31 Days, 31 Lists: 2019 Rhyming Picture Books
In a recent guest piece on the site Goodreads With Ronna, editor Frances Gilbert spoke eloquently on the subject of rhyming picture books. Initially, because editors often cannot stand them. She writes:
“I’ve been a children’s book editor for over 25 years and one of the most common reasons I reject picture book manuscripts is that they rhyme badly. So why, for my first foray into writing a picture book myself, would I choose to write Go, Girls, Go! in rhyme??! Rhyming, we’re so often told – by editors, by agents, by fellow writers – is not encouraged. Bound to fail, hard to translate.”
She goes on to explain why then she wrote one herself (and you will see it below) but it’s worth noting that the reason I celebrate rhyming picture books on lists like today’s is that they have a tough road to hoe. Scansion alone sinks many a vessel, and as Ms. Gilbert says so eloquently, “The sing-song-y-ness of ‘dah-duh dah-duh dah-duh, dah-dah’ in line after line pummels a reader with sameness. It also encourages authors to make terrible word choices: odd or forced descriptions or line endings because that last word HAS. TO. RHYME. My test: Extract a line out of your rhyming text and ask yourself if you’d write it the same way if it DIDN’T have to rhyme. If the answer is no, it’s a bad line. The rhyming has to feel effortless.”
Today, we raise a glass to the books that pull it off and pull it off well. The few. The proud. The successfully rhymed.
2019 Rhyming Picture Books
The Astronaut with a Song for the Stars: The Story of Dr. Ellen Ochoa by Julia Finley Mosca, ill. Daniel Rieley
Man! This series just doubles down on their subjects! You may be familiar with the previous books of the “Amazing Scientists Series” which included The Girl with a Mind for Math and The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes. They’re interesting because they combine a rhyming text (not particularly prevalent in picture book biographies these days) with stories that highlight women that previously have not received the attention and interest they might deserve. Dr. Ellen Ochoa, for example, was the first Latina in space. This book goes the route of covering her entire life from childhood onward. The scansion here is just fine and the backmatter . . . oh, baby, the backmatter. We’re talking a note from the subject herself, Facts and Tidbits from the Author’s Chat with Dr. Ochoa, a Timeline (WITH photos!), additional Biographical information (taking up two whole pages in small type), and Bibliography (consisting Articles and Books and Videos/Television, and Websites). This book almost rivals Fry Bread for Most Backmatter Ever.
Bloom Boom! by April Pulley Sayre
Gentle rhyming text and jaw-dropping nature photography combine in this paean to the eye-popping colors of the great outdoors. The quintessential spring book. I’m a sucker for photography, and Sayre is the current reigning queen of nature shots. So much so that I occasionally find myself wondering, “She didn’t do ALL the photos in this book . . . did she?” They’re just too good not to call into question. But yep. All her.
Cyril and Pat by Emily Gravett
If I didn’t know better I’d say Gravett was making a play for the Gruffalo-loving rhyme time crowd. This may be the most British picture book of the year, though not in a flashy obvious way. I’m fairly certain that’s London in the background, the squirrel’s name is Cyril (which kinda, sorta rhymes?), they upset a Punch & Judy show, etc. There are some keen details hidden (it took more than one read before I noticed that the dog was pulling a roller skate full of rats in the park at the end) and I like the surprise ending. It reminded me of Ben Hatke’s Nobody Likes a Goblin. Which, come to think of it, this would pair with splendidly in a storytime. Speaking of storytimes, this book does a keen thing where you’re expecting to fill in the word “rat” to finish the rhyme but each time Cyril goes with another word entirely. Definitely a good interactive tale.
Fix That Clock by Kurt Cyrus
To this day I am still mad that the Cyrus book Billions of Bricks didn’t get the widespread love and appreciation I feel it so desperately deserved. That book was the world’s greatest counting-by-twos title out there (sorry Klassen’s Cats’ Night Out). This book isn’t quite as directly math-related, but it shares with Bricks a catchy rhyme scheme that feels to good to say out loud. Add in the fact that there are references here to Chaplin’s Safety Last and the sheer pleasure of Cyrus’s crisp, clean lines, and you’ve got yourself a truly magnificent construction book. Hand it to any kid that even remotely glances at a hammer. They’ll love it.
Give Me Back My Bones! by Kim Norman, ill. Bob Kolar
With this book, I give you the ultimate gift: An entry for your STEM-related Halloween storytime (alongside Skulls by Blair Thornburgh and Scott Campbell). First off, you’ve got the rhyming text, which somehow is capable of providing rhymes on the one hand, while also working in words like “clavicle” and “metacarpals” on the other. I don’t tend to see a lot of books that include information on the names of the bones, so this was an extra treat. Add in the fact that this is a far less offensive method of providing a kind of reverse “Them Bones” litany of skeletal subject matter, AND there’s a piratical connection (bonus!) and you have yourself a tried and true winner, my friends.
