By Eric Ode
Ilustrated by Kent Culotta
I Will Repeat Them in a House. I Will Repeat Them with a Mouse.
by Author Eric Ode
It’s an off-balance feeling. That sensation that comes with international travel, when we’ve put ourselves in a place where the language, sights, and customs are unfamiliar. The street signs, the storefronts, the conversations on the sidewalk… Nothing looks or sounds quite like we expect. Then, when the familiar does come along – a Starbucks in Rome or an English-speaking pedestrian in Cusco – it jumps out with the intensity of a spotlight.
Familiarity grounds us. Comforts us. Gives us confidence. I think this helps explain why repetition is such a powerful and effective element in picture books – and in rhyming picture books especially. While a story’s vocabulary, setting, and characters might be new and confusing, repetition provides the child with something reassuring.
Think about that child you know who learned to “read” Green Eggs and Ham before they could read Green Eggs and Ham. It didn’t take many bedtimes with Sam and his floppy-eared friend before “I will not eat them with a…,” was tucked in that child’s back pocket like a shiny pebble.
Or consider the enthusiasm that erupts from the story time circle when the librarian shares Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. The children know that line is coming. They expect and look forward to it. And when it does, they join in with pep rally enthusiasm.
Repetition works! Repetition, whether the child knows it or not, is often what makes one particular story a favorite, the book a child goes back to again and again until Daddy is ready to hide it under the couch.
So how and where do we put repetition to work in our own writing?
For starters, pages can open with a repeated line. Several pages in Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama Red Pajama begin with the book’s title.
Repetition can roll around someplace in the middle of the stanzas like in Ogden Nash’s The Adventures of Isabel. (“Isabel, Isabel didn’t worry, Isabel didn’t scream or scurry.”) This repetition builds a framework for the story, like the repeating beams of a skyscraper.
Of course lines of repetition can wrap up a page. (All together now! “I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am.”) There’s Patricia Thomas’ “Stand Back,” Said the Elephant, “I’m Going to Sneeze!” (“Oh, please. Don’t sneeze!”) Or one of my favorites, Reeve Lindbergh’s There’s a Cow in the Road. (“Then the cow looks at me, and the cow says, ‘Moo!’ And the next thing I know, there’s a ______ there too!”)
In their delightful I’m a Dirty Dinosaur, Janeen Brian and Ann James take the last line of each stanza and repeat it in a chant-like fashion.
I’m a dirty dinosaur
with a dirty snout.
I never wipe it clean.
I just sniff and snuff about.
SNIFF, SNIFF, SNUFF, SNUFF, SNIFF AND SNUFF ABOUT!
Placed at the end of a page, repetition can build anticipation. What’s going to happen next?
Repetition can be scattered about the story like splattered paint on canvas. My own Too Many Tomatoes repeats the title seven times over the course of the story, sometimes at the beginning of a stanza, other times in the middle or at the end.
Still other books – Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, for instance – are built almost entirely upon repetition.
Do you have a rhyming picture book manuscript that’s feeling less-than-grounded? Three words: Repetition, repetition, repetition. When it comes to picture books, familiarity does not breed contempt but contentment.
Eric Ode is the author of ten picture books including the rhyming picture books Dan, the Taxi Man; Busy Trucks on the Go; and Too Many Tomatoes (Kane Miller Books) and Bigfoot Does Not Like Birthday Parties (Sasquatch/Little Bigfoot Books). A multiple award-winning songwriter for children and a former elementary teacher, Ode travels throughout the country sharing his stories, poetry, and music at schools, festivals, and education conferences. Visit www.ericode.com.