Picture Books, Writing

Picture Books with P.U.N.C.H.: Cumulative Stories

IMG_1915Last summer in my “Picture Books with P.U.N.C.H.” post, I reflected on five characteristics essential to good picture book writing. In response, illustrator Julie Rowan- Zoch  kindly designed a badge for me that conveys those five characteristics visually (See sidebar). Now, as an extension, I’ll be delving into different picture book structures. This month I’m focusing on one my favorites – cumulative stories.

To crack the code on cumulative story structure I first gathered as many picture books as I could, striving for a diverse sampling including old classics, as well as newer publications. I read over 20 cumulative stories and have posted the titles separately above. I’ll be adding structures and titles to that list as the year progresses, so keep checking back.

In cumulative picture books, the plot builds on itself, sort of like a rolling snowball, until it either explodes into a hilarious finale, or quietly comes to rest with a cozy conclusion. The stories I read accomplish this in two basic ways.

Cumulative Structure A:  Repeat and Rhyme

One way to create a cumulative story is to build upon a growing set of repeated phrases. Classic examples of this structure include “The House that Jack Built”, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, and “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly”. Because the plot thickens via repeated phrases, this structure lends itself well to rhyme and if executed in perfect meter, the words practically sing off the page. Jean Reidy’s LIGHT UP THE MOON (Disney Hyperion, 2011) is a poetically perfect example of a cumulative text executed in the style of “The House that Jack Built”.  Two other stand-out examples of modern variations of traditional “repeat and rhyme” stories are  THERE WAS AN OLD MONSTER! by Rebecca, Adrian, and Ed Emberley (Orchard Books, 2009) and Cindy Szekeres’ adorable THE MOUSE JACK BUILT (Scholastic, 1997).

The challenge with the “repeat and rhyme” structure is that the repeated phrases risk becoming cumbersome, thus dragging the pace. The secret is to keep your text lean and light, perhaps varying the wording just a bit as the list builds.  Another strategy is to break the list pattern midway so that the cumulative effect continues, without having to repeat the entire list.  Shirley Neitzel’s THE JACKET I WEAR IN THE SNOW (Greenwillow, 1998) and Cindy Szekeres’ THE MOUSE JACK BUILT both use this strategy effectively.

Cumulative Structure B: Just Plain Build 

A second cumulative story structure is to build a plot that compounds without the use of a repeating list.  This economizes on words, thus giving the writer more room within the word count to intensify the plot. This is typically done with fast paced cause and effect scenes that rely on humor and/or increasingly hilarious ridiculousness as they build towards a spectacular finale.  “Just plain built” cumulative stories can rhyme or not.  Either way, they are characterized by their omission of a growing written list.  That list is simply understood.

My favorite recent example of a non-rhyming “just plain built” cumulative story  is STUCK, by Oliver Jeffers (Philomel Books, 2011), in which a boy’s kite gets stuck in a tree. To extract the kite, he tosses up ever bigger/ more ridiculous items which get stuck too.  For a “just plain built” cumulative example that rhymes, I enjoyed Karma Wilson’s WHOPPER CAKE (Simon and Schuster, 2007), in which Grandpa bakes Grandma a ridiculously enormous birthday cake.


Now that we’ve cracked the code on cumulative story structure, I challenge you to pick a cumulative style that appeals to you and write your own cumulative picture book.  Have fun!

And, if you’d like to suggest any other cumulative picture book titles, I’ll add them to my reading list and my index. Thanks!

21 thoughts on “Picture Books with P.U.N.C.H.: Cumulative Stories”

  1. Thanks so much, all, for stopping by. If anyone has any other cumulative picture books to recommend, I’d love more suggestions! Off now to draft my second cumulative story attempt for January. Any one else giving cumulative structure a try?

  2. Laura, thank you SO much for doing this! This is exactly what I need in my research. However, I don’t see where you posted your list of titles. Help! Where is it? I did recently read one really nice cumulative book: The Apple Pie that Papa Baked.

      1. Thanks, Laura! I knew it would be something completely obvious that I was missing. 🙂

  3. I agree on the point of keeping the repeats tight and crisp. I read a book recently which had cumbersome repeats, so when I read it I leave out the repeats- they simply don’t add anything to the story in this particular example.

    1. Just wanted to pipe in here, Lauri, because I do the same thing – editing and tightening as I read cumbersome picture book texts. I think it must be a sign of a true writer! =)

  4. Hi Laura,

    I was just reading through some of your posts. I love cumulative stories! My library doesn’t have THE MOUSE JACK BUILT 😦 It sounds adorable. I love Jean Reidy’s LIGHT UP THE NIGHT! I met her this past fall and have a signed copy. I would suggest Jennifer Ward’s THERE WAS AN OLD COYOTE WHO SWALLOWED A FLEA and Audrey Wood’s THE NAPPING HOUSE.

    I have a cumulative story out on submission. It was fun to write!

    Hope all is well with you.

    1. I love cumulative picture books too. My first (to be published) picturebook is cumulative. I wish you the best of luck with your cumulative submission and I’ll be sure to check out those titles. You’re the second person in a week to mention THE NAPPING HOUSE to me.

  5. I use cumulative books for teaching yoga–the best of both worlds imho 🙂 My favorite is The Rainforest Grew All Around

  6. Thank you Laura! I am reading as many cumulative picture books as I can find. Thanks for all your suggestions! I love Simms Taback’s Joseph had a Little Overcoat. I would call it de-cumulative.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.