Each syllable, each line break, each sentence’s placement on the page … the rhythm, the word choice, the repetition (and maybe even the rhyme, if it’s done well) — all of these are massively important… The read-aloud experience should be so extraordinary that practically as soon as the book is closed, everyone just wants to open it up and do it again.
–from “Why We’re Still in Love with Picture Books (Even Though They’re Supposed to Be Dead),” May/June 2011 Horn Book
One of the first things a picture book writer learns is that each word must earn its place. So how does a writer know which words to choose and how to arrange those words to add to the sound and feeling of a piece? How does a writer get “there” – that undefined but immediately recognizable story place that captures not only the voice and structure you aimed for, but the emotional feeling you intended to leave with readers?
And how does a writer know if the words should rhyme?
Perhaps the easiest answer is – it depends. On the story. On the writer. On the ways the tools of poetry – those very syllables, line breaks, words, rhythms, and sentences – are put together.
According to Oliver Sacks, M.D. noted neurologist and author, our brains are wired for sound. It’s such an effective way to remember and learn new things, that it’s not surprising that young children are taught rhymes and songs at an early age. But the powerful connection between music and words isn’t limited to rhyme. Prose needs to sing, too. And it can. With the tools of poetry.
In Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School, Georgia Heard divides these tools into Meaning and Music.
* A WORD reflects not only its denotation or literal meaning, but also its connotation, or implied subtext. Choosing the best words means looking for words that do double duty. Words that shed light not only on character or setting, for example, but also mood or tone.
Kevin Henkes is a master at this. Take CHRYSANTHEMUM. She’s an over-the-top mouse in love with her name.
“She loved the way it sounded when her mother woke her up.
She loved the way it sounded when her father called her for dinner.
And she loved the way it sounded when she whispered it to herself in the bathroom mirror.
Chrysanthemum, Chrysanthemum, Chrysanthemum.”
Longer sentences, repetition, and the rule of three help convey the voice of the entire piece and something of Chrysanthemum’s own exuberance for life.
* The ORDER, or arrangement and length of the words, affect a reader’s response.
Characters can skip, dash, or march… saunter, shuffle, or waddle. The latter three not only describe a slower pace, but are two syllables long and take longer to say or read. In other words, the words themselves embody the slower pace they describe.
The link between Meaning and Music is simply that the SOUND of a carefully chosen word can amplify meaning and deepen the emotional layers of story.
Think of the alphabet as families of sounds, each conveying something slightly different. For example, some letters in English produce a harsh sound, others a soft sound.
Now, consider how letter/sound combinations work in the context of words, phrases, and sentences. Mary Oliver writes:
The following three phrases mean exactly the same thing:
- Please be quiet!
- Shut up!
The first phrase we might use to quiet a child when we do not want to give any sense of disturbance or anger. [The “sh” sound at the end of the word “hush” is soft, though slightly abrasive.]
The second phrase is curt, but the tone remains civil… [In particular, the “t” at the end of “quiet” is a harsh, hard stop.]
The third phrase indicates … impatience and even anger. [In this case, the “t” and “p” at the end of both words produce two hard stops.]
(adapted from A Poetry Handbook, 23-24)
And finally, consider how the Music of individual phrases and sentences supports Meaning through another tool – the up and down patterns of speech known as RHYTHM. A boisterous or silly story deserves a rising (iamb or anapest) rhythm. A story about childhood fears might use falling (trochee or dactyl) rhythms.
In my book, BLUE on BLUE, when the rain is at its strongest, a falling trochee rhythm mirrors the endless heaviness of the storm.
/ – / –
/ – / –
/ – / –
/ – / –
You can learn more about the sounds of letters and letter combinations in Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook (“Sound,” chapter 4) and Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books (“Making Music with Your Prose,” chapter 14).
So how does a writer get to the “sound and the feeling” of the best of the best picture books? By studying and using the tools of poetry. Picture books don’t always rhyme and they don’t have to. But look closely and you’ll find the author – consciously or unconsciously – has used many of a poet’s tools to place the best words in their best order.