Using rhythm in a picture book connects to a child on a subconscious level. I did not realize this until I became a dad and starting reading about child development.

My little girl was lots of trouble. She screamed, she had gas in her tummy, and she did not want to sleep. So, in desperation, I asked my cousin, a marriage and family counselor, what to do. She recommended I read Dr. Harvey Karp’s The Happiest Baby on the Block.

What does the Happiest Baby on the Block have to do with picture books?

Well … everything. In The Happiest Baby on the Block, Dr. Harvey Karp recommends parents master the 5 Ss: Sound, Swing, Swaddle, Side-Stomach positioning, and suckling. The parents use these to sooth their colicky child by recreating the comfortable environment of the womb.

So if the parent has 5 Ss… does the writer?

If I were to create a list of 5 Ss it might look something like this.

Sound:

The words of a picture book should have nice sounding SOUNDs. They should mush and munch and mooch and zip and zapple and slurp. Children speaks like aliens. Have you listened to them talk? “Argle, blarble, marble.”

I believe this is why Dr. Suess was popular with kids. To adults it was gibberish, but to a child it was like an adult was speaking in their native tongue.

Swing:

Picture books should Swing. I don’t think they should always have the same constant rhythm. Varying tempos work wonders on children’s ears. I think of Marsha Chall and her book One Pup’s Up is a good example. Also, Phyllis Root, is another great author who writes books that swing. Think of Rattle Trap Car. Even that title Swings. But the rythm is not always the same, it changes, like the constant changing of a mother’s heart.

Steady:

The picture book works very well when it is consistant, when there is a phrase or word-play that is used again and again. A mother’s heartbeats is steady — Lup dup, lup dub, lub dub — and this two pattern can used for mutiple rythmns (perhaps I should write on the two pattern in my next post). The child is familiar with constant rhythms. These rhythms are safe. These rhythms are familiar.

Simple:

Picture books are do not have five subplots and several POVs. In general they are written very simply. There is little verbosity, there is minimal frill. There are strong action verbs. There are well placed nouns. Most picture books are nouns and verbs. I am amazed at how much my little daughter loves simple books with baby faces. Or books with rhythmic sounds. These would not be my first choice but she loves them.

Sincerity:

Jon Scheska is a writer that breaks every rule in the book. He used adjectives! His stories end badly. He uses irony. He uses sarcasm. He makes children think that little pigs should be eaten by a wolf with a startling smart victim mentality. Yet his books are masterfully fun, funny, and children love them.

And so I end with article with a caveat. All the five Ss all give way to this final S: Sincerity.

All the other Ss do not matter if you are not writing with sincerity. Fill your picture books with sincere truth, sincere heart, sincere joy, sincere pain, sincere shananigans, sincere hope. Above all there must, must, must be sincereity. And if you have sincerity, everything else, even the breaking of rules will turn out fine.

I believe that children understand love. A book written in love has a greater chance of touching their heart than one with the most perfect swinging, steady, simple sounds.

Exercise:

  • Go through your picture book and look for places where you can make better sounds.
  • Are there any places where you can add repetition?
  • Pick four lines in your picture book and make them swing. Then put them back in your manuscript and see if they work.
  • Ask yourself, “Is all my heart and joy in this book?” if it is, then that’s what really matters most.
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