REPETITION * REPETITION * REPEITION
The use of repetition as style and language can enrich our picture book prose. It can be especially helpful in our efforts to evoke a story rather than merely tell it. A word or phrase used multiple times can be far more involving for the audience than a $50 adjective or newly found synonym.
For example, compare these variations for THE GINGERBREAD MAN:
#1 The Gingerbread Man ran like the dickens.
#2 The Gingerbread Man ran like the wind.
#3 The Gingerbread Man ran for his freedom.
#4 The Gingerbread Man ran and ran and ran and ran.
The first three provide information. The fourth version evokes a physical experience.
The body feels the experience through the repetitive sounds and rhythms just as it does in music. We don’t want to replace all adjectives and adverbs with repetition. But it is a valuable option.
In TEENY WEENY BOP (2006) author and storyteller Margaret Read MacDonald uses repetition to echo the of action of her statement.
“One morning Teeny Weeny Bop was sweeping her floor. She was sweeping her and sweeping her floor and…she found a gold coin in a crack in her floor!”
MacDonald’s phrasing is far more interesting and involving than merely stating the information.
“Teeny Weeny Bop found a gold coin while sweeping her floor.”
Like the example of THE GINGERBREAD MAN, Martin Waddell uses repetition to evoke passing time and Duck’s exhaustion in FARMER DUCK (1991).
The lazy farmer’s question, “How goes the work?” is always answered with Duck’s “Quack!” At first this Q & A is surrounded by a few details of the work each time it appears. But once Duck’s chores are established, the cycle is repeated six times in a row, and literally builds the burden of Duck’s constant work.
In my own DANCE AWAY (1982) I could have gone from the first sentence—”Rabbit loved to dance”—and jumped right to the fifth—”Every time he danced, he smiled a big smile”. But my three intervening sentences use repetition to evoke the intensity of Rabbit’s love of dancing and establish a rhythm of dance that becomes crucial in the plot.
“Rabbit loved to dance. He danced in the morning. He danced at noon. He danced at night with the stars and the moon. Every time he danced, he smiled a big smile. Everywhere he danced, he sang his dancing song.”
Just like wedging in a $50 word doesn’t work, we can’t stick in repetition where it doesn’t belong and only becomes a distraction. But we can play with options. We always want to read our picture book manuscripts aloud. We can read them while standing too, and see where our voice and body may naturally lean toward repetition. Where do our ears long for another beat? Where do we find ourselves waiting for the second shoe to drop?
Take a second look at your favorite picture books. Do any of those texts use repetition? In what ways? How do you respond it? How does it serve the story? Here’s a short list of other books that use repetition with great success. There are even more waiting at your nearest library.
THE CATS IN KRASINSKI SQUARE by Karen Hesse. Illus. Wendy Watson. Scholastic, 2004.
JERUSALEM, SHINING STILL by Karla Kuskin. Illus. David Frampton, Harper, 1987.
SQUEAK-A-LOT by Martin Waddell. Illus. Virginia Miller. Greenwillow, 1991.
TWO LITTLE TRAINS by Margaret Wise Brown. Illus. Jean Charlot. Scott, 1949.
Next week: Repetition as part of plot and structure