Archives for posts with tag: Arnold Lobel

Rhyme & Writing in Verse

If new picture books in verse continue to be published each year why do so many people caution against writing in rhyme?  Simple. It is very easy to do it badly. Writing in rhyme does nothing to guarantee the quality of a children’s story any more than giving characters cute names like Caroline Camel does. Rhyme must support and serve the content.

Like the best song lyrics, rhyme in picture books is usually best if it is felt more than noticed. In terms of “writing to be heard” the use of rhyme functions as an aural-mini chorus. It brings the reader/audience back to a sense of the familiar. If the use of rhyme enhances the flow or rhythm of the text it can evoke a visceral sense of connection and return. But if the requirement for rhyme contorts the text in order to find the next rhyming word needed to rhyme the process distracts your audience rather than engaging them in what you have to share.

Poet and picture book author Karla Kuskin was instinctively aware of this dilemma.

“I don’t think I ever considered writing THE PHILHARMONIC GETS DRESSED in verse, but I did try that for another book of mine, called JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, but I found it was not working. The story of that book is a simple children’s joke. Verse wasn’t right for it because, as I eventually realized, it had to be told with a poker face, and the driving rhythm of the verse broke the mood and became intrusive.” (Leonard Marcus. WAYS OF TELLING).

Some picture books like SLEEPYTIME RHYME by Remy Charlip flow like a song thanks to rhyme. Rhyme contributes to the flow and the enveloping theme of the text:

















Charlip’s rhyme pattern is regular, but not tight. A constant series of back-to-back couplets would have begun sounding more like marching feet that a lullaby.

Another type of song-like picture book is the mini-essay or celebration of a single subject. Here a tighter rhyme scheme can contribute to the liveliness or festive feel of the text. Mary Ann Hoberman’s A HOUSE IS A HOUSE FOR ME is an excellent example. As a poet’s riff on what the word “house” might mean to different objects and creatures, Hoberman’s text is all play and exhilaration.

A writer who decides to tell a plotted story and tell it in rhyme is much like the juggler deciding to toss two more balls into the act.  The factor of difficulty dramatically increases, as do the opportunities for failure. It is also why picture book stories told in rhyme tend to be comedic adventures.

Deb Lund’s ALL ABOARD THE DINOTRAIN is a text that thrives with rhyming couplets (AABBCCDD…) because their steady rhythm evokes the sounds and feelings of the story’s content–a train ride. And not just any train ride, but an outlandish and outsized ride filled with dino-word-play.

The hill’s too steep for that much weight,

And so they toss the dinofreight.

Without a load, they quickly climb

And reach the peak in dinotime.

The less frenetic story, THE MILKMAN by Carol Foskett Cordsen, is also primarily written in couplets. But the pace is gentle and much quieter thanks to the author’s use of single words and short phrases to evoke the slow, early beats of morning.

First of morning, cold and dark.

Rooster crowing. Meadowlark.

Moon above the mountaintops.

Loud alarm clock. Snoring stops.

Mr. Plimpton out of bed.

The design of the book also contributes to the mood.  Most page turns come in the middle of a couplet and so slows the pace and literally creates the hush of morning.

The use of rhyme is not confined to couplets.  BARN DANCE by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault employs these three different yet related rhyme schemes in the course of their text.




Using varied rhyme schemes can help avoid the rhymes overwhelming the story.  If use wisely, that is.  If done poorly, a mixture of rhyme schemes could contribute to confusion and distraction.

Once again, if one’s primary goal is to write in rhyme regardless of the subject it is very easy to write badly. Before you submit a rhyming manuscript test your choices.  Write a draft of the same content in plain prose.  What is lost?  What is gained?  How does using rhyme enhance and evoke what you want to say?

Sample Picture Books With Rhyme

ALL ABOARD THE DINOTRAIN by Deb Lund. Illus. by Howard Fine. Harcourt, 2006.

ALL THE WORLD by Liz Garton Scanlon. Illus. by Marla Frazee. Beach Lane, 2009.

BARN DANCE by Bill Martin Jr. & John Archambault. Illus. by Ted Rand. Holt, 1986.

CHICK CHICKA BOOM BOOM by Bill Martin, Jr. & John Archambault.  Illus. by Lois Ehlert. Simon & Schuster, 1989.

COWBOY BUNNIES by Christine Loomis. Illus. by Ora Eitan. Putnam, 1997.

A HOUSE IS A HOUSE FOR ME by Mary Ann Hoberman. Illus. by Betty Fraser. Viking, 1989.

HOW DO YOU MAKE A BABY SMILE? by Philemon Sturges. Illus. Bridget Strevens-Marzo. Harper, 2007.

LITTLE BLUE TRUCK by Alice Schertle. Illus. by Jill McElmurry. Harcourt, 2008.

MARTHA THE MOVIE MOUSE by Arnold Lobel.  Harper, 1966.

THE MILKMAN by Carol Foskett Cordsen. Illus. by Douglas Jones. Dutton, 2005.

ONE MITTEN by Kristine O’Connell George. Illus. by Maggie Smith. Clarion, 2004.

