April 12, 2016

Thursday, March 19, 2015

But Is It Poetry?: Talking Rhyming Picture Books with Laura Gehl

Happy Poetry Friday, everyone!

This week's host is Catherine
at Reading to the Core.
Today, I am guest-posting for Michelle Heidenrich Barnes at Today's Little Ditty. You'll find my new list poem lesson for elementary schoolers at Michelle's blog. It features a model poem by Heidi Stemple, who was kind enough to let me and Michelle share, "Under My Bed."

Here at Author Amok, I'm sitting down to chat with picture book author Laura Gehl. Laura is based right here in Maryland. I was intrigued when Laura G. proposed a discussion of this question: Are rhyming picture books poetry?

Before our interview, I did some field testing. I took Laura's just-out book, And Then Another Sheep Showed Up, to Durham, North Carolina, and read it to my three-year-old nephew. And read it. And read it. By his request. Needless to say, I did not come home with the book.

Laura's new release is about a family of sheep
whose small Passover Seder turns into a meal
crammed with family and tradition.
Find it at Kar-Ben.
Laura S: When we first got in touch, you said that rhyming picture books aren’t always considered to be poetry. Can you speak about that? Why do you think some people differentiate between a rhyming text and a poem?

Laura G: I talked about this question with Corey Rosen Schwartz, author of several great rhyming books including The Three Ninja Pigs.  I don’t consider my own rhyming picture books to be poetry, nor does Corey consider her own books to be poetry.  However, both of us agree that there are rhyming picture books that we consider poetry.  For me, two examples would be Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon.  It’s hard to put into words just what makes these books seem like poetry, but tone, mood, rhythm, and overall feel are definitely part of the package.  Also, different readers may experience books differently.  If a reader believes one of my books is poetry, that’s great!  I’m honored.  But for me, they don’t read as poetry.

Laura S: Does that mean, for you, the definition of poetry extends beyond rhyme and meter? Is it tone or subject matter that makes a text feel poetic?

Laura G: For me, tone yes and subject matter no.  Any subject can be turned into poetry by a skilled poet.  Take Shel Silverstein.  He could turn a peanut butter sandwich or a boa constrictor into a poem.  Or a pancake.  Or monsters.  Even Captain Hook. 

Laura S: In your latest picture book, And Then Another Sheep Turned Up, the illustrations and page turns emphasize rhythm and rhyme. How do you think these poetic techniques support emerging reading skills?

We all love taking breaks.  For beginning readers, who are working hard to decode each word, breaks are especially helpful.  In And Then Another Sheep Turned Up, having a refrain helps beginning readers.  So does the repeated tagline “And then another sheep turned up!”  When emerging readers come to those repeated lines, they can take a break and not work so hard, because they have already decoded all of those words.  Even outside of the repeated lines, rhythm and rhyme can help beginning readers.  Take this verse:

Sharon Sheep came in at nine,
halfway through the seder meal.
“I’m sure ready to recline.
Getting here was an ordeal.”

Readers might not recognize the words “recline” and “ordeal.”  But they do know the ending sounds these words need to have in order to complete the verse, which makes decoding those two words much easier.

Laura S: The illustrations also help readers figure out those unfamiliar words. And they give adults an opportunity to talk about new words with the children they are reading to.

I brought And Then Another Sheep Turned Up with me when I visited my three-year-old nephew. It was a big hit with him. Once my nephew had some of the repeated lines down, we could play a game where I said a line incorrectly (“And then another hippopotamus turned up!”) and he corrected me. I like the way that structured texts help build pre-reading skills and confidence. Why do you think poetic techniques such as rhyme and repetition are easy to memorize, even for young ones?

Laura G: Think about how kids learn to talk—just by listening, with no formal teaching.  Kids learn to talk by hearing jumbles of words and gradually making sense of the jumbles, and early on they grab on to the words they hear the most often.  That same skill, that they’ve honed since birth, comes into play when kids grab on to a repeated line and remember it. 

As far as rhyme goes, kids do gravitate toward rhyme really early on. You can ask a three-year-old to come up with rhymes for cat, and he or she will give you a whole list…but the child is just as likely to say “lat” as to say “bat.”  For young children, the sound is what matters, not whether the rhyming word is actually a real word.  And feeling that joy in how words sound, not just what they mean, is a huge part of poetry, right? 

Laura S: I loved the wordplay in One Big Pair of Underwear. Let’s talk about the joy of rhyming words, which are so much fun to hear and to say.  How does sharing wordplay with children lay a groundwork for them to enjoy poetry?

Children can send Laura G. their drawings of animals
wearing underwear. Laura posts the pictures
at her website
and they are hysterical.
Laura G: Rhyming picture books can be a bridge for kids between the familiar (books) and the unfamiliar (poems).

Kids enjoy rhyming, tongue twisters, alliteration, and consonance.  It’s all fun for them!  If wordplay is first introduced in the context of a picture book to children who already associate books with family, love, and fun…then poetry using those same devices may seem more accessible and less foreign to those kids.

Laura S: I agree. One of our favorite books when my children were little was Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks. They loved watching Mom mess up tongue twisters. The grander my mistakes, the more they laughed. We howled over the wordplay in Charlotte Pomerantz’ The Piggy in the Puddle. What are some of your other favorite rhyming picture books to share with family?

Laura G: Julia Donaldson’s books are wonderful.  Jane Yolen’s for sure.  Corey Rosen Schwartz’s fractured fairy tales.  Karma Wilson’s Bear books.  Also, some of Jan Thomas’s books play with rhyme in a really fun way: The Rhyming Dust Bunnies is a great one for younger kids.  

Thanks for a great conversation, Laura!

Laura Gehl is the author of ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR, a Charlotte Zolotow Highly Commended Title and Booklist Books for Youth Editors’ Choice for 2014; HARE AND TORTOISE RACE ACROSS ISRAEL; AND THEN ANOTHER SHEEP TURNED UP; and the PEEP AND EGG series (hatching spring 2016 from FSG/Macmillan).  A former science and reading teacher, she also writes about science for children and adults.  Laura lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland with her husband and four children.  Visit her online at and


jama said...

Enjoyed this discussion, Laura and Laura! Am anxious to see One Big Pair of Underwear. :)

Author Amok said...

You will especially love the cookbook wielding hippos, Jama.

Matt Forrest Esenwine said...

Great post! I, too, agree that not all rhyming picture books are poetry, but some can be - and some, like 'Owl Moon,' are poetry that doesn't rhyme.

Author Amok said...

That's a great example, Matt.

Linda B said...

Interesting conversation. Perhaps when the books include "poetry" is when the poem itself can stand alone as a poem, can have or not have illustrations.

Mary Lee said...

My students and I love One Big Pair of Underwear!

Good to hear from a rhyming book author on the topic of "...but is it poetry?"

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

I suspected this would be a interesting discussion, and indeed it was. Thank you, Lauras, for such an insightful interview! I particularly liked learning about the ways in which rhyme and other poetic techniques support emerging readers. Congrats and best of luck to Laura G. on the release of AND THEN ANOTHER SHEEP TURNED UP!

Unknown said...

What an insightful conversation. I think that rhyming picture books are all in the neighborhood of poetry but some books are certainly more poetic, some intentionally more playful, some intentionally more dramatic, etc. Thats what makes picture books the perfect neighborhood for kids to play and grow up in. Nice interview.

Bridget Magee said...

Very interesting discussion, Laura and Laura! So many great suggestions for mentor texts throughout this post. Thank you! =)