Writing rhyming picture books that scan

I’ve been asked a number of times to explain scanning in rhyming picture books, so I’d thought I’d share this recent emailed explanation in the hope that it helps.  Scanning, or scansion, is for some people an instinctive skill, while others need to give it more thought.  Basically if you regard your rhyming picture book text as lyrics for a song, or more specifically one verse that repeats over and over, you have the gist of it.  It’s worth remembering that Julia Donaldson was a lyricist before she was an author – no wonder her picture book texts are so rhythmic.

If you were given a popular song and asked to rewrite the lyrics, you would have to make sure that every syllable matched a note.  In the same why, when writing you are trying to fit words into the same sort of tight pattern.  Let’s say your chosen rhythm is De DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM.

So your verse without words would be

De DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM.
De DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM.
De DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM.
De DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM.

Catchy, isn’t it?  Now imagine putting the words to that, eg off the top of my head:

A lonely mouse came out one day
And asked an elephant to play.
The elephant said, ‘Not just now.
I have a playdate with a cow.’

The reason this fits is that (a) every syllable fits on to a de or a DUM and (b) every stressed syllable is on a DUM and every unstressed syllable is on a de.

An example of (a) every syllable fits

if the first line was ‘A tortoise came out one day’ it wouldn’t work as there’s a missing syllable after tortoise so we have to leave a pause when we read it aloud to get it to fit. The reader won’t know about this pause. Your aim is to make your text ‘first read proof’ so even if the reader has no idea what the rhythm is it will still be there. What about a longer word? If I wrote ‘A hippopotamus came out one day’ I have gone well over the amount of syllables I have for that line. In fact to make it fit I would have to change it more substantially.  ‘A hippopotamus one day…’ would work , but then the next line would have to be changed as well to make sense.

An example of (b) every stress fits

If we tried to use ‘alert mouse’ instead of ‘lonely mouse’, it doesn’t work because the stress on this word needs to be on the first syllable in order to fall on DUM in the rhythm, as in lonely, not the second syllable, as in alert.

Here’s the verse again with the stressed syllables shown in bold:

A lonely mouse came out one day
And asked an elephant to play.
The elephant said, ‘Not just now.
I have a playdate with a cow.

The words have to fit the rhythm to create the correct scansion so you need to pick your words carefully; you can’t force them in or change the way they are stressed because it just won’t work. It either fits or it doesn’t – rather like doing a word puzzle. The difference is that you create the framework yourself, but you then need to stick to it throughout.

A good way to test your text is to get someone else to read it through aloud without reading it beforehand.  Does the rhythm hold?  Are there any pauses, hesitations or rushed parts?  Is the rhythm clear?  Can you clap along to it?  You can try the clapping bit without anyone else to help.  Establish  the rhythm you need with your hands acting as a metronome and then start reading.  Good luck!

For more help with writing, why not try my critique service or join my next online picture book writing course?

 

Maverick accepting unsolicited manuscripts for picture books

Thanks to reader Kaytie for spotting another children’s publisher to add to our list!  Maverick publish a range of lively and colourful picture books.  They are looking for quirky, interesting reads with strong storylines.  As a guide, their books are usually 32 pages long and no longer than 1,200 words and they prefer text only, not illustrations.  Email submissions are preferred as pdf or Word attachments together with a covering letter or email, but you can also submit by post.  Find all the details on their submissions page.

And lastly:

 

If you like to write stories that rhyme,

Most publishers have to decline.

Though your verse may fill them with delight

They must consider foreign rights,

And your carefully crafted creation

Loses something in translation.

 

But sometimes a publisher will have a go –

At the back of their mind there’s a Gruffalo –

And I’m happy to tell you that Maverick

Will consider your stanzas, so make ’em slick!

(If your rhyming, like mine, just gets rubbisher,

You may not find a publisher!)