Helena Writes #35: On accumulation stories

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
Date Posted:

Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 35th post, she shares a fun way to structure a children's story, with her own original example. Enjoy!


Children's stories with an accumulation, or a great multiplicity of something as its central theme and/or structure, go back to books written before I was a child. Rumpelstiltskin comes to mind. I loved Bartholomew Cubbins and the 500 Hats, by Theodore Geisel, aka, Dr. Seuss, read to me by my parents. No end to the hats, until Bartholomew reached number 500. What a dilemma he had, before the king! Tommie DePaola's Strega Nona is another, a story that involves magic: a pot that cooks spaghetti for the whole town. But someone has recited a spell over that pot. It cooks so much, the town is nearly buried in spaghetti. Something has to break the spell! 

An accumulation story is a story that can start with one and end with many. My book A Grain of Rice is an accumulation tale. That story is based on arithmetic progression. When I heard about the accumulation of the numbers, I was spellbound, and knew I'd have to tell it as a story for children. A friend was remembering a math problem, the wheat and the chessboard. I looked for it and never found it. So I wrote my own story around that mathematically true and fascinating accumulation of numbers.

Accumulation stories are a way to structure a children's story that catches writer and listener up in the sometimes outrageous action. “Nat's Hats” caught me up as I wrote it and as I continue to work on it. It just tickled me. I think I wrote it for a class of children I was teaching to make picture books. And, of course, my own children sometimes came home from school without their hats!



Nat had a hat.

He wore it to school.

It had green stripes

Nat came home without it.

He wore his red hat the next day.

It had matching mittens.

He came home with the mittens. But not the hat.

Next, Nat wore a yellow hat. But when he came home from school it wasn’t on his head.

Nat wore his mother’s hat to Aunt Lucy’s on Sunday. It was blue and green. He couldn’t find it when it was time to go home.

Nat wore his father’s hat the day after that. It disappeared.

Nat’s mother sewed Nat a hat, and one extra, just in case. One was white. The other was orange. Nat dropped the white hat in the snow. The orange hat disappeared at the food market.

The wind blew. Nat’s ears were cold. 

“You’ll have to wear your sister’s hat,” said Nat’s mother.

“Ugh!” said Nat. Nat couldn’t find it when it was time for school the next day. 

On his birthday, Nat’s mother gave him a yellow hat. Nat’s father gave him a blue hat. Nat’s Aunt Lily knitted a hat for Nat, in rainbow colors.

Nat hugged Aunt Lily. “I love rainbows!” he told her.

Nat’s friend, Rosario, gave him a hat, too. It was purple and fuzzy.

Mrs. Kendricks, Nat’s teacher, gave him a hat with a pompom.

Nat put his new hats on his shelf.

Nat wore the rainbow hat to school. It had a rainbow-colored end that dangled down over his eye.

Nat pulled it. He pulled and pulled it. It got longer and longer and longer. The hat got smaller and smaller and smaller.

Smaller and smaller, until all that was left of Nat’s rainbow colored hat was a pile of rainbow colored yarn. Nat wound it into a ball and brought it home.

Nat looked at the hats on his shelf, the yellow hat, the blue hat, the purple fuzzy hat, and the hat with the pompom. He looked and he puzzled.

“Hmm,” said Nat. “Hmm, hmmm, hmmm.”

He puzzled and looked and looked and puzzled. He sat down on the floor. He stood up. He stood on his head. He did a somersault. He closed his eyes and opened his eyes. He closed them and opened them again.

“HMMMMMM!” exclaimed Nat. Suddenly, he’d had an idea.      

Nat took a scissors from his drawer and cut a piece of rainbow yarn. He tied it to the purple hat. He looped the other end of the piece of yarn through a button hole in his jacket, and tied that end too.

Nat looked pleased.

When he came home from school the next day, Nat’s ears were warm. The purple hat was on his head.

Nat tied a piece of rainbow yarn to the yellow hat. Then the blue. Then the purple. Then the one with the pompom. 

Each time he wore a hat, it was tied to his jacket with rainbow yarn. When Nat went shopping with his mother, his hat was on his head. It was on his head when he came home. When Nat walked to school, he was wearing his hat. And he was wearing it when he came home.

Aunt Lucy called to say she found the blue and green hat in the cat’s basket. Nat’s teacher found the green striped hat in Nat’s desk.

Three of Nat’s hats turned up in the Lost and Found at school. Nat’s father’s hat was under Nat’s bed.

Nat found the white hat in the back yard, in spring, after the snow had melted. The food market called to say someone had found the orange hat in the carrot bin. Nat’s sister’s hat was in her crib.

Now Nat has all his hats. They are each tied with a piece of Aunt Lily’s rainbow yarn.

Nat and his parents have built Nat a new closet. They’ve painted it like the sky. Nat has painted two words on the closet door: NAT’S HATS!

Nat’s also painted a big rainbow to stretch across the sky, and a few white puffy clouds.


Do you have a favorite accumulation story from childhood? What did you think of “Nat’s Hats”? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

Want to receive tips and inspiration like this in your inbox every Sunday morning? Join our email list community! You will receive weekly advice, a year’s worth of weekly writing prompts as a FREE download, and be eligible to participate in our monthly photo prompt contest for a chance to share an original piece of writing with our community of more than 1,600 writers.