Friday, February 10, 2023

Play With Your Words

By Jocelyn Rish

As kids we’re told not to play with our food, but all these years later, I still think mashed potatoes taste better when shaped into a volcano erupting with gushing gravy.

So let’s make our nonfiction taste even better by playing with our words!

Nonfiction has an unfair reputation of being less entertaining than its fictional counterpart, but today’s fact-filled books are not only fun to read but even *gasp* funny!

Topic and format are key factors in creating engaging nonfiction, but experimenting with your words can make low-key topics leap off the page.

The weird and wonderful ways you can play with words fall under the very boring term Literary Devices. You can find a long list of them at, but let’s explore some of the more common ones.


Rhyme is great for children’s books in general because it helps with early literacy development. It boosts skills like phonemic awareness and recognizing patterns in words. It’s also fun! The bouncy rhythm that usually accompanies rhyme makes reading feel like a song. And these patterns and sound-alike words lend themselves to silliness.

In THE SECRET CODE INSIDE YOU: ALL ABOUT YOUR DNA, Rajani LaRocca manages to turn complex scientific concepts into rhyming verses.

                                             words by Rajani LaRocca, art by Steven Salerno

See how rhyming words like noodles and poodles amp up the fun factor because of the way they sound together. They also evoke funnier visuals – compare your mental picture of noodles and poodles to pasta and dogs.

Check out for help finding rhyming words.

Alliteration, Assonance, and Consonance

These three literary devices are similar to rhyme in that they deal with the sounds of the words. They differ from each other in location and whether it’s a vowel or a consonant.
  • Alliteration is repeating the same starting (usually consonant) sound in words that are near each other.
  • Assonance is repeating the same vowel sound within words that are near each other, so basically internal versus ending rhyme.
  • Consonance is repeating the same consonant sound that appears anywhere in nearby words.
In PIPSQUEAKS, SLOWPOKES, AND STINKERS: CELEBRATING ANIMAL UNDERDOGS, Melissa Stewart uses all three of these devices in one spread!

                                        words by Melissa Stewart, art by Stephanie Laberis

“Let’s start with this little critter—the Etruscan pygmy shrew. It’s a real pipsqueak. Look, its name is longer than its body.

An Amau frog is even smaller. It could perch on your pinkie with room to spare.

How can these puny peewees survive in a world full of predators with huge teeth and razor-sharp claws?”

The alliteration is first to jump out with all the Ps - pygmy, pipsqueak, perch, pinkie, puny, peewees, predators. But the first sentence has both assonance (with, this, little, critter) and consonance (Let’s start, little, critter; and with and this). Only Melissa can tell us how much of this was from a purposeful use of these devices versus a happy happenstance because the words sounded fun together in her brain, but Melissa is a careful writer, so I’m sure she worked hard to make her words sing.


Now we move from the sounds of words to their meanings. Synonyms are words that have the same meaning (exactly or nearly), such as noodle and pasta above. When I wrote BATTLE OF THE BUTTS, I had a blast using synonyms for butt throughout the book. Sometimes a synonym created alliteration, sometimes it helped with the rhythm of a sentence, sometimes it just formed a funnier picture in my head. For example, here’s the scale for readers to use while rating the rumps:

        Terrific Tushie

        Remarkable Rump

        Cool Caboose

        Passable Posterior

        Boring Backside 

I spent HOURS on trying to alliteratively match synonyms for butt with synonyms for comparison adjectives. It was tedious but also a fun puzzle, and I did a happy dance when the whole scale clicked into place.


There are several devices for comparing things, and since they can get rather outlandish, there is a lot of opportunity for silly fun.
  • A Comparison shows the similarities or differences between two different entities (people, places, things, or ideas). It’s the baseline.
  • A Simile compares two seemingly different things with the use of “like” or “as.”
  • A Metaphor compares two different things directly; it’s abstract or symbolic rather than literal.
  • An Analogy makes a comparison while also providing an explanation and additional information.

In 13 WAYS TO EAT A FLY, Sue Heavenrich writes:

        “Then the spider rolls the fly, wrapping it in silk until it looks like a burrito.”

Sue could have said ‘like a spool of thread’ or ‘like a skein of yarn’ which both better match the appearance of the wrapped fly, however, burrito is a more kid-friendly comparison, it also has to do with food, and it’s just more fun in general!

Definitely use literary devices to fool around with your words, but don’t go overboard on the types or amounts of each. You don’t want your writing to feel like a checklist of “Oh, there’s her simile, and, yep, here’s a bunch of consonance, now we’ve got the analogy, and, look at that long line of lavish and labored alliteration.”

