Showing posts with label Writing In Schools. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Writing In Schools. Show all posts

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Big Words or Little Words? Vocabulary in Children's Books by Emma Barnes

I was at the Headingley LitFest during a question-time on children's books. A children's writer in the audience asked the Sunday Times book critic Nicolette Jones whether it was OK to have long words in a children's book – or should he keep it simple?

I can't remember exactly what Nicolette said to this but it was something along the lines of “it depends”. Which is the only sensible answer to give, really. It depends on the book. It depends on what the writer is trying to do.

It's not actually something I've heard children's writers discuss much: vocabulary. Unless you are writing for a reading scheme, say, we write what we write, as the muse directs (or so we like to think)! But shortly afterwards I came across two different perspectives on the subject, from two of my favourite children's writers.

The first was Judith Kerr. In her memoir, Judith's Kerr's Creatures, she explained that, inspired by Dr Seuss of Green Eggs and Ham fame, she deliberately limited the words used in Mog the Forgetful Cat.

I determined that, like Dr Seuss, I would use a vocabulary of no more than 250 words in the book about Mog, and I have done this with all my picture books since, with the exception of Mog in the Dark, which...has a vocabulary of only just over fifty. I also determined never, ever to put something in the text that the child could already tell from the pictures. Why should they struggle to read something they already knew?”
(Judith Kerr's Creatures, p86)

If Judith Kerr says it's so, it must be so – because Mog is one of the most brilliant picture books of our times. And the interesting thing about Mog is that it is not a book children typically use to learn to read. It is a picture book their parents read with them (my guess is that for many Mog fans, by the time they are learning to read themselves they will know Mog's story by heart.) So it's not just that Judith Kerr created a good “easy to read” book for beginner readers – it's rather that she created one of the most loved of all picture books, regardless of word count. She was able to create a great story which happened to use very simple language.

Another of my favourite writers took a different approach.  Eric Thompson created the Magic Roundabout (both books and TV scripts). His family recalled:

Once a lady wrote to him complaining that he used too many long words in The Magic Roundabout and how were children meant to understand them? He got out the Oxford English Dictionary and wrote back using all the longest and most difficult words he could find, like 'palimpsest' and 'oxymoron' (which sounds rude but isn't). He also wrote a strongly worded letter to a mother who had smacked her little boy for calling his sister a 'mollusc'."

(Phyllida, Emma and Sophie Thompson, introduction to The Adventures of Dougal)

And he was right.  There is a huge joy for kids in the use of language, even if you don't actually understand the words. The elaborate names and spells that you get, say, in Harry Potter (the tradition of bizarre character names once seen in authors like Dickens now lives on mainly in children's books). Or in Helen Cresswell's Bagthorpe Saga, where the characters not only have daft names, but spout Shakespeare and came out with gloriously incomprehensible remarks like: “It is a sign of genius to reconcile the seemingly disparate”. (I used this remark as a child on my own parents, undeterred by the fact that 1) I didn't know what it meant and 2) I couldn't pronounce “disparate”.)

Intriguingly, both Judith Kerr and Eric Thompson seem to have been reacting against rather joyless adult views about what's suitable for children. In Kerr's case this was the "long and not particularly interesting stories with a lot of complicated words 'to enrich your child's vocabulary''' that she found at the local library (Judith Kerr's Creatures p68). In Thompson's case, it was the claim children could not enjoy anything they could not understand. Their responses, though in different directions, led to stories that have been loved by adults and children alike.

As a writer, I used to love big words. Maybe this is why Sam and the Griswalds – a madcap story of the adventures of five crazy kids, aimed at 8-12s – has a similar difficulty score on the Accelerated Reader scheme to The Lord of the Rings. (Making it the perfect book for the highly literate eleven year old who still wants to read about football or kids falling in rivers.)

More recently, though, I've changed tack, and my writing style has become simpler and more straightforward. It's true I have dropped the age range, but I think it's more to do with the fact that I've become interested in the story, first and foremost, and I haven't wanted big words and funny names to get in the way. I suspect I'm part of a wider trend – I think language in children's books, especially in the Young Adult section, is generally simpler in part because so many books are now written in the first person by a child/teenage protagonist.

I've sometimes found it awkward in schools, where children are encouraged to believe Big Words Are Better. “Why do you use “said” so much?” a group of primary school pupils asked me. “We're always told to find a more interesting word instead.”

