By Yvonne Blackwood ~
“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” What is this maxim all about? It is telling us not to employ our senses to do evil. When you write children’s picture books a great way to evoke the most vivid images in the minds of readers is to infuse prose that engages the senses. While it is simple enough to get readers to read a story, it is not as simple to get them to see what you see, hear what you hear, taste what you taste, smell what you smell, and feel what you feel.
Although there are five senses, you do not need to apply them all in your text every time. You simply have to include appropriate ones to help deliver strong imagery. I was very cognizant of this when I wrote Nosey Charlie Comes To town. In one scene I wrote: “Mama Leticia knew from experience that the crab apples would be tasty. She picked up the first fruit. . . she felt it, sniffed it, and shook it with a flurry.” As you read these words, your senses of sight, hearing, and smell spring into action. In your mind’s eye you can see the crab apple in Mama Leticia’s hand, you can smell the ripe fruit and you can even hear the seeds rattling as she shakes it! This is the kind of imagery your prose should conjure up.
Let us examine the effects of all five senses in our prose in more detail.
The sense of sight is the easiest to portray. You do so with a few choice adjectives, words that describe colours, locations, size etc. In your Johnnie Rabbit story, you can simply write that the turnips were white with purple cheeks or Johnnie wore a red bow tie, and your readers can already see what you are writing about.
For readers to hear what you want them to hear you must employ strong verbs. For example: Instead of writing “Johnnie heard the thunder,” say “The thunder clapped and Johnnie Rabbit sprinted to his hole for cover.” Another method that is effective with children is to use the literary device of onomatopoeia. In Nosey Charlie Goes To Court, instead of writing a long sentence about many people coming and going into the courthouse, I wrote, “Charlie heard the TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP of many feet.” You can also use a simile—another literary device. “The farmer laughed like Bugs Bunny.” When you use similes be mindful that your readers are children and use analogies that refer to things they know.
The sense of taste is probably the most difficult to articulate on paper in a way that is impactful. It is simple to say, “Johnnie Rabbit ate a delicious lunch,” but that is not strong enough to awaken the sense of taste. This is where the popular writing expression “show, don’t tell” comes in. Say instead, “Johnnie plopped the juicy carrots into his mouth, his taste buds exploded, and he smacked his lips.”
There are numerous adjectives you can use to write about smells—good smells and bad ones. You should have no difficulty applying some strong ones to your prose. For example: “When Johnnie rooted up the rotten cabbage, it stunk like a dead rat.” When you read this sentence you immediately want to cover your nose.
The sense of feeling can relate to a physical touch or an emotional feeling. The former is easier to write about because it is action oriented. “The boy slapped Johnnie on the side of his head.” You and I feel that slap the moment we read about it. To evoke emotional feelings in the readers, you have to again apply the “show, don’t tell,” method. “Johnnie’s father moaned and writhed all night, the pain was so great.”
While you want to adhere to the adage “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” in the crafting of children’s picture books you must evoke strong imagery in your readers’ minds, and in order to do so it is necessary to appropriately apply the senses.