Monday, August 27, 2012

Line Breaks in Easy Reader Verse

While I'm done with the specifics of Dr. Suess, there is certainly much more to be said about writing verse for easy reader books.

One thing I mentioned in an earlier post – though only in passing – has to do with breaking the verse lines in unexpected places. This isn't just a trick to break up the monotony of similar-length lines, although that's a side effect. It's primarily about making the verse easier to read, and secondarily about eliminating some of the singsonginess that verse can create.

Forgive me for using some of my own verse as examples in this post. It's not children's verse, but excerpts from the stuff I put up at my Will Shakespeare for Hire blog. I'm using it because it's easier for me to find examples quickly.

Most of us, when we think about verse, think about every line ending right "on beat." In reality, that doesn't happen all the time and we often unconsciously change the line endings to match. For example, in a poem called Commercial you'll see:
But either way, you know it’s something
You can’t live without!
This poem is in ballad meter, which means alternating lines of 8 and 6 syllables. Count these out and you'll find there are 9 and 5. The strict way to divide it, "on the beat," is:
But either way, you know it’s some-
Thing you can’t live without!
But that's hard for the reader because it splits a word mid-line. Breaking the line where it reads more easily, rather than at the "correct" spot, actually improves the poem and makes reading it a more enjoyable experience.

It's important to note that the rhythm and phrasing of this line is strong enough that you continue to read it so it sounds right, even though the division isn't technically correct. The "some" in something naturally gets the proper stress, as does the "you" in the next line. You naturally read "thing" as an unstressed syllable between them, so you read both lines with the proper rhythm.

Of course, with easy readers we have another consideration. We'd like to keep the number of words per line down around 5 to 7 because the kids typically read only one word at a time. Longer lines will just confuse them. But when we write poems it's not unusual for sentences to span 2, 3, or more lines. That's called enjambment. You just saw one version of it, as the sentence spanned 2 lines. Depending on the age level you were writing for – and assuming this poem was written for children in the first place! – you might have chosen to divide the lines in different ways other than the way I did. For example, you might try:
But either way,
You know it’s something you can’t live without!
That works – it breaks the line into understandable phrases, which helps the kids grasp it better – but for some age groups that last line is just too long. But this one:
But either way,
You know it’s something
You can’t live without!
might be a better choice. Each line is only 4 words long and it's easy to keep the rhythm when you read it. In addition, each phrase makes sense.

However, there's a trick to this. (You knew there would be, didn't you?) You have to be careful not to destroy the verse. Here's a couple of stanzas from a poem I did called The Murder at Muffet's Place (where Little Miss Muffet is on trial for killing the spider):
The prosecutor's eyebrow raised.
"You thought you were alone?"
Ms. Muffet nodded. "I would not
Have stayed if I had known

That horrid creature waited there.
He stalked me. It's a curse
That women such as I must face.
Each day's a little worse."
You need to keep the basic structure of the poem when you make such changes. For example, I could change it this way:
The prosecutor's eyebrow raised.
"You thought you were alone?"

Ms. Muffet nodded.
"I would not have stayed
If I had known
That horrid creature waited there.
He stalked me.
It's a curse that women such as I must face.
Each day's a little worse."
Forget for a moment that the vocabulary is too advanced for a child. With the exception of the line that starts "It's a curse…" (it's too long), this is pretty good easy reader phrasing.

However, it's no longer verse because:
  • The stanzas are gone. The first stanza is split in half, then the other half is combined with the second stanza. That makes the second stanza much too long. As a result, the child would no longer be able to recognize the form of a poem.
  • The rhymes are hidden. Alone and known are still at the end of lines, but the break I mentioned before puts them in separate "stanzas." Then the curse and worse rhyme is hidden because curse is buried near the beginning of a line. Again, the standard form of a poem that the child recognizes – stanzas and rhymes – is no longer visible.
However, this little activity does prove one thing: If it's not important to have verse, you can still write your easy reader in verse, divide the lines up, and create reasonably good easy reader prose from it! That's because poetry is a very condensed, very concentrated form of writing… and it is therefore very similar to the approach you must use to write good easy reader sentences. And that makes it a useful technique to file away for further use.

Now obviously I'm talking about traditional verse here, not free verse. Free verse isn't structured the same way, so the process is entirely different. But if you're working with standard rhyming verse, this is the basic principle:
  • As long as the rhythm is strong enough and
  • as long as you keep the general stanza divisions and
  • as long as you keep the rhyming words at the ends of your new lines,
you can divide your lines almost any way you like, as long as they make good sense to your young readers. However, the less you change them, the easier it will be for your young readers to read them as verse.

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