M-O-T-O-R-C-Y-C-L-E: Thoughts on SOUND Effects in Picture Books

A few years ago, my husband and I were eating a lovely supper with our son, age three, when one of us, who shall remain nameless, passed some extremely audible gas. Before anyone had a chance to be mortified, my son squealed with delight: “M-O-T-O-R-C-Y-C-L-E!” I share this because it’s a perfect example of the magical effect sounds have on young readers. They’re so mesmerized by sounds that, even when sounds aren’t emitted naturally (as above), they create their own. Eavesdrop on any small child playing and quite often you’ll hear the putt-putt of imaginary cars, the whoosh of imaginary jets, or the tippa-tap of invisible fairy wands.
As writers for youngest readers, we can enhance our stories by tapping into this intrinsic love and infusing our texts with sound words. Technically called “onomatopoeia”, sound words can add richness to any writing, but especially to picture books. Indeed, one of my intentions in writing my debut picture book, GOODNIGHT, ARK was to infuse it with as many ear-pleasing sound words as possible. Thus the hail in my story goes pop pop and ping ping and the lightning flashes with a zip and a zing. The wind goes whoosh and the sheep baah as they dash into Noah’s bed. The book trailer the publisher produced gives a fun sense of how sound words infuse the story.

I’m so keen for sound words that when no perfect translation exists, I come up with my own. Here are some examples of ear-pleasing phrases I’ve concocted to capture special moments.  See if you can guess what they are. (Answers at end of post.) NO PEEKING!

A. Vroom! Pt! Ptta! Clack!

B. Flump-flump! Flurp-flurp!

C. Sloggle, sloggle…
IMG_3152 Are you a collector? You know, the sort who collects shells, or bottle caps, or little toy cars (as my son used to)? Yes? Then perhaps you’d like to join me in a challenge. This week, with ear-pleasing wordplay in mind, I plan to collect sounds as I go about my day and then translate them into creative sound words for possible use in a future picture book or poem. I’ll be collecting my words in my writing journal, but any repository will do.

Need a little inspiration to get you started? Here are two great examples of picture books in which the author splendidly incorporates sound words, often made up, to add hilarity to the text.

IMG_0006.JPG In PLEASE SAY PLEASE! PENGUINS GUIDE TO MANNERS (Scholastic, 2004), author Margery Cuyler does a splendid job of infusing fun sound words into her story about a little penguin who invites his friends to dinner. Each spread depicts a humorously horrendous manner, with the more polite, preferred alternative depicted on the page turn. This book was one of my daughter’s favorites when she was little and includes sound words such as hee-hee, splat, and wheee. My daughter’s absolute favorite bit, however, involves a hearty bur-r-r-r-r-r-r-p! 

IMG_0007Candace Fleming’s MUNCHA! MUNCHA! MUNCHA! (Atheneum/Schwartz, 2002) about three persistent rabbits trying to get into Mr. McGreeley’s garden is also rich in onomatopoeia. As the story builds, Mr. McGreeley takes ever more drastic measures to keep the rabbits out. Each time the rabbits outwit him, Fleming humorously celebrates their triumph with a repeating, sound-pleasing, growing refrain that begins “Tippy-tippy -tippy, Pat!” and ends with “Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!” In between, she adds sound words that reflects their success in overcoming the latest rabbit-thwarting barrier created by Mr. McGreeley. For example, after Mr. McGreeley installs a wire fence around his garden to keep out the rabbits, Candace adds a “Spring-hurdle, Dash! Dash! Dash!” to the interior of the refrain.  Later, when Mr. McGreeley builds a moat, Fleming adds a “Dive-paddle, Splash! Splash! Splash!”


Happy sound hunting and word building all!

Answers to Onomotopoeia Challenge:
A.            The sound of our vacuum cleaner picking little toy bits.
B.             The sound of a little wingless chick trying to fly.
C.             The slurpy sound little paws make when trying to trudge through a muddy puddle.
(NOTE: This post first appeared on the lovely British blog, Picture Book Den in August 2014).

10 thoughts on “ M-O-T-O-R-C-Y-C-L-E: Thoughts on SOUND Effects in Picture Books

  1. Ha ha! Love the motorcycle comment. 🙂 Oh, kids. Gotta love them. What a fun challenge! When I watch Spongebob with my kids, I sometimes wonder what they use to make the sound effects.

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