One Writer’s Journey

January 15, 2014

The House that Jack Built

Cumulative talesYesterday, in my post about picture book revision, I mentioned rewriting a nonfiction manuscript as a cumulative story similar to “The House that Jack Built.”  The House that Jack Built is a British nursery rhyme in which one line builds on the one that came before, which is also repeated like this:

This is the house that Jack built.
This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the rat that ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the cat that killed the rat
That ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the dog that worried the cat
That killed the rat that ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.
 

And so on, forever and ever.

I say forever and ever, but that isn’t quite true.  It probably only goes on for another 49 or so lines.  I counted.  It just feels like forever.  Some people may love the repition but I am not one of those people.  That is probably why I put off rewriting this particular picture book.  I could see why my story would benefit from a cumulative format, but I just wasn’t sure I wanted to go there.

And then I read a new type of cumulative story.  The ideas are repeated but the text changes with each spread.  Here is an example from Baby Says, “Moo!” by JoAnn Early Macken:

A bird says moo?
Well isn’t that sweet?
But everybody knows that
a bird says tweet.
 
People say hello,
and a cow says moo,
sure as we will always be
me and you.
 
Baby zooms away.
Wheee! What fun!
 
Waves at a striped cat
stretching in the sun.
 
Baby what do cats say?
Baby says, “Moo!”
 
A cat says moo?
I can’t see how.
Everybody knows that
a cat says meow.
 
A bird says tweet,
and people say hello.
 
A cow says moo,
everywhere you go.

This is ideal for my manuscript, because I need to emphasize the repetitive nature of certain natural phenomenon.  But it also gives me the wiggle room that I need to write a text that still feels interesting and alive.

If you haven’t ready any cumulative tales in a while, take a look at what is out there.  You may discover a technique you want to explore.

–SueBE

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