I’m Just No Good at Rhyming (Little, Brown) is the title of Chris Harris’s first book for young readers. However, it is simply not true. The comedy writer—an Emmy nominee for both How I Met Your Mother (where he also served as executive producer) and for The Late Show with David Letterman—demonstrates a winning way with wordplay.
The 192-page collection, illustrated by Caldecott Honor artist Lane Smith, has received four starred reviews (earning comparisons to Ogden Nash, Dr. Seuss, and Shel Silverstein) and an A+ rating from the Junior Library Guild.
“Most of this I wrote in my own bubble, figuring nothing would ever happen to it, and now it’s a real book and people like it so the negative voices in my head are in crisis mode,” he said. “I better step on a scale or something to come back to earth.”
Over the years, Harris has received multiple nominations for outstanding writing for his television work, but his auspicious debut in children’s literature is surprising— even to him. He did not major in English in college; his degree is in political science. “I spent the first two years taking every ‘introduction to’ class and, finally, I got angry letters from the administration saying I had to pick a major,” Harris said. “Political science was the one where the highest number of classes I had already taken would count toward a degree.”
He did do a lot of writing during college, including a humor column for the student newspaper, in which he once enumerated the 45 additional ways to exit a relationship that were not specifically mentioned in Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. His suggestions included, “Tell her she’s fat, Matt,” and, “Say you’d rather look for Waldo, Geraldo.”
“Maybe don’t mention the humor column,” Harris said.
His parents read aloud to him—“all the greats: A.A. Milne, Judith Viorst, Edward Lear”—and he remembers reading his own poems to classmates as early as first grade. “But they were not good. I had a drawer full of those so I guess there’s been 40 years of this, writing poems not decent enough to show anybody.”
A switch went on when he himself became a parent. During many nights up rocking sleepless babies, he began to concoct his verses. “Since no one was sleeping through the night, I guess the attention span I had only allowed for short-form poetry.”
As his kids got older (they are now nine and 11), the verses became a way of recording funny moments he saw them going through, like being asked to be a good sport about splitting the last cookie or cupcake. (Why should my sibling/Get half what I’m nibbling/Simply because he’s related to me?)
Many poems sprang from trying to get (at least one of) them to laugh. “My daughter was trying to read me The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, but every time she said ‘a shoe,’ I said, ‘Bless you.’ She was getting really annoyed but her brother laughed hysterically.” Result? A poem titled The Old Woman Who Lived in Achoo.
The playfulness extends to the book’s structure. There is an “outdex,” listing the poems that “didn’t make the cut.” The page numbers omit entirely the number eight. (For an explanation see the poem on page 105.) The dedication involves dialogue between the author and the illustrator, Smith, who was at lunch with his wife, book designer Molly Leach, and her mother, when his agent e-mailed him the manuscript for consideration.
“Molly and her mom were talking about something—I think fabric—so I started to read it on my phone. I thought, ‘very clever,’ but I also thought, there’s no way he can keep this up,” Smith said. “But then the next one was good, and the one after that, and then I was reading them aloud, and pretty soon my answer was, ‘Sign me up.’ ”
Smith signed on even after reading a poem titled, I Don’t Like My Illustrator. He responded with a rather unflattering portrait of the author. The invented friction between collaborators became just another of the book’s many jokes. “He’s like a mad genius,” Smith said of Harris. Leach became the book’s designer.
“I was hired to do about half the illustrations I wound up doing, but I was so inspired I just did more and more, which made Molly’s job tougher because she had to make it all work,” Smith said. “It’s a testament to how much the editor [Andrea Spooner] believed in the project that she was always willing to go along with us making it as much fun as we possibly could.”
For Harris, the book gave him a chance to have more control over the finished product than he’ll ever get creating a TV show. “In television there’s so much that happens between what I write and what the audience sees. I actually had a network executive once say to me, ‘You can never have too many cooks, right?,’ ” Harris said. “But this is the most ‘me’ thing I’ve ever written. What’s on the page is pretty close to what I wrote so if people hate it, I’m the only one to blame.”
No one hates it. Least of all Harris, who cops to being “somewhat self-critical.”
“I just got my finished copies and I love it,” he said. “Every time I get on the phone with someone from the network, I cradle the book in my arms for comfort.”
I’m Just No Good at Rhyming by Chris Harris, illustrated by Lane Smith. Little, Brown, $19.99 978-0-316-26657-4