The Cumulative Story

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By Randholph Caldecott, engraved and printed by Edmund Evans-Library of Congress, Public Domain 

You know Jack, surely. And the house he built. A cat, a rat, a maid, a man, crowing fowl, they all figure in the bouncy rhythm of a nonsense tale that has been told and retold in many different versions. Lauren Thompson’s The Apple Pie That Papa Baked is a beautiful picture book version with a little twist at the end that pulls the child reader in.

What is it about this particular kind of chained narrative that is so engaging? It’s like a memory game in which each player adds an item and the further down the chain you go, the more you have to remember. The older I get, the more I value such things but I can also remember being thrilled by them as a child.

The plot of the cumulative story is spare. Jack builds a house. Papa bakes a pie. The charm lies in the repetition and in the growing of that list. I think the Aarne Thompson 2035 motif has staying power because it holds the potential to contain visual worlds. Of all the marvelous art in Lauren Thompson’s lovely book, this illustration by Jonathan Bean most perfectly captures that winding, widening structure:

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Cumulative chain stories allow us to cross languages and tap the energy even when we may not be able to understand the words. Listen to The Hunt by the amazing group Niyaz.

I don’t know a word of Dari, but it’s possible to absorb the rhythms and feel the stanzas growing with each additional animal on the list. Incredible.

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