Mary Cummings
Agent for Kids Books

Rhyming Couplets

Many writers hoping to have a picture book published assume that each line should rhyme with its preceding line, producing a pair of rhymes (rhyming couplets). Writing in this form of rhyme may give a sense of satisfaction and pride in their writing - which is important - but some writers have learned from SCBWI conferences or other sources that it's difficult to sell such manuscripts. I get many submissions with the writer insisting it's the only way their story can be told. Perhaps that's true, but here are some things to consider. 

Writing in quatrains (stanzas of four lines) with the second and fourth line rhyming was a perfect structure for A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR SANTA by my client, J. Theron Elkins (Zonderkidz). He made fabulous, appealing word choices to communicate a tender-hearted story of Santa fearing that he had been forgotten in Christmas gift-giving. Here's an excerpt:

       His helpers were huddled
       On the couch where they dozed
       In polka-dot jammies
       And jingle-belled toes.

       But no present was there ...
       There was no paper bag
       Stuffed with color tissue
       And ribbon zigzags. 

       His reindeer were snuggled
       At the base of the tree,
       Snoring carols of Christmas
       As content as can be.
       But no present was there ...
       There was no box and bow
       With bright shiny paper
       From the twinkle lights' glow

The refrain of "But no present was there ..." gives variety to the rhythm of the story and reinforces its central theme. 

Here's another example from YOU KNOW HOW TO LOVE (forthcoming Philomel) by Rachel Tawil Kenyon, another client of mine, which uses the same structure of second and fourth line rhyming. The rhymes are simple to fit the direct and ardent theme. It is so lovely, right from the opening stanza. I do not think it would have worked had it been done in rhyming couplets. 

       It starts at the start
       When you can't even talk.
       Before you stand up
       and learn how to walk.

       Deep in your heart
       the knowing is there.
       You know how to love
       and you know how to care.

But do rhyming couplets never succeed in today's market? Sometimes they do!

TAKE YOUR PET TO SCHOOL DAY by Linda Ashman (Random House) opens with a stanza in four lines, followed by two stanzas of three lines each:

     It's Friday here at Maple View.
     The students file in two by two,
     with books and bags and pets in tow -
     above, ahead, beside, below.

     They start the day off with a song.
     The pets attempt to sing along:
     They howl with gusto, bleat with glee.

     They shriek.
     The squeak.
     They're WAY off-key.

The first and second stanzas are comprised of lines with eight syllables, while the third stanza has a pattern of 2-2-4. Notice also that the main structure of rhyming couplets has been varied, with the final lines of the second and third stanzas rhyming. The reader is unconsciously waiting for a rhyme for "glee" because of the pattern established in the first stanza. Notice also in the first stanza that the dense imagery of the concluding lines suits a feeling of students bringing in loads of pets and gear. It's through having an engaging story, with spot-on word choices and a carefully composed structure suited to telling this story, that a delightful book emerged. 

So, dear writer: ponder some options for your own use of rhyme and all the best to you! 


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