A writing starter by Barry Falls
Barry Falls is an author and illustrator with two published children’s books. Praised for his rhythmic and engaging texts, as well as his detailed illustrations, here he talks about his inspirations for and process of writing in rhyme.
Sometimes I regret ever attempting to write in rhyme. The process of telling a compelling story is tough enough (note to self, tough and enough are a nice pair), but throw in the added complication of making it all rhyme and it can become an exercise in hair-pulling, teeth-grinding, pencil-snapping exasperation. There is one particular couplet in my second children’s book, Alone!, that I spent three full days on, and it was all because one stubborn little word refused to scan.
Those three days were characterised by a sort of dazed, agitated ennui that felt close to an existential crisis. I took long walks, hoping that the rhythm of movement might unlock the perfect line. I took an unnecessary train journey for the same reason. Endless variations on a handful of options ticked over in my head, until my very thoughts began playing out in maddening sing-song rhyme.
By the time I had something that worked, I could no longer tell if it was any good or not, so I did what all rhymers must do for the sake of their own sanity and I took a break. When I came back to the problem a few days later I was relieved to find that what I had written was perfectly acceptable. The crisis was over.
It’s not usually that painful of course, and in fact it is often extremely enjoyable. It’s a bit like a cryptic crossword; when the perfect solution clicks into place it is deeply satisfying, and all is right with the world.
Why write in rhyme?
So why on earth did I decide to write in rhyme? Well, the truth is I started because the books that I enjoyed reading to my kids the most were nearly always written in rhyme. From The Gruffalo, with it’s beautifully paced, simple, almost effortless rhythm, to Green Eggs and Ham, with its surreal silliness, the books that I found myself reaching for to read aloud with my kids over and over again were the ones that rhymed.
When a rhyme is good – really good – it is not just fun to read aloud, it is almost irresistible, like an itch that must be scratched. And not just for me; I have bonded with my kids over a good rhyme. Peepo! was a joy to read with all three of them, it’s so fun to leave a beat hanging in the air, and to hear your squishy little infant fill it with a joyful burst of ‘PEE-PO!’ at just the right second.
A book that rhymes is a book that you can read with your child, not just to them. The rhythm of the words helps build their confidence in what word is coming next, and each turn of the page becomes part and parcel with the rhythm of the story. I suppose I hope that my books will provide similarly special moments for the parents and kids that encounter them – perhaps my stories can become part of the rhythm of their nightly routine. That would be lovely.
Of course, not all the picture books that I (or my kids) enjoy rhyme. There are authors that I hugely admire who never write in rhyme – Jon Klassen’s strange and funny stories are a great example of books that would actually lose their charm if they were written in rhyming verse. It’s just that when I am faced with a blank page and the start of a new story it seems almost inevitable that the first line will come out sounding like it needs to have a rhyme. I think about my stories when I walk, and something about the movement of myself and the world around me brings out the rhymes.
When I started writing Alone!, I knew that this concept that I had for a story about someone that likes to be one their own would be set in a house on a hill, and so the main character, it seemed to me, might as well be called Billy McGill. Before I had too much time to think about it, I had written ‘there once was a boy called Billy McGill, who lived by himself at the top of a hill….’ From that point on, it could never not rhyme.
Perhaps one day I will write a book that doesn’t rhyme, but for now, brown cow, the world seems filled with juicy and irresistible couplets, just waiting to find their home in a book.
Alone! by Barry Falls was published on 4th March by Pavilion Children’s Books: Alone! | Just Imagine… (justimaginestorycentre.co.uk)
Read our review of Barry’s book Alone! here: Alone! — Just Imagine