the story are ready for the holiday in every other way… but nature just won’t co-operate.
Here’s another excerpt, from an unpublished story / poem for Chanukah (which includes a rare example of my OWN art, mainly so you’ll see why I need to hire illustrators!). “Abba” is the Hebrew word for “father.”
Little Yossi looked up at his Abba and sighed,
“I love my menorah – it fills me with pride;
But tell me, dear Abba, I know that you’ll know,
Where did we learn how to light it just so?”
Here’s the end of the story:
The wicks were all lit and the tiny flames glowed,
And there by their light, Yossi’s little face glowed.
“And so,” Abba told him, “the story’s not through,
“For the last chapter’s waiting… to be written by YOU.”
I don’t meant to hold myself up as a paragon of virtue, but I think I do a pretty good job here. I’d love to see examples of other writers’ stories in rhyme that you think are just fantastic: not just classics we all know, but new writers who are doing exciting this in this difficult medium.
Why do I write in rhyme at all?
I’ve always loved rhyme! Yeah, doggerel is corny, but there’s also something beautiful and magical about creating a memorable rhyme.
In Hebrew, there’s only one word for “poem” and “song.” My Hebrew teacher was mystified by why you’d need more. The word “sheer” (שיר) means a poem – some have music, some don’t. Some poets also write music, some don’t. It doesn’t change the essence of what you’re writing: a poem/song. To a person like me, with no musical talent to speak of, this is lovely.
I wanted to create rhyming Jewish children’s books is because there are so many bad examples of stories-told-in-rhyme within this niche. They continue to be published almost daily, it seems. Every time I go into a Jewish bookstore, I see new books that rhyme badly. In some cases, within this publishing niche, the moral value of the story overrides the need to tell it well – in my opinion Mistake #1, but sometimes it seems like nobody but me actually minds.
Though it may be a quixotic quest, I want to make the world of rhyme safe for Jewish kids, offering them stories that are fun to read and hopefully less cringe-worthy than what’s been out there so far.
But all the bad rhyme out there leaves me puzzled, leaves me back with at the questions I started with in the beginning...
Why doesn’t rhyme, or at least, good rhyme matter? Why do authors and publishers take such liberty with forms that have been established since well before the time of Shakespeare? Please let me know what you think!