Petite ReviMo May - Marcie Flinchum Atkins

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Picture Book Refrains
By Marcie Flinchum Atkins

What is it that gives a picture book that rereadability or allows for reader participation? What gives a picture book that remembering quality, like it's our favorite song?

Refrains can often give a picture book those qualities. Should every picture book have a refrain? Definitely not. But as you are revising, it is something you can try to see if it works for your particular manuscript.

A refrain in a picture book is a word or set of words that's repeated at various times throughout the text.

I looked at different examples of books with refrains and found a few common categories in the set of books.

Reader Participation

Sometimes the refrain makes the readers want to chant and participate in reading the book.

Monsters Don't Eat Broccoli
By Barbara Jean Hicks, illustrated by Sue Hendra
Knopf, 2009

In Monsters Don't Eat Broccoli, the refrain is:

"Fum, foe, fie, fee, monsters don't eat broccoli!"

It is spoken by characters in the book who are actually children pretending to be monsters.

Big Plans
By Bob Shea and Lane Smith
Hyperion, 2008

In Big Plans, the refrain varies throughout the book, but it is also chant-like.

"I got big plans, BIG PLANS, I say."

Each variation includes the words BIG PLANS in some form.

Wolfie the Bunny
By Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Zachariah O'Hara
Little Brown, 2015

Varying the refrain makes it even stronger. While the reader anticipates what the refrain will be, changing it just slightly makes the story still surprising. Ame Dyckman doesn't this brilliantly in Wolfie the Bunny.

Dot, the child bunny, is afraid a new adopted wolf baby will eat them and repeats the refrain, "HE'S GOING TO EAT US ALL UP!"

At one point, Dot realizes she's not being heard and says, "HE'S GOING TO…oh, skip it!"

When Wolfie gets captured by a bear, Dot steps in and says,

"Let him go!" Dot demanded. "Or…I'LL EAT YOU ALL UP!"

Here we have a twist on her refrain and we see a character change.

Some commonalities I noticed among these texts:
The refrain is spoken in dialogue.
The refrain reveals character. Because it is a character that's speaking, we learn about the character's personality through their words. And in all three cases mentioned, the characters mirror larger-than-life preschoolers and their emotions.
The refrain interjects humor. I can't help read these refrains without smiling or giggling.
They make excellent read alouds. One of the hallmarks of a good picture book is rereadability. Can it stand up to repeated reads? Young listeners want to read these books and they get into the book, even picking up on the refrain and participating.

Lyrical Refrains

I'm a big fan of lyrical picture books where the words are so beautiful you just want to melt into the page. But sometimes, these books need a little bit of oomph to pull the reader through the story.

Winter is Coming
By Tony Johnston, illustrated by Jim LaMarche
Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 2014

As nature prepares for winter, it has its own rhythm. In Winter is Coming, Johnston uses the refrain "winter is coming" to help pull the reader to the anticipated event: winter's arrival. The refrain leads to the climax. Once we have reached the anticipated event, the refrain changes to: "Winter is here." 

You Nest Here With Me
By Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Boyds Mill Press, 2015

You Nest Here With Me is a soothing bedtime story that rhymes. It follows different birds as they nest, but it is bookended with a mother and child. The refrain "You nest here with me" is at the end of each stanza.  It does change slightly at the end to: "You'll nest right here in our house with me." The refrain mirrors the love of parents throughout and it contributes to the peacefulness of this bedtime book.

Nonfiction Refrains

I originally began my refrain study in nonfiction because I noticed several picture book biographies that I really loved had refrains. In three of the four nonfiction books that I looked at, the refrain focused on the person and what made them stand out.

Miss Moore Thought Otherwise
By Jan Pinborough, illustrated by Debby Atwell
Houghton Mifflin, 2013

The refrain in this book calls attention to what makes Annie Moore notable. When she is a child, the refrain says, "Annie thought otherwise." As she grows into adulthood, the refrain changes to, "Miss Moore thought otherwise."

The Tree Lady
By H. Joseph Hopkins, illustrated by Jill McElmurry
Beach Lane, 2013

This picture book biography has a varying refrain.

"But Kate did."
"But not Kate."
"But she did."
"But thanks to Kate, it did."
"Katherine Olivia Sessions did."

All of these variations on the same refrain help pull the thread of the story through to the end. We follow Kate Sessions and her love for trees and how her actions impacted San Diego.

Just as in Miss Moore Thought Otherwise, the refrain points to a determination and "going against the grain" in these ladies' lives.

George Did It
By Suzanne Tripp Jurmain, illustrated by Larry Day
Dutton, 2006

George Did It talks about the difficulties George Washington faced as a leader. The refrain in the story is, "George Did It." Unlike the two previously mentioned picture book biographies, it doesn't have the refrain throughout the book. It is used in the beginning a few times and again the end. But it does share a similar purpose: to show a determined person who made a difference.

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia
By Miranda Paul, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
Millbrook Press, 2015

One of my favorite refrains is the one Miranda Paul uses in this book. Her refrain changes each time, but it shows the progression of the story and shows how a village was changed over time.

"One fruit tumbles.
Then two.
Then ten."

Later in the story…

"Holding her breath,
she plucks one plastic bag from the pile.
Then two.
    Then ten.
        Then a hundred."

There are seven different variations on the refrain. They each use numbers, but each time, it shows how the village is changing a little bit at a time.

One thing is for sure, refrains give cadence to a story. If the tone of your story is funny, then the refrain can romp and rollick through the book. If the tone is soft and lyrical, then the refrain can rock you gently as you read.

Here are some more books with refrains that I love. Read these too!

Mr. Duck Means Business by Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Jeff Mack
Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson, illustrated by Jane Chapman
Banjo Granny by Sarah Martin Busse and Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Barry Root

Go explore some refrains! As you revise, ask yourself, does my story long for a refrain? Not every story needs one. But it's worth a try to do a revision with a refrain and see what happens.

If you have a favorite book that has a refrain, please leave the title in the comments.

Marcie Flinchum Atkins teaches fourth grade by day and writes in the wee hours of the morning. Her book-nerdiness shows through because she is a certified school librarian and also holds an MA and MFA in children's literature from Hollins University. She blogs about making time to write and how to use books as mentor texts at: Her book, "Mentor Texts for Writers, Book 1" is available at: