The Making of a Picture Book Part Three: LANGUAGE

Welcome to The Making of a Picture Book Part Three. Today we will be taking a closer look at the language of picture books, and zooming in on rhyme, rhythm, sequences and repetition. If you’re still catching up, here are Part One: PLOT and Part Two: CHARACTER.

Rhyme and Rhythm: Why you should Listen to Rap

I’m Yertle the turtle
Oh marvellous me!
For I am the ruler
Of all that I see

As we saw yesterday, rhyme is important. And even if you are not writing your whole picture book in rhyme, you can still incorporate internal rhymes and half-rhymes to add some skippy-trippyness to your work. is a fantastic free resource, by the way, for when you need a rhyme.

In my opinion, only one person alive is as skilled at rhyme and rhythm as Doctor Seuss was, and his name is Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem. Yes, I know, it seems odd to mention Doctor Seuss and Eminem in the same sentence, but bear with me. This is going to seem like a tangent, but it does relate to picture book writing tips, I promise…

I had never heard anything by Eminem until June this year. “What do you mean?” said my wife, when I mentioned that to her. “You’ve been writing for teenage boys all this time and you’ve never listened to Eminem!” What can I say? I’m a pseud and a prude and a Radio 4 listener. I had heard lots of news stories about Eminem and about the unpleasantness of his lyrics and about his bad influence on the young’uns, and I believed it all. Sure, there was always some music critic on the radio who was willing to defend him and to wax lyrical about his genius, but there always is, isn’t there?

On 3 June 2011, I spent an afternoon in Ouagadougou downloading Eminem music videos and analysing his lyrics. I soon realized that the parents and teachers and social workers are correct – most of Eminem’s songs are deeply unpleasant, albeit in an ironic way. But the music critics are right, too: the man’s a genius, and a hard-working one at that. His feel for language is second to none.

There is plenty of analysis on the net of the complexity of Eminem’s rhyme and rhythm (like this colour-coded analysis of ‘Lose Yourself’ which demonstrates how Eminem uses up to four interlocking rhyme schemes at any one time), so I’ll get straight to the point of my story. Which is this: the day after listening to all that Eminem music I sat down to write with my head chock full of rhymes and rhythms. Sparks flew from the keyboard, I was in da zone. By teatime that day I had written a sweet picture book about a little African girl called Penda who gets stoned, robs a liquor store and shoots a – sorry, no, it’s about a little African girl called Penda who takes a bowl of milk to her Daddy who is herding sheep on top of a faraway hill. The book is called DON’T SPILL THE MILK and it charts her journey through various African landscapes with the bowl of milk balanced precariously on her head – and all the while she’s rapping to herself under her breath, giving herself a ‘Don’t Spill the Milk’ pep talk.

DON'T SPILL THE MILK by Stephen Davies and Christopher Corr
rough by Christopher Corr

The following day I sent the manuscript (it seems a bit pretentious calling a picture book draft a ‘manuscript’ but publishing jargon is strangely addictive) to my agent Julia Churchill. Julia loved it and sent it to Rona Selby at Andersen Press. DON’T SPILL THE MILK will be published in 2013.

So the moral of the story is, listen to Eminem if you want to write a picture book. All right, not him necessarily, but something that’s got original rhymes and strong rhythm. Rap is good for this. In yesterday’s post I mentioned the goal of ‘chant-ability’, and obviously chanting and rapping are very close relatives. Find some good headphones and pipe rap into your head at full volume until it begins to seep out of your pores. Then turn the music off, flex your typing fingers and turn that germ of an idea into a rhythmic picture book.

2. Sequences: Why you should never miss an opportunity to count to five

On Monday he ate through one apple
On Tuesday he ate through two pears
On Wednesday he ate through three plums
On Thursday he ate through four strawberries
On Friday he ate through five oranges

Don’t despise the simple things. Sequences are great – numbers, seasons, days of the week. Small children take exquisite pleasure in knowing what comes next.

The first draft of THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS did not have a counting element, but my wise editor Rona Selby was quick to suggest that the various animals in Al Haji’s herd provided an ideal opportunity for this. So now page two reads:

In his herd Al Haji had ONE dangle-tailed donkey, TWO snaggle-toothed camels, THREE curvy-horned cows, FOUR wobble-legged lambs and FIVE goggle-eyed goats.

