Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Julia Donaldson and Giles Andreae

Our youngest celebrated a birthday last week, and two of the gifts were books by Julia Donaldson: Tiddler and Tyrannosaurus Drip.

Every member of our family loves her books, which are filled with fabulous tales written in nearly perfect meter and rhyme (most often with a good moral to boot).  I don't know how successful her books are in the United States, but I know that The Gruffalo was (is?) wildly popular in both the UK and Germany (they translated it into German; I have not yet looked it over to see how they managed to translate the story while maintaining the very essence of out-loud-readability that characterize her books).

But even for the English-speakers out there, books written in meter and rhyme can cause problems, particularly when there are wide variations in word pronunciation. Case in point: in Monkey Puzzle, a young monkey has lost his mum. This can easily be changed to "mom" in the American version of the story, but "mom" doesn't rhyme with "come" and upsets the rhyme throughout (I don't know if this change has been made, since our books are the UK version). 

With books like these (another is Charlie Cook's Favorite Book), I find myself reading with a British accent, which causes either giggles or eye rolls from our children and their friends. But the pronunciation is essential to making the story work.

Another gift last week was The Lion Who Wanted to Love by Giles Andreae, another British author who writes wonderful rhyming tales. It took me a while to figure out exactly how some of his rhymes worked, for example "roars" and "jaws" in A Rumble in the Jungle, "violin" and "thing" in Giraffes Can't Dance, and "hooves" and "move" in The Lion Who Wanted to Love. Reading with the accent of the author often helps smooth over the couplets that trip up the tongue.

But it is worth considering... how does a picture book author who writes in meter and rhyme avoid these pitfalls? Does one simply write for the local audience, or does one make an effort to write in such a way as to avoid these rhyming missteps when the book reaches a wider audience? Is it hubris to imagine that the latter might occur?

I don't know the answers, but it is something I keep in mind as I write my rhyming adventure tales. How would the story sound to someone speaking the King's English rather than American? Would the rhythm persist in both situations? And what about other English speakers... in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa? Is it possible to write something in this format that would work for everyone?

Perhaps this is part of the reasoning behind the strong caution against writing rhyming picture books. But if you do it well, I don't see why it can't be successful.

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