by Linda Ashman
Illustrated by Kim Smith
2016 Best in Rhyme Award Top 20
See the Top 20 Best in Rhyme Books for 2016
Coaches and Trochees and Iambs—Oh, My!
by Linda Ashman
Hello! Thanks for inviting me here to chat about Hey, Coach!, and about meter—an aspect of rhyme-writing that can cause a fair amount of confusion and angst.
But first, the book. Hey Coach! was inspired by my son’s first experience playing soccer years ago, and by his patient and good-natured coaches. In writing the story, I wanted to capture the energy, humor and everyone-speaking-at-once chaos of a young soccer team’s first season. The text is written entirely in dialogue—no description, no he said/she said attributions, just the voices of the kids themselves.
The story begins with the first practice:
I’m on your team.
Can we be blue?
Let’s be the Tigers.
No, the Sharks.
(Notice the off-rhyme in the first stanza? I generally try to avoid them, but this one—team/green—sounded okay to me.)
It then proceeds through all seven games. Each one presents a new challenge, whether it’s a thunderstorm, wardrobe malfunctions or injuries:
I bumped my head.
I bit my tongue.
I stubbed my toe.
I really have to go.
To show the team improving over time—without having to say so in the text—Kim Smith’s illustrations include a scoreboard for each game. Over the course of the season, we see the team’s losses get narrower until—finally!—they win their last game. The book ends with the kids gathered around the coach:
Our season’s done.
I love this game.
It’s so much fun.
I’ll play next year.
Can’t wait till then—
Can I be on your team again?
It’s a tribute to coaches—one that I hope will resonate with kids and parents as well. I also hope that teachers will use the book as a way to discuss dialogue, and encourage their students to write their own dialogue-only stories.
And now, on to that other topic . . .
Like many beginning picture book writers, I wrote my first manuscripts in rhyme without knowing a thing about meter. And—not surprisingly—I racked up the rejections. Learning about different metric patterns (and about poetry generally) made a huge difference in my writing.
Meter—the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a text—determines the rhythm and tempo of your verse. Well-done, metrically-consistent verse is pleasing to the ear, whether it’s soothing and lyrical or bouncy and energetic. Inconsistent meter, in contrast, can be jarring and discordant.
Here’s a quick rundown of four common metric forms (noted as either rising or falling):
One unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable.
Examples: to/DAY, be/GIN, de/PART, en/DURE, Ma/RIE, Lou/ISE
Hey, Coach! is written in iambic, as is Jill Esbaum’s terrific book I Hatched! (illustrated by Jen Corace). Here’s how it begins:
A patch of light!
One final peck.
I give a shove and s-t-r-e-t-c-h my neck.
My head pokes through.
At last, I’m hatched!
Hello, what’s new?
Two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable.
Examples: com/pre/HEND, un/der/STAND, in/ter/JECT, in/ the/ BOWL, Em/my/LOU
Joyce Sidman’s beautiful book Before Morning (illustrated by Beth Krommes) is written primarily in anapest:
In the deep woolen dark,
as we slumber unknowing,
let the sky fill with flurry and flight.
Let the air turn to feathers,
the earth turn to sugar,
and all that is heavy turn light.
One stressed syllable followed by one unstressed (it brings to mind a drumbeat, itself a trochaic word).
Examples: FRIEND/ship, AW/ful, PUMP/kin, GAR/den, BASE/ball, ED/gar, PE/ter, LO/is.
Deborah Underwood’s Good Night, Baddies (illustrated by Juli Kangas) is written in trochaic verse. Here’s how it starts:
Sun dips down; the day has gone.
Witches, wolves, and giants yawn.
Queen and dragon, troll and gnome:
tired baddies head for home.
One stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.
Examples: UN/der/wear, DI/no/saur, LUL/la/by, POR/cu/pine, EL/e/phant, REG/in/ald, EL/in/or
I’ve yet to come across a book written entirely in dactyl (if you’ve seen one, let me know!), but I included it here because you’ll sometimes find it combined with trochaic verse. In general, rising and falling meters can be combined in a pleasing way but, again, it’s important to be consistent about it.
How do you know if your meter’s consistent? By scanning your verse, noting the stressed and unstressed words and the number of feet in each line (a “foot” is one unit of meter).
To learn more about meter (and about poetry and rhyme more broadly), I always recommend two books: Poem-Making by Myra Cohn Livingston (clear and concise) and The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry (very comprehensive and entertaining).
(Which, I’m sure you noted, is a trochaic phrase.)
Linda Ashman is the author of more than thirty-five picture books including, most recently, Ella WHO?, illustrated by Sara Sánchez (Sterling 2017), Henry Wants More!, illustrated by Brooke Boynton Hughes (Random House, 2016), and All We Know, illustrated by Jane Dyer (HarperCollins, 2016), which Kirkus called “simply beautiful” in a starred review. Her next rhyming picture book, William’s Winter Nap, illustrated by Chuck Groenink, comes out with Disney-Hyperion in October. She’s also the creator of The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books, a “how-to” ebook for picture book writers. Linda lives in Chapel Hill, NC, with her husband, two dogs, and—on school breaks—their college-age son.
Twitter (infrequently used): @lindaashman2