SAKES ALIVE! A CATTLE DRIVE by Karma Wilson. Illus. by Karla Firehammer. Little, Brown, 2005.

SHOE BABY by Joyce Dunbar. Illus. by Polly Dunbar. Candelwick, 2005.

SLEEYTIME RHYME by Remy Charlip. Greenwillow, 1999.

SO, WHAT’S IT LIKE TO BE A CAT? By Karla Kuskin. Illus. by Betsy Lewin. Atheneum, 2005.

WHOSE GARDEN IS IT? By Mary Ann Hoberman. Illus. by Jane Dyer. Harcourt, 2004.

Sample Single Poems Turned into Picture Books

ARITHMETIC by Carl Sandburg. Illus. by Ted Rand. Harcourt, 1993.

CATS SLEEP ANYWHERE by Eleanor Farjeon. Illus. by Anne Mortimer. Frances Lincoln Books, 2010.

MORNNG HAS BROKEN by Eleanor Farjeon. Illus. by Tim Ladwig. Eerdmans, 1996.

UNDER MY HOOD I HAVE A HAT by Karla Kuskin. Illus by Fumi Kosaka. Harper, 2005.


One of the most enduring patterns in short fiction is the cumulative tale.  It appears in nearly every culture.  North Americans come to know it through THIS IS THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY and THE OLD WOMAN AND HER PIG.  It remains popular because it is fun and it allows the child to gain a sense competence and join in the fun.

THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS is basically is list of acquisitions. THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY has sparked an ever-growing list of parodies as outlandish as the original.  But even at their silliest, these texts touch on the cycle of life and reality that one problem solved tends to trigger the next. A more contemporary, adult version of this would be taking a medication to solve one problem only to find that the medication creates new side effects that require yet another medication.

THIS IS THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT takes the cumulative pattern a bit deeper, and explores the interconnectedness of both things and experiences. Nothing in life is isolated.

Lisa Campbell Ernst’s THIS IS THE VAN THAT DAD CLEANED could have been written in a different pattern.  Dad cleans van.  Takes kids on trip.  Kids make a mess of van.  Dad’s upset.  Kids say they’re sorry by cleaning the van.  By using a cumulative plot line Campbell accomplishes several things at once.  Rather than sounding didactic, she generates a sense of fun.  Instead of scolding, she reveals what we all know—situations can simply get out of hand.  And, in the end, we can take responsibility for correcting our mistakes or at least try to balance the situation.

With my own THIS IS THE BIRD I knew a primary thread of the story was the multiple stories connected with a family heirloom.  The cumulative pattern provided a natural link with passing time and a litany of memories.

The cumulative story arc can range in content from comical lists to sequential experiences to the passage of time.  It is not for every picture book story, but it could be just the right pattern for the particular story you want to share.  People try on clothes to see if they fit both the event and themselves.  Why not try on different story patterns as part of the writing process?

Sample Cumulative Picture Books

MR. GUMPY’S OUTING by John Burningham.  Macmillan, 1971.

THE JACKET I WEAR IN THE SNOW by Shirley Nitzel.  Illus by Nancy Winslow Parker, Greenwillow, 1989.

THE ROSE IN MY GARDEN by Arnold Lobel. Illus by Anita Lobel.  Greenwillow, 1984.


THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A TROUT! By Teri Sloat.  Illus by Reynold Ruffins.  Holt, 1998.

THIS IS THE BIRD by George Shannon.  Illus by David Soman.  Houghton, 1997.

THIS IS THE VAN THAT DAD CLEANED by Lisa Campbell Ernst.  Simon & Schuster, 2005.

            As much as we like to denigrate clichés, they ARE clichés because they hold some truth.  How writers explore and refine these truths is the process of art.

Cliche’ –                “The grass is always greener on the other side.”


                                  Looking for it all over the place

                                  three years

                                  carrying it all the time like a baby.    

                                  from ASIAN FIGURES by W. S. Merwin.  

                                  Atheneum, 1980. (p 5)


THE TREASURE (a Hebrew foltkale) retold by Uri Shulevitz in his Caldecott Honor Book of 1978.   

             Isaac dreams that if he goes to the capitol city and digs beneath the end of the bridge he will find riches.  The bridge guard laughs.  The guard had a dream that if he went to the house of a poor man named Isaac and dug under the stove he would find a fortune.  A dejected Isaac returns home.  Digs under his stove, and finds a treasure.            

             No matter the genre or form, it is the classic journey of leaving home only to discover that what one is looking for was at home all along.  Still, the journey is vital to the eventual realization and sense of gratitude.  It CAN be left as merely cliché’ or transformed into engaging picture books.  Or, for that matter, books of any genre for any age.

THE MOST PERFECT SPOT by Diane Goode. (HarperCollins, 2006).            

            Set in Brooklyn in the late 1930s to early 1940s, a young boy invites his mother to have a picnic in “the most perfect spot.”  They venture out only to experience one minor calamity after another.  Their journey is hard, or at least very inconvenient.  In the end, a wet, muddied and exhausted boy and mother return to their apartment—”the most perfect spot!”  One of the wonderful elements of Goode’s text is that she allows (indeed, points to) the unexpected and unexplained: “But…suddenly, and who knows why…”

            Logic in fiction is as illusive as logic in life.  Still, the story continues.

