Featured Author Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow 2018

Writing Lyrical: You Have to Feel It

Jamilah Thompkins-BigelowIn positive reviews (and in an unfortunate number of rejection letters), I have often received praise for the lyrical quality of my writing. I love writing and reading lyrical texts and yet, I find this style difficult to define. Lyrical picture books defy definition but have a very distinct feel.

You’ll know you’ve written one if:

The language feels good in your mouth and even more wondrous to your ears.

If you have to read the words out loud even when no one else is in the room, you might just be reading a lyrical text. Rhythm and patterns of sound are crucial to creating the pace and tone of a lyrical work. For example, in Bear Snores On, the first scene includes “the cold winds howl/and the night sounds growl” then decidedly shifts to a markedly different tone on the very next page through changes in meter and sound devices: “An itty-bitty mouse, pitter-pat, tip-toe/creep-crawls in the cave from the fluff-cold snow.” Lyrical picture book writers like Karma Wilson play with rhythm, consonance, assonance, and alliteration so that readers savor hearing and saying the words.

Lyrical picture books often contain the rich, unconventional language that is missing from the bland, standard English of most texts. They serve us colloquial phrases and unique sayings that aren’t easily explained but feel delectable on our tongues. Many of the lines in Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson and Hudson Talbot exemplify this linguistic lavishing with Woodson’s repeated lines “Had her a baby girl…loved that baby up so. Yes, she loved that baby up.” This phrasing has a power—a lyricism—that isn’t felt in a more standard phrasing: She had a baby girl and loved that baby so much.

It feels spare.

Many writers think of lyrical language as flowery and overwrought. However, exemplar picture books in this genre are notably spare. Lyrical picture books often use short lines with abrupt line breaks. Simple language and one-syllable words abound. Jane Yolen illustrates this in Owl Moon: “Somewhere behind us/ a train whistle blew/ long and low/ like a sad, sad song.”  Similarly, All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee sifts major ideas into few words: “Rock, stone, pebble, sand/ Boat, shoulder, arm, hand/ A moat to dig/ A shell to keep/ All the world is wide and deep.” The simplicity of the language creates a slow pace—a hush. We slow down and listen.  The complex, deep ideas are so much more striking because of the quietness surrounding them.

It teases your senses.

Mommy's Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins-BigelowI often find myself involuntarily reacting to sensory experiences in lyrical books. When I read “my mouth felt furry, for the scarf over it was wet and warm” in Owl Moon, I catch myself poking out my tongue trying to get the fibers off. While reading Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane and Hoda Hadadi, I hold my arms out and feel the malafa in the story, a type of full-body cloth wrap worn in Mauritania: “And so you take a little step, and then another; up, up—shwai, shwai, little by little, your malafa rippling down your back and your arms and ankles like water.” In my own book, Mommy’s Khimar, I try to engage the senses too with my protagonist saying: “I close my eyes and if I breathe in deeply—really deeply—I smell the coconut oil in Mommy’s hair and the cocoa butter on her skin.” In addition to their heavy use of sound, lyrical picture book writers engage the other senses to create immersive sensory experiences for readers.

You feel a strong emotion when reading it.

Lyrical picture books evoke strong emotions. The best ones even make us feel a sense of awe. Last Stop on Market Street has such an awe-inspiring moment:

“And in the darkness, the rhythm lifted CJ out of the bus, out of the busy city.

He saw sunset colors swirling over crashing waves.

Saw a family of hawks slicing through the sky.

Saw the old woman’s butterflies dancing free in the light of the moon.

CJ’s chest grew full and he was lost in the sound and the sound gave him the feeling of magic.”

I find it helpful to identify scenes like these in books and then to try to recreate similar scenes in my own writing.

It feels like a poem.

With the attention to sound, nonstandard language, spare-ness, sensory experiences, and strong emotion, you might call this genre a form of poetry. In fact, during my picture book writing process, I often write one draft of my story as a poem as I did with Mommy’s Khimar.  Writing a poem draft helps me to figure out where to cut text while helping me to create a more lyrical feel.


Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow’s debut picture book Mommy’s Khimar was published this year to critical praise, including starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. She teaches youth how to write in Philadelphia, PA with Mighty Writers. Through her own writing and work with youth, she hopes to increase representation of people of color in the publishing industry.

This month, Jamilah is offering one lucky 12 x 12 member a critique. Be sure to get your monthly draft written so you can be entered to win!


This Post Has 79 Comments

  1. Thank you for your thoughts, Jamilah. I write lyrically as well and found myself nodding “Yes!” all the way through your article. Great examples!

  2. Thank you Jamilah! I loved your examples- often it is the lyrical picture book that I find myself reading at the library, in the middle of the aisle, oblivious to all else, my imagination captured!

  3. Excellent examples of beautiful, lyrical text, Jamilah, and what a perfect definition re: feels good in the mouth and “even more wonderous” to the ear. Thanks!

  4. Thank you, Jamilah, for showing us such vivid examples of lyrical writing. Your post is as lyrical as a picture book, and it made me slow down and listen. I look forward to reading Mommy’s Khimar and teasing my senses.

  5. What a great post for the first of the month. Thank you, Jamilah, for highlighting lyrical picture books and discussing some of their qualities and ways in which to tap into those qualities in our own writing.
    Loved your examples. You chose many of my favorites. I think lyrical language is something every PB writer aspires to. It’s the ultimate goal, to write something so magical, so unique, showing love of words and fun new ways of using them.
    Congratulations on your book and thanks again for inspiring me to keep working on writing lyrically!!

  6. These are such helpful examples. I love that you brought up Deep in the Sahara as the Kindergarten teachers in my school us that book for an inquiry unit. When I heard of Mommy’s Khimar a couple of months ago I asked my school to order it so we can read those two together.

  7. Hello Jamilah! What a beautiful book you have written…I am excited to read it! And I love your post on lyrical writing! I took Renee LaTulippe’s Lyrical Language Lab in 2014…and learned so much about poetic writing that helped me, not only with my rhyming stories, but also with the prose I was writing. “It sounds good to your ears”…yes, I agree. And when I host the #50PreciousWords writing challenge every March, the top winner is always the one that I was able to read over and over and over again…and never get tired of hearing it because ‘it felt good to my ears’.
    Thank you so much for sharing- this post is like a mini lyrical writing workshop!

  8. Hi, Jamilah! I’m excited to read your book now. I love lyrical books, and have always found them so hard to write and get right! I love how you’ve broken down the qualities of lyrical writing into our emotional and sensory reactions to it. Thanks!

  9. Thank you for this wonderful post! One of my favorite things to do is to play with the sound and feel of words. I love the idea of writing a story as a poem first. I’m going to try that!

  10. I love to read and write lyrical texts too, Jamilah! Thanks for highlighting what’s so great about the style, and your helpful examples to study. I also appreciate your tie-in with poetry, and the good suggestion to try writing a separate draft in that form. Congratulations on your wonderful debut. I look forward to reading more of your books!

  11. Thank you for you post on lyrical picture books. I think you nailed it! I love these types of books also and look forward to reading yours!

  12. What a lovely reminder & lesson in lyricism, Jamilah! Congratulations on your debut book, too–I’m looking forward to reading it, especially out loud 🙂

  13. Ahhh thank you for this! I often wondered what really constitutes a lyrical book and now this makes so much more sense to me.

  14. Wonderful post. I love reading lyrical picture books and envy people who write such beautiful prose. The writing is so magical. Deceptively simple but so hard to get right.

  15. Thank you, Jamilah, for this informative and, yes, lyrical article. Your book is sitting on my desk and will, no doubt, be a well-used resource in my Jewish-Muslim interfaith work. ❤️

  16. Thank you for sharing and congrats on your first book coming out this year. Maybe this post could include audio with clips of you reading from your lyrical text examples!

  17. Thank you, Jamilah! Your comments and examples have re-inspired me to look at my work again. I often read my stories and feel that something is missing, and I think that something may be lyricism. Thanks again!

  18. Thank you, Jamilah. Lyrical pictures books might be hard to define, but you did a great job of breaking them down. Thank you for all of the examples. Even your post was lyrical at times!

  19. Jamilah,
    I appreciated your putting into words what I instinctively feel when I read a lyrical PB. I like your idea of writing a poem as a revision tool.i hope I win the critique!

  20. Helpful information. It is hard to “teach”. I agree you have to feel it. Congratulations on your publication.

  21. thank you, Jamilah. I wasn’t aware that there was a term for this kind of picture book writing but realised by reading your post it is that what I am striving for. One thing is certain, I’m finding clarity and learning a lot during this 12×12 challenge! Thanks again and congratulations on your publication!

