Q&A with Ted Enik – Sticks ‘n’ Stones Blog Tour

Back this summer, my kids and I had a fun time reading Sticks ‘N Stone ‘N Dinosaur Bones. I saw this book as a must for the dinosaur lover and a great read-aloud. I could definitely see how this would get a classroom of kids talking about fact and fiction, competition, and the importance of fair play. So when I was offered the chance to participate in a blog tour for the book, I jumped at it.

I’m a huge fan of the use of rhyme to engage kids. Check out the wonderful interview with author Ted Enik below as he talks about his use of rhyme and meter!

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Welcome to Day #3 of the “Sticks ‘n’ Stones” Blog Tour

To celebrate the release of “Sticks ‘n’ Stones ‘n’ Dinosaur Bones,” written by Ted Enik and illustrated by G.F. Newland, blogs across the web are featuring exclusive content about this humorous tall tale and giving away chances to win a copy of “Sticks ‘n’ Stones ‘n’ Dinosaur Bones.”

Rhyming picture books are fun. Kids love them. Parents enjoy reading them out loud. Teachers know how well they engage children and teach them about language. But writing them isn’t as easy as it looks. Ted, author of “Sticks ‘n’ Stones ‘n’ Dinosaur Bones,” offers advice to writers who want to try to tackle rhyme.

Q: Do you believe rhyming picture books are being published more today? As a master of the genre, do you think picture book writers should try their hand at it?

A: More than they were only a few years back. Rhyme seemed to be off limits for decades because a) I suspect a generation of editors felt it read old fashioned and, b) in a word, Seuss.

Dunno about “master,” but thanks, and I’ll work to live up to that. As far as writers giving it a try goes, I want to say a qualified “sure!” But, looking ahead at the rest of the questions, I see that some of those qualifiers will be discussed.   

Q: Rhyming poems and stories have a rhythm. Can you tell us about meter? What are the most common meters used in picture books? How can a writer train their ear to hear the beat?

A: Meter, wow. Like any specialty practice, writing poetry has its own jargon; many interesting Greek terms for things best understood through the ear and the blood and the gut. People “feel” a beat before they label it or define it. When I teach rhyme at New York’s 92nd Street Y, I rely a lot on Stephen Fry’s wonderfully thorough and helpful (and funny and clever) poetry writing how-to, “The Ode Less Travelled.”

With Fry’s help, I glance off the Greek, and plunge right into descriptive metaphors for two of the rhyme schemes most-often used when writing for children, the iamb, and the anapest.

Let me stop and quote Fry on meter (or metre) overall: “The life of a poem is measured in regular heartbeats. The name for those heartbeats is metre.”

The iamb goes bah-BUM and is William Shakespeare’s heartbeat: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” bah-BUM, bah-BUM, bah-BUM, bah-BUM, bah-BUM. And the anapest (or anapaest) goes bah-dah-BUM and is Edgar Allen Poe’s gallop: “For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams of the beautiful Annabel Lee.” bah-dah-BUM, bah-dah-BUM, bah-dah-BUM, bah-dah-BUM, bah-dah-BUM, bah-dah-BUM, bah-dah-BUM. “Night before Christmas,” too.

If an aspiring doggerel-ist (“doggerel” is any sort of light or amusing rhyming) is unable to develop an off-the-page ear for meter, they’re pretty-much lost. One can’t be a strict syllable counter.

How to train that ear? Pick your meter, read examples of it aloud, bang out or rock back-and-forth with the BUMs or “hard” beats until your body-memory kicks in and you begin hearing the iambs and anapests in everyday speech.

Q: Once a writer chooses a meter for their story, do they have to stick to it strictly? Can they skip beats or change the overall meter? What variations are allowed?

A: To be honest, a writer can do whatever she wants. For me, randomly mixing meter from couplet to couplet risks throwing a reader off, causing them to “wrench” syllables – that is, compels them to pronounce a word artificially to adhere to the meter. Put the wrong emphasis on a syllable, or “Frenchify” a word, if you see what I’m saying.

As an easy rule-of-thumb, I suggest that writers pick a rhyme scheme; one couplet built out of four iambs to a line, then one couplet with six iambs to a line, then back to four, whatever… but structure it, do it with intent, on purpose. If a reader can intuit a structure (and they will if it’s there), they’ll understand what you’re trying to communicate, rather than stumbling over jerky end-rhyming, mid-sentence word logjams, or missing beats.

Seuss often uses a variation that I don’t suggest beginning rhyme-slingers do. In a single couplet, he’ll switch from using strict four anapests a line (see “Night Before Christmas” above), to dropping the first soft beat of the first anapest on the very next line. He’ll then continue dropping that first soft syllable for the next several lines, until he surprises us by putting the missing beat back in. Granted, this is by no means a mortal sin, but remember I mentioned wanting to lead the reader smoothly from line to line? Unless done skillfully (which the good Doc indeed does), a writer risks tripping a reader up by suddenly skipping that beat they’ve grown accustomed to reading.

Q: There’s a pattern for rhyming too. How does a writer pick a rhyme scheme?

If a writer is stuck for a scheme, I suggest they pick a poem they really like, or the printed lyrics of a well-made song, and use that for a skeleton. Scan the poem or lyric for the frequency of end-rhymes (The old aa/ba = how now? brown cow thing; wait, here’ s a very clear explanation of all that using “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.

