PICTURE BOOK KNOWHOW Wonderfully Useful Refrains: Why Patterns Matter

This month, picture book experts, Natascha Biebow and Ellie Farmer, look at picture book refrains and how including one can help to boost your picture book writing.

You’ll no doubt have noticed that many successful picture books incorporate a refrain, a repeated pattern that encourages young readers to join in when the story is read aloud. 

From Wow! Said the Owl by Tim Hopgood

Young children have an innate sense of order and this is essential in how they develop and learn about the world. Rhythm, pattern and routine are comforting and soothing and have been shown to help foster language development.
Child ordering Montessori colour tablets

Refrains allow the story to build up to a climactic turning point where the refrain is either repeated for emphasis or there is a shift in the narrative and the refrain is turned on its head. 

For example, in EAT YOUR PEAS, by Kes Gray and Nick Sharratt, Daisy does not
like peas . . .

From Eat Your Peas by Gray & Sharratt

 So, no matter what Mum promises  . . .

From Eat Your Peas by Gray & Sharratt
. . . Daisy won't eat her peas – because she doesn't like them.

From Eat Your Peas by Gray & Sharratt
The repetition of the refrain 
"I don't like peas!" said Daisy.
helps to escalate the conflict between Mum and Daisy until it reaches a turning point. It also adds humour to the book.

Having a pattern in the words allows readers to focus on the elements that do change, giving them more emphasis in the advancement of the characters and the plot. For instance, in CLICK, CLACK, MOO, COWS THAT TYPE by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin, the cows have got hold of a typewriter:

From Click, Clack, Moo Cows that Type by Cronin & Lewin
The refrain builds the action.
"Click, clack, mooClick, clack, moo
Clickety, clack, moo.

When the farmer doesn't budge, the cows issue him with an ultimatum – they want electric blankets otherwise there will be no eggs and no milk! Duck helps mediate. When, eventually a solution is found - the cows will exchange their typewriter for the electric blankets – the book ends with a shift to the refrain:

From Click, Clack, Moo Cows that Type by Cronin & Lewin
Now the ducks are the ones in on the act! The book closes with a surprise twist.
Often, having the constant of a refrain means readers don’t have to ‘think’ quite so hard about what is coming, because it’s a given. In THE GRUFFALO by Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler, the pattern of the refrain
“A gruffalo? What’s a gruffalo?”
“A gruffalo! Why, didn’t you know?” 

From The Gruffalo by Donaldson & Sheffler

means that every time it appears, the suspense and mystery surrounding the gruffalo builds, but also that there is an additional emphasis on the beast's features revealed by each subsequent page turn:
From The Gruffalo by Donaldson & Sheffler

Refrains are often lots of fun to read aloud, too. This makes them memorable and, in turn, the book becomes one that children request over and over again. Here are some examples of fun refrains that you can take a closer look at. Notice how the author uses the patterning in the refrain to escalate the tension in the narrative and the reader's expectation of the outcome:

 “I really want to eat a child!” 

“Application DENIED!” 

 “This is a job for . . . FIX-IT DUCK.” 

"I want my mummy!" said Bill.

Will your story have a memorable refrain too?

Natascha Biebow is an experienced editor, mentor and coach, who loves working with authors and illustrators at all levels to help them to shape their storieswww.blueelephantstoryshaping.com

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