  22. Thank you for such a lyrical blog post – filled with great examples and interesting points about giving the reader experiences through all their senses within the text of a book.

  23. Congratulations on your book, Jarmilah. Your explanation of lyrical language is the best description I’ve heard. I loved the way you defined it in five clear terms and provided perfect examples. Thank you!

  24. Thanks for the great post. You’ve nailed the description here. Gives me a lot to think about in my writing.

  25. Jamilah, these examples were perfect for illustrating the concepts you shared as you helped us grasp what a lyrical picture book was and the beautiful language contained inside. Thank you for tackling this so expertly.

  26. Thank you Jamilah, this is a beautiful post. I found myself eagerly reading each stunning example that you described! Congratulations on your new book!

  27. Thanks, Jamilah! I really enjoyed your post! I also find lyrical books difficult to define, but I think you did a fabulous of explaining them. Thank you for all the great examples you shared!

  28. You mentioned many of my favorite books here. I love beautiful language and phrasing when I’m reading children’s books aloud. Thank you for your wonderful description of lyrical writing. And congrats on your book. It looks beautiful as well.

  29. Thank you so much for a wonderful post and I love your book! I don’t consider myself a lyrical writer but you make me want to explore this possibility more 🙂

  30. What an excellent explanation of lyrical writing. Thank you for sharing, Jamilah. I look forward to reading MOMMY’S KHIMAR.

  31. Jamilah, your post brought to me a memory of my son stopping me when reading a lyrical story and saying, “No, Mommy, read it the right way!” I tried to explain it to him, that some writing can’t be read in the regular way. Your explanation was well done!

  32. Thanks so much for your wonderful post. I look forward to reading your book. Lyrical picture books seem to be the ones that end up being favorites.

  33. The text she wrote was very beautiful and I love lyrical writing but find it hard to achieve. Congratulations on your success with this book and future ones.

  34. Thank you for a great post with wonderful examples. I hope to aspire to writing lyrical stories. I look forward to reading your book.

  35. Thank you for a great post and wonderful lyrical examples. I aspire to write lyrical stories! Congratulations on your book, I look forward to reading it.

  36. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Jamilah. I love to read lyrical books, and you’ve beautifully highlighted the importance of language in lyrical books, whether the text is spare or lengthy. To paraphrase your words: “it feels good in your mouth and wondrous to your ears.” So true! Now if only I could write one… 🙂

  37. Thank you, Jamilah, for this great post! I also love the look and feel of lyrical writing. Best wishes to you!

  38. Beautifully put! I love that you mention writing poetry drafts. I find this practice immensely helpful too. I look forward to reading Mommy’s Khimar!

  39. Wonderful post. I love that it is about our senses. Finding words and phrases that evoke a physical response to what we read and hear.

    Thanks you for your post. I can’t wait to add your book to my school library collection.

  40. Mommy’s Khimar is such a beautiful book. My daughter loved it, and it helped us have a really positive conversation. Thanks for writing on lyricism! I love the idea of writing a verse draft–what a great way to discover more about your manuscript!

  41. I love your writing about lyrical writing. Your examples helped me understand what makes writing lyrical. I’ve read most of the books you mentioned and loved them.

  42. Jamilah, your debut book looks wonderful! I look forward to reading it. Thanks for sharing all the fine examples of lyrical writing. Some of them are from my favorite authors!

  43. Hi Everyone,
    I finally had time to read through the comments. Thanks for your kind feedback! I’m so glad many of you found my post helpful. Here’s a prayer that we all find success on our writing journeys.
    Peace and blessings,

  44. Thank you for clarifying lyrical writing in picture books Jamilah and offering your generous critique. I think I may have one or two lyrical story ideas in manuscripts that I understand better how to revise because of your post.

  45. Thank you, Jamilah! I love this tip: “…lyrical picture book writers engage the other senses to create immersive sensory experiences for readers.” It helps me have more of a sense of what sets lyrical writing apart from rhyming.

  46. What a lovely post, Jamilah! My writing has been called lyrical, but your explanations show me what to strive for. Thank you.

  47. Jamilah, congrats on your debut PB. I’ve requested a copy for my library and can’t wait to read it. Thanks for sharing characteristics of lyrical writing. Great mentor texts.

  48. Thank you for this beautiful post, Jamilah. My favorite picture books, and even novels, are always lyrical in nature. My writing tends to reflect that taste as well. I look forward to reading your book. I’ll be requesting it at our library today.

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