Archives for posts with tag: IT LOOKED LIKE SPILT MILK

Picture Book Vitamins

Part I of II

“Before I start writing a novel I read CANDIDE over again so that I may have in the back of my mind the touchstone of that lucidity, grace and wit.”

W. Somerset Maugham

We all need encouragement and inspiration. We could wait for it to arrive, but that can easily resemble waiting for the Titanic to dock in New York. We can also go out and grab it. As Somerset Maugham knew, rereading a book one greatly admires can inspire our own writing.

What picture books do you reread because they’ve set the bar for your own writing? Simply rereading them can bring great encouragement. Ruminating on why you love them and how the author did was he did can often bring inspiration.

My list of picture books that function like vitamins for my own writing has, naturally, evolved over time. But the list always stretches from books I experienced as a child to books published in recent years.

Here is a partial list of my vitamin books and a brief explanation why.  I hope you’ll share some titles from your list of picture book vitamins.

BARK, GEORGE by Jules Feiffer. (Harper, 1999): This has all the things I love about folktales. Cumulative. Over the top situations. Broad humor and a sly double-kick-flip at the end!

FARMER DUCK by Martin Waddell. Illus. by Helen Oxenbury. (Candlewick, 1991): This is a dynamite read aloud. Repetition. Humor. So much shared in so few words. And, teamwork helps the victim survive and thrive.

GEORGIE by Robert Bright. (Doubleday, 1944): I first encountered this book on the TV show Captain Kangaroo in the 1950s. Then and now, I love the gentle plot and aural rhythms. What’s it about? Small changes can trigger large consequences. We are all interconnected. And, perfection might not be so perfect!

IT LOOKED LIKE SPILT MILK by Charles G. Shaw. (Harper, 1947): Seemingly simple, playful and literally engages the child by encouraging vocal response.

MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL by Virginia Lee Burton. (Houghton, 1939): This also likely a memory from Captain Kangaroo. I love the rhythms, the battle of old against new, the triumph that creates another challenge. Action, lights, camera! And an ending that transcends expectations.

WHO’S AT THE DOOR by Jonathan Allen. (Tambourine, 1992): By now there are so many picture book riffs on folktales you can’t swing a rejection slip without hitting half a dozen. This one stands out for me for several reasons. It’s a hoot to read aloud. It cleverly makes use of half page turns. And rather than just telling the story of the three pigs from the wolf’s perspective, it is more of a sequel featuring pigs who have learned a lot and won’t be fooled again.

As I look at this list I realize how these “vitamin books” have both influenced my books to date, but also reveal my goals for future manuscripts. Thanks to you all for sharing the names of your vitamin picture books.



The use of pattern and rhythm is as natural in picture book texts as it is in music and art.  They provide shape, order, and expectations.  When the expectations are met we experience comfort and completion.  And, depending on how and when these expectations are not met we experience confusion, frustration or delightful surprise.

In Robert Bright’s classic GEORGIE characters become disoriented when their familiar rhythm is taken away.  The patterns and rhythms of THE THREE BEARS are so precise and familiar it can be “told” through only whistling and gestures. 


Perhaps the most basic rhythm is POINT–COUNTER POINT. It is the typical pattern for books about opposites.  Small – Large.  Short – Tall.  Etc.  IT LOOKED LIKE SPILT MILK by Charles Shaw develops the pattern a bit further with a rhythm of statements and denial. DUCK RABBIT by Rosenthal & Lichtenheld is another wonderful example of this rhythm that includes a small “reverse flip” near the end before returning to the established ping and pong of disagreement. This reverse brings the surprise of change, and the immediate return to pattern evokes smiles of familiarity.

This ping pong rhythm is also found in picture books using the folk tale plot of “good news – bad news”. Remy Charlip’s FORTUNATELY is written is a crisp style with the words “fortunately” or “unfortunately” leading each statement. THAT’S GOOD! THAT’S BAD! By Margery ‘Cuyler expands the sense of story through longer scenes, but still follows the rhythm with her selected phrases:  “Oh, that’s bad.  No, that’s good!” and “Oh, that’s good.  No, that’s bad!” 

Ed Young’s retelling of the Chinese tale, THE LOST HORSE, is composed of the same pattern and rhythm, but in a more subtle way.  Here the story is dominant with the  “good-bad” comments simply part of the prose instead of punch lines.

Sample Books With Ping Pong Patterns & Rhythm

DUCK! RABBIT! By Amy Krouse Rosenthal & Tom Lichtenheld. Chronicle, 2009.

FORTUNATELY by Remy Charlip.  Siimon & Schuster, 1964.

A GARDEN OF OPPOSITES by Nancy Davis.  Schwartz & Wade, 2009.

GEORGIE by Robert Bright. DOUBELDAY, 1944.

IT LOOKED LIKE SPILT MILK by Charles G. Shaw. Harper, 1947.

THE LOST HORSE by Ed Young.  Harcourt, 1998.

NOT A BOX by Antoinette Portis.  Harper, 2006.

OVER UNDER by Marthe Jocelyn & Tom Slaughter. Tundra, 2005.

THAT’S GOOD! THAT’S BAD! By Margery Cuyler.  Illus by David Catrow. Holt, 1991.

WHITE IS FOR BLUEBERRY by George Shannon. Illus by Laura Dronzek. Greenwillow, 2005.