Give it a Try

Below are three random snippets from Wikipedia entries. Use the literary devices above (or any others) to rewrite the info as engaging tidbits for kids.
  • “The cat is similar in anatomy to the other felid species: it has a strong flexible body, quick reflexes, sharp teeth, and retractable claws adapted to killing small prey. Its night vision and sense of smell are    well developed.”
  • “Ella Fitzgerald was an American jazz singer, sometimes referred to as the "First Lady of Song", "Queen of Jazz", and "Lady Ella". She was noted for her purity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing, timing, intonation, and a "horn-like" improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing.”
  • “Ceramics are the most commonly surviving type of Maya art. The Maya had no knowledge of the potter's wheel, and Maya vessels were built up by coiling rolled strips of clay into the desired form. Maya pottery was not glazed, although it often had a fine finish produced by burnishing.”
When writing your book, use a revision pass to play with your words – if you have fun writing them, kids will have fun reading them!

Meet the Author:

Jocelyn Rish is a writer and filmmaker who loves researching weird and wonderful animals and sharing what she learns. Her debut was BATTLE OF THE BUTTS, about ten animals that do weird things with their butts. Her latest book is BATTLE OF THE BRAINS, a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection about ten animals with mind-blowing brain abilities. When she’s not writing, she tutors kids to help them discover the magic of reading. Jocelyn has won numerous awards for her short stories, screenplays, films, and novels and lives in South Carolina with her adorable dog.


  1. Thanks for laying these devices out clearly, Jocelyn. Both of your books are super fun and engaging!

  2. Thanks so much for this! I think I'm finally understanding assonance and consonance!

  3. Clarity spoken here. Thank you for the help to make manuscripts more interesting.

  4. Excellent examples. Thanks, Jocelyn!

  5. Ooh Jocelyn, love the addition of the exercises! It’s always helpful to have a low stakes place to explore and experiment (see what I did there 😉) before diving into my own manuscripts.

  6. What a great post! I love the information and the fun activity. Thanks for sharing.

  7. JOCELYN: THANK YOU for the reminder and INSPIRATION to remember as we write our stories: "if you have fun writing them, kids will have fun reading them!" TRULY THE KEY to what makes THE BEST books--for the readers AND the writers! THANK YOU!!!

  8. Wow - all those facts and a fun read aloud, too! Brilliant!

  9. Wonderful examples and explanations - thanks!

  10. Thank you Jocelyn! I am looking forward to reading your books and I also appreciate the exercises and the resources.

  11. Thanks Jocelyn... awesome sauce!

  12. Love these examples! I've heard literary devices compared to jewelry: you don't want to put everything on at once because then you'll look overdone. Instead, you choose just the right necklace or earrings for an outfit so it really shines.

  13. Great examples and exercises. Thanks, Jocelyn.

  14. Thanks for all the great ideas and examples.

  15. Great way to introduce some fun literary devices, and make it fun to try them out as well. Right now I'm playing around with words for an idea from Storystorm. As for that bug burrito - I was probably thinking about dinner when I wrote that!

  16. Thank you, Jocelyn, for explaining literary devices and the joy we can bring to our writing. I appreciate the links, too. Looking forward to reading your book!

  17. Your book is a great example of Word Play--kids have fun reading it! Good to see your work here. Carol Baldwin

  18. Love your post! Fun ideas and examples. Thanks

  19. Thank you, Jocelyn, for encouraging writers to play with word.

    Suzy Leopold

  20. Super clear and helpful. Thank you for this post. ❤️🧠

  21. This was a great reminder and lots of fun trying them out on the examples. Thanks!

  22. Great post, Jocelyn! Thank you for sharing how to put the funny into NF!

  23. I tried your activity, and I'm not sure how great mine turned out, but it was incredibly insightful. Thank you!

  24. I love all these ideas. From rhymes to humor and all things in between but especially the fly burrito. Best choice for sure. Thanks for all the links. Very inspiring for me because I love science and history but it has to be fun and engaging.

  25. Love the idea of using literary devices to keep things lighthearted. Thank you!

  26. There are so many great resources and helpful information in this post! BTW, I LOVE Battle of the Butts! So much fun!

  27. What a fantastic post - a wealth of great info. Thank you, Jocelyn! Your rating scale for butts is perfection!

  28. Thanks for all these excellent examples. Such fun!

  29. Thanks for the kit lit explanation of literary devices.

  30. What fun, what fun! This word play is my very favorite part of writing. Thanks for the reminders to try mixing it up, but not overdo it!

  31. Great post Jocelyn! My nephews adore your BATTLE OF THE BUTTS ;) Thank you!

  32. Thanks, Jocelyn! You laid out these devices so well that this post made my "print out and save" file!

  33. Thanks for the great examples. I need to read THE SECRET CODE INSIDE YOU: ALL ABOUT YOUR DNA.

  34. Thanks, Jocelyn! I love all of the concrete examples and your "Give It A Try" is wonderful!

  35. Thanks for all these great examples, Jocelyn! I love your book!

  36. Thank you for reminding us to be careful NF authors and to improve our skill-set as writers: do better. Your examples are terrific; we can be funnier and more engaging with our readers. Snippet challenge great! Appreciate all you do!

  37. Loved the synonyms! And I loved the "Give It a Try" challenge.

  38. Such great examples and advice! Thanks, Jocelyn!