What do you think of Bebe?
If you’ve just met Bebe in “Chapter II: What’s Happening?” of Miss Missy’s School, you won’t believe what capers she will get into as you keep reading. She is really something! The Big Dogs sometimes have a hard time keeping up with her! And she’s smart, too! Though she still has a few things to learn.
If you haven’t yet met Bebe, but heard her described as, “sharp as a tack” would you have known that she was smart?
That phrase is a figure of speech— words used in an imaginary way, not a literal or actual way, to say something. Reading “Sharp as a tack” is much more interesting than just reading the facts of the matter, “Bebe is a smart dog,” don’t you think? That phrase is also a play on words. Sharp is a synonym for smart, but it also describes the pointy end of a tack.
The kind of figure of speech that compares one thing (a dog) to another entirely different thing (a tack) is called a simile. It has the same Latin root word (similis) as the word similar. You can tell a simile from other sorts of comparisons because the words as or like will be part of the phrase.
Lots of similes are so well known that you probably don’t even think about them when you read or hear them. Because they’ve been overused, they’ve lost a lot of their descriptive power. Some examples of overused similes are:
as blind as a bat
as clear as a bell
as flat as a pancake
as hard as a rock
as light as a feather
as snug as a bug in a rug
slept like a log
cried like a baby
Imaginative writers can use similes to conger up very vivid descriptions– descriptions that go well beyond words. Let’s look at some examples from The Animal Family, by Randall Jarrell. Jarrell was a gifted poet and he brought his way with words to the children’s books he wrote. Read the similes Jarrell uses and think how much less enjoyable the story would be if he didn’t use imaginative similes.
The Animal Family begins by introducing the reader to a hunter who lives alone in a cabin “where the forest runs down to the ocean.”
The hunter had lived so long with animals that he himself was as patient as an animal.
He discovers and befriends a mermaid who visits, and then lives with him.
When she came from the sea to the house she would leave a trail of crushed grass and flowers through the meadow, and she would smell of them for a while; but she herself had a sharp salt smell, like the spray of a wave as it breaks across your face.
She taught the hunter a little more of her own language, but it was hard for him to say. When she spoke it, it was like water gurgling in a cleft in a rock.
The hunter discovers an orphaned bear cub and brings him home.
When he would walk across the room on his hind legs, reach for something on the table, and then cram it in his mouth, he looked like a little boy in a bearskin.
How he ate! And how he grew! By the end of the summer he was so big that, when he ran, he looked like a bed galloping across the meadow.
The first year it was like having a wet St. Bernard come home; the second year he was more like a wet Shetland pony; the third year he was like a wet horse in an overcoat. Drying him was like drying a marsh: they could have taken everything in the house, rubbed him with it, and in the end they and everything in the house would have been wet and the bear still not dry.
One time the bear was getting honey from a comb and the bees attacked him and stung his face! He escaped by running into the ocean, but by the time he returned home he was a wet mess– covered in honey and dead bees!
It [his face] was so swollen that, like a man with the mumps, the bear didn’t even resemble himself.
As the fire got his wet fur warmer and warmer, a little cloud of steam rose from him; he smelled like four or five wet dogs and a beehive.
Do you have a favorite among these similes? Tell us what it is in the comments. I’ll ask Missy what hers is and let you know!
Randall Jarrell. Maurice Sendak, illustrator. The Animal Family. Michael Di Capua Books HarperCollins Publishers, 1996. 1st ed. 1965.
By the way, the illustrator, Maurice Sendak, was the author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are!