My pre-literate kids pick out some excellent books at the library that I would have overlooked; the “Mr. Putter and Tabby” series is sweet without being sappy (and features an elderly man as the protagonist, which I find refreshing), and The Perfect Pumpkin Pie is delightful in a grotesque, Dahlish fashion. (It starts with a grumpy old man dying of stroke before he can eat his pie.) They also select some real stinkers; the latest bomb cluttering up our counter is I Saw Santa in Washington, D.C.
The premise is mildly interesting. Santa vacations in D.C. and is seen by various children at Washington landmarks. The book has, however, several deficiencies: It appears to have been illustrated by someone who’s never actually visited D.C.; the “map” has Capitol Hill next to the National Cathedral, the National Mall is wayyy too far north of the Potomac, and I don’t even know what various of the buildings are supposed to be. Santa spends most of his trip shopping, there are dinosaur exhibits at the Air and Space Museum, and instead of showing things like the National Gallery, Archives, Washington Monument, or other popular D.C. destinations Santa goes to Six Flags America.
But the reason I have banned the children from bringing me this abominable execration is that it is in verse, and truly wretched verse at that. Sample:
“‘It’s true,’ Santa says. ‘Washington, D.C. has it all:
great sights, tasty bites, fun times great and small.'”
Ugh. Search as you will for any discernible meter or rhythm. Feel how the hackneyed rhymes (“all” vs “great and small”) stumble off your tongue. The authors are so inept at poetry that sometimes they can’t even think of a proper rhyme, and make “plans” rhyme with “firsthand,” and “disguise” with “outside.” Santa’s dialogue is stilted because it is cast into this ridiculous doggerel.
In contrast, let’s look at a mediocre book in prose–Thomas’ Christmas Delivery. This features Thomas the Train delivering packages around the island of Sodor, and in plot and characterization it is unmemorable. The drawings are competently done, though the humans have a rather sinister woodenness that makes them look like they belong in a Twilight Zone episode; still, this book is perfectly tolerable to read. Here’s some sample text:
“Suddenly there was a shout. Mrs. Kyndley had slipped on the snowy walk and dropped a bowl of cranberry sauce. She was not hurt. In fact, she looked very funny covered in sticky red goo from head to toe. She laughed along with everyone else.”
It’s a bit appalling that the book promotes laughing at an older woman who’s slipped and spilled cranberry sauce all over herself, but there is no painful, forced rhyme with which to torture the adult reader.
Rhyme is, of course, much used in children’s books, and it can be very effective. Sandra Boynton’s books have bouncy, cheery rhymes that make them great fun to read and to listen to. The build-up to the climax in But Not the Hippopotamus lends a sense of urgency and excitement:
“Now the hog and the frog hurry out for a jog
with the cat and the rats in their new running hats,
while the moose and the bear and the goose and the hare
are doing their best to keep up with the rest–
But not the hippopotamus.” (I try to read the text in as even a pace as I can and take a breath after “rest.”)
“Then the animal pack comes scurrying back,
saying, ‘Hey! Come join the lot of us!’
And she just doesn’t know–should she stay? Should she go?
But YES the hippopotamus!
(But not the armadillo.)” (My voice builds to a crescendo until I’m fairly shouting “But YES the hippopotamus,” and then I revert to a quiet voice for “But not the armadillo.”)
This is rhyme as it’s meant to be–consistent, easy to follow, assisting the story every bit as much as the pictures and diction do. When it works, it makes children’s books very enjoyable to read. It can lend simple words a kind of quiet grandeur, as in Goodnight Moon; it can set a mood or help children memorize the words as they follow along.
However, if you’re an author writing a children’s book and you aren’t comfortable with verse, I beg you to forego it and write in prose. You can turn out a perfectly reasonable mediocre book in prose–see the countless Curious George sequels, which are utterly formulaic–but a mediocre children’s book in bad verse becomes an execration.