Yesterday, I read a well-known book with my first-grade group called Is Your Mama a Llama? It’s about a llama looking for others like him, who would have a llama for a mama, told in a fun and predictable rhyming pattern.
“Is your mama a llama?” I asked my fried Dave.
“No she is not,” is the answer Dave gave.
“She hangs by her feet and she lives in a cave. I do not believe that’s how llamas behave.”
“Oh,” I said, “You are right about that. I think that your mama sounds more like a… Bat!”
That’s the first of several animals the llama speaks to, and each has a different rhyming pattern.
Now, linguistic patterns aren’t the only things kids use to predict as they read (which is something every reader does). They also use pictures. When my group got to this one, it threw their prediction a bit off.
Following the pattern, the mother animal on the next page is something that would rhyme with “on.” But the picture (if you aren’t paying attention to what’s in the plants) suggests something else. So the young readers, all seven of them, in unison, read this:
“Is your mama a llama?” I asked my friend Fred.
“No, she is not,” is what Freddy said.
“She has a long neck and white feathers and wings. I don’t think a llama has all of those things.”
“Oh,” I said. “You don’t need to go on. I think that your mama must be a . . .
*They turn the page as their mouths form their expected word*
It was hilarious. After we finished the book, they were still repeating the error and laughing together. But what made it so funny?
Part of it was the fact that all seven of them made the exact same error at the exact same time. But it also came from the story turning in a way that their prediction wasn’t having them go (even if it was accidental).
I’ve posted about how plot twists are like telling jokes, in that they evoke an emotional response by turning reader expectations on them. It’s the I didn’t see that coming effect. Writers can take advantage of them by anticipating what readers will predict and then going the other way. Similarly, teachers can amuse their students by knowing what the kids will expect to happen, playing that up, and then acting totally surprised when the twist happens.
When I had my own classroom, one book I always read to the class on the first day of school was called First Day Jitters.
It’s the story of Sarah Jane Hartwell, who does not want to face the first day at her new school. Mr. Hartwell convinces and prods her to get out of bed, then to get dressed, have breakfast, and get into the car.
Finally, she walks through the door, where the principal introduces her to the class as their new teacher.
All through the story, I would play up what it’s like for a kid starting a new grade, whether or not it’s at a new school, furthering their prediction that Sarah was a student, not the teacher. So the reveal brought them a delightful surprise.
So what’s the perk of predictability?
Knowing what readers expect allows us to create funny, scary, or fantastic surprises.
When you see a negative review for a book that says something like “totally predicable,” it’s safe to assume that the author didn’t use reader expectations against them, so to speak. Having a prediction play out exactly as you think, especially if it happens repeatedly, isn’t a very satisfying reading experience. There isn’t as much emotion that comes from being right, aside from a little satisfaction, perhaps.
So as you’re writing or teaching, put yourself in the reader brain at first. What would they expect? Then, use that to go the other way.