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MO Day #11 Roxanne Explores Refrains

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Creating Structure with Refrains

Have you ever heard a new song on the radio, and later in the day—without really knowing all the words—found yourself singing it? What part did you sing? Most likely, the chorus.

Like the chorus of your favorite song, a picture book refrain (a repeated phrase within a story) invites listeners into the reading experience. Refrains inspire “shared readings” and help young children develop confidence with storytelling and the written word, growing their identity as readers. (Teacher geek-out: Refrains also improve vocabulary, develop decoding skills, boost fluency, and build story comprehension—but that’s a post for a different audience.)

Read a review of this book here:

But as writers, it’s important to note that picture book refrains do more than add musicality to your work. They can escalate tension and add humor to a story as in The Tumbleweed Came Back by Carmela LaVigna Coyle and Kevin Rechin or Swashby and the Sea by Beth Ferry and Juana Martinez-Neal.

They can be used or create a mood as in You Nest Here With Me by Jane Yolen, Heidi Stemple, and Melissa Sweet…

or reinforce an important message as in We Are Still Here! by Traci Sorell and Frane Lessac.

But sometimes refrains take on a different job in picture book texts. Sometimes, especially in nonfiction and/or concept books, refrains are used to establish the story’s structure.

For example: Whole Whale by Karen Yin and Nelleke Verhoeff.

This rhyming book tackles the concept of inclusion as animals of every size and stripe squeeze into the story’s pages. Without a typical story arc, author Karen Yin brings structure to her story by asking, “But can we fit a whole blue whale?”. This refrain drives the story forward, inciting page turns, and eventually bringing readers to the big aha moment that “When everybody makes some space, one more can always find a place.”

Miranda Paul does something similar in Water is Water (Miranda Paul and Jason Chin).

Using poetic language and a variable refrain Paul introduces young readers to the water cycle. Within the pages of the book, her refrain serves double duty by identifying the stages of the water cycle and by inciting page turns. For example: On the first spread, Paul writes “Drip. Sip. Pour me a cup. Water is water unless…[page turn] it heats up.” The second spread continues to describe steam, then incites the page turn by creating a variation on the refrain, “Steam is steam unless…”.

My own book (forthcoming with Yeehoo Press), also uses a refrain to help structure its informational text. In lyrical language, My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me (by Roxanne Troup and Kendra Binney) follows a young child’s relationship with his grandfather through the seasons of caring for and harvesting pecans both in a commercial pecan orchard and their own backyard. A repeated refrain of “But not my tree,” highlights this comparison structure and encourages page turns as readers make their way through the fruiting cycle of one of the United States’ oldest export commodities. I hope you’ll watch for my cover reveal next month!

Roxanne Troup grew up along the waterways of Missouri, where everyone had a pecan tree but few grew pecans commercially. Today, she lives in the mountains of Colorado (where no one grows pecans) and writes kid's books that celebrate the wonder of childhood and beauty of family. With a background in education, Roxanne loves learning new things and sharing that knowledge with kids in fun and engaging ways. When not writing, she enjoys hiking with her family, cheering at her kid's sporting events, and reading a good book. Roxanne often visits schools to water seeds of literacy and teach about writing. (And sometimes remembers to water the plants in her garden.)

She is the author of several fun and fascinating non-fiction books, which can be found here.

Connect with her on Twitter or her website.

Roxanne is offering readers a submission package critique. She’ll review one picture book manuscript with its accompanying pitch and query letter to help your work move out of the slush pile.


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