The 10 things I really wanted to know about writing Rhyming Picture Books – by Catherine Emmett

Happy New Year, Picture Book lovers!

We’re starting the New Year as we mean to go on, launching
ourselves into the nitty gritty of what makes a rhyming picture book really sing.

Many authors begin their picture book journey writing in rhyme, me
included, maybe because some of our most favourite books are written in verse. A
dynamic and flawless rhyme is an absolute joy to read.

However, along the way, lots of us get put off writing in rhyme when
we realise that it’s harder than it looks, and that the industry standard is
really very high.

We invited super star rhyming picture book author, Catherine
Emmett, to discuss what she wished she had always known about rhyme. Catherine
is the author of King of The Swamp, illustrated by Ben Mantle, which stormed
into 2020 despite being released during the pandemic. Catherine’s next picture
book illustrated by David Tazzyman, ‘The Pet; Cautionary Tales for Parents
and Children,’
is also in rhyme and is set to be another huge success. 

Without any further ado, let’s hear from Catherine!

The 10 things
I always wanted to know about writing Rhyming Picture Books

It’s easy to forget as a writer, when you have a lovely network of
writerly friends and helpful writer groups, just how hard it is to FIND STUFF
OUT when you first start writing.  Back
in the beginning I had SO many questions, and NO ONE to ask.

Like, ‘Why, when so many rhyming picture books are in bookshops,
does everyone say that no one wants rhyming picture books texts?’.

And, ‘Do I REALLY need to worry about stressed syllables?’.

So, here it is - my gift to my former, friendless self!  These are the 10 things that I really wanted
to know when I started off writing rhyming picture books - but had no idea how
to find out…

1 – Why does everyone say that agents and publishers don’t like rhyming
texts, when there are so many rhyming picture books getting published?

I wondered this so much when I started out. The answer seems to be
that no one wants BAD RHYME.  And
sometimes agents or publishers would rather see no rhyme at all, rather than
wade through piles of bad rhyme.   

One of the main reasons for agents turning down rhyming picture
books texts is because the rhyme - and especially the metre - aren’t strong
enough.  The answer is to get GOOD at
rhyming.  Learn about metre, practice and
get really fluent with it.


2 – What is a co-edition?

Compared to most books, picture books are expensive to print
because of all the full colour illustrations. 
To make things work financially, publishers like to have other foreign
publishers buy the book to sell in their own territories (and in their own
languages).  These ‘co-editions’ can help
making printing picture books more cost-effective.


3 - Will a rhyming Picture Book sell any co-editions?

There is always discussion about whether rhyming picture books
will sell co-editions.  The concern is
that it is difficult to translate rhyming stories into other languages.  I have certainly had a PB turned down for
being so reliant on rhyme that it would ‘only have UK appeal’.  However, if you have a strong enough STORY,
then co-editions do happen. 

4 – Should I worry about regional accents?

Yes! The problem with the UK is that so many different regions
pronounce words in different ways.  

What rhymes for someone in Newcastle, does not necessarily rhyme
for someone in London.  Ignore this at
your peril!  You don’t want to write a
book that only works for half of the country. 
I know of at least one editor who sometimes reads through submissions in
a Scottish accent to check this! Find yourself a friend from the opposite end
of the country and if the words don’t rhyme for them, then AVOID.


5 – Do I really need to worry about metre / stressed syllable

First up, what is metre?  Metre
is your pattern of stressed syllables. When writing picture books, you need to
make sure that the stressed syllables in the words that you use fit your metre
pattern.  If you aren’t sure what a
stressed syllable is, then check out my blog here:

Now, do you need to care about it? 
In my view, yes, ABSOLUTELY.  It’s
incredibly difficult to write a smoothly rhyming book and it’s even harder if
you don’t understand the building blocks that you are using.


6 – What sort of metre should I use?

Not only did I used to wonder about this, I’ve also been asked
this a lot by other writers, so I decided to do a bit of research into what the
most common metre patterns are in published books.

Finding this sort of information for the whole market seems to be
impossible, so I used my kids’ bookshelves as a proxy for the market. There
were 207 books of which 79 were rhymers and 128 prose, suggesting that the
rhymers make up about 38% of the market (or my sample set at least).


