Lit Kid: recurring phrases

I began with openings, and now I’m going onto recurring phrases in children’s books.

It’s not my intention to get overly stylistic about it. I have a notebook where I am starting to record ideas for writing about children’s books, and there are (unsurprisingly) many others that could clamour for attention.

But a certain amount of time this week spent with audio books, to calm and occupy the invalid, has made me more aware of the power of such phrases in books – even when we hear them inside our heads, or with our eyes.

Just as we may know what is coming with words such as “Once upon a time”, recurring phrases belong to the atmosphere that is built as a tale starts to take shape before our eyes.

Whether read aloud, or viewed on the page, the phrases are there for us to notice. They tie us to that particular author, or series of books.

Sometimes it is a form of address to the reader that beguiles us – particularly with Kipling’s ‘Best Beloved’, of the Just So Stories. (In fact, try doing a ‘find’ of ‘Best Beloved’ on the Project Gutenberg version, and see just how many there are.)

It may be like a favourite uncle having a pet name for us – a phrase of affection, like ‘Silly old bear!’, which may even make its way into regular language usage.

It may equally be a suggestion that we, as readers, understand more than others, and so will be entrusted with secrets by the author.

Recurring phrases don’t always have to be the same words – but they need to occur in the same kind of place each time, and follow a particular function.

They may be the equivalent of an in-joke – which they often are, in the Harry and the Dinosaurs series.

Book by book, Harry’s older sister Sam makes some kind of comment which gets Harry’s goat, and leads to some form of retaliation:

‘Sam said “You can’t take dinosaurs to school, stupid!”
That’s why her toast fell on the floor.’ (Harry and the Dinosaurs go to School)

We know it is coming – we also know that (usually) Harry’s Gran will take him off and calm things down.

What we don’t know is what format the offence will take – or what Harry’s response will be. So we need to go on to the next book to find out.

Equally, in the Horrid Henry series, there are regular descriptions of the anti-hero Henry attacking his brother Peter, all worked out in character – a bit like Calvin as Spaceman Spiff, dealing with the latest impertinence by his class teacher.

The pay-off, really, is that someone will have to say “Stop being horrid, Henry!”, and reconfirm his nature and character.

For younger children, often the main beneficiaries of reading aloud, regular phrases are markers in a world they are still trying to understand. These phrases or set pieces help set up expectations; they show the way that we are expected to react.

On occasions, the phrases also help build a world for the characters: one that, we feel, we could step into, and know how to interact with others.

Sometimes, it’s done through recurring minor characters. The Harry Potter series, for example, has Moaning Myrtle, a ghost first encountered in the girls’ toilets.

Myrtle moves through water, it seems, so it’s not so surprising when she turns up in a later book when Harry is forced to take a longer bath for reasons of solving a mystery.

The expectation is that we will recognise Myrtle, that we will know why she is here, but also why she is well-placed to give Harry a clue.

It’s a useful short-cut for us – and for Harry – and it helps confirm that sense of the wider Potter universe that J.K. Rowling carefully built up.

Recurring phrases, or characters, are probably one of the ways we are drawn into continuing reading through series of books – the promise of a series of comic turns, that improve in impact the more you read.

But illustrators can use them too, when drawing a new book but including recognisable details from another one.

One example of this would be the recurring cat characters in Satoshi Kitamura‘s picture books. (See how many cats you can spot in the link article’s pictures.)

Equally, scroll through the link article’s Sendak illustrations to the one for The Nutcracker (third one down), and see who else you recognise (on the left hand side).

There are equally visual protocols that illustrators enjoy – like Herge drawing himself into Tintin stories (a bit like Hitchcock’s brief walk-on parts in his own films).

For those (like me) who are fond of a catchphrase, and the opportunities to repeat it, recurrence in books is the best kind of deja vu.

It is an invitation to guess the punchline – and to take a step closer to the author (or illustrator) setting up the joke.

And with your liking for them and their books building through each recurrence, who would refuse?

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