Archives for posts with tag: sound in writing

Learning From the Past That’s Also Very Present

 “Writers are interested in folk tales for the same reason that painters are interested in still-life arrangements; because they illustrate essential principles of storytelling.” Northrop Frye in Fable of Identity

If you want to know what makes for a popular and lasting story read and reread the best-known folktales of your culture.  Why? They’ve lasted through cycles of literary concerns and fads. And, at the same time, they remain alive and fresh to each generation. These stories continue to keep children’s imaginations bubbling and their respective bums in a chair. Clearly, they have a lot to teach us.

There are all but countless picture book editions of folktales, but don’t rush to those first. One of the things folktales can teach us is how to write half of a whole. The verbal style of folktales leaves plenty of space and possibilities for the listener to create her own illustrations. That’s exactly what we must do as picture book authors who do not illustrate. Explore the folktale’s economy of language, crisp sentences, and active verbs.

Collections of folktales come in all shapes, sizes, and voices. The editions most valuable to us are those written by people who have actually told them aloud. These storytellers/writers know the differences between oral language and written language. Even though they’ve told the tales aloud, they also had to make certain “translations” when they prepared them for the page.

 So, where to start? The answer is simple: Margaret Read MacDonald. She has spent decades telling stories, working as a children’s librarian composing books and collections, and has a PhD in folklore. If anyone lives a blend of scholarship and storytelling in the trenches, it is Margaret Read MacDonald. If you’ve not explored her collections or her picture books, you’ve missed an opportunity to learn and enrich your craft.

Collections to Explore

 MORE READY-TO-TELL TALES FROM AROUND THE WORLD edited by David Holt & Bill Mooney. August House, 2000.


SHAKE-IT-UP TALES: STORIES TO SING, DANCE, DRUM, AND ACT OUT told by Margaret Read MacDonald. August House, 2000.

THREE MINUTE TALES: STORIES FROM AROUND THE WORLD told by Margaret Read MacDonald. August House, 2004.



There are good picture books, and then there are picture books that are so good they ring like the ping of good china. WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD by Julia Donaldson has the ring of the very best china. A large part of its ping (if you will) is Donaldson’s use of sound, pattern and rhythm.

The text begins in verse as it introduces the multiple farm characters including “a ladybug who never said a word.” Donaldson then identifies each animal by the sound it makes (moo, cluck etc) and still works in rhyme. By introducing these animal sounds Donaldson also follows Chekhov’s famous maxim: If you show a gun in act one you better shoot it by act three. But, of course, we don’t know that until the conclusion.

Donaldson uses rhyme to link her list of characters to story’s conflict.

“And one cat meowed while the other one purred…

and the ladybug never said a word.

But the ladybug saw,

And the ladybug heard…”

What the ladybug heard is a plan to steal the prize cow. When she finally speaks she echoes the rhymed plan just as she heard it from the robbers. Donaldson then brings the story back to its chorus—

And the cow said, “MOO!”

And the hen said, “CLUCK!”

“HISS!” said the goose

and “QUACK!” said the duck.

“NEIGH!” said the horse.

“OINK!” said the hog.

“BAA!” said the sheep.

“WOOF!” said the dog.

Concern. Suspense. Then the miniature hero makes her move.

But the ladybug told them not to fear,

And she whispered her plan into every ear.

Donaldson provides a sense of direction, but readers can only hope. It is at this point that the author shoots the proverbial gun identified in act one. The litany of animal sounds (with an ingenious twist) turns out to be the winning plan that saves the cow and captures the thieves.

The thieves are taken away, and it’s back to the chorus of animal sounds again. But despite what the ladybug heard and said and planned, the story ends full circle just as it began. All the animals and the farmer shout their cheers: But the ladybug never said a word.


WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD by Julia Donaldson. Illus. by Lydia Monks. Holt, 2010.

Speaking Through Pace & Rhythm

How we tell a story is a part of that story. And, this HOW includes awareness of pace and rhythm. Composers have names for the different paces and rhythms they use. Adagio-slowly. Scherzo-vigorous & playful. Allegro-brisk tempo. Dolente-sorrowfully. The choice of notes, whether those notes are long or short, and in major or minor key is HOW the composer creates the music.

As picture book writers, we have the equivalent of many musical elements:

* Length of sentences and phrases

* Number of syllables in the words we select

* The sound of the words we select

* Punctuation

The two MP3 files below each contain the rhythm or beats of a different manuscript. After listening to each, ask yourself what type of action might be going on in the text. What is the mood or the emotions of the text?

