Sunday, April 1

Today at the Bluebird Cafe

A Branchful of Birds
by Deborah Ruddell
illustrated by Joan Rankin
Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster 2007

It's all-you--can-eat at the Bluebird Cafe,
a grasshopper-katydid-cricket buffet,
with berries and snails and bluebottle fly,
a sip of the lake and a bite of the sky.
Oh, but it starts off so promising.

This collection of poems about birds could have been swell if it hadn't suffered from that common malady of uneven rhymes and herky-jerky meter.

If I'm repeating myself, forgive me, but if you're going to write rhyming poetry it needs to have a natural rhythm. I'm not going to be a stickler for meter unless you start out a poem with it but drop it when it becomes inconvenient half way through the poem. If you are going to hold to the meter it still needs to sound natural.

I call it the read-aloud test, it needs to have a read-aloud rhythm. That is, a child with reading fluency should be able to pick up the poem and read it cold and capture the rhythm. They can falter in the first line or two as they get the hang of things, but it shouldn't be catching them off-guard along the way. The fun in reading poetry for kids is in the wordplay, it's in the cleverness of the beat where they (as readers or listeners) can follow along. The words need to roll off the tongue or dance in their head.

Not sound like the equivalent of a teen driver leaning how to drive a stick.

The names we know, they know the rules and they know how to bend them. Shel Silverstien and Jerry Moss understood this, and no surprise both were also lyricists; Karla Kuskin gets it; Edward Lear even in his most forced verse gets it; Maurice Sendak, certainly; Prelutsy, Florian and Stevenson all grok the rhythm. And yet book after book of rhyming text -- poetry and picture book -- roll off the presses with awkward phrasing and broken meter and all the prettiest pictures in the world won't save them.

Why? Why, if compelled to write in verse, wouldn't a writer want to make their verse the best it could possibly be? There's no sin in striving to become classic, why settle? What is the point of the exercise if the only concern is the rhyme? What's the reason?

Seminar after seminar, listing after listing in the Writer's Market, editors beg and scream: Please! No rhyming texts! And yet, these same publishers are the guiltiest of parties. I won't place all the blame on the writers.

Another book of poems, trashed;
Another round of hopes, dashed.
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