Cadenza: The Rules That "Jack" Broke

This is the house that Jack built… / This is the cat, / That killed the rat, / That ate the malt / that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the noun that noun verbed… / This is the noun, / That verbed the noun, / That verbed the noun / that verbed in the noun that noun verbed.

The “House That Jack Built” structure shows up in picture books all the time. It’s easy to see why: the formula is adaptable to pretty much any subject matter. You can build on it as much as you want, from “the cow with the crumpled horn” all the way to “the farmer sowing his corn.” The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes notes that it “has probably been more parodied than any other nursery story.”

Still, though it’s hard to pinpoint the book / that wore out the welcome / of books like “The House That Jack Built,” the concept is getting old. (So old that I had to Google the word malt to be sure I understood the source material. The rat can have it.)

Why should this one structure be so ubiquitous? There are so many other ways to tell stories. We could even break from convention and tell the “House That Jack Built” story differently for a change.

It’s not exactly Shakespeare.

Shall I compare thee to a house by Jack?

Have you a malt to feed a hungry rat?

No rat? No cat. No dog. A cow you lack.

No crumpled horn. (The Horn Book’s glad of that.)

It’s not even Clement C. Moore.

’Twas the night after building, and all through the flat

Not a grain was remaining, all thanks to the rat.

The stockings were hung, but they’d fallen from there—

removed by a feline who clawed them with flair.

And what about all the other nursery rhymes out there?

Hickory, dickory, dalt.

The rat consumed the malt.

The house of Jack

incurred a lack.

Nature is nobody’s fault.

Or we could use other ways to draw listeners in, such as the Longfellow method of storytelling:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear

of the malt that never turned to beer…

Or take a page out of William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

this one Jack


of where it all

Or use a prose-picture-book structure, à la Laura Joffe Numeroff:

If you give a house some malt, it’ll probably get eaten by a rat. If you give it a rat,
a cat will probably eat it…

Or we could just move on to other stories altogether. As Ray Charles might put it…hit the road, Jack.

From the May/June 2020 Horn Book Magazine Special Issue: Breaking the Rules.

Shoshana Flax
Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, associate editor of The Horn Book Magazine, is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons University. She is a current member of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award committee, and has served on the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.

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