The next MP3 will share the titles and words for the same passages. Most people are surprised at how much they knew about the story from the beats alone.

It is always beneficial to read aloud what one has written.  Try tapping out the beats and rhythm of your manuscript. Do they support and enhance your text like a good movie soundtrack? Do they distract? Or are they simply of no consequence? Once you’ve heard the results your next draft will only improve.

After all, if you’re writing a picture book, you are writing to be heard.

DANCE AWAY by George Shannon. Illus. by Aruego & Dewey. Greenwillow, 1982.

GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown. Illus. by Clement Hurd. Harper, 1947.

Writing with Sound * Writing by Instinct

The dictionary is laced with technical terms for specific literary forms and rhythms. But unless one truly listens and absorbs the different way rhythms and sound affect us physically and emotionally, the technical terms are lifeless.  Randall Jarrell’s novella for children, THE BAT-POET, contains a wonderful scene that honors the value of listening and instinct.

“Why, I like,” said the mockingbird. “Technically it’s quite accomplished. The way you change the rhyme-scheme’s particularly effective.”

The bat poet said: “It is?”

“Oh yes,” said the mockingbird. “And it was clever of you to have that last line two feet short.”

The bat said blankly: “Two feet short?”

“It’s two feet short,” said the mockingbird a little impatiently. “The next-to-the-last line’s iambic pentameter, and the last line’s iambic trimeter.”

The bat looked so bewildered that the mockingbird said in a kind voice: “An iambic foot has one weak syllable and one strong syllable; the wear one comes first. That last line of yours has six syllables and the one before it has ten; when you shorten the last line like that it gets the effect of the night holding it’s breath.”

“I didn’t know that,” the bat said. “I just made it like holding your breath.”

THE BAT-POET by Randall Jarrell. Illus. by Maurice Sendak. Macmillan, 1966.

Rhyme & Writing in Verse

If new picture books in verse continue to be published each year why do so many people caution against writing in rhyme?  Simple. It is very easy to do it badly. Writing in rhyme does nothing to guarantee the quality of a children’s story any more than giving characters cute names like Caroline Camel does. Rhyme must support and serve the content.

Like the best song lyrics, rhyme in picture books is usually best if it is felt more than noticed. In terms of “writing to be heard” the use of rhyme functions as an aural-mini chorus. It brings the reader/audience back to a sense of the familiar. If the use of rhyme enhances the flow or rhythm of the text it can evoke a visceral sense of connection and return. But if the requirement for rhyme contorts the text in order to find the next rhyming word needed to rhyme the process distracts your audience rather than engaging them in what you have to share.

Poet and picture book author Karla Kuskin was instinctively aware of this dilemma.

“I don’t think I ever considered writing THE PHILHARMONIC GETS DRESSED in verse, but I did try that for another book of mine, called JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, but I found it was not working. The story of that book is a simple children’s joke. Verse wasn’t right for it because, as I eventually realized, it had to be told with a poker face, and the driving rhythm of the verse broke the mood and became intrusive.” (Leonard Marcus. WAYS OF TELLING).

Some picture books like SLEEPYTIME RHYME by Remy Charlip flow like a song thanks to rhyme. Rhyme contributes to the flow and the enveloping theme of the text:

















Charlip’s rhyme pattern is regular, but not tight. A constant series of back-to-back couplets would have begun sounding more like marching feet that a lullaby.

Another type of song-like picture book is the mini-essay or celebration of a single subject. Here a tighter rhyme scheme can contribute to the liveliness or festive feel of the text. Mary Ann Hoberman’s A HOUSE IS A HOUSE FOR ME is an excellent example. As a poet’s riff on what the word “house” might mean to different objects and creatures, Hoberman’s text is all play and exhilaration.

A writer who decides to tell a plotted story and tell it in rhyme is much like the juggler deciding to toss two more balls into the act.  The factor of difficulty dramatically increases, as do the opportunities for failure. It is also why picture book stories told in rhyme tend to be comedic adventures.

Deb Lund’s ALL ABOARD THE DINOTRAIN is a text that thrives with rhyming couplets (AABBCCDD…) because their steady rhythm evokes the sounds and feelings of the story’s content–a train ride. And not just any train ride, but an outlandish and outsized ride filled with dino-word-play.

The hill’s too steep for that much weight,

And so they toss the dinofreight.

