craft review by Anne-Marie Strohman
Brains love patterns. We use them to make meaning. For kids, patterns are especially important because they provide an opportunity for prediction, surprise, and delight. In her debut picture book, Ramen for Everyone, Patricia Tanumihardja uses patterns to great effect, and the book is sure to make a lot of kids’ brains very happy.
Let’s look at how she does it!
We find out on the second spread that our protagonist, Hiro, “wants to make the perfect bowl of ramen,” just like his dad does.
When Hiro turns seven, he decides it’s his time. “I’m a big boy now,” he says. “I’m going to make the perfect bowl of ramen!”
This small word–perfect–makes Hiro’s desire specific. He doesn’t just want to learn to make ramen, he wants it to be perfect.
The word occurs four more times in the story. Twice in quick succession after Hiro’s attempts to make ramen turn disastrous, and then finally when his dad eats the ramen Hiro serves him and his family.
In Hiro’s lowest moment, Hiro talks to his dad. He says:
“My ramen is horrible. It isn’t perfect like yours.”
“Ramen doesn’t have to be perfect,” says Dad.
“Mom and Mia are happy you’re making dinner for them–and I bet you can still make their ramen special.”
Dad helps him see that his goal shouldn’t be perfection, but specialness. This gives Hiro an idea. He makes a new attempt at creating ramen for his family, and his dad responds:
“This bowl is PERFECT for me!”
Dad’s response here highlights what Hiro has learned–that he can make something special for someone else, and it doesn’t have to meet some external standard of perfect.
The final line of the story reinforces this theme:
But he knows how to make perfect bowls of ramen for Mom, Mia, Sushi [the dog], and Dad.
Tanumihardja uses strategic repetition of the word “perfect” to communicate her theme.
Dad, then Son
Ramen for Everyone has an interesting structure. A useful tool for writing any story (but especially picture books) is The Story Spine: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
Typically in picture books, the first two elements go by very quickly. We might move into the “one day” section within the first two pages!
But Tanumihardja spends time establishing the storyworld before we move into Hiro’s “one day,” when he turns seven and decides to make ramen on his own. We get seven whole two-page spreads of story before we get to Hiro’s “one day.”
The story follows the Story Spine:
Once upon a time there was a boy who loved ramen and wanted to make the perfect bowl. (2 spreads)
Every Sunday his dad made ramen for dinner, and it was perfect! (5 spreads)
One day, when the boy turned seven, he decided to make ramen on his own . . . (11 spreads)
By taking the time to show us Hiro’s dad making ramen, Tanumihardja establishes the start of a pattern, and shows us the model for the perfect bowl of ramen. We contrast this with Hiro’s attempt to make ramen, when it turns out poorly. Then the third attempt shows Hiro’s twist on “perfect” ramen. It reflects what he learned.
Writers are often cautioned not to focus on adults in picture books. While that may be helpful advice to keep writers from having adults dominate the stories of picture books, it’s not a firm rule. Tanumihardja proves the exception to the rule. The story is about Hiro making ramen, but it’s also about his relationship with his dad. The Dad section of this story works because the story stays focused on Hiro and on the action of ramen-making throughout. We don’t hear the dad’s inner thoughts. We don’t know what the dad wants. We stay focused on Hiro’s experience, and that focus helps young readers connect with Hiro’s story.
The Rule of 3s
Tanumihardja uses the “rule of 3s” all over this story. (Read our previous post on The Rule of 3s in Brand-New Bubbe by Sarah Aronson.) Using patterns of three is super satisfying to reader’s brains. Two items together set readers up to compare or contrast, while three give a sense of a pattern that can be continued or upended.
The story starts with The Rule of 3s on the first page:
Hiro loves ramen–with nori seaweed, briny like the ocean;
with nitamago egg, the yolk golden like the sun;
with chashu pork so tender, it melts in your mouth.
The rhythm of three here gives a sense of completeness, and primes us for a story that is steeped in 3s.
When Dad makes ramen, he does it in three stages: broth, noodles, toppings. And each of those stages has three action verbs.
[broth] First, Dad chops, simmers, and seasons.
[noodles] Then Dad mixes, slices, and dips.
[toppings] Finally, Dad shreds, steeps, and stews.
When Hiro’s attempts go poorly, we see the results in a list of three:
But the seaweed crumbles. The eggs slip through his fingers. The pork falls apart . . . and there are no toppings for anyone.
The broth is bland. The noodles are soggy. And now the toppings are unfit to eat.
There are more groups of three in the story. I recommend analyzing the book and identifying every group of three. Then look at how Tanumihardja punctuates those groupings with strong assertions.
In the last example, the line that follows is “Dinner is ruined!” It breaks the repetition of threes to make a strong, punctuating statement. Because it contrasts with all the threes, it has an even greater effect.
Put in Some Patterns!
Patterns can help shape a story, from the big-picture themes to the moment-by-moment actions. Giving kids the opportunity to “read” the patterns gives them practice in making meaning. And it gives them satisfaction in reading as well. The patterns and repetition create a rhythm to the book that kids can follow, or that they can count on until there’s a surprise break in the rhythm–when an unexpected thing shows up, or a little twist tickles their funnybone. As you’re looking at your own work, consider building in patterns to add to reader satisfaction.
Now it’s YOUR turn!
- Look for a key word connected to your theme that you can bring back at least three times in your story.
- Consider the way you set up your story. Is there enough in the “every day” section to be repeated (with a twist) in the “one day” section? Expand your “every day” section, just to see what happens, then trim it back as much as you can.
- Try the “rule of 3s” for actions, for events, for sequences.
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Check out these posts on the craft of picture book writing!
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.