Rhyming Picture Books Are Not Like Hymns*

This has to be one of the odder titles I’ve ever given a blog post, but I really do have something to say about rhyming picture books today.

Finding words that rhyme is not hard. Writing a good rhyming picture book is extremely hard. Anyone who wants to write in rhyming verse should read a lot of picture books written in rhyming verse. (More broadly, anyone who wants to write should read in the genre they’re writing in, being especially aware of books published within the last couple years. If you want to be published now—and not 20 years ago—you need to know what is being published now. End of digression.)

So where do hymns come in? Well, this weekend I was pondering the language and syntax of some familiar hymns. Long, long ago when I was an angst-y, poetry-writing teenager, I remember noticing how hymns were written and thinking that if the occasional convoluted sentence was all right for a hymn, it must be all right in my poetry. Now, given that I never attempted to publish my poems, I guess it was fine. But for a picture book, it is definitely not fine.

Here is a verse from “The First Noel” as an example:

And by the light of that same star,
Three Wise Men came from country far;
To seek for a King was their intent,
And to follow the star wherever it went:

I have no problem with these lyrics in the hymn. But I would never accept them in a rhyming picture book. The reader has to work too hard to figure out what is happening because of the complicated sentence structure and the convoluted syntax.

As a final note, I just want to point out that picture books do not have to be written in rhyming verse. Unless you have a passion and a true talent for writing in verse, I highly recommend writing in prose.

*Unless your picture book is literally illustrations to accompany the words of a hymn.