Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Secrets to Writing for Kids: Why Not to Age-proof Your Vocabulary

Keeping in tune with my last Secrets to Writing for Kidspost on amping up emotional tension despite your age group, I want to stay on the subject of accidentally underestimating the capabilities of our audience.

I think I come back to this a lot when I write about children’s literature because it’s personal. When I was a kid, I treasured books that treated me like an adult. I despised ones that I felt talked down to me, shoved paternalistic morals on me, or stooped to what they interpreted to be “my” level.

Kids are way, way smarter than we give them credit for, and they know bull when they smell it.

I want to draw your attention to one of my favorite scenes of all time, from Catherynn M. Valente’s THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING.

It happens early in our heroine September’s adventures in Fairyland. She’s come across some witches with funny names peering into a future-telling, magic soup. She stares into the “roiling, black-violet soup,” and wonders what sort of story she’s in. A comedy? A drama? That will decide what kind of question she asks of the future-soup.

I want to come back to this word, roiling. That’s a pretty advanced word if I’ve heard (read?) one. To be honest, I didn’t have it in my lexicon already. (And yes, I’m thoroughly embarrassed to admit this but then again, how do we ever learn if not by, you know, admitting that we don’t know something in the first place?)

Back to “roiling.” In the context of a pot full of hot, lumpy, clairvoyant soup being stirred about by witches, I took an educated guess as to its meaning: hot liquid rolling around in the big black cast-iron pot. (I suppose that in my head it went something like “boiling” and “rolling” had a real late night together and some sangria was involved and "roiling" happened. Webster’s 1913 defines “roil” as: “To render turbid by stirring up the dregs or sediment of; as, to roil wine, cider, etc., in casks or bottles.”)

As I was reading FAIRLYAND and gently tripped on this unfamiliar word, I afterwards stopped to consider what my experience might have been like had I picked this book up when I was a member of the target audience, and my thinking is:

I probably would have come to the same conclusion, and just rolled right along.

This is an impressive power we have as writers, you know—to convey meaning by context, tone, style, and simple lyricism. I learned a truly staggering number of advanced vocabulary words just by listening to my dad read me THE HOBBIT. Half of them I grasped, maybe less; and that’s a relatively grown-up book as far as uncategorized fantasy books from the twentieth century go.

Not that I’m saying, “Beat your readers over the head with new, advanced vocabulary words and make sure it’s clear what they mean!” Precisely the opposite.

Using words as we would normally use them is the easiest way to give them natural context to a young reader, much the same way as very young children pick up language best when those around them have normal discussions (without using baby-talk or dumbing-down their vocabulary). It’s important that we not shy away from words simply for their reading level—for fear we are underestimating the deductive power of our reader (or at the very least, their ability to open a dictionary, should they want to), and that we are losing perfectly fine opportunities to challenge them (and, by doing so, appeal to them).

Naturally, there are limits to the amount of challenge a reader of a particular age group can handle, dependent upon individual personality and reading level; but as social scientists have shown over and over again, people are often more likely to rise to the occasion when given the opportunity to do so.

And frankly, a significant part of learning new words is repetition; remembering advanced vocabulary comes from seeing the same word appear in similar contexts until our brains can piece together an accurate definition.

You may not know it, but your work is likely already part of a long-time work-in-progress.


  1. I always struggle with this, but as a parent, I don't alter my language or the way I speak to my children. I teach them as much as they teach me. I am a reader myself and continue to look up words. As for my quandary about tone and vocab to use.. I've opted the stance that it depends not the character, thus I make them a wee savvy, sometimes nerdy, maybe even a little geeky. And you're right, the work is part of bigger WIP.

    1. I've seen studies that show exactly what you're doing (talking to your children as if they were anyone else) allows for far faster language development. I agree completely on the voice of the character—that's definitely what should determine the level of language used! Thanks for stopping by, Brenda :)