by Katey Howes

Happy 2021, StoryStormers! How is the month of brainstorming treating you so far?

Maybe your idea engine is chugging steadily along with an “I think I can, I think I can,” attitude. You might feel your creativity bouncing out of control like five little monkeys jumping on a bed. Or perhaps, in spite of an influx of inspirational sights, sounds and friendly blog posts, your brain snores on??

Well, no matter which classic picture book your mind most resembles today, I’m pretty sure you can guess my chosen theme: refrains!

From CHICK-A CHICK-A BOOM BOOM to I LOVE MY WHITE SHOES, children’s literature is full of fabulous refrains. Why not channel their power jumpstart your creativity today?

A refrain is a phrase repeated throughout a book, generally in a predictable position in the text structure. A good refrain:

  • adds to the MEANING of the story
  • contributes to the PACING and FLOW of the story
  • compliments the SPIRIT of the story
  • is fun to say!

An effective refrain is repeated frequently enough to be memorable, but not so often it overwhelms. It may get a “twist” or variation once or twice in the book to keep readers on their toes or to emphasize a significant plot point.

Done well, refrains boost a book’s place in a child’s heart from blasé to “read it ten times a day!” Refrains may make a book rhythmic or melodic, add predictability, improve participation at bedtime and circle time, form a lasting impression, teach, soothe, or motivate.

On the other hand, done poorly, a refrain can come across as unnecessary, lazy, trite or annoying. It can distract from the heart of your story or – even worse – showcase that there’s not much story there at all.

Refrains are a risky business, people. This writing thing is not for the faint of heart.

In my upcoming book, RISSY NO KISSIES, I utilized a refrain for several reasons. First, to showcase building tension, caused by repeated conflicts. Rissy is a lovebird, but she doesn’t like kisses. In one situation after another, family and friends try to share affection with her through kisses. Each time she repeats the refrain to refuse kisses, they speculate as to what might be wrong with her. Is she rude? Confused? Sick?

The pairing of the refrain with Rissy’s increasingly upset body language and facial expression drives home the idea that these various interactions aren’t isolated incidents. They form a pattern, and build one upon the next.

At the same time, the refrain provides young readers with something familiar and predictable, increasing their comfort level with the story. Because this book addresses tough emotions and difficult social situations, giving kids that comfort is very important!  With the help of a soft color palette and clear, empowering resolution, the familiarity of a refrain balances out the difficult emotions and situations tackled in the book.

The idea for the refrain:

“No Kissies!” Rissy chirruped
with a most emphatic squeak,

was actually inspired by a line in one of my favorite books, NOISY NORA, which ends:

“But I’m back again!” said Nora
with a monumental crash.

I wanted to channel an energy, emotionality, and authenticity similar to Nora’s as I told Rissy’s story. Reflecting Nora’s voice in Rissy’s refrain helped me focus on and accomplish that goal.

So as a spark for your Storystorm idea today, I suggest you begin with a refrain. This particular refrain may never make it to a final draft (I assure you, many of mine have made it to the trash bin!), but it can certainly get you started on something new. Here are a few exercises you can try:

  1. Find a line from a book you love and create a refrain that mimics its rhythm and intonation, but hints at a different story.
  2. Pick an emotion you’d like readers to feel and write a refrain that centers that emotion.
  3. Think of a catchy or fun-to-say phrase (and imagine a character who’d like to say it).
  4. Take a refrain from a song or nursery rhyme and change a few words to give it a unique twist.

Good luck and good writing!

Katey Howes is the award-winning author of several picture books, including Grandmother Thorn (Ripple Grove Press, 2017), Magnolia Mudd and the Super Jumptastic Launcher Deluxe (Sterling, 2018), and Be A Maker (Carolrhoda, 2019). With each of her books, Katey seeks to empower readers to recognize their independence, creativity, and strength.

Katey’s latest book, Rissy No Kissies, illustrated by Jess Engle, releases March 2, 2021 with Carolrhoda Books, and has already received a starred Kirkus review and glowing recommendations from teachers, psychologists, and consent educators for its messages of autonomy, consent, and acceptance.

Katey lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with her husband, three ravenous readers, and a pup named Samwise Gamgee. You can find her on the screened porch with a notebook and a bowl of Moose Munch—or find her online at, tweeting @kateywrites, and on Instagram @kidlitlove.

Katey is giving away a signed copy of RISSY NO KISSIES and a custom enamel Rissy the lovebird pin.

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