One of the most enduring patterns in short fiction is the cumulative tale.  It appears in nearly every culture.  North Americans come to know it through THIS IS THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY and THE OLD WOMAN AND HER PIG.  It remains popular because it is fun and it allows the child to gain a sense competence and join in the fun.

THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS is basically is list of acquisitions. THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY has sparked an ever-growing list of parodies as outlandish as the original.  But even at their silliest, these texts touch on the cycle of life and reality that one problem solved tends to trigger the next. A more contemporary, adult version of this would be taking a medication to solve one problem only to find that the medication creates new side effects that require yet another medication.

THIS IS THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT takes the cumulative pattern a bit deeper, and explores the interconnectedness of both things and experiences. Nothing in life is isolated.

Lisa Campbell Ernst’s THIS IS THE VAN THAT DAD CLEANED could have been written in a different pattern.  Dad cleans van.  Takes kids on trip.  Kids make a mess of van.  Dad’s upset.  Kids say they’re sorry by cleaning the van.  By using a cumulative plot line Campbell accomplishes several things at once.  Rather than sounding didactic, she generates a sense of fun.  Instead of scolding, she reveals what we all know—situations can simply get out of hand.  And, in the end, we can take responsibility for correcting our mistakes or at least try to balance the situation.

With my own THIS IS THE BIRD I knew a primary thread of the story was the multiple stories connected with a family heirloom.  The cumulative pattern provided a natural link with passing time and a litany of memories.

The cumulative story arc can range in content from comical lists to sequential experiences to the passage of time.  It is not for every picture book story, but it could be just the right pattern for the particular story you want to share.  People try on clothes to see if they fit both the event and themselves.  Why not try on different story patterns as part of the writing process?

Sample Cumulative Picture Books

MR. GUMPY’S OUTING by John Burningham.  Macmillan, 1971.

THE JACKET I WEAR IN THE SNOW by Shirley Nitzel.  Illus by Nancy Winslow Parker, Greenwillow, 1989.

THE ROSE IN MY GARDEN by Arnold Lobel. Illus by Anita Lobel.  Greenwillow, 1984.


THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A TROUT! By Teri Sloat.  Illus by Reynold Ruffins.  Holt, 1998.

THIS IS THE BIRD by George Shannon.  Illus by David Soman.  Houghton, 1997.

THIS IS THE VAN THAT DAD CLEANED by Lisa Campbell Ernst.  Simon & Schuster, 2005.