Thursday, January 30, 2014

Big words, little words… what begins with WORDS?

“My father can read big words, too.

039480029X(from Hop on Pop, by Dr. Seuss)

Maybe it’s just me, but I think kids LOVE great big words, and I think we should make a point of including them in our stories whenever we can.

Not, of course, just for the heck of it, and certainly not to show off how smart we are.  But when it’s right for the character who’s speaking (or the narrator, or the author’s voice), a big word can sometimes be exactly the right word.

When my older daughter was maybe around 4, she was worried because our new car didn’t have a MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) ribbon on the antenna.

And she said, “but don’t worry – we won’t drink alcoholic beverages anyway!”  We were out in public and this gathered quite a few stares, and it occurred to me that not every mother would have “taught” such a young kid these big words.   Of course, I hadn’t consciously taught them, just used them appropriately and in-context… which is exactly the way the best kids’ books do it, too.

Who’s doing it right?

0688147321One of my favourite little-kid books of all time is Kevin Henkes’ Chrysanthemum.  The sheer chutzpah (sorry, no other word) of giving the book such a long, ornate one-word title sets the stage perfectly for this sweet story of a young mouse who loves her name.

0062268120In his latest Newberry-winning book for a slightly older crowd (just published in September), The Year of Billy Miller, Henkes keeps up the great work, tossing wonderful words at kids that he’s certain they can catch.  “Normally this would have interested him, but he was preoccupied.”  I’m thrilled to see the word preoccupied in a book that School Library Journal rates for Grades 1-3. 

Another section of Billy Miller – which I actually haven’t read yet, I just knew Henkes wouldn’t disappoint – goes on, “All of a sudden, there was a noise like a single, penetrating toll of a bell. The laughter quieted. Silence, except for the resonant sound.”  Penetrating.  Resonant.  We can trust our children with these beautiful words and be certain they’ll enjoy not being condescended to.

B000VYX8PEA whole bunch of books that didn’t shy away from big words while making a huge hit with kids and parents over the last little while were the Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket.  In those books, often the big words are used tongue-in-cheek, and the author sometimes throws in a pronunciation guide (the words “tagliatelle grande” stand out in my mind, for some reason).

Kids adore big words, whether they undertand them perfectly or not.  My son, who is six, will sit and chuckle at cartoons or funny incidents in his current-fave Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, and only after a few enjoyable read-throughs will he turn to me and ask, in all seriousness, “why is it funny?” 

Dennising the staircase with our kids.

A huge Calvin & Hobbes fan – who usually thinks he pretty much IS Calvin – this same 6-year-old, way back when he was 4, decided in the car one day to describe his current favourite C&H strip to me from the backseat, without the original in hand, so I could enjoy it, too. 

“’Hey, look at me!’ Calvin says,” Little Boy told me from memory.  “‘Nude Dennising a staircase!’”

“Huh?” I asked him.  “What’s ‘dennising?’”

Of course, he didn’t know, and I had no idea what he was talking about at all. 

It took a few days and a query to my loyal facebook friends to reveal the cartoon in question:

Ah, dennising.

Again, you can trust your kids, my kids, ALL kids, rich, poor, educated or not, with big words.  They may not fully get them all the way yet… but they love them and they love being entrusted with them. 

Trusting them so they don’t tune out.

One of the things I learned in several math-teacher workshops over the last few years is that it’s often easy to engage kids in math problems by giving them harder problems than you think they can do, or by making easy problems SEEM harder.  A child who’s mastered the “trick” of adding 20+70 may really enjoy the challenge of adding 200+700 or even 2,000,000+7,000,000.  They feel smart, and as a result, they work better.

Most importantly – they know you trust them if you give them the “smart kid” problems.  It’s got to be the same with books, don’t you think? 

If kids think you’re talking to them in a special “idiot” voice, they’ll tune you out.  Ditto if you’re a writer.

In the title of this post, I asked, in a half-joking play on Seussian rhyme, “what begins with WORDS?” 

For me, as a writer but also as a kids’ book reader (and as a former kid!), what begins with words is not just a story but a relationship between the child and the writer that – done right and built on trust – will stay strong for a lifetime.

What are the best “big words” you’ve seen in a kids’ book recently?  I’ve picked Kevin Henkes – what writers stand out in your mind as really trusting kids with big and beautiful words?


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