In Defence of Rhyme

To rhyme or not to rhyme? This the question on my mind of late.

Of the 10 children’s stories I am working on finishing manuscripts for at the moment, 3 have decided that they want to emerge in rhyming verse.

I’m ok with this. I love a good rhyme. Always have. I use it when I dabble in writing poetry. I use it to make my kids laugh. Half a lifetime ago I even delivered my best friend’s 21st speech exclusively in Seuss-inspired verse. It was the Best. Speech. Ever. If I do say so myself. And it wouldn’t have evoked half the belly laughs it got if not for the whimsy of rhyme.

There’s just something about a well-executed rhythmic rhyme that satisfies my ears, mind and soul. I love it’s lilting, sing-song, hypnotic patterns. And science tells me I’m not alone.

“Everyone likes rhymes,” said Dr. Steven Pinker, the author of “The Language Instinct” (HarperCollins) and a linguist who directed the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. Pinker has investigated and written widely about why rhyme so pleasurable. One popular theory is that humans like anything that purifies the basics of their world and that resonates with the way the brain decodes the blooming, buzzing confusion out there. We like stripes and plaids, we like periodic and harmonic sounds and we like rhymes.

Add to this how important exposure to rhyme is for early childhood language development and literacy. When kindergarten teachers or developmental psychologists assess if preschool children are ready to learn to read, the first thing they ask a child is to identify are words that rhyme. About 80 percent of kindergarteners  are able to find 3 words that rhyme with “hat.” The other 20 percent are often headed toward difficulties in learning to read that will require remedial intervention.  The number one intervention suggested? Rhyming games and books.

Plus there’s the fact that so many best-selling and personal favourite children’s books have been written in rhyme by masters of the craft – Nick Bland, Julia Donaldson, Aaron Blabey and Dr Seuss – hats off to you.

So it has come as a bit of a surprise to me that the overwhelming advice from the publishing industry for aspiring and emerging children’s authors is that RHYME IS A CRIME and it is to be AVOIDED AT ALL COSTS. Yes, WRITING IN ALL CAPS IS VERY SHOUTY. But this message is being thrown at me in a very shouty way on a regular basis. And it’s hurting my (stories) feelings.

I’ve been hearing this message from multiple sources for years now, but it really hit home recently when I read a post from one of my writing idols, Mem Fox. One of her top tips for becoming a published children’s author? “Do not be so foolish as to submit a manuscript in rhyming verse.” It nailed me right in the heart. Because I really heart Mem’s work.

Surely Mem, and other industry experts, mean that we should avoid bad rhyme, or work our way up to an excellent standard first?

Nope. The problem is with rhyme, full stop. While very bad rhyme is painful to read, the main reason publishers do not like rhyme is commercial. Rhyme is difficult to translate into other languages. Which narrows their market. Which means less potential book sales. Which is a bad thing for a commercial business. Which publishing children’s books of course is. I get it.

But it SUCKS.

It sucks for new authors who have stories they feel compelled to write in rhyming verse, but who feel discouraged to persist in perfecting their manuscripts because of commercial considerations.

It sucks more for the children who are missing out on new and diverse rhyming books to stimulate their brains and help them to become great readers.

Word nerd alert (skip this paragraph if you have no interest in writing or linguistics). Rhyming (well and with rhythm) isn’t easy. Particularly in English, which is a very rhyme-unfriendly language to work with. There are 15 different vowel sounds and no common word endings to help inflect grammatical meaning in English. If I hadn’t bailed on adolescent attempts to learn Italian, Spanish and French, rhyme may come more easily, as these languages have fewer vowel sounds and word endings to have grammatical meaning, which basically means there are more rhyming options in these languages. In English rhyming verse, be it in a children’s book or a song lyric, we rely a lot on “almost rhymes” or “slant rhymes”, which can be just as pleasing to the ear but aren’t technically perfect rhymes. Word nerd rant over. The point being – children’s authors aren’t called to write stories in rhyme because it’s necessarily easy for them to do.

So here’s my conundrum; I want to achieve my goal of publication this year. Do I take the best intended advice from the majority of industry professionals I have consulted with and translate my rhyming stories into prose so they don’t go straight from the slush pile to the shredder as soon as the publisher sniffs out the first rhyming couplet? Or do I stick to my belief that some stories just want to and should be told in verse for very valid reasons; artistic, scientific and educational? OR Do I try the two birds with one stone approach…to write stories that are so blindingly brilliant and engaging to children that publishers cannot say no to them. Stories that just happen to have excellent rhythm and rhyme, but the strength of the story doesn’t rely on it?  Third option sounds easy, right?

My gut told me the answer lay in surrendering the tail end of this post to rhyme itself…

My mentors tell me not to rhyme
They say it is the utmost crime.
That publishing interns will say “Hell no!”
And that’s as far as my manuscript will go.
No editor’s eyes will land on said script
It will be put on The-Pile-of-Stuff-to-be-Ripped.

But the lovely rhymes I have inside
Quite stubbornly refuse to die.
“Go on,” they say, “You know the best way.”
“Let us out!” they shout. “We want to play!”
So from time to time I’ll commit foolish rhyme
And if turns out to be a crime?

I’ll be happy to do the time. 

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[Image credit above: theawkwardyeti.com]

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