Without a load, they quickly climb

And reach the peak in dinotime.

The less frenetic story, THE MILKMAN by Carol Foskett Cordsen, is also primarily written in couplets. But the pace is gentle and much quieter thanks to the author’s use of single words and short phrases to evoke the slow, early beats of morning.

First of morning, cold and dark.

Rooster crowing. Meadowlark.

Moon above the mountaintops.

Loud alarm clock. Snoring stops.

Mr. Plimpton out of bed.

The design of the book also contributes to the mood.  Most page turns come in the middle of a couplet and so slows the pace and literally creates the hush of morning.

The use of rhyme is not confined to couplets.  BARN DANCE by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault employs these three different yet related rhyme schemes in the course of their text.




Using varied rhyme schemes can help avoid the rhymes overwhelming the story.  If use wisely, that is.  If done poorly, a mixture of rhyme schemes could contribute to confusion and distraction.

Once again, if one’s primary goal is to write in rhyme regardless of the subject it is very easy to write badly. Before you submit a rhyming manuscript test your choices.  Write a draft of the same content in plain prose.  What is lost?  What is gained?  How does using rhyme enhance and evoke what you want to say?

Sample Picture Books With Rhyme

ALL ABOARD THE DINOTRAIN by Deb Lund. Illus. by Howard Fine. Harcourt, 2006.

ALL THE WORLD by Liz Garton Scanlon. Illus. by Marla Frazee. Beach Lane, 2009.

BARN DANCE by Bill Martin Jr. & John Archambault. Illus. by Ted Rand. Holt, 1986.

CHICK CHICKA BOOM BOOM by Bill Martin, Jr. & John Archambault.  Illus. by Lois Ehlert. Simon & Schuster, 1989.

COWBOY BUNNIES by Christine Loomis. Illus. by Ora Eitan. Putnam, 1997.

A HOUSE IS A HOUSE FOR ME by Mary Ann Hoberman. Illus. by Betty Fraser. Viking, 1989.

HOW DO YOU MAKE A BABY SMILE? by Philemon Sturges. Illus. Bridget Strevens-Marzo. Harper, 2007.

LITTLE BLUE TRUCK by Alice Schertle. Illus. by Jill McElmurry. Harcourt, 2008.

MARTHA THE MOVIE MOUSE by Arnold Lobel.  Harper, 1966.

THE MILKMAN by Carol Foskett Cordsen. Illus. by Douglas Jones. Dutton, 2005.

ONE MITTEN by Kristine O’Connell George. Illus. by Maggie Smith. Clarion, 2004.

SAKES ALIVE! A CATTLE DRIVE by Karma Wilson. Illus. by Karla Firehammer. Little, Brown, 2005.

SHOE BABY by Joyce Dunbar. Illus. by Polly Dunbar. Candelwick, 2005.

SLEEYTIME RHYME by Remy Charlip. Greenwillow, 1999.

SO, WHAT’S IT LIKE TO BE A CAT? By Karla Kuskin. Illus. by Betsy Lewin. Atheneum, 2005.

WHOSE GARDEN IS IT? By Mary Ann Hoberman. Illus. by Jane Dyer. Harcourt, 2004.

Sample Single Poems Turned into Picture Books

ARITHMETIC by Carl Sandburg. Illus. by Ted Rand. Harcourt, 1993.

CATS SLEEP ANYWHERE by Eleanor Farjeon. Illus. by Anne Mortimer. Frances Lincoln Books, 2010.

MORNNG HAS BROKEN by Eleanor Farjeon. Illus. by Tim Ladwig. Eerdmans, 1996.

UNDER MY HOOD I HAVE A HAT by Karla Kuskin. Illus by Fumi Kosaka. Harper, 2005.

Sound Effects or Onomatopoeia

Like poets, children love the sound of words.  They also love the sounds of living. Walking through grass: Swishy swashy. Walking in mud: squelch squerch. Over the wooden bridge: trip trap trip trap. Dancing: swisha-swisha clap! clap! jump, jump, jump!

Such verbal sound effects can be found in all kinds of picture books. In Janet Wong’s BUZZ, the sound buzz in all its variations is the central thread of the text. The repetitive sound effects in Jonathan London’s FROGGY GETS DRESSED are a large part of the humor, and provide a cumulative element that let’s children join in the fun.

So Froggy put on his socks—zoop!

Pulled on his boots—zup!

Put on his hat—zat!

Tied on his scarf—zwit!

