Children’s books are deceptively easy. On the surface, the formula seems tried (or is it trite?) and true: a lovable character, a plot thinner than a fruit roll-up, a handful of sing-song nonsense words and a rhyming dictionary are all you need, right? If only!
Let’s face it—if writing good kid lit really was that simple, we’d all be millionaires. Children’s books are more sophisticated than ever, with nuanced character development, rule-breaking plots, and new twists on old archetypes. What hasn’t changed is the read-aloud appeal of a good story, an appeal which often hinges on those poetry lectures you slept through in high school.
METER: A PRIMER
I’m talking about meter, or the rhythm and cadence of your writing. Remember your teacher hammering out Romeo and Juliet on your desk in 9th grade? She probably sounded something like this:
But, SOFT! what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS?
If you’ve got a good memory and paid attention in freshman lit, you’ll recall that this is a prime example of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter.
Feeling a little rusty? Let’s break this down. We either stress or unstress syllables naturally when we speak. It’s the difference between saying toDAY (as we normally do) rather than TOday, for example, which would just sound . . . well, weird.
FOOT FETISH (IT’S NOT WHAT YOU THINK)
In poetry, a foot is a metrical unit based on those stresses—think of how the paragraph or the sentence is a unit of text, and that will help you understand how feet work in poetry. A foot is a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables (at least two and sometimes more). Different metrical patterns yield different feet.
Iambic: a pattern of unstressed/stressed syllables (Shakespeare: to BE or NOT to BE)
Trochaic: a pattern of stressed/unstressed syllables (like Poe’s ONCE uPON a MIDnight DREAry)
Spondaic: a pattern of two long (stressed) syllables (more Shakespeare: CRY, CRY! TROY BURNS)
Anapestic: a pattern of two unstressed and one stressed syllables (Dr. Seuss: you have BRAINS in your HEAD, you have FEET in your SHOES)
Dactylic: a pattern of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables (some Tennyson for you: HALF a league, HALF a league)
The number of metrical feet in your line of poetry determines your meter. That’s why we call Shakespeare’s famous line pentameter (penta = 5): there are five iambs in the line. Don’t believe me? Count the stresses: SOFT, LIGHT, YON-, WIN-, BREAKS. Depending on the number of feet, a line of verse could be dimeter (2), trimeter (3), tetrameter (4), hexameter (6) . . . the list goes on.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Is your head spinning yet? With a little practice, you’ll be able to identify meter in no time. Try this quiz to get you started:
- “And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street!” (Dr. Seuss) A. dactylic tetrameter
- “Do you like green eggs and ham?” (Dr. Seuss) B. anapestic tetrameter
- “Silly old Fox! Doesn’t he know?” (Julia Donaldson) C. trochaic tetrameter
(Answers: 1,B; 2,C; 3,A)
Of course, children aren’t all sitting around at home praising Dr. Seuss for his incredible meter—all they know is that he’s fun to read. And a caveat—clever children’s authors mix and match meter as the occasion dictates, and a little rule-breaking might be just what your soon-to-be Caldecott Medal winner needs. Still, it’s a good idea to have the basics down first . . . you can’t break the rules if you don’t know what they are.
Now that you have the terminology down, I’ll teach you how to fix up some common metrical mishaps in the next blog post. Until then, happy writing!
Merry Gordon is silently correcting your grammar. A freelance editor and writer, Merry also has nearly two decades of experience teaching English at the high school and college level.
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