TIP #2 Don’t interpret literally what is supposed to be understood metaphorically.
Taking figurative language literally is a problem that leads to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
Does the photo above depict sunshine or shadow? A literal book title based on this image might be Sunshine on the Pages or Shadows on the Pages [When Grandpa Reads]. A nonfiction book about sunshine and shadows could take this literal approach.
On the other hand, metaphorical application of either title in a fictional story might focus on various scenarios. A thunderstorm might frighten the children, and Grandpa’s reading helps calm them down until the sun comes out. Or Grandpa reads a scary story that makes them imagine being in a dark cave or forest. Suddenly, light appears – but how? who? why?
Sunshine and shadows represent different meanings in fictional stories. So looking only for literal shadow or sunlight in these stories might prevent children from recognizing the actual message. The light and dark interplay reflect family closeness and connections, security and trust, or imagination and emotions.
Examples of metaphorical interpretation and literal misunderstanding in children’s books.
The character “Amelia Bedelia” in Peggy Parrish’s children’s books is a classic example of someone who takes EVERYTHING literally. If her employer tells her to “plant the bulbs,” she’ll have a row of planters with light bulbs instead of flower bulbs in them. If she is told to “draw the drapes,” she sits in front of them with a drawing pad instead of pulling the cords to close them. You can imagine what she does when she’s told to “pitch the tent.”
In The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Money, Sister and Brother Bear picture a tree with dollar bills hanging all over it when Papa complains that they “must think money grows on trees!” The cubs learn to recognize figures of speech (often, associating them with their parents’ lectures). But they also learn that figures of speech can represent true and positive experiences.
Understanding biblical metaphors
Figures of speech provide visual or other sensory cues. These connect memory and emotions to help us recognize a situation’s true significance. When the prophet Nathan describes a rich man who selfishly takes a poor neighbor’s one ewe lamb instead of a sheep from his own large flock, King David is enraged at that man’s guilt. Then, Nathan drops the metaphor and reveals, “You are the man.” In that moment, David understands that God is confronting him with the deadly consequences of the sin he had tried to conceal. He repents, confesses, and prays for God to restore the fellowship David had broken. (2 Sa. 12, Ps. 51)
When Jesus calls Himself “the true vine” and His Father “the vine dresser,” the extended metaphor describes different outcomes for branches that bear or do not bear fruit (John 15:1 – 8). Clear interpretation (v. 5- 6) identifies “branches” as people who claim to follow Him. Comparing the gospel to plants, or evangelism to farming occurs in numerous Old and New Testament passages. In a farming culture, these metaphors related to familiar scenes and processes the audience would recognize. The Bible also uses other metaphorical examples to deliver messages people need to hear. These include animals, weather, business and finance, construction, relationships and celebrations, daily work, even dirt, and decay!
Where do we encounter figures of speech?
Metaphorical language occurs everywhere in daily conversation, activities, news reports, advertisements, hobbies, and entertainment like books, board games, or media. On social media, we’re constantly exposed to figures of speech (and often, disputes related to interpreting them).
How do we incorporate figurative language into stories and activities for children? Of course, we want to ground their understanding of literal meanings, but we also need to help them understand different uses of language.
An article about birds, or a story about a child finding and collecting bird feathers, will include facts about how feathers help birds. Waterproof coating, maneuvering and flight, or insulation from heat and cold are all parts of feather design. Writers may describe feathers’ size, colors, or design patterns.
A Bible story retelling that features birds, whether Noah’s raven and dove, or the ravens which fed Elijah, will focus on the literal people and events. [See an excellent example in https://www.keepbelieving.com/sermon/elijah-and-the-ravens/ ] But birds also have great symbolic meaning in scripture. Isaiah 40:31 says “They that wait upon the Lord shall . . . mount up with wings like eagles . . . “ We want kids to understand that God gives endurance like the eagle’s, not to think they can literally sprout wings, jump off a roof, and fly.
If we ask a teen to “break down” a piece of furniture, intending to store it in a more compact space, there’s a chance of misunderstanding that metaphorical instruction. What if, in their excitement at the chance to destroy something (think DEMOLITION instead of “taking apart”), they literally smash and destroy it? Yes, this has actually happened to me (name withheld to protect the guilty). After a shocked reaction, I recognized my mistake in choosing an expression that could be misconstrued. As a result, I had to say goodbye to a favorite antique chair that I just wanted to fit into a smaller space for transportation.
Are we careful to distinguish our own uses of literal and metaphorical language? Do we avoid confusion in our word choices, without sacrificing word variety or linguistic richness? Depending on the age of our target audience, do we provide clear definitions without over-explaining? Do we use effective comparisons, as Jesus did, with animals, objects, or situations readers can recognize and relate to? Can our stories deliver lessons without always spelling out “the moral of the story”?
Do you have questions about metaphorical and literal language? What are you favorite figures of speech? Do you use figures of speech in your writing for children/YA? Do you have a story about literally interpreting a metaphor? Comment below, on social media, or email email@example.com
One thought on “5 Tips for Using and Understanding Literal and Figurative Language Part II by Deborah DeCiantis”
Great post, Debbie. Thanks so much for writing this series!