Writing poetry for children: If you think it's easy, you're doing it wrong!
There's an epidemic of bad verse out there. It's invisible to most people, unless they're in the business (as I am) of reading other people's writing.
Are you writing rhymes for kids? Not getting professional feedback? You might be guilty. Guilty of bad, bad verse.
Trust me, I'm not imagining this. Publishers and agents are refusing to read rhyming manuscripts. Do they hate poetry? No, but they do hate bad poetry, and they feel that that's all they're seeing. If they saw the good stuff, they'd be jumping for joy!
Could you write the good stuff?
Don't ever think that what Dr. Seuss did was easy
Dr. Seuss made writing poetry look easy. It was anything but. It took him 18 months to write The Cat in the Hat.
Seuss had barely 200 words to work with (because the book was intended as a reader, with very simple vocabulary), every line had to rhyme, and he needed perfect meter.
Oh, and he needed to make the whole thing short enough
that it would be over before a four year old's attention span ran out. Article continues below.
Want to try it yourself? Those are Seuss's Cat in the Hat words below. And that's a sample of his rhyme scheme and meter at the top of the page.
Could you write a whole perfectly rhymed and metered book from what you see above?
What I'm trying to say is that Dr. Seuss tasked himself with trying to write a compelling story under the hardest possible constraints.
You know how they say Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels?
That's what writing poetry for children is all about.
We'll call it, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back...With a Baseball Bat!
You can't say baseball bat in a Dr. Seuss book.
You knew that, right?
Why you can't say
i SAT there with SALly,
According to Wikipedia, this meter has a fancy name: anapestic tetrameter. Seuss used it almost exclusively.
It's responsible for the infectiousness of his work. It's very sing-songy, very memorable. And it works like this:
Two unaccented syllables followed by one accented syllable, lines always ending on an accent. Rhymes always ending on an accent.
There is one exception: sometimes Seuss will start a line with a single unaccented syllable, instead of two. But the missing unaccented syllable is there in the silence, in the pause it causes the reader to take. You'll notice that when a line starts with one accented syllable, you can slip another unaccented one in there if you like:
so i SAT there with SALly,
So why can't you say "baseball bat"?
Because there aren't two unaccented syllables between accented ones! Try to slip the phrase into the verse above. You'll inevitably find yourself saying baseball BAT. And that's just wrong!
When you're writing poetry, the words are supposed to be pronounced and emphasized just like when you speak.
Why I'm telling you all this
Someone has to! As I said before, there's an epidemic of poorly written verse out there. You don't want to be one of the guilty parties, do you?
Now let me be clear: I'm no expert in writing poetry for children; my only talent is an ability to recognize bad verse.
To my mind, a writer has two choices:
If you think you're up to the task of writing poetry for children that stands the test of time, you're going to need a few things:
The last three items can be found online!
To work on the first item, you're also going to need to study the work of others. A writer who doesn't read is about as easy to spot as a bad line of verse! Fortunately, I've got some resources for you.
Also, I review a ton of Seuss on this site. In many of the reviews, you'll find snippets of the master's work.
My reviewers and I also review some great rhyming books from other atuhors. Each of them has something to teach.
Audrey Owen, the writer's helper, provides just such a course. We've taken it and recommend it highly!
Best Children's Books - Find, Read or Write home page.