Incidentally, I did wonder for a while about the word snaggle there – too hard, too strange, too indefinable? So I subjected it to the chuckle test. The chuckle test is this: I say the dubious word out loud ten times in quick succession and if I laugh before I get to ten, the word stays. Snaggle didn’t even make it to five. It stayed in.

3. Repetition: Why you should use the Rule of Three

I mentioned yesterday the importance of repetition. If your book has a memorable catchphrase or two, it will go far. Have you ever been on a walk with a 4-6 year old who suddenly starts chanting ‘We’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going on a bear hunt, I’m not scared – are you?’ Every Sunday afternoon the English countryside teems with bear hunters. And all thanks to Michael Rosen.

Repetition is important on a structural level also. We’re not talking about catchphrases now, we’re talking about whole cycles of near-identical language. Christopher Booker in THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS explains The Rule of Three, which is fundamental to all human storytelling. “Three is the final trigger for something to happen,” explains Booker. “It is the number of growth and transformation.” We know this intuitively because we often use phrases like ‘Third time lucky’ or ‘Ready, steady, go!’

Booker goes on to describe various applications of the Rule of Three in well-known fairy-tales.

1. The cumulative three: Cinderella makes three visits to the ball. Aladdin has to go through three caves before he discovers the lamp.
2. The ascending three: Jack climbs the beanstalk three times to steal from the giant’s castle, and each treasure he takes is more valuable than the last. First the gold, second the goose which lays golden eggs, third the golden harp (symbolizing the soul itself)
3. The descending three: Little Red Riding Hood makes three comments on the physical appearance of her ‘grandmother’, and each one brings her closer to disaster. What big ears you’ve got! What big eyes you’ve got! What big teeth you’ve got!
4. The contrasting three: In the story of the Three Little Pigs, the first two pigs are wrong in their construction methods, the third little pig is right. In the Three Billy Goats Gruff, the first two goats are inadequate to deal with the troll, the third one is adequate.
5. The dialectical three: Goldilocks finds the first bowl of porridge too hot and the second too cold. The third bowl is just right. The first is wrong in one way, the second is wrong in another (opposite) way, the third is just right. The idea that the way forward lies in finding an exact middle path between opposites is of extraordinary importance in storytelling, and Goldilocks demonstrates the Rule of Three par excellence. It is a sequence of three threes and the tension builds inexorably with each stage.

My first picture book THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS is basically about loss and reunion. Using the rule of three, I decided I wanted three voices at the beginning of the book to condemn the goats to being sold at market, and the same three voices to forgive/reinstate the goats at the end of the book. So I gave Al Haji Amadu, the owner of the goats, three wives: Rama, Fama and Sama. The naughty goats gobble Rama’s radishes, chew on Sama’s skirts and munch on Fama mats. Here’s the spread of the goats being naughty.

Spread 2 from the Goggle-Eyed Goats by Stephen Davies and Christopher Corr
by Christopher Corr

The goats have got to go. But once they’ve gone, Al Haji’s wives are not as content as they thought they would be. They end up going all the way to Mopti market to plead on the naughty goats’ behalf.

Goggle-Eyed Goats Spread 7 by Stephen Davies and Christopher Corr
by Christopher Corr

Those glorious technicolour illustrations are by the inimitable Christopher Corr, about whom I will be raving about in tomorrow’s post. For now, I want to focus on the threefold repetition in the spread above – it’s a cumulative three, the simplest of the Rule of Three forms.

“I had a change of heart,” said Fama, “so I followed the children to Mopti market. Don’t get rid of the goggle-eyed goats.”

“I found I missed the goats,” said Rama, “so I followed Fama to Mopti market. Don’t get rid of the goggle-eyed goats.”

“A goat-free life is dull,” said Sama, “so I followed Rama to Mopti market. Don’t get rid of the goggle-eyed goats.”

That’s all for now. In keeping with the threefold spirit of this section, here are three questions for you to ponder.
• Is listening to rap conducive to writing good picture books?
• Is the Rule of Three relevant to the modern picture book?
• What kinds of sequences have you come across in picture books?

Continue to The Making of a Picture Book Part Four: ILLUSTRATION.

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Stephen Davies

Children's author: picture books, chapter books and YA novels

3 thoughts on “The Making of a Picture Book Part Three: LANGUAGE”

    1. I’ve never heard of him (although the Dusty Foot Philosopher sort of rings a bell). I’ll give him a try. Are you a fan?

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