Tugged on his mittens—zum!!

And flopped outside into the snow—flop, flop, flop.

Karma Wilson uses a blend of sounds and verbs to evoke the ponderous dance moves of her hippo in HILDA MUST BE DANCING.  Wilson’s text evokes instead of merely telling. And, once again, the audience becomes more involved.

Though the use of onomatopoeia is most frequently found in poetry and story, it can play an equally valuable role in nonfiction picture books. The forthcoming PLANTING THE WILD GARDEN by Kathryn O. Galbraith celebrates the many ways seeds are transferred and planted in the wild. Her use of sound effects acts much like a visual close-up on the subtle action.

“Under the afternoon sun, the pods of the scotch broom grow hot and dry. Snap! Snap! Out pop their seeds, like popcorn from a pan.

They land here. And there. And snap! Over there, where they will have more room to grow.”

The primary considerations regarding sound effects are #1 Why are they being used? and #2 Do they contribute to the text or detract? In other words, do these sounds flow with the text or do they cause the audience to stumble. Are onomatopoetic words used throughout as style and voice, or only dropped in from time to distracting time.

Sound effects are also best when they are as understandable as the rest of the text. If the sound effect is unfamiliar or out of place it will pull the audience out of the story. Numerous cultures include onomatopoetic sounds/words as part of their folktales. Verna Aardema’s retellings of African tales often feature sound effects. Sometimes they flow with the story.  Other times they give one pause. Curiously, such retellings translate the story into English; yet leave the sound effects in the original language as a gesture of authenticity.  For instance, Aardema’s THIS FOR THAT includes:

Rabbit went off laughing softly to herself, huh, huh, huh.

And later–

She ate it herself, as fast as she could, yatua, yatua, yatua.

Huh huh huh is similar enough to ha ha ha or hee hee hee to make sense to the young North American audience.  But what is yatua, yatua, yatua? Onomatopoetic phrases deserve to be translated just like the rest of the text. In English DUCK says, “Quack, quack.” In Spanish DUCK is known as PATO and says, “Coo-ah Coo-ah!” In French DUCK is LE CANARD and says, “Kwang kwang!” An English language picture book having Duck say “Kwang kwang” would pull the audience out of the story as it struggles to figure out what is happening.

As with all the patterns, rhythms and sounds we use when “writing to be heard” the use of sound effects comes down to a single question: “Does it help engage the audience?”

Sample Books With Onomatopoeia

BUZZ by Janet Wong. Illus. by Margaret Chodos-Irvine. Harcourt, 2000.

FROGGY GETS DRESSED by Jonathan London. Illus. by Frank Remkiewicz. Viking, 1992.

THE HATSELLER AND THE MONKEYS retold and illustrated by Baba Wague Diakite. Scholastic, 1999

HILDA MUST BE DANCING by Karma Wilson. Illus. by Suzanne Watts. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

PLANTING THE WILD GARDEN by Kathryn O. Galbraith. Illus. by Wendy Anderson Halperin. Peachtree, 2011.

THIS FOR THAT retold by Verna Aardema. Illus. Victoria Chess. Dial, 1997.

WE’RE GOING ON A BEAR HUNT by Michael Rosen. Illus. Helen Oxenbury. Simon & Schuster, 1989.

Blending Rhythms & Patterns

Much like musicians, dancers, painters and architects, picture book authors are able to blend and contrast patterns to enhance their art. And, as a result, deepen the experience of the audience. The trick or the art is to blend patterns in a way that contributes to the story rather than causing confusion.

One of Karla Kuskin’s early books, JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, is a solid place to start.  Her text establishes a pattern of verse and chorus.

Jonathan James
had two eyes,
ten fingers,
and a small nose.
Just like everyone else.
Jonathan James
lived in a noisy house
on a quiet street.
Just like everyone else.
This pattern is also a form of the ping-pong rhythm.  It builds comfort and expectation. After the final cycle of verse and chorus:
Just like everyone else.
After twelve cycles of this pattern Kuskin transforms her text into a steady-stead-steady-surprise pattern.

Then Jonathan James flew off to school.

Candace Fleming’s wonderful MUNCHA MUNCHA! MUNCHA! blends even more patterns to great effect. She includes a cumulative pattern, but in a fresh way because her cumulative pattern is also the expanding chorus of her verse and chorus pattern. She also uses the ping-pong pattern of trial and failure. Then, once she’s set up all these patterns of expectation, she reveals her text to “steady-steady-steady-SURPRISE!”

The plot is succinct.  Mr. McGreely plants a garden.  Rabbits invade.  He gets angry and builds a fence, then a wall, then a moat, then a locked fortress around his garden. And with each new protective measure the chorus of rabbits’ action expands.

Tippy-Tippy-Tippy-Pat! Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!

Next time around the pattern:

Tippy-tippy-tippy, Pat! Spring-hurdle, Dash! Dash! Dash! Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!

It is one of the few times I’ve seen a cumulative pattern expand within rather than at the end. Most important of all, it works by matching the action in the story.

After four repetitions of this cycle Fleming creates a long pause.


The rabbits cannot break through the newest and thickest defense. They cannot get themselves into the very protected garden. All seems well.  Mr. McGreely is happy. He takes his basket through all the barriers and into the garden.


The rabbits have sneaked into his basket, and HE has given them access to his garden.  And, as all good songs do, Fleming’s story ends with a rousing chorus.

Muncha! Muncha!  Muncha!

As you work on a picture book manuscript be mindful to what patterns seem to emerge naturally.  Patterns or rhythms that echo and evoke the emotional arc of your story. Play with interweaving a second pattern.  Trial and revision IS the writing process. Does a particular pattern add to the experience of the text, detract, or even interrupt?

Patterns and rhythms are some of the most vital items in our picture book author toolbox. Dig in.  Play. Who knows what your next creation could be!


Sample Books Using Blended Patterns


BARK, GEORGE by Jules Feiffer.  Harper, 1999.
CLOSE YOUR EYES by Kat Banks. Illus. by Georg Hallesnsleben. Farra, 2002.
JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE by Karla Kuskin. Harper, 1959.
MUNCHA MUNCHA MUNCHA by Candace Fleming. Illus. by G. Brian Karas. Atheneum, 2002.
POUCH! By David Ezra Stein.  Putnam, 2009.
WHOSE MOUSE ARE YOU? By Robert Kraus.  Illus. by Jose Aruego.  Simon & Schuster, 1970.


The chain pattern of narrative is exactly that: overlapping or interlocking pieces of action where each leads to the next and then the next.  It often includes a visceral sense of folding in on one’s self and then stretching out again. Some sources view it as a cumulative tale.  But where the cumulative tale keeps adding to the first line or action, each action/situation in a chain tale propels the story forward and leaves the past behind.

The classic example in folklore is LAZY JACK where a boy is always applying the wisdom he should have used last time to his newest situation.  And, of course, each new situation requires its own specific solution. In this instance the narrative interlinks at the same time it leads to a typical tale of problem, tension, and tension resolved.

Another folk example is found in THE STONECUTTER and WHO’S THE STRONGEST ONE OF ALL.  The protagonist is on a journey to find the strongest one.  Each attempt to find the strongest leads to another one who is stronger. Here, the chain is also a circle that leads back to the protagonist discovering that he/she is the strongest one of all.

All stories are a chain of events, but sometimes we discover the chain by going in reverse.  Any parent or teacher who has attempted to unearth the facts is familiar with this pattern of slowly unfolding information. It is a form well established in jokes and folklore, and the pattern used in the popular THE DAY JIMMY’S BOA ATE THE WASH by Trinka Hakes Noble.

LAZY JACK and THE DAY JIMMY’S BOA ATE THE WASH include a rhythm of cause and effect.  Or, cause and incorrect effect.  But this internal pattern is not always needed or appropriate for what a writer wants to share.

At its most minimal, the chain pattern becomes pure pattern as in BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR, WHAT DO YOU SEE? by Bill Martin, Jr.  Each stanza or passage shares something with the passage that came before and the one coming after, but there is no story narrative.  These passages are like the colors on a color wheel.  Whether experiences or objects, everything in life in linked with others and, in turn, with others.

  Sample Books With a Chain Pattern 

BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR, WHAT DO YOU SEE? By Bill Martin, Jr. Illus. by Eric Carle. Holt, 1967.

THE DAY JIMMY’S BOA ATE THE WASH by Trinka Hakes Noble. Illus. Steven Kellogg.  Dial, 1980.

EPOSSUMONDAS by Coleen Salley.  Illus. by Janet Stevens. Harcourt, 2002.

THE GIFT by Isia Osuchowska. Wisdom Publications, 1996.

LAZY JACK by Tony Ross. Andersen Press, 2002.