Go, Girls, Go! by Frances Gilbert, ill. Allison Black
We see a lot of strong girl picture books in a given year, but there’s something that appealed to me about this book, above and beyond its premise. Maybe it helps that I didn’t read the cover all that closely when I sat down to read it. I found that the rhymes really work well, and then there are all those cool sound effects that you usually only find in vehicle books starring boys. My kiddos would have eaten this book up with a spoon when they were younger! And yes. I won’t deny it. It would make for a magnificent storytime. I imagine that there are a lot of different interactive ways to use it. You could get all the kids to say “WOOO!” “WHIRR!” and “TOOT!” where indicated. Doesn’t matter if you’re doing a cars and trucks and things that go storytime or you just want to work it into your usual toddler/preschooler roster. There’s a lot to love here. Go, book, go!
if i was the sunshine by Julie Fogliano, ill. Loren Long
There’s a lot going on in this particular Fogliano stint. She’s one of those authors I watch very carefully because I honestly have no idea what she’s going to do next. Last year she wrote that magnificent A House That Once Was and in 2020 (I’m so pleased to say) she’ll have this picture book out with Jillian Tamaki that I’ve already read and fallen in love with called My Best Friend (look for it!). This book almost felt like an exercise in risk. How close could Fogliano get to syrup without falling in? The balancing act is so tricky. All the review journals loved it, as well they should. Using gentle rhymes the book is about love without ever saying that precise word. Lines include, “if i was the silence/and you were a sound/i’d call you missing/and you’d call me found”, and, “if i was an apple/and you were a worm/you’d call me lunch/and i’d call you squirm.” Horn Book called it a mood piece. I’d say that’s about right.
Max Attacks by Kathi Appelt, ill. Penelope Dullaghan
“Max’s paws are made for pounces. / Max’s legs are built for trounces. / Like a dozen kitty wishes, / midst the bubbles swish the fishes.” In my infinite age and wisdom (cough, hack, hack, cough) I have learned many things, my children. Water is wet. Sunlight is warm. And Kathi Appelt is the Queen of Rhyme. Oh, not Seussian rhymes or rhymes that demand that you pay attention to them all the time. More what I’d like to dub gentle Texan rhyme. Rhymes that can carry a story but not draw too much attention to themselves. Now, take this here attack cat book. I like a good attack cat as much as the next person (always assuming I’m in another room and nowhere near the furry felon). Max has all that playfulness you associate with a naughty cat. Now here’s my prejudice. Dogs that jump all over people? Can’t stand ‘em. Cats that attack your shoelaces with the vigor of a tiny tiger? Awwwww!
Reading Beauty by Deborah Underwood, ill. Meg Hunt
This is a follow-up to Underwood’s previous book Interstellar Cinderella, which I enjoyed just fine, but I think that this latest caper is better. One would think that an astronomical fractured fairytale of Sleeping Beauty would feel relatively rote. Instead, Underwood has a pretty kicky take on the whole proceeding. First and foremost, our heroine (Lex) is cursed not to prick her finger on a spinning wheel but to get a papercut. But rather than wait around, she decides to confront the fairy that cursed her in the first place. I like that kid’s gumption! Managing to rhyme the entire time (and, almost more importantly, scan) there are some pretty clever plot twists along the way. Yup. I’m a fan.
Sofia Valdez, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty, ill. David Roberts
“Sofia Valdez was inspired not by one person, but many.” Mmmhmm. And if one of those people just happens to carry the initials of AOC, well that’s just neat. My personal belief is that this clearly a l’il AOC title, which just lifts it in my own personal estimation. The latest in the “Questioneers Series” (that is what Abrams is calling it these days) alongside Iggy Peck, Rosie Revere, Ada Twist, you know the drill. Rhyming story. Plucky hero who must overcome the doubts of adults. In this particular case, Sofia wants to clean up a junkyard and turn it into a park. Beaty covers some interesting territory, particularly when Sofia gets everyone excited but then they expect her to do all the work (something about that rang true blue to me). And, of course, there is the fact that Beaty is adept with a rhyme. At no point does her scansion jangle my precious nerves. You’re all right by me, Sofia.
Terrible Times Tables: A Modern Multiplication Primer by Michell Markel, ill. Merrilee Liddiard
Well now THAT was a challenge. Basically, what you have here is a book that helps you learn your multiplication tables through rhyme. Each number gets its own separate section. So 2X is “Back to School”, 3X is “Halloween” and so on. Smart! My sole objection is how much this book would have benefited from a slightly darker touch in the art. Something with a tinge of Gorey would have been ideal. That said, it’s a delightful update to an old concept, and might actually help kids learn those darn numbers. And yes, it’s a bit long to be considered a “picture book” but since it’s a primer I think we can let it get away with appearing here today.
This Book of Mine by Sarah Stewart, ill. David Small
It’s been a while since we last saw a book from Stewart and Small. This is a small, unassuming title. It doesn’t draw any particular attention to itself. It celebrates books and contains copious images of Patience and Fortitude from NYPL, which I personally appreciated. Plus I’m fairly certain Ms. Stewart makes a cameo on the beach, so that’s a fun Easter Egg for sharp eyed spotters. A celebratory book for books worth celebrating. Plus anything David Small makes is worth paying very close attention to.
Tomorrow Most Likely by Dave Eggers, ill. Lane Smith
I think the term “spare poetic text” was coined with books like this in mind. Boy, Dave Eggers just threw himself into making picture books recently, didn’t he? And then you have Smith doing his new style . . . or so I thought. There’s this moment involving a bug that’s straight out of his early work. It sort of makes the whole book for me. This is a tricky one to judge on the whole, but I like it. And the rhymes aren’t insistent, but they’re there. Quiet and present.
Underwear! by Jenn Harney
I mean, you know me. I have a weakness for the ridunkulous. And bears in underwear? Obviously my first association is going to be One Big Pair of Underwear by Laura Gehl. This book is, at its heart, a rhymer. The young bear going manic with its underwear has a particularly keen catwalk sequence of different ways to “wear” said underwear. And let me tell you, this is heads and tales more amusing with bears than it would be with a nude human child walking about in his altogether. Sort of tailor made to be a hit (and the rhymes are clever too). Expect to see it in board book form in 2020.
Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything being covered this month. Enjoy!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Easy Books
December 18 – Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Older Reprints
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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