For the purposes of the below:

S = stressed syllable

U = unstressed syllable


Of the rhymers, about a third had 11 syllables per line and used a
metre pattern where there were two unstressed syllables in between each
stressed syllable.   This was the most
common metre pattern. (u/s/u/u/s/u/u/s/u/u/s). As an example:


“The swamp
was quite dark and the swamp was quite dank,

And due to
the mud the swamp rea-lly quite stank

‘King of the Swamp’ by Catherine Emmett and
Ben Mantle


Approximately 20% had 14 syllables per line (or split across 2
lines) with an alternating stressed syllable pattern – i.e. where each stressed
syllable alternated with one unstressed syllable (u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s).  As an example:


“I told
the vet a-bout my pet, he said that I was right,

She has
to change her col-our, to stay safe and out of

‘My Colourful Chameleon’ by Leonie Roberts and
Mike Byrne


Just over 10% of the books used an 8-beat line with the same alternating
stressed syllable pattern – i.e. where each stressed syllable alternated with
one unstressed syllable (u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s). 
As an example:


“When Da-ddy
made it home that night

He’d ne-ver
wit-nessed such a sight”

‘The Pet – Cautionary Tales for grown Ups and
Children’ by Catherine Emmett and David Tazzyman


Just under 10% varied their syllable count per row, for example, 3
rows of 8 beats and the one of 11 beats.

Just over a quarter of the sample had a metre pattern that varied
throughout the story.  It’s worth noting
that this was skewed because a large number of these were Julia Donaldson’s
books, which often use a varying metre pattern (see ‘The Highway Rat’ for a
good example of this).


7 - Do some words always get stressed?

Stressed words can vary depending on the context.  Usually the ‘bigger, more important’ words
are always stressed, but the smaller ‘in-between words’ might or might not be
stressed, depending on the context.

I find writing the sentence out in prose can really help with
this, as can asking someone else to read it out.  Actually - my best tip is to find a ‘new
reader’.   My confident reading 6yr old
will easily pick-up good metre and really shows up where metre isn’t right.


8 – Should I vary the rhythm or syllable count to keep things

I personally think this depends how your mind works.  I think if you are of a more musical
persuasion you might naturally think more in ‘verses’ and different patterns of
rhyming.  For me (someone who is not
musical at all!) I stick to a constant pattern. 
Ultimately, I think it comes down to your story and what your story
needs – let the story lead the rhyme.


9 – Should I include a comma or pause in my syllable count?

Controversial.  This in
entirely up to you… …but I don’t.  Having
looked through my sample set, I would say that the books which I read most
smoothly tended not to do this, whereas the ones that I have tripped over in
the past sometimes do include this.  I
suspect that this might be different for other people though - I’d love to hear
your views. 


10 – Should I include a repeated refrain?

Of the sample I looked at, very few had a strict repeated refrain,
though about a quarter had some form of repeated structure.  A lot of those with a repeated structure were
by Julia Donaldson and again possibly reflect her songwriter background. 

In deciding whether it works for you, again, I’d focus on the
story. If your story lends itself to a repeated verse then great, but there’s
no need to include one otherwise.  Your
story should lead your rhyme, not the other way around.

So that’s it! The 10 things that I really wanted to know when I
started writing rhyming picture books, but didn’t know how to find out.   

I hope this has been useful, if you have any more questions then
come find me on Twitter at @emmett_cath or drop me a line via my website

Happy rhyming!


Wow! What a wonderfully thorough look at metre, rhyme and why it
matters. Thank you so much, Catherine, for sharing your research and experience with us at
Picture Book Den. And to those of you among us writing in rhyme or thinking about it, we very much hope this guest post leaves you
informed and inspired!

Bio: Catherine grew
up in Newcastle Upon Tyne and spent all of her childhood reading books. When
she grew up, she spent fourteen years making spreadsheets and not reading any
books at all. After advising a group of young girls to find a career that they
loved, she decided to take her own advice. She packed up her husband and her
three young boys, moved to rural Essex and started to write picture books.  
She now
spends her days surrounded by words, animals and noisy boys. When she needs a
bit of peace and quiet, she can be found running (very slowly) across muddy

 Bio: Clare Helen Welsh
is the author of over 4- fiction and non-fiction texts, either published or in
press, including picture books and early readers. She runs a 7 week picture
book course for Write Mentor and is a Writer-in-Residence for 2021. Find out
more here: 


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