This was first posted on elizabethannewrites on May 21, 2011.

In my previous post in this series, I talked about how to read rhyming-text picture books. In this post, I want to suggest a few books in which the rhyming text works (and one in which it doesn’t, in my opinion).

Babies are aware of rhythm even before they are born — the sound of their mother’s heartbeat pervades the unborn baby’s days and nights — so it is not surprising that they have what seems to be an innate love of rhythm (and accompanying rhyme) after they are born. Lullabies and nursery rhymes take full advantage of this. (A caveat: as with all books, I strongly suggest thinking about the text prior to sharing it with your child — “Rock-a-bye baby” is traditional, but “when the bough breaks the cradle will fall” is not a comforting image for either caregiver or child!)

As a child gets older, skillfully written rhyming text can tell a story while still appealing to the joy children find in rhythm and rhyme. As I said in my post about how to read rhyming texts, remember that the story is paramount and let the rhyme and rhythm flow naturally. The following two picture books tell a story that children can readily identify with. The rhyme enhances, but doesn’t take over the story itself.

Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney is one of five (thus far) delightful books about this small llama who experiences many of the same things as small children do. Llama Llama is starting school, and is confronted with many new experiences — and the worst of all is that Mama Llama isn’t there, and he misses her dreadfully. When Mum taught kindergarten, there was one little boy who spent the first few days of the school term just sitting on Mum’s lap. He would have benefited from this book, as the other children and the teacher manage to reassure Little Llama, gently and caringly. The text rhymes, but the rhyme and rhythm are not blatant, supporting the story rather than dominating. Read it just as you would any other text, and let the rhythm and rhyme carry you along.

The Pout-Pout Fish in the Big-Big Dark is the second book about the Pout-Pout Fish written by Deborah Diesen (see her link in my author’s list in the right sidebar) with pictures by Dan Hanna. Yes, you recognize the title because I used it as an illustration of both how to write good rhyming text and how to read rhyming text in my previous post on this subject. I would urge you to click on the link embedded in the book’s title, as there are sample pages shown there, which will give you a good idea of the way the rhyme serves but does not overwhelm the text. You can even try reading the excerpts aloud, to get a feel for how the phrases feel on the tongue. (Remember, no sing-song reading!) In this book, the Pout-Pout Fish is eager to help his friend, but to do so, he must overcome his fear of the Big-Big Dark. Children will, of course, identify with his fear, and will be empowered by the way he faces his fear, and overcomes it — with the help of a friend. Illustrations and text combine well in telling this story that resonates with me as it will with children.

For slightly older children, I highly recommend Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd. Although the School Library Journal doesn’t seem to think too highly of this book, I found it charmingly delightful (I admit I’m biased toward stories about cats). The rhyme supports the story, but doesn’t decline into simplistic sing-song (which as you may have discovered, is one of the banes of my existence!). The story is simple, but not too simple, telling of a cat who steals things in the night, and eventually gets his comeuppance.

As I said in my previous post, perhaps ad nauseum, it is important when looking at books with rhyming text to look for text that is well-written, good poetry. It’s easy to write doggerel (or catterel?) but much more difficult to write good, solid poetry. There are many examples of books that have rhyming text that is not well-written, so let the reader beware. (Of course, what is “good poetry” is rather subjective, but still…)

One book I encountered that I would NOT recommend is Party Animals by Kathie Lee Gifford. Again, I see that School Library Journal and I are at odds. I found that although the story premise was a good one, of a goose who wants to have a party, yet finds something critical to say about each suggested guest, finally (I assume, since I didn’t finish reading the book!) mending her ways and learning to enjoy her friends just as they are, the way the story is presented in the rhyme and rhythm scheme chosen detracted too much from the story. It was almost impossible to read the text in anything but a sing-song rhythm, even though I was reading silently. (The jacket flap copy calls it “adorable sing-song verse”. I beg to differ.) I also found that some of the lines didn’t scan, making my reading stumble, and sometimes at the end of the line, in order to follow the rhythm that one was being railroaded into, the emPHASis had to fall on the wrong sylLABle.

So, Beth, are you saying that all rhyming text must be Pulitzer material before you’ll recommend it? Is there ever an instance where imperfect poetry can get past your gimlet gaze? Of course I don’t go to that extreme! I think rhyming text, just as prose text, in picture books should be well-written. This serves the story best, as well as the reader and the listener. But there are times when the need to tell the story, and the general feel of the text can override the imperfections of the poetry.

A case in point is The Drum Calls Softly by David Bouchard and Shelley Willier, with paintings by Jim Poitras. This book, with text in both English and Cree, tells the story of a child at a pow-wow with Mooshum and Kokum (Grandpa and Grandma), doing the Round Dance, looking at the stars, being steeped in First Nations culture. The text is lyrical, with a rhythm reminiscent of the drum beat of the Round Dance itself. The rhyme scheme changes abruptly at times, and the rhythm isn’t always quite true, but try not to let this make you stumble too much as you dance through this book. The feel and message of the text, as well as the importance of sharing the culture, override the imperfections in the poetry, at least for me. (See? I’m not totally rigid and unbending!) The book is enhanced not only by the bilingual text, but also by the inclusion of an audio CD with traditional singing and drumming by a group called Northern Cree. This would be a good introduction to First Nations culture for non-aboriginal children, and would champion their culture for children who are of First Nations heritage.

So — what do I hope you take away from this post? The message that you needn’t be intimidated by picture books with rhyming text, but you do need to be discerning, and thoughtful about both choosing and reading — as with any book one shares with a child. Enjoy!

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