Thursday, December 5, 2013



The more I study the craft of picture book writing, the more I realize that so many of the things I'm learning apply to all writing for kids. Using as few words as possible to convey your meaning, using carefully chosen words, leaning towards dialogue and action with limited description, avoiding adverbs and going light on adjectives - all these things are important when I write a juvenile or young adult novel as well as a picture book. You can just get away with mistakes a little easier in a novel.

In a picture book, every word needs to go under a microscope. When you're used to writing novels like I am, it's challenging to tell your story in  1000 words. You absolutely don't want to waste any of them! And when you're choosing your words, one of the things you need to think about is rhythm.

  I like what Theodore Cheney says about rhythm in his book Getting the Words Right. He talks about ancient storytellers and how "stories with the most satisfying sounds and rhythms were remembered easiest and longest."

That's what we want -  children to remember our stories and, with picture books, to ask for them again and again.

The best way to test for rhythm is to read your story aloud. Picture books are meant to be read aloud so this is doubly important (novels can benefit from being read aloud too). Try reading your manuscript into a tape recorder and listening to it. Or ask someone to read it out loud to you. 

There are some tried and true ways to get rhythm into your writing.

1. Vary your sentence length. A longer leisurely sentence slows the pace. A short snappy sentence gives punch to your story. You want both.

2. Use alliteration (repetition of initial consonant.) Don't overdo this and create a tongue twister (unless deliberate!) The words don't have to be side by side but can be scattered throughout the sentence. eg. There are some tried and trued ways to get rhythm into your writing!

3. Have fun with onomatopoeia (words that imitate sounds.)  eg. slish slosh swish

4. Pay attention to where the stress falls naturally  in your sentence and how changing the order of your words can change where the stress falls.

Listen to the difference between:

He fell over with a crash.

Over he fell with a crash.

A comma can change the stress.

Listen to the  difference between:

And he never said a word.

And, he never said a word.

Time words and superlatives are often stressed:

Lyle could spend hours watching building construction.

Harry's bath was the soapiest one he had ever had.

I'm planning to print a copy of my manuscript-in-progress and mark the stressed word or words in every sentence. Maybe I'll move some words around and make some changes. I'm sure I'll learn something.

 In The Business of Writing for Children, Aaron Shepard says . .

One of the greatest compliments a reviewer can bestow on a children's story is to call it a "great read aloud." But how does a story come to merit such praise? The secret is rhythm.

Rhythm. It will make your story sing.

Favourite Kid's Book of the Week:

Mr. Zinger's Hat by Cary Fagan

A story is trying to escape from Mr. Zinger's hat. Leo contributes all the important details and learns that his cap has a story in it too!

A terrific story with charming illustrations.

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