Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – The Beat


It’s been a little while since I posted in my blog series about WRITING PICTURE BOOKS. I’ve been a little busy…well, writing picture books, among other things. But I did want to check in sometime during poetry month about Chapter 13, “Rhyme Time.”

When I was in high school, my Latin teacher thought it was fun and educational to have all us students sweat blood while translating Virgil’s Aeneid. I’m sure you all know it. It’s the one that starts out, “Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris/Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit.” No? Not ringing any bells?

In addition to translating (and memorizing large chunks of) this Latin tome, another assignment was to scan the poetry, marking the stressed and unstressed syllables of Virgil’s dactylic hexameter.

Dactyli-who Hexa-whatsit?

Fast forward several years (OK, decades) and this seemingly impractical skill is now very helpful to me as I write poetry and rhyming picture book stories. Yes! I am actually using something I learning in high school. Thanks, Mr. Esposito.

One thing I like about the way that Ann Whitford Paul addresses poetry in Chapter 13 is that it feels approachable, even for someone who forgot terms like consonance and alliteration from high school English class. The examples she gives, using a nursery rhyme as a starting point, show some of the common ways that poems can go wrong. I highly recommend reading this chapter, even if you don’t write in rhyme, simply because adding poetic devices and musicality to prose is helpful for all picture book writers.

Back to meter, Chapter 13 doesn’t go overboard with complex metrical analyses but she does define some important basic rhythms. When thinking about meter, I always find it helpful to think of a well-known poem that is written in a certain meter — and try to make my poem sound like THAT.

Sounds like: da-DUM
To write in an iambic rhythm, make your poem sound like Sick by Shel Silverstein:
“I cannot go to school today,”
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
“I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.
(Do you hear it? da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM/i CANnot GO to SCHOOL toDAY/said LITtle PEGgy ANN mcKAY)
Note: Very common meter, fun, upbeat

Sounds like: da-da-DUM
To write in an anapestic rhythm, make your poem sound like Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore:
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
(Do you hear it? da-da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM/twas the NIGHT before CHRISTmas when ALL through the HOUSE)
Note: Very bouncy rhythm, good for humorous poems

Sounds like: DUM-da
(Note it’s the opposite of an iamb)
To write in an trochaic rhythm, make your poem sound like The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
(Do you hear it? DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da/ONCE uPON a MIDnight DREARy WHILE i PONdered WEAK and WEARy)
Note: A dreary rhythm

Sounds like: DUM-da-da
(Note it’s the opposite of an anapest)
To write in a dactylic rhythm, make your poem sound like Virgil’s Aeneid. Or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by Lennon/McCartney (but I’m guessing it was probably mostly Lennon)
Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes
(Hear it? DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da/PICture your SELF in a BOAT on a RIver)
Note: This meter works better in Latin than English, apparently.

These are the basics, and there’s a lot a writer can do to mix and match these rhythms in ways that are tried-and-true, and also new. It helps me to look at lots and lots of examples and have templates in my mind as I am writing and learning about all this meter stuff and rhyming stuff and poetry stuff.

Last night as I was slaving over this post about meter, Laura Purdie Salas came up with her own fantastic post on the same topic with great examples and LOTS of helpful links. Go read!

12 thoughts on “Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – The Beat

    • Carrie Finison says:

      It is essential, and it’s something I’ve enjoyed learning more about. I like knowing the specifics of meter, rather than just feeling that a line “sounds wrong” without being able to explain why.

  1. Liz Steinglass says:

    I completely agree. The more I read and write poetry, the more I am convinced of the importance of meter. Would you believe I was thinking about writing about meter this week too?

  2. Cathy Ballou Mealey says:

    Now I am grateful for Latin! We had to memorize the Aeneid and passages from the Metamorphoses. I can remember Daedalus and Icarus: …pater infēlix, nec iam pater, “Īcare,” dīxit, “Īcare,” dīxit “ubi es? quā tē regiōne requīram?” “Īcare” dīcēbat

    OK, I cheated. I couldn’t remember the spellings! Don’t tell Professor Starr…

    I will be referring to your helpful post next time I draft in rhyme!

  3. Robyn Hood Black says:

    Oh, Dear – you folks and your Latin are conversing above my skill set. I could possibly handle a little French, but that would be it. What a great post, Carrie – thanks for sharing!
    Ann Whitford Paul is fantastic.

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