The Picture Book as Family Phrase Generator
It is a truth universally acknowledged that if a parent or guardian reads a picture book to a child repeatedly, day in and day out, for weeks or even months on end, something is bound to happen to the child’s brain and that of the adult reader as well. I don’t mean to make this sound dire or anything. The child, as many studies have shown, benefits from the repetition and learns from it. For the adult, however, there can be side effects. And perhaps the most common side effect is Chronic Family Phrase Generation.
Example: You read We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury constantly. Even if you have never seen this book performed in a storytime, you are aware that there are natural cadences to the text. You’ve read this so often that you have its natural cadences memorized. You have different voices for each of the sound effects. When the family runs from the bear you thump on the book like their frightened footsteps have come to life. And what is the result of all this hard work? Every time you go outside and the sun is shining and the breeze is blowing and the temperature is somewhere between 73-75 degrees you say aloud, “What a beautiful day.” And then, not five seconds later, “We’re not scared!”
Every. Single. Time.
That, my friends, is Chronic Family Phrase Generation. The upside of this is that everyone in your immediate family knows what you’re talking about when you use these phrases. It’s like a secret family passcode. If they ever kidnap you and replace you with an evil twin, all your family has to do to determine whether it’s you or not is to simply say off-handedly, “What a beautiful day.” If you don’t respond with that Pavlovian “We’re not scared,” then clearly you are the evil twin.
I think it’s actually really interesting to consider the qualities that make a written sentence into a family phrase. What must it consist of? The length? Where the stresses on each one of the words falls?
In my own home we have many such phrases, but only a couple occurred to me while writing this post. They are:
- From Go, Dog, Go: “Up the tree. Up the tree. Up they go to the top of the tree.” These sentences are modified every time I’m trying to get the kids to go up the stairs. Also acceptable, “Go down dogs. Go down, I say.”
- From The Daddy Mountain: “And that could be a catastrophe.” This one comes up randomly, but is very satisfying. I recommend placing the stresses on “that”, “be”, and the “tas” part of “catastrophe”.
I asked my husband if he had any growing up and he let me know that yes indeed, there were some. Both, to the best of his knowledge come from Dr. Seuss. They are:
“If such a thing could be then it certainly would be.”
“An isn’t has no fun at all. No he disn’t.”
This leads to a word of warning to the wise. The danger of all this, of course, is that someday your phrase can potentially remain but the source will have disappeared. In my own family growing up, for example, the phrase, “I swoop. I soar. I fly. Back up, back up!” was acquired somewhere. Possibly from a book, possibly from a film, possibly from a television show. The source has been lost but the phrase remains, only now every time we say it we cringe and feel obligated to follow it up with, “What is that from?”
So in the interests of research that will certainly never go anywhere, what are some of the family phrases in your home that you heard growing up or that you say now to your kids or grandkids, and that can claim picture books as their original sources? I wonder if any of your answers will repeat. Surely I cannot be the only person in the world doomed to say “We’re not scared” every time the day outside is beautiful.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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