PICTURE BOOK FOCUS Catch the Poetry Bug To Give Your Picture Book RHYTHM

In this featureNatascha Biebow shares how you can use poetry
to inspire and hone your picture book's rhythm


I have a confession to make – I’m not really a poetry fan. Sure, I’ve studied it in school and read it occasionally, but I find it difficult. I naturally gravitate towards prose.

But this summer at the SCBWI Conference in LA, two things happened:

I roomed with a poet . . . and I went to hear legend Mem Fox speak about picture books.

This classic picture book for babies is over 10 years in print!

Children’s classic Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox (illustrated by Helen Oxenbury) happens to rhyme, but most importantly, it has rhythm!

“There was one little baby who was born faraway
And another who was born on the very next day.

And both of these babies, as everyone knows
Had ten little fingers and ten little toes.”

From Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Fox & Oxenbury
In her talk, Mem Fox shared about how as a child of missionaries in Africa she would walk around the garden, and memorize and recite poetry until it was an integral part of her. She told us that she realized after writing Ten Little Finger and Ten Little Toes (still in print after 10 years!) that its rhythm is like the King James Bible she read as a child.

So, why is rhythm so important in picture books (note – not rhyme!)

“What delights young children? It's the rhythm. It's always the rhythm," Mem says.

Rhythm is key for early language development. The first sound a baby hears is their mum’s heartbeat. It has a beat, a rhythm. Words have stresses and beats like music. Research shows that repetition of words and sounds is important for developing memory, concentration and early brain development. Rhythmical language is like music – it’s often soothing and calming.  

Further, Mem says, “We have to write a book for other people, and those people are children.” 

And children respond to rhythm.

It takes a lot of time and effort to write a rhythmical picture book. You have to:

-       really listen
-       choose the right words
-       make it concise and short!

So when writing, Mem focuses on rhythm, brevity, and the emotional impact on a child.

And she writes in total silence . . . because you need to be able to hear the music that you are creating. 


Mem also said that RHYTHM can’t be taught, it has to be CAUGHT and it gave me hope.

Maybe if I read more poetry, if we all read more aloud, we too can imbue our picture books with rhythm.

So, back to my LA conference roommate, children’s book author and photographer Joan Bransfield Graham and her book The Poem that Will Not End, illustrated by Krysten Brooker, which has 22 poems in art and uses 15 different poetic forms and five voices. I have a lot to learn! 

From The Poem That Will Not End by Graham & Brooker

“It started with a rhythm,
a rhythm and a rhyme.
It wouldn’t let me stop,
it ate up all my time . . .”
From The Poem That Will Not End by Graham & Brooker
The universe had a message for me – go and read poetry so that you can be a better picture book writer and editor!
I often recommend using mentor texts to help craft picture books. Now I will be on the lookout for mentor poems too. Here are some I've been reading out loud:

It's Raining Said John Twaining translated & Illustrated by N. M. Bodecke is a book of Danish nursery rhymes many of them complete nonsense with such a clever play on words and sounds:

From It's Raining Said John Twaining Translated & Illustrated by N. M. Bodecker
From It's Raining Said John Twaining Translated & Illustrated by N. M. Bodecker
Snow by Roy McKie and P.D. Eastman is a wonderful early reader written in verse that is such a delightful read aloud:

From Snow by Roy McKie and P.D. Eastman

From Snow by Roy McKie and P.D. Eastman

What rhythmical picture books and poetry do you love that have inspired your writing?

Natascha Biebow is an experienced editor, mentor and coach, who loves working with authors and illustrators at all levels to help them to shape their storieswww.blueelephantstoryshaping.com 

1 comment:

  1. The inspiration was mutual, Natascha--your book, THE CRAYON MAN, is brilliant! Such a pleasure to meet you. Kind of you to mention my book THE POEM THAT WILL NOT END, which is proving to have a very wide age range--pre-school through high school. On Oct. 11 I'll be doing a presentation "POETRY LITERACY: 50 Nifty Ideas for Creative Fun" for LIBRARY LEARNING DAY at the Ventura County Office of Education. Dr. Sylvia Vardell spotlights poetry at her informative blog: http://poetryforchildren.blogspot.com.


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