Memes and Themes: Best bits of children's picture books?
September 13, 2012 8:42 PM   Subscribe

Looking for lists of memes, themes and repeated elements in children's stories that I can use in entirely new stories I'm making up for actual children.

The background: I work with young children (3-6 year olds) and do a made up on the spot weekly story for them. It started as a way to practice my improv skills at work, but it's taken on a life of its own now. It's one of my favorite parts of the week, and they love it as well. I have a basket of random objects, 3 kids each get to choose one, and the story has to be based around those 3 things. Depending on what they choose, I'll ask for character* and setting ideas as well, and sometimes ideas along the way.

Sometimes the stories seem to leap full-blown into my consciousness, sometimes I just get a glimpse of the beginning and improvise my behind off as the path appears as I go. Sometimes, though, the story seems good but the kids aren't as into it. I know that there's elements they love in a story - repeated phrases that they will join in on after a couple of times, for instance.

Basically, I'm looking for a list of common tropes of children's literature at the picture book level, especially ones that lend themselves to oral storytelling. As an example, one that I use often is The Quest, because it makes getting a fork, a penguin, and a pink sparkly star into one story a little easier. :) What are other ones? Give me suggestions, websites, ideas, books to read, picture books to read, whatever might help. What are your kids' favorite parts of their favorite picture books?

Please note that I'm not looking to remix old books, so "Cows that type!"^ would not work, but "animals using human things" would.

* My favorite: A man who wants a dump truck and lives in the woods but he went to China. I love my kids.

^ From Click Clack Moo, one of my favorite picture books.
posted by booksherpa to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Terry Pratchett's Discworld books revolve around common tropes, and even the basic Wikipedia entry on the story arcs may be helpful.
posted by vegartanipla at 9:48 PM on September 13, 2012

You may be interested in the Aarne-Thompson index.
posted by pompomtom at 10:19 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Fairy tale tropes.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:12 AM on September 14, 2012

Best answer: On the theme of repeated elements - the the triangle structure. As an example: A frog goes through the gate and meets a rabbit and they have a conversation. The frog and the rabbit cross the bridge, meet the rat and have a remarkably similar but slightly longer conversation. The frog, the rabbit and the rat go up the lane and meet the badger and etc etc.

Kids who have to look after themselves because their parents are somehow absent - and then something prompts an adventure, of course.

Common childhood interactions played out by animals. E.g. bullying, making friends, arguing and making up, learning to play nicely, etc. A great way of illustrating how you'd like them to deal with whatever odd classroom dynamic you have been seeing that week!

Patent absurdity (c.f. cows that type). On a similar theme, anything where you can get the story wrong (in the funniest way possible) and have the kids spontaneously correct you.
posted by emilyw at 4:33 AM on September 14, 2012

Response by poster: That Aarne-Thompson index is going to take some investigating! It's definitely on the right track, though the examples seem very very specific, and I hadn't realized how much violence there was in folktales.

I'd dug through TVTropes some, but clearly not enough.

Emilyw, perfect! Those are exactly the type of examples I'm looking for.

Please, more more more!
posted by booksherpa at 6:36 AM on September 14, 2012

Interesting that you asked about the 3-6 year old range because I recently created my Books for Children site to share my recommendations of illustrated books for parents and teachers to read to children in that exact age range.

I've thought a lot about what makes for an excellent children's illustrated book. I find that most books I evaluate are mediocre at best, and generally I think it's because they lack substance and depth, don't have a story that really goes anywhere, don't teach anything, and/or are just uninteresting.

Thinking about the ones that are excellent, they are all engaging, fresh, interesting, meaningful, and/or thought-provoking.

Among the books I evaluate, indeed many of them involve animals acting as people.

There are also some that have things acting as people (for example, the tractor in the excellent Otis books).

A very common thing I see is a character encountering disappointment, but that disappointment then resolving. Examples are winter or seasonal migration temporarily interfering with or disrupting some activity.

Another common thing I see is a fear being faced and overcome, such as a doctor's office visit, exploration of a cave, riding a bike, etc.

Another thing I see is a child acting very mature and/or brave and surprising his/her parents (for example, in Erandi's Braids, Brave Irene, etc.).

Another one is overcoming challenges/adversities, such as not being able to come up with an idea (Crafty Chloe, The Dot), facing down a bully, or even overcoming hungry/poverty (How I Learned Geography).

Another one is resolving a situation with a social solution (Those Shoes, The Sandwich Shop).

And of course there are the funny or improbable situations like The Incredible Book Eating Boy, King Hugo's Huge Ego, etc. where a lesson is learned from exaggerated situations that entertain by amplifying and absurdifying.

Those are just some off the top of my head thoughts.
posted by Dansaman at 6:44 AM on September 14, 2012

Sorry, Sandwich Swap not Shop.
posted by Dansaman at 6:46 AM on September 14, 2012

Kidlets I'm around love stories and songs that build ...

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly

Old Mac Donald had a farm (but repeat each animal on subsequent rounds, building the list)

The rattling can
posted by tilde at 7:49 AM on September 14, 2012

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