MOUSE SOUP by Arnold Lobel (HarperCollins,1977).            

             In this popular book the main characters in the story “Two Large Stones” are (exactly that) two large stones on the side of a hill.  They long for life on the other side of the hill.  And, while they are not able to make the physical journey to enlightenment, a mouse makes the journey for them.             

             As another cliché’ goes, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”






Frog and Toad Are Friends


Begin at the Beginning by Amy Schwartz.  (Harper, 1983).

When a little girl is overwhelmed by trying to create something magnificent her mother gently helps her refocus on the small things she truly knows.

Billy’s Picture by Margaret & H.A. Rey.  (Houghton, 1948).

In this variation on “too many cooks spoil the broth” Billy’s friends are so eager to critique and revise his picture it becomes unrecognizable.

Black Elephant With a Brown Ear (In Alabama) by Barbara Ann Porte. Art by Bill Traylor.  (Greenwillow, 1996).

In this ingenious book Porte shares the writer’s world of imagining “what if” as she looks at images by the folk painting Bill Traylor. How do you get ideas? You get them doing this.

Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera Williams. (Greenwillow, 1986).

How many stories can grow from a single seed? Countless. How to nurture creativity in others? Paper, pens and listening

Danny’s Drawing Book by Sue Heap. (Candlewick, 2007).

Danny takes his drawing book everywhere. When he and Ettie visit the zoo the combination of their experiences, questions and imaginations create a vibrant new story.

David’s Drawings by Cathryn Falwell. (Lee & Low, 2001).

David draws what he sees, but well-meaning friends keep adding their advice on what he needs to do to “improve” his drawing.  

Do Not Open This Book! by Michaela Muntean. Illus. Pascal Lemaitre.  (Scholastic, 2006).

As funny as it is outrageous, this romp touches on everyone’s fears and foibles about writing.

Doodler Doodling by Rita G. Gelman. Illus. Paul Zelinsky. (Greenwillow, 2004).

Where do fresh ideas come from? Playful doodling with words and ideas!

Emma by Wendy Kesselman. Illus. Barbara Cooney. (Doubleday, 1980).

Emma loves her family and art. At 72 she realizes that she has cause and abilities to create. She begins painting the visions she loves—past and present.

Frederick by Leo Lionni. (Pantheon, 1967).

This fable celebrates the place and value of the artist in society.

Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel. (Harper, 1970).

While Toad chases after story ideas, Frog knows his daily experiences are the stuff  of stories.

Goldie the Dollmaker by M.B. Goffstein. (Farrar, 1969).

Goldie is an artist and a lover of art. When she spends far too much on a lamp she loves, she comes to realize that all artists create for those who will love their work as much as they do. Artists create for their beholders, friends they will never meet.

 Lizard’s Song by George Shannon. Illus. Aruego & Dewey. (Greenwillow, 1981).

Our best creations come out of our own lives instead of echoing others.

Play With Me by Marie Hall Ets. (Viking, 1955).  

With patience, quiet, and deep receptivity, those formerly illusive ideas will come.

Regina’s Big Mistake by Marissa Moss. (Houghton, 1990).

What first seems like a terrible mistake becomes a springboard for a fresh, unique  idea.

Simple Pictures Are Best by Nancy Willard. Illus. Tomi dePaola. (Harcourt,1976).

Just as this family tries to get all their possessions into one photo, what writer hasn’t tried to get all his beloved ideas into one story? Less is more.

Three by the Sea by Edward Marshall. Illus. James Marshall. (Dial, 1981).

This early reader shows and evokes so much about what goes into making a good story I recommend it to writers of every age.

Uncle Elephant by Arnold Lobel. (Harper, 1981).

Uncle Elephant creates songs and stories out of his daily life AND his heart is lightened through the process.

What’s the Big Idea, Molly? by Valeri Gorbachev. (Philomel Books, 2010).

Molly is a writer in love with beautiful words, but ideas are often illusive. What first seems to be frustration or failure sparks a lovely, unique birthday gift.

A Writer by M.B. Goffstein. (Harper, 1984).

A beautifully distilled essay in picture book form on the life of a writer.


“…in my early work, like Mister Muster, the whole style was influenced by watching television over the heads of my children…I think I learned at some point to use myself.  At the beginning, I was creating nice little stories for children, which may have been an offshoot of being a parent…But after about ten years I realized that there was no reason why I couldn’t stop writing for children and start writing more out of my own feelings.  I think that’s how Frog and Toad came to be.  It was the first time I had turned inward…I cared about what the story would be for children, but at the same time I was aware that all of the things that happened in it were essentially very personal to me and had resonances in my own life…”            Arnold Lobel

Martha, like Arnold Lobel loved movies.  When the projector breaks down Martha saves the day by spinning events of her life into stories.

 Martha the Movie Mouse.  Harper, 1966.