Last 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!