WELCOME TO NF FEST 2023! Learn the art of writing nonfiction for children one blog post at a time. To start the month off, we have an excellent post from Debra Kempf Shumaker about writing in rhyme.
Writing rhyme is fun, but challenging. Writing a nonfiction rhyming picture book adds another layer to the challenge, since not only do the rhyme and meter need to work, it has to be accurate as well!Two of my books—FREAKY, FUNKY FISH and PECULIAR PRIMATES—are rhyming nonfiction. They start with common features for fish or primates, then progress to strange ways they look and act.
For me, writing a nonfiction rhyming book is a lot like playing a solo game of Jenga™—trying to keep my story from falling apart as I shift, slide, and add text.
First step: Taking Notes—Preparing My “Blocks”
I prepare my “blocks” by taking pages and pages of notes from websites, books, and articles. Any feature/behavior that seems unique is listed.
After I have a lot of facts, I jot down words/phrases connected to those facts that can be stated briefly. In this phase, I’m trying to find the base for rhymes.
For instance, for PECULIAR PRIMATES, I noted that proboscis monkeys had really large noses and that they could swim, which is rare for primates. So I wrote:
One has a nose
that hangs far down.
One can swim.
I frequently write the same feature in different ways, never knowing which word I’ll find a rhyme for. If any potential rhymes pop in my head, I write them down. My paper gets very messy. These lines and partial lines become my “blocks.”
Second Step: Writing a First Draft—Building My Tower
To write my first draft, I skim all of my lines and partial lines, looking for potential pairs to write a rhyming stanza. At this point, I don’t focus on meter. I just want to be sure I can find features/behaviors that rhyme. My rhyming dictionary and thesaurus get a work-out here.
I “stack” the pairs of rhyme into a rough draft.
While my final goal is 12 - 14 stanzas for a finished manuscript, I start by writing at least twenty. At this point, the same animal may be in the story twice or more, but I use them anyway, knowing that when I’m revising, I’ll fix that.
For instance, in my first draft of PECULIAR PRIMATES, I had the proboscis monkey twice:
One kind has
a droopy nose. <proboscis monkey>
One has teeth
that always grows. <aye-aye>
One kind likes
to sit and soak. <Japanese macaque>
One has learned
the doggy stroke! <proboscis monkey>
Third Step: Revision—Moving Blocks
Once I have a draft of twenty or more stanzas built, it’s time to revise and focus on meter. If the meter is off, can I change any word that will provide the right syllables to get the meter to work? My thesaurus becomes crucial. If I can’t get the meter to work, I remove that “block” and slide in another. Thankfully I have “blocks” to spare.
I also might find new facts and write more stanzas. About halfway through my revision process, my document has an “Other Possibilities” section, sort of like a second Jenga™ tower. It comes in very handy in my next stage.
Fourth Step: Polishing—Ensuring the Balance
After I have enough polished stanzas, I step back and look at the overall “tower” to ensure a balance of several things:
• Are my facts unique and “fun” enough?
• Is there a balance between animal appearance and animal behaviors?
• Have I used the same animal too often?
• Do I have at least two legitimate sources to support each fun fact?
In my earlier example, I had the proboscis monkey twice. I decided the big nose was much more fun than the fact that it swims. But I loved the visual of Japanese macaques soaking in hot springs and wanted to keep that animal if I could. I needed to find another animal feature to pair it with.
So I looked at my notes and saw that chimpanzees can learn basic math. Hmmm. . . I could rhyme “bath” and “math”. So I changed “soak” to “bath” and came up with:
One can learn
some basic math. <chimpanzee>
One kind even
likes a bath! <Japanese macaque>
But, I wanted the primates to be in their natural habitat. If the chimpanzee is learning math, it’s with humans. I slid out chimpanzee. Using word associations for bath, I wondered if I could rhyme “splash.” Aha! Reading my notes, I found a primate with a mustache.
One primate wears
a cute mustache. <Emperor tamarin>
Another likes to
soak and splash. <Japanese macaque>
Every time I fixed one stanza, I had to see if it impacted any others. Frequently it did. If the same animal was in the book twice, or I couldn’t verify a fact with two sources, or a feature wasn’t unique enough, I moved stanzas out and slid in new ones from my “Other Possibilities” section. Then repeated the process.
At times I worried my manuscript was wobbly and would completely fall apart. Could I get it to work? But after eight or nine revisions, I finally had a solid “tower” with perfect meter and a balance of interesting and fun facts.
Finally, it was time to focus on the back matter. But that’s a blog post for another day. :-)
Meet the Author:
Debra Kempf Shumaker loves weird and fascinating facts. When she isn’t reading or writing, she enjoys hiking, gardening, and watching Jeopardy. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, three sons, and two cats. She is the author of FREAKY, FUNKY FISH (2021), TELL SOMEONE (2021), and PECULIAR PRIMATES (2022). Visit her online at www.debrashumaker.com, on Twitter at @ShumakerDebra, and on Instagram at @debrakshumaker.