by Deborah Underwood
Illustrated by Juli Kangas
2016 Best in Rhyme Award Top 10
See the Top 20 Best in Rhyme Books for 2016
Musicality of Words
by Deborah Underwood
For many years, I sang with a chamber choir that performed new compositions. This was a joy—and sometimes a challenge. On occasion, we’d sing through a newly-composed piece for the first time and it would be obvious that the composer was used to writing for instruments, not voices.
The giveaway? The word stresses and the musical stresses didn’t align, making the text difficult to sing.
If you tap out the musical beats while singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” you’ll see that the beats line up with the accented syllables of the words. Because of this, singing the song is natural and easy:
ROW, ROW, ROW your BOAT, GENT-ly DOWN the STREAM
Now substitute text that has the same number of syllables but different stresses. You might get this:
ROW, ROW, YOUR boat GENT-LY down THE stream, OH!
Try singing that gracefully!
When text stresses and musical stresses align, a song flows. If I have an ear for rhyme, I suspect it’s partly due to my years of singing in choirs. I’ve internalized rules of rhythm and word stress by singing well-set texts for decades.
Good lyrics can teach us a lot about writing good rhyming picture books. You don’t need to be a singer to benefit: all you need to do is read a libretto, or study a well-written song, or go to a musical.
When I was around 10, I saw my first Gilbert and Sullivan show and was delighted by the text’s cleverness. In The Mikado, the ruler has decreed that anyone caught flirting will be beheaded. A town official explains:
This stern decree, you’ll understand,
Caused great dismay throughout the land!
For young and old
And shy and bold
Were equally affected.
The youth who winked a roving eye,
Or breathed a non-connubial sigh,
Was thereupon condemned to die –
He usually objected.
Even without knowing the music, you can hear how this verse dances. (The playfulness is also a big selling point for me. In another song, they are forced to keep coming up with rhymes for “executioner”—my favorite is “Don’t blame me/I’m sorry to be/of your pleasure a diminutioner.” Silly!!)
Another treasure trove: the songs of the British duo Flanders & Swann. Here’s a link to one of my favorites, Ill Wind, for which they took the music of one of Mozart’s horn concertos and added their own text:
And of course many Disney musicals have fabulous lyrics. Who can resist Beauty and the Beast’s “Gaston” and its classic line “I’m especially good at expectorating”—take that, all you folks who think we need to simplify vocabulary for kids. Or have a listen to one of my favorites, the soaring “Out There” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
And Hamilton! There’s a whole four-year self-study course in rhyme and rhythm right there.
If you’re musically inclined, try writing (or borrowing) a melody and singing your picture book text to see how it flows. You can even go a step further: after I finished Good Night, Baddies, I wrote and recorded a lullaby based on the text. It was a fun addition to the book trailer and a nice freebie download for readers.
So when you’re looking for mentor texts, by all means read rhyming picture books. But stretch your feelers farther, too—there’s a lot to be learned from our talented colleagues in the music business.
And if you think this means you can write off your Hamilton tickets, you won’t get any argument from me.
Deborah Underwood is the author of numerous picture books, including Interstellar Cinderella, Good Night, Baddies, and the New York Times bestsellers Here Comes the Easter Cat, The Quiet Book, and The Loud Book. Her upcoming books include Super Saurus Saves Kindergarten (June) and Here Comes Teacher Cat (August). She lives in Northern California with her feline muse, Bella. Visit her online at DeborahUnderwoodBooks.com.
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Monday – Kirstine E. Call – Copy of MARY HAD A LITLE GLAM by Tammi Sauer
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Wednesday – Nadine Poper – Copy of HENSEL AND GRETEL NINJA CHICKS by Corey Rosen Schwartz and Rebecca J. Gomez
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