THE QUARRELING BOOK by Charlotte Zolotow.  Illus by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1963.

THE STONECUTTER by Demi. Knopf, 1995.

WHO’S THE STRONGEST ONE OF ALL told by Mirra Ginsberg.  Illus. Aruego & Dewey.  Greenwillow, 1977.


Most popular songs—traditional ballad to pop—share the same pattern.  Verse-Chorus.  Verse-Chorus.  The verses may share a single narrative or be individual pieces that share a link with the chorus.  Like the cumulative narrative, this format creates a blend of expansion balanced with familiarity.  It is the soon familiar chorus that gives children a sense of inclusion and mastery.

Picture book choruses may be as short as one line.  I CAN DO IT TOO by Karen Baicker is a list of what other family members are able to do followed by the young narrator’s proclamation, “I can do it too!” Like the best of songs, Baicker’s final verse expands on the accumulated and reveals a sense of change.  Followed, of course, with the satisfaction of a final round of the chorus.

Liz Garton Scanlon’s ALL THE WORLD is another fine example of the verse-chorus pattern.  But here is the chorus is woven into the final line of each verse.

“Body, shoulder, arm, hand

A moat to dig,

A shell to keep

All the world is wide and deep”

Scanlon’s verses are truly in verse.  Yet, by beginning each verse’s final line with “all the world is” she is able to maintain the sounds of her rhythm and rhyme AND share a sense of chorus.

KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON by Kevin Henkes follows a more traditional story pattern of BEGINNING-MIDDLE-END.  But he uses a repetitive chorus to deepen Kitten’s dilemma and frustration.  After each of Kitten’s failed attempts to consume the milky moon Henkes writes:

“Poor Kitten! Still, there was the little bowl of milk, just waiting.”

After two more tries at the moon and the chorus, the mission shifts to the bigger bowl of milk reflecting in the pond.  Even though the story is no longer concerned with the “little bowl of milk, just waiting” in the sky, a portion of the familiar chorus returns:

“Poor Kitten!”

Henkes establishes the pattern of chorus so well that he is able to reduce his chorus to a single word.  Then give it a twist, and we still feel the satisfaction of a chorus and its final chord.

“Lucky Kitten!”

The picture books by Charlotte Pomerantz reveal her sense of poetry, language, and play. THE PIGGY IN THE PUDDLE demonstrates even wider variations in the way writers can use verse-chorus in picture books. The typical chorus always contains the same words each time it is song or read.  Pomerantz isn’t as concerned for repetition of specific words as for the similarity of rhythm and style.  Her choruses are not identical, yet deeply related.

The story focuses on family members trying to coax a pig to get out of the muddy puddle.  To no surprise, the little pig will have nothing of it.

“Squishy-squashing, squishy-squash—NOPE!”

“Moosy-squooshy, mooshy-squooshy—NOPE!”

“Oofy-poofy, oofy-poofy—NOPE!”

The second half of the story shifts to the theme “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” which develops a new chorus that follows each family members’ action.

She said, “I bet my feet get wet.”


He said, “I bet my tail gets wet.”


He held his nose and yelled, “Here goes!”


The text could have ended there, but Pomerantz knows the visceral satisfaction of pulling the rhythms of the story back to its beginning.  When the little piggy proposes soap and getting clean the rest of her family now happily in the muddy puddle proclaim: “Oofy-poofy—NOPE!”

Children have no need to be able to identity the writing terms for this awareness and use of pattern.  But they feel it.  It IS part of the story.  Our use of sound and pattern enhance and enrich our stories.

Sample Picture Books

ALL THE WORLD by Liz Garton Scanlon. Illus. by Marla Frazee, Beach Lane Books, 2009.

I CAN DO IT TOO! by Karen Baicker.  Illus. by Ken Wilson-Max.  Handprint, 2003.

KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 2004.

OVERBOARD by Sarah Weeks. Illus. by Sam Williams, Harcourt, 2006.

THE PIGGY IN THE PUDDLE by Charlotte Pomerantz. James Marshall, Simon & Schuster, 1974.

PILOT PUPS by Michelle Meadows. Illus. by Dan Andreasen.  Simon & Schuster, 2008.

RAIN MAKES APPLESAUCE by Julian Scheer.  Illus. by Marvin Bileck.  Holiday, 1964.

SAKES ALIVE! A CATTLE DRIVE by Karma Wilson. Illus. by Karla Firehammer. Little Brown, 2005.


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.