I explained my choice of "said" was not because I didn't know any alternatives. And I read them a passage from my book, substituting different words – remarked, whispered, groaned etc. It soon started to sound daft. Furthermore (I said) a lot of the times people simply are “saying” and so it's by far the most accurate word to use. In addition, if I want people to focus on what's said, rather than being reminded that they are reading a book, then “said” is the nearest thing to invisible on the page.

They got it. But their teachers looked mournful. It wasn't that they disagreed (they said) but if they taught that way their pupils wouldn't pass their tests.  The official view was that long words were good, the more fancy adjectives the better, and always find something else to use instead of that  humble “said”.

Never mind. There are fashions in everything.

Besides there really is no right or wrong on this one.  (Or is there?  Do comment.)

It just depends....


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Emma's Wild Thing series for 8+ about the naughtiest little sister ever is published by Scholastic.
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman

 Wolfie is published by Strident.  It is a story of wolves, magic and snowy woods...
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo 
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps

Emma's Website
Emma’s Facebook Fanpage
Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Writing in Schools - Damian Harvey

I love visiting schools and libraries to share stories, talk about writing and of course promote what I'm doing in the hope that people will read and enjoy the stories that I write. The aim of my visits has always been to get children excited about books, stories and reading for pleasure... especially reading for pleasure. I received lots of enquiries asking if I would lead writing workshops, however, I was initially a little reluctant to do this - partly because I didn't feel that it was something that I could do and partly because I was a little concerned that I might not be able to produce enough at the end of the sessions to please the school.


Over the past three years or so I now feel confident in leading writing workshops and I love it - yes, it can be difficult at times but it's also fun and can be mutually rewarding. It's great when the children are able to complete their own story - even better when it gets made into a little book.

When I first started off I would prepare a few story starters, character sketches and the such. Preparation is the key to success I thought - but not for me. I like to take a more organic approach (chaotic you might say). Nowadays, I like to be able to go into a classroom with a completely blank sheet - flip chart or (dare I say it?) Interactive white board.

After a bit of an introduction and a warm up  - designed to get the class to relax and look forward to what we're about to do - I ask for character suggestions. Keep it simple I tell them. We can just start off with a boy or a girl - it doesn't have to be a flying boy that can turn into a carrot - it really doesn't have to be a talking chip and it certainly doesn't need to be a zombie... Yawn!.

Once we've got one or perhaps two characters for our story we add a little bit to them... Let's make this character sad... What's making him or it sad? But please... keep it simple for now. We can build on it later.

We go on in this way - adding a character, a problem, a bit of motivation (for the characters of course)... What is it they want to do? How can we make our character happy?

I keep the sessions light and humorous and try to ensure that everyone adds something to the story that we are (dare I say it?) planning!

Once we've done a little bit of planning, or rough note making, I like to get right on and do a bit of proper writing. We might not know where the story is going to end just yet, but why not write a bit of what we know. I encourage the class to suggest ways of starting our story... a bit of dialogue, a bit of description, a bit of onomatopoeia perhaps... And we're on our way.

It's amazing seeing the children's eyes light up as they see the story coming to life with words that they are suggesting. As the story process moves along ideas for the direction in which the story could go do spring to mind and while I occasionally, try to help move things along to a logical solution it's great when the children come up with it themselves. Sometimes I'm tempted to get my own notebook out and jot down a thing or two for my own use...

Single sessions with a class can produce some really interesting story ideas that they can then work with together after I've gone - but there are also occasions where I get to spend much longer with a group - a whole day or several days/sessions over a period of time.

Having the opportunity to work with other artists (or practitioners - not my favourite word) can also expand what we're doing and result in some really great work.

A school I was at recently produced a little novel - Ghoul School. While I was working with a class writing the story - other classes were working with their teachers to produce the artwork to go with it (not normal sized pieces of artwork, these were more like theatre sets - and very good they were too). The process was chaotic at times as both the writing and the illustrating were going on almost simultaneously. A few tweaks were needed in the story to make it all fit but all in all it was a great success... and at the end of it all the children had their own book to take home.

I no longer shy away from going into schools to lead writing workshop, in fact I love it, as I now know what I'm doing. I might not have it all planned out before I get there but I'm confident of my ability to get them all fired up and eager to take part. Writing really is fun... let's see get out there and see how much fun we can instil today.

Damian Harvey - www.damianharvey.co.uk