A poet can really pick as simple or as complex a scheme as they want. They can switch meter throughout, repeat meter, get more elaborate as the poem advances … All I suggest is, give your poem an actual structured FORM, know where you’re going to go, plan what you’re going to do. An organized, intentional structure.

Q: Must the rhymes be perfect rhymes? What about “almost rhymes” or “slant rhymes”? Can a plural word rhyme with a singular word?

 

A: I think it’s more an ear-preference than a “must,” how exact end-rhyming words are. And within a single book, say six full pages of couplets, there’s bound to be some imprecision. For instance, opting for humor over accuracy, I just last week gave myself a pass on “movie” and “goofy” –  after a long column of very tight end-rhyming.

Concerning “almost,” “slant” (also called “near,” “off,” or “para”) rhymes, quoting Fry again, “In slant-rhyme, of the alone/home, glean/stream kind, where the vowels match but the consonants do not, the effect is called assonance: as in cup/rub, beat/feed, sob/top, craft/mast and so on.” Pop and rock songs are notorious for this. In picture books, don’t substitute assonance for rhyming.

When you’re writing something humorous, you can graft an ending onto a “standard” word for the sake of a rhyme (and a laugh):

“There’s no argument; Otis and Will (at a minimum)
Never were Best Buddies from the begin-imum.”

and

“A tame-shark fight with big-helmet girls in bikinis,
And scenes from a filmstrip about submarine-ies.”

Short final word: avoid rhyming singulars with plurals.

Q: What are consonance, assonance, and alliteration? Should writers try to use them in their rhyming stories?

I spoke a little about assonance in the Q above. For consonance, let’s tap Fry once again, I can’t top him: “A loose or exact repetition of consonant sounds either used internally, or as a partial rhyme. And Madeline asleep in the lap of legends old,” and “f*ck / fork, pushing / passion / past the post etc.”

I love the additional flourish that assonance and consonance give a line or couplet when they’re employed in the middle, on the way to an end-rhyme. It’s just another “joy of words” thing. The following from Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is the first example that comes to mind: “… like a dumb, numb thunderstorm …” This is prose, but it makes my point.

Differing from consonance, alliteration is never as clever as writers think it is. Use it extremely sparingly; when you’re writing for the very young, when you want to sound silly, or – in rare cases – when the clang or clatter of similar consonants gives oomph and power to the end of a couplet.

Q: What other advice do you have for children’s writers who want to tackle rhyme?

Oh … I’m really no Yoda, and I’m admittedly a ridiculously hard headmaster when it comes to the kind of rhyming for kids I want to see out there. Okay, some unorganized serious advice:

* Don’t think you can just wing-it, train your ear and learn the craft.
* Read precise-rhyming poetry: Seuss, Dickinson, Frost, Shakespeare. Then read it out loud. Feel the meter with your full body. Bang out the hard beats.
* I strongly suggest you read and listen to “Golden Age” musical theatre lyrics: Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and most of the Great American Songbook, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, and others. Stay away from most pop except for a few brilliant singer-songwriter exceptions like Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits … Who’s contemporary? Oh! Regina Spektor! I’m forgetting tons of others.
* Let other people read your rhymes out loud. Rewrite lines they stumble over.
* Train your “wince-o-meter.” When hearing a “slant” or “off” (lazy) rhyme makes you physically wince, you’ve become a doggerel Jedi.
* …and read Fry’s book. I don’t own stock in it.

Thanks! This was fun. I really-truly love this stuff.

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This first book in Ted Enik and G.F Newland’s “Unhinged History” series is a ripping yarn – full of adventure and deceit – that brings to life the best-known public spat in all of paleontology: the bitter rivalry between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh that became known as “The Bone Wars.” Lively and witty rhymes plus beautifully demented illustrations by Newland reveal how the paleontologists’ infamous rivalry began and how their mutual obsession with outdoing and ruining one another spun out of control.

Pic of both

About the Author

Ted Enik has worked as an illustrator for most of the well-known New York publishing houses, applying his versatility to both original art as well as classic and current children’s book characters, including the Magic School Bus, the Eloise books, and the popular “Fancy Nancy I Can Read” series. This is the first picture book Ted has authored. It was first published in 2013 by Pixel Mouse House, New York, and honored as a Finalist in the American Book Fest’s 2014 Best Children’s Nonfiction and a Finalist in American Book Fest’s 2014 International Book Award for Best Children’s Nonfiction. Learn more about his books at unhingedhistory.com and his illustration at tedenik.com.

About the Illustrator

G.F. Newland is a part-time illustrator and the systems administrator at the School of Visual Arts, New York, NY. His doodles have found their way onto buttons, bags, posters, and T-shirts, and have been published by Scholastic, Hachette, and Pixel Mouse House. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and a pet fish named Enki. Visit his website at gfnewland.com.

Schedule of Blog Tour

November 6: Can You Read Me a Story?
November 7: A Fuse #8 Production
November 8: Books My Kids Read
November 9: Rockin’ Book Reviews
November 10: Kid Lit 411
November 11: Shelf Employed
November 12: Frog on a Blog
Want a free copy of Sticks ‘N Stone ‘N Dinosaur Bones? Leave a comment and I will randomly pick a winner on November 13th.

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