Archives for posts with tag: sound in writing


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.


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.

Whitman, 2006


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). 

Candlewick, 1992


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



DANCE AWAY. Greenwillow, 1982




Illustration by Y. Rachov*


Picture Books and the Oral Tradition

As picture book writers we can learn a great deal from folktales. Traditional storytellers literally have to keep an audience engaged by HOW they tell a story as much or more than WHAT happens in the story.  If they don’t, the audience can walk away! This HOW can make all the difference in picture books, too.  And, the HOW comes down to how we use language to EVOKE through word choice, rhythm, repetition and more.

What we have to lose or gain is exemplified by the history of folktales in printed form.  “Jack and the Beanstalk” had been told and heard for countless years before it appeared in print.  Early printed retellings strived to match the literary style of novels. George Cruikshank’s 1854 retelling is painfully ornate, distant and slow. He takes 136 words before mentioning the cow.

In the reign of King Alfred the Great–so called because he was very clever and very good–there lived a poor woman, who had a son and a daughter, the little girl’s name was Ady, and the boy’s name was Jack.  Their home was a very long way from London, in a deep valley, surrounded by rocks and mountains as steep as the side of a house and as high as the clouds, so that nobody could get to the top of them;  and the only way into this valley was by the sea-shore, large water-falls poured down the sides of the rocks, and formed a river which ran through the valley to the sea.  Their dwelling was a small cottage with a nice garden, in which they grew vegetables and flowers, and they had a cow.

In contrast, Walter de la Mare’s retelling in TALES TOLD AGAIN (1927) shares the same core information in half the words.  Without long descriptions of scenery the story moves quickly to the action.

 There was once a boy named Jack, and he lived with his mother, who was a widow.  All they possessed was one old cow.  What was worse, it looked as if they would never have anything else, for Jack although he had his good points, was idle.  At least, he wasn’t exactly idle, but he hated doing what he didn’t LIKE doing–and that was most things.

Alan Garner, an author steeped in the oral tradition, shares the same basic narrative information in his JACK AND THE BEANSTALK (1992) through yet another voice and rhythm.  His word count is higher than de la Mare’s, but notice the evocative use of repetition and internal rhythms. By the way he piles up the list of misfortunes Garner makes us feel their burden. He creates an emotional setting without needing lots of adjectives. 

      Once upon a time Jack and his mother lived on a common in a poor tumbledown house of sorts, with only a white cow to keep them.  Every day Jack picked up snapping wood and sticks for the fire; his mother dug the garden; and the white cow grazed the lane side.

      But one morning Jack’s mother said, “Jack,” she said, “the crock’s empty; the garden’s bare; we’ve got no meat; we’ve got no money; and the white cow is dry.  You must take her to the market and sell her.

Like traditional storytellers, picture book writers compose for the ear. This gives us more input toward the final book than many think. The typical steps in film are: #1 text, #2 director & actor interpretation, #3 cinematography/images, and #4 musical sound track.  With picture books our steps are very different: #1 TEXT that is also MUSICAL SOUND TRACK, #2 editor/director’s experience of that text/sound track, and #3 illustrator’s response and extension of that text/sound track.

Before we lament not having control over the choice of illustrator and his imagination we are wise to step back and see if we have made the most of our opportunities to influence him through the sound track of our text.

Coming soon:  Varieties and Values of Repetition


*from KUTKHA THE RAVEN (1976). Translated from the Russian by Malysh Publishers, 1981.

“The line of the story must be pure, and must carry itself along without visible strain. Each word must lend its muscle. And the rhythm by which the words attach themselves to each other, by which they roll and move, must be economical but forthright. In all these qualities, the language of the picture book resembles the language of the poem.”  Donald Hall

Hall, Donald.  THE OX CART MAN.  Illustrated by Barbara Cooney.  Viking, 1979.

The story behind THE OX CART MAN is a journey itself.  When Donald Hall left Michigan and moved to his grandparents’ farm in New Hampshire a cousin told him the story of an ox cart man.  In time, Hall retold the story as a poem, “The Ox Cart Man,” that appeared in THE NEW YORKER (October 3, 1977).  He revised it slightly when it was published in his collection KICKING THE LEAVES (1978).  Then again when it was published in OLD AND NEW POEMS (1990). Children and picture book fans know the poem in yet another form–the picture book which received the 1980 Caldecott Medal.

Hall’s picture book is an excellent example of how the rhythm and cadence of a text can echo and evoke the story’s subject matter. How did he do it?  What decisions and revisions did he make? We can learn by exploring his process. Many of Hall’s drafts can be viewed online thanks to the Milne Special Collections site at the University of New Hampshire Library:

May you enjoy the journey.

When asked what she admired about Margaret Wise Brown’s writing—Charlotte Zolotow replied:  “For one thing, there is the sound of her words.  You want to hear GOODNIGHT MOON even if the language it is written in was foreign to you.”


Part I

No one questions that the picture book, like film, is a blending of word and image.  Yet most discussions of the genre treat the picture book as if it were a silent movie.  Content and image are discussed, but little or no attention is paid to sound.  Words and sentences are content and sound.  The writer’s use of sound can make the difference between merely sharing information and sharing the emotional experience of a story. 

People are forever aghast when they learn picture book writers don’t get to choose their illustrators or tell them what to draw. They almost pity us for having no control.  But, if we writers do our best to evoke as well as report, we have far more input than most people suspect. How? By writing with attention to the sound and shape of our sentences and pacing.  In doing this, we provide our editor and illustrator with an emotional experience—a valuable map toward the visual extension of the text.  We will have also written a better picture book.

Upcoming posts on Writing to be Heard will include:

1.   Picture Books & the Oral Tradition

2.  Sound as Content & Meaning

3.  Rhythm as Content & Meaning

4.  Narrative Shape as Content & Meaning

5.  Rhyming: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly