Stories That Appeal to the Senses

by Lisa Ripperton
​April 18, 2019

The criteria we use in selecting books for children varies depending on the age of the child. However, since we’ve recently been focusing on criteria for choosing books for children in the early years, we wanted to share a passage on this topic that we found to be ​enlightening. The passage comes from the second chapter of Carolyn Sherwin Bailey’s “For the Story Teller” (1913) in which she describes a second criterion for selecting stories to tell to children of kindergarten age. (You can find our earlier post on her first criterion here.)

Although Carolyn Sherwin Bailey refers specifically to “stories” here, keep in mind that everything she says about telling stories also applies to picture books.

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“The senses are the only avenues to the brain by means of which the outside world makes its way into a little child’s inner consciousness. A baby’s brain is an almost unexplored, untracked place, empty save for a few instinct paths—certain motor tracts tenanted by inherited memories which lead him to cry, to nurse, and to perform some other reflex movements.

​The first sense impressions

This condition of the mind does not last long, however. The baby opens his eyes and sees the sunlight dancing in a yellow patch of gold upon the wall above his bed. Instantly, like a telegraphic message, there is delivered at the baby’s brain an idea, unnamed at first but ineffaceable—color.​ When he sees a red ball suspended by a string in front of his eager eyes, a second message is delivered at his mind-house, differentiating and localizing the first impression—color  versus color.  The formal names, red  and yellow, do not enter into the process at all and are indeed quite unnecessary. The baby differentiates red​ and yellow​ months before he knows the color names.

The baby hears his mother’s voice and he receives by means of another telegraphic message the percept, sound. He touches a piece of ice, or his warm bottle, and learns by means of this direct contact, cold and warm. His nostrils admit the pleasurable odors of his scented bath, the dainty powder used for making his body comfortable or the bunch of roses that stands on his mother’s table, and he receives a new set of brain stimuli as he differentiates odors.

​Story can build on sense impressions

These are all such simple mental operations that we have rather taken them for granted, forgetting that Nature’s method of forcing, letting in impressions to the child’s mind, is the only way for us to give him knowledge. The surest way of educating a child is through an appeal to his senses. . . . We have made little effort to appeal to a child’s mind through the story that has sense images of sight, touch, sound, or taste to strengthen the mind impression which it makes.

​Even in stories meant for adults

If we analyze the story that has interested us most in a current magazine, we shall discover that, somehow, it made a direct appeal to our senses. It may have had the setting of some old garden, the description of which made us, in imagination, smell the clove pinks, roses, French lilacs and mignonette that grew in some garden of our childhood. Perhaps it was a sound  story, giving us such speaking word pictures of bird songs, violin tones or even the human notes of voices that we almost heard​ the story instead of seeing it. On the other hand, the sense appeal of the story may have been that of color,  of food— any sense stimulus that routed from their brain corners our old sense impressions and set them to working again. And it is almost impossible to gauge the effect upon cerebration of these stored-up sensory images.

A mere scent can bring a whole scene to mind

That whiff of odor from a city flower cart brings suddenly to my mind an incident that I had not been cognizant of for years—the memory of a certain long-ago day when I purloined my Grandmother’s scissors and cut off two of my curls to make a wig for a hairless rag doll. What is the connection between this day of badness of my childhood and a dingy city flower wagon? Ah, I have it! There was a pot of Martha Washington geraniums in the room where I sat when I cut my hair. My small, serge sleeve brushed the leaves as I held the curls triumphantly to the light and the pungent odor found a permanent place in my mind, side by side with the other memory, ineffaceable, always ready to produce a recall.

Another selection criterion: strong sense appeal

Dr. Van Dyke once said that if he were able to paint a picture of Memory, he would picture her asleep in a bed of mint. He illustrated the value of sensory stimuli in fiction. One gauge of a perfectly constructed piece of fiction is its sense content. Does it include such writing as will make the reader see, taste, smell,​ and hear? So, in stories for children we must apply the same test.

A child’s story, to interest, should have a strong sense appeal.

Sense appeal ​a strong component of Mother Goose rhymes

Many of the old, handed-down jingles and folk tales are full of eating  and drinking, smelling​ delectable odors, hearing​ the sounds of child life and seeing  over again child scenes. Therein lies their world appeal and the reason for their ancient and obvious popularity.

“The Queen of Hearts,

 She made some tarts.”

“Little Tommy Tucker

​Sings for his supper;

 What shall he eat?

White bread and butter.”

Ding, dong bell, Pussy’s in the well.”

“Hark, hark, the dogs do bark,

 The beggars are coming to town.”

“Rock-a-by baby, your cradle is green.”

“The rose is red,

 The violet blue,

 Sugar is sweet

 And so are you.”

​One might go on indefinitely quoting lines of Mother Goose that tickle a child’s fancy and are undying in their appeal for the sole reason that they are sensual in the broader understanding of the term. They include simple, direct references to the mental concepts that the child has gained through his senses. Much of what the normal, natural child has accomplished, mentally, up to the age of three or four years, has been to note bright colors, to handle everything he has come in contact with,—not, as so many persons suppose, for purposes of mischievous destruction, but rather to touch each object and make its feeling an integral part of his ego,—to eat and drink and to use his nostrils as a dog does. What more natural than that his beginnings in English should have for their basis a sense content that will help the child to name,​ put into words his previously acquired but unnamed sense impressions?

Finger plays build on early sense impressions

Miss Emilie Poulsson’s finger plays for little children have for their basic appeal the stimulating of a child’s ability to recall previously acquired sense impressions. In addition, the finger movements with which the child illustrates these rhymes give the added association of the sense of touch to strengthen and vivify the child’s interest in and memory of the rhyme stories. To illustrate:

“Here’s a ball for baby,

Big​ and soft and round.

Here’s the baby’s hammer,

Oh, how he can pound.

Here’s the baby’s music,

Clapping, clapping so.

Here are baby’s soldiers

Standing in a row—”

​Sensory appeal and apperception go hand in hand

As the child grows beyond the age when Mother Goose and Finger Plays appeal to him, he still finds his greatest interest in those stories which stimulate his acquired sensory images. The mental operation of apperception described in the last chapter is so inclusive a process, covering, as it must of necessity, memory and perception, that it explains the appeal of the sense story to the mind of a child. 

​Vivid descriptions capture a child’s imagination

It is to be questioned whether or not the story of The Little Red Hen would have been awarded such immortality if its heroine had been a plain hen  and not red.  Having been dyed with the crimson pigment of the imagination, however, by some old-world story teller, she has taken her cheerful, cackling way through the streets of childhood, an undying, classic fowl of fiction because she is colored.

So it is with Elizabeth Harrison’s wonderful allegory of The Little Gray Grandmother. She might have been described in the story as a spirit, a fairy, a mythical character who influenced for good the lives of Wilhelm, Beata and the others. But instead of describing​ her invisibility—Miss Harrison paints​ it, colors her story heroine with the shades of intangible things. She is a little gray​ grandmother and her clothes are sea fog and her veil is of smoke. She is an animated part of the seashore home and is made of gray mist. What could be more artistic than the sense appeal of this story?

What is the appeal of the Gingerbread Boy?

Why do children—all children—listen, gaping and ecstatic, to the account of the many and hazardous adventures of the Gingerbread Boy? Why do they beg to have the story told over again, even after they have heard it so many times that they know it by heart. Its universal popularity is not due to its folklore quality. Neither is it due to its plot and treatment, although these undoubtedly strengthen it. Its big appeal, however, is to the child’s sense of taste. The story arouses tasting images in the child’s mind, that are pleasurable and strong.

. . . “A chocolate jacket and cinnamon seeds for buttons! His eyes were made of fine, fat currants; his mouth was made of rose-colored sugar and he had a gay little cap of orange-sugar candy”—Sara Cone Bryant says in describing her Gingerbread Man. So, from this delectable, luscious paragraph about his make-up, to the climax of the story when the Gingerbread Man is devoured by the fox, the child hearers eat​ in imagination all the way.

​Why the Chimes Rang makes a different and more ethical sense appeal to the child’s mind. The story stimulates in the listeners a deep interest in the old chime of bells that has hung silent for so long a time in the tower. One longs to hear them and waits anxiously for the miracle that will start their pealing. At the story climax, when an unselfish offering laid upon the altar works the wonder, it is possible to listen, in imagination, to the bells’ sweet music.

Sense stories may be used to awaken mental life

But why make this sense appeal to the child mind through the medium of a story, the story teller asks? There are two very real and definite uses to which the sense story may be put.

Such sense stories as “The Little Red Hen,” “The Gingerbread Boy” and many others of similar character may be told not only to give pleasure to the child of kindergarten age who finds delight in their sensual content, but they have a very real value in awakening the mental life of a special needs child. ​We are discovering that it is possible to rouse to action a child’s sleeping brain by means of intensive sense training. We are teaching him to smell, taste, see color, discriminate forms and textiles, to open the telegraphic circuit of his senses. We are putting the world of realities into the arms of the child with special needs to touch, feel, taste, smell, see. So we educate him, but we must carry out the same system of sense training in his stories, selecting for his hearing those stories that make verbal and recall his previously acquired sense impressions.

And to strengthen the imagination

There is one other use to which we may put the sense story. It is a means of strengthening any child’s imagination. The same mental operation by means of which a baby associates the idea cold​  with a block of ice, helps the child to feel the cold of Andersen’s Little Match Girl. In the first instance the association of cold​ and ice means self-preservation for the baby. He wishes to avoid an unpleasant sensation, so he does not touch the ice, but his former experience of touching it has left an ineffaceable image in his mind. In the second instance, the image cold​ is recalled in the mind of the child by the story and the result is a very different mental process. The child is able through the sensory stimulus of the story to feel with the little match girl, to put himself in her place, to understand her condition, because it is brought to him in a familiar term—cold.

A​ll in service of a higher aim

The story teller who makes the wisest use of the sense story sees to it that the color, sound, taste or odor described in the story is used as a means to an end.  One does not wish to stimulate sense images in a child’s mind for the simple operation of “making his thinking machine work” in old paths. What we must do is to utilize his sense impressions to strengthen new brain paths. Fortunately nearly all of the stories for children that have a sensory content utilize this mode of writing to strengthen the climax of the story. It only remains for the story teller to select her color,sound, taste, odor, or touch story to meet the needs of her children.”

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This concludes this excerpt from the ​second chapter of Carolyn Sherwin Bailey’s For the Story Teller.

The takeaway

​With so many stunning picture books in our day and age, it is easy to see how the illustrations are a feast for the eyes and appeal to all ages. But if, like me, you hadn’t considered before how sense impressions can be evoked by the text of the story, that may be something you want to keep an eye out for in the reading you do with your children. While sense appeal is only one of a number of criteria to use when selecting books for children, it does seem to play an important role in securing children’s interest, and may be a critical factor when children decide which are their favorites, that they want to hear over and over again. ​

To give you more practice in thinking about ​elements in a story that appeal to the senses, here are ​nine stories (all fine choices to read to five year-olds) that Carolyn Sherwin Bailey lists at the end of the chapter as having exceptional ​sense appeal:

Share your experience

Have you encountered any modern day picture books whose text has exceptional sensory appeal? Please share their titles in the comments below!

    Ann Sharfman, Cape Town, South Africa

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