The reason for rhyme in a picture book

Published on: 30 April 2024

At BookTrust, we know that reading to children is a crucial part of oracy education.

There is a natural flow to a rhyming text, which helps the adult who is reading aloud. We asked author Timothy Knapman to share why he finds rhyme in picture books so effective.

A photo of author Timothy Knapman and the front cover of The Book of Blast Off

I've been writing for children for over 20 years now, and quite a lot of what I've written has been in rhyme. It's seldom a conscious decision: by the time a story arrives in my head, it's usually made up its mind about how it wants to be told.

Why rhyme is brilliant for funny stories

For instance, funny stories often prefer rhyme. Thunder Down Under – a whodunnit about which Australian animal is responsible for a terrible fart – is a case in point. The rhythm of the verse gives the story energy and bounce, but it also creates expectation. You know a rhyme is coming at the end of a line, just as you know a punchline is coming at the end of a joke. Combine the two and each reinforces the other, as in this extract from the book (AUTHOR WARNING: fart references – sensitive readers should look away now):

The dingo said, "Strewth, mate! You're really way off
If you're saying that I made that ripe trouser cough!
Now I know who farted (prepare for a shock)...
It's bubbly and swampy: it must be the croc!"
But the croc said, "The wallaby just cut the cheese."
"No I didn't! It's Possum! It's her rear-end sneeze!"

The jokes seem funnier (I hope) because they're delivered in rhyme. (Steve James's accompanying illustrations are hilarious, which is another huge help.)

An illustration from the front cover of Thunder Down Under - a group of animals looking disgusted by a horrible smell

How rhyme can mirror a story

Rhyme doesn't only work with funny texts. Sometimes I Am Furious is a book about tantrums, told from the point of view of a little girl who doesn't like losing control but can't stop acting out when things don't go her way.

When her life is going well, the story is told in rhyme – the singsong rhythm helping to suggest the orderliness of her days – but when she gets angry, the repeated, unrhymed line "sometimes I am furious" cuts through to indicate the crisis that's looming. The brilliant illustrator, Joe Berger, also has our little girl's angry face getting bigger each time that line appears, in an echo of the way the verse is propelling the story to ever greater heights of rage.

Sometimes I play nicely. Sometimes I can share.
Sometimes though, I notice things that simply ARE NOT FAIR!
So sometimes I am furious.

And at that point, as the fury finally boils over, the rhyme helps to drive her rage:

With Mummy AND with Daddy too
Who DARE to tell me what to do!
With naughty, GREEDY little boys
Who want to play with all my toys!

When, finally, a sympathetic adult helps the little girl with a few strategies to help her handle these explosions of feeling, the rhyme takes on a comforting aspect:

Then someone puts me on her knee
And knows that I don't mean to be
So furious. She says, "Poor you!
When you get cross, here's what to do..."

From contented to furious to comforting – that's another reason why I like rhyme: its flexibility. It can express so many different moods in a short space of time.

An illustration from the front cover of Sometimes I Am Furious - a girl looking furious while holding a dripping ice cream cone

How rhyme and non-fiction can work together

In fact, there's only one genre that I'd never really considered rhyme for, and that's non-fiction. Then the brilliant people at Magic Cat Publishing came to me with an idea they'd had about a book on space exploration – The Book of Blast Off!

The story would be told through 15 real-life space missions (Sputnik, the moon landings, the Hubble space telescope, the first all-female spacewalk and so on), each beautifully illustrated by Nik Henderson. It was my job to tell the stories of the missions in short, rhymed texts. Here's an example:

There's no life on Mars right now but there might once have been.
To take a closer look we sent this wonderful machine:
The PERSERVERANCE ROVER – known as Percy to his friends
Found Mars once had water – on which all life depends.

There is some technical detail there – I'm explaining what the Perseverance rover was, and what it was sent to do – but that's not my main objective. If it's that sort of thing you want, the book has an excellent section at the back which is full of fascinating photos and information. What I'm after is something different.

I want to spark my young readers' interest – crucially, I'm trying to get them to form an emotional connection to this event that will make them want to find out more. I'm talking about a robot after all, but he's called "Percy" and he has "friends". Rhyme is another part of how I do that, because a child associates it with humour (as in books like Thunder) and warmth (as in books like Furious).

An illustration of a dog standing on space rock wearing a space helmet from the front cover of The Big Book of Blast Off

How rhyme can help us remember

The other thing rhyme does very well – which makes it particularly suited to non-fiction – is that it makes things easier to remember. There's a practical reason most drama, from the Greeks to Shakespeare, is in verse: you can learn it faster.

I hadn't thought about this until I wrote The Book of Blast Off! but now I have this image of my young readers running around a playground somewhere, singing out my rhymes about the International Space Station, about Voyager One on its (so far) 14-billion-mile journey, or even about the Cassini-Huygens space probe. (And if you can find a good rhyme for "Cassini-Huygens", you're a better writer than me!)

So that's why I use rhyme. It's funny, it's flexible and – if you're lucky – it might just take you to the stars.

The Book of Blast Off! by Timothy Knapman, illustrated by Nik Henderson, is out now.

Sign up for Pyjamarama

Spend a day in your pyjamas to raise money for BookTrust and be part of something amazing.

Register now