The Book That Jack Wrote: A Picture Book Exercise

Illustration from The House That Jack Built by Randolph Caldecott

As I mentioned in my recent piece on Literary Rambles, one of the common pitfalls of writing picture books is being too ambitious–we have all these ideas we want to cram into one little piece of writing. But reining in our ambition does not necessarily mean that we can’t take on ambitious topics in picture books. So how do we do this and still be economical with words? Well, one way is by  using an established form.

Tomorrow I will be talking about Jean Reidy’s recently released picture book, Light Up the Night, which uses the familiar, cumulative form of “The House That Jack Built” to explore a child’s world just as he is about to go to sleep. Adam Rex’s Tree Ring Circus uses the same form, which is a testament to its flexibility.

So,  the exercise I’m proposing is this: write a picture book manuscript that uses “The House That Jack Built” as a template. It should start with one line and a refrain. The second stanza should build upon the opening by adding a line, the third should add a another line and so on, so that each stanza is longer than the one which preceded it. Jean begins with two lines and ends with twelve. “The House That Jack Built” begins with one line and progresses to eleven in the final section. You can determine the length of your final stanza, but 12 lines is probably long enough. Obviously the beginning lines are going to be read the most, so bare that in mind. Keep it simple. Start with something very small and familiar and build on it.  It can be a sandwich or a sweatshirt.  A blade of grass or a bicycle. Also keep in mind that the cumulative nature of the text will make it potentially more and more cumbersome to read, so each line has to be economical. Here are some more keys to making this work:

1. Make sure the refrain bears repeating. It should be the best line in the piece because it is repeated the most. In fact, this might be a more successful endeavor if you find this line first. I say “find” because it needn’t be completely original. In Reidy’s book it’s “…my own little piece of the universe,” which is beautiful, but it resonates emotionally because it’s a bit familiar to us. It’s what she builds around this line that makes it her own. “The house that Jack built” has its own kind of resonance. Part of it is that we’ve heard it forever, but it’s also monosyllabic and has those repeating short ‘a’ sounds. Both of these have good rhythm in common, which brings me to my next point.

2. The lines should have a strong meter. In this particular premise, the meter is anapestic, which means each unit (or foot) should have two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable (in your head it will sound like: ba-ba-BAH, ba-ba-BAH, ba-ba-BAH). There is some mutability in scansion, so don’t get too stressed out about the number of syllables. Sometimes we slur them together, some will tend to accent what others don’t, etc. The trick is to have the meter be strong and obvious when you read it out loud. And this brings me to my final hint:

3. Read it out loud–as you always should when you are writing a picture book. That’s generally what happens with this format once it’s out in the wild, so you might as well get it started right away. If it doesn’t learn it from you, it might be forced to learn it by someone else and that might not be pretty.

You can find the text for “The House That Jack Built” by Mother Goose here, and here’s some inspiration if you need it:

What are examples of other forms that lend themselves well to picture books? Let me know in the comments. Also let me know if you tried this exercise out and how you liked it. Finally, be sure to check in to read more about Jean Reidy and Light Up the Night tomorrow.

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