I warned you in my last post, didn’t I? Writing a young children’s story can be more difficult than writing a story for an older audience. The previous post focused on the basics of young children’s story writing. This post concentrates on the musical quality, that is, the sound of the story. Certain literary devices, such as rhyme, alliteration, and rhythm, can make a solid story truly delightful to read aloud.
The magic of a young children’s story is often found in its sound.
Now that we’ve set the foundation, let’s consider the details. Unlike many other fictional pieces, young children’s stories almost always revolve around sound. As Alice Kuipers points out, young children aren’t even old enough to read yet, so everything they hear is brand new. How amazing, to consider that your thoughts may lead to a child hearing a word (or phrase or idiom or rhyme) for the first time! And for that very reason, you have a huge responsibility. The sound must be right.
Obvious differences separate you from your audience. Therefore, in this genre, you should not write at your own comfort level. A word does not have to contain five syllables to be complex. Indeed, a sage might yearn to scribe in simple prose….
Consider your word choice carefully. Make sure that you are using words that a child would understand or, if you want to introduce new vocabulary, acknowledge that fact, and explain what the new words mean. Do not try to weave them into the story with no acknowledgment, because that will lead to a never-ending litany of What’s that mean, Mommy? and What’s that word, Daddy? The end result? The parent will shove the book on the shelf and deem it too difficult.
I’m sure you all know what rhyme is: the same ending sound. However, many people mistakenly think they have created rhymes; since the concept of rhyme is so basic, these mistakes can sometimes be quite embarrassing. Let’s consider a few potential problems to keep you on the right track.
Some words look alike at the end, but do not sound alike. Consider the words height and freight. These words do not rhyme because they do not make the exact same ending sound.
Some words make the same vowel sound at the end, but they do not rhyme. Consider back and task. These words have the same vowel sound, and even the same final consonant (very final, as the sk is considered a digraph or blend) sound. But they do not rhyme, because they do not make the exact same ending sound. By that same token, mend and friends do not rhyme, because the final s prevents the words from having the exact same ending sound.
There is light at the end of the tunnel! Some words do not look alike at all, but they still rhyme. Consider eight and plate. Words don’t need to look the same; they just need to sound the same.
When I am struggling with a rhyme, I try to consider every single word that rhymes with my first rhyming word. I do this by altering the first letter or two. For example, if my first line is What a cold and rainy day, I need to find a word that rhymes with day. So I change the beginning: bay, say, may, ray. If those words don’t thrill me, I’ll add more letters: stay, play, tray, clay. If I’m still not happy (I can be quite particular!), I’ll try to add prefixes or syllables: stingray, blue jay, convey (This last word took a bit more time.).
If these possibilities do not work, I will shift the words in my original sentence: What a cold and rainy day becomes The day is cold and rainy. Now I can create rhyming words for rainy. If that doesn’t work, I can rephrase the sentence completely: Rain poured down all day long.
As you can see, this is no easy task. Practice definitely makes the process easier, though, as does a rhyming dictionary.
Alliteration is a forgotten art, perhaps because it is so simple. When you thread together words that share the same beginning sound, you are using alliteration. Just consider the consequences of creating a clever combination! Now, to critique myself, I must admit that I would have preferred to have strung cr words together and cl words together. That would have made the alliteration even stronger. Children love alliteration because it’s fun. Parents love alliteration because it helps kids to learn their letter sounds.
Note that words do not have to start with the same letter to form the same letter sound. (As with rhyming, it’s not about looks; it’s about sounds.) For example, consider colorful kite. As a writer of young children’s stories, you’ll want to focus more on what you hear and less on what you see.
Remember the children’s show Teletubbies? This show was a subject of controversy for many reasons, including its use of repetition. Many adults are annoyed by repetition, but kids love it! Just ask any parent who’s been asked to read the same book over and over … and over. You can really be creative with repetition in a young children’s story. Your repetition can be in the opening line (‘If you’re happy and you know it…’) or at the end of the line. It can even be a line all on its own that is repeated, much like the refrain of a song. Don’t underestimate the popularity of solid repetition. Kids will remember it, for obvious reasons, and will ‘read’ along!
All of my advice about writing by ear and not by sight has been leading to this moment. You have worked hard, you’ve created audio detail worthy of Poe and Silverstein alike. Now, for the final test: rhythm. In truth, all of the rhymes, alliteration, and repetitions in the world mean nothing if the rhythm isn’t there.
Think about a poem. This one time, don’t hear it; picture it. Are you picturing a narrow column of words, perhaps with a space occurring every 2, 3, or 4 lines? If so, you are on your way to understanding rhythm. Are you picturing that narrow column, but every once in a while, you see a line that extends much farther than the rest? Much, much farther? If so, get ready for some work.
Rhythm in a story is very much like a beautiful song or poem. It is a combination of syllables, accents, and patterns. If we look at a nursery rhyme like Jack and Jill, we will soon realize that, although it does indeed rhyme, it also maintains seven syllables per line. At the same time, there is stress on every other syllable:
Jack and Jill went up a hill
to fetch a pail of water.
Note, as demonstrated with the last word, the stress is not necessarily on the word, but the syllable.
Not every line needs to have the same number of syllables, especially for a young children’s book. In fact, you might even consider a long line followed by a short line, as some people do in poetry. But do try to create a pattern, so that the cadence is repeating even though the words are changing.
Allow me to note that some people write wonderful young children’s stories without using any of these literary devices. The techniques just described are certainly not mandatory for writing a young children’s book, nor are they exhaustive. They just add to the fun for the writer, reader, and listener! Fortunately, the editors at WordsRU are well versed in these literary techniques; not only will they spot an incorrect rhyme, for example, but they will offer additional possibilities. If you want to dabble with the sound of your story, these tips should start you on the right path. Use whatever technique speaks to you. Regardless of the particular device, if written correctly, your story will have been the impetus for a young child choosing to read. Congratulations.
What is your favorite literary device?