Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Basics, Part 3: Are you choosing words that zoom, screech, soar, sing?


You’re a writer, right?

And writing is all about words? 

(Come on, let me hear you nodding.)

So picking the words to go into your kids’ book should be simple… but it’s not.

In the first post in this series, Basics, Part 1: What is a children’s book? I laid out the most simple definition of a children’s book: 

  1. Pages between covers
  2. Aimed at young readers
  3. Usually illustrated
  4. All about story

In Basics, Part 2: Does your book measure up?, we looked at the first part of that definition:  pages between covers.  How many pages, exactly?  How many words?  Well, that depends on who you’re writing for.

And so does the language you choose to fill your book.

You want to choose words that zoom; words that soar; words that transport your readers and sing to them – or screech at them.

In Part 2, I actually gave you a chart, and I’m going to do the same thing here. 

Let me be honest:  a lot of people HATED the chart in my last Basics post.  These folks are artists, and I respect that.  And they refuse to be hemmed in by conventions.  Fair enough.

Life as an artist

But if you were an artist artist, I mean the kind that paints pictures, and somebody hired you to paint a family portrait to hang on the wall above their fireplace… would you measure the wall above their fireplace first?

I suspect you would.

And then you’d choose a canvas to fit the space, right?

(Just keep nodding.)

Here’s what you wouldn’t do:  go home, picking up any old size of bedsheet along the way; and proceed to paint the picture on a canvas that was huge… or too tiny to be seen.  If you do, I would hope you’d have the good grace not to get made at your client if he refused to pay for your work.

As most painters through the ages have discovered, working within size (and other) constraints probably won’t kill your artistic spirit.

So please don’t hate me for suggesting them.

Big, beautiful words

I’ll come clean right now:  I believe in sharing big, rich words with kids, and I always have with my own children.  When I bought a MADD ribbon for our car one year, I told my 3-year-old daughter the organization wanted people to stop drinking alcoholic beverages and then driving. 

Everyone thought it was wild that she knew what an “alcoholic beverage” was.  It really was cute… but even better, it was precise.

I use the same precision when I write, no matter what age I’m writing for.

But you don’t want to overwhelm kids or slow them down, and, with picture books for younger readers, you certainly don’t want to trip up a parent, grandparent, teacher or librarian who’s going to be reading your story.

Where you need to end up is the fine line between dumbing your book down – using babyish language that will turn off even the youngest readers – and (hmm… what’s the equivalent?) “smarting it up” beyond your readers’ grasp.  


A simple test

You’ve heard me suggest (strongly) that you hand your book off to a kid, if it’s intended for children to read by themselves.

A good, quick test for the reading level of a book is to have the child go through and read the book out loud.  If they hesitate or don’t understand more than three words on a typical page, you’re getting into trouble territory.

That doesn’t mean your story’s doomed.  Just back off a little.  Rethink those difficult sections, keeping your reader in mind… rather than those big, beautiful words.



The handy chart, Part 2 

If you’re planning to write actual levelled readers, you should stick to the guidelines of the publisher you hope to write for.  For the rest of us, the guidelines listed here are just that:  guidelines. 

Who? Ages? Type? Vocabulary?
Babies Ages 0-2 Board / cloth books Simple, 1-2 syllable words.  “First vocabulary”
Toddlers Ages 1-3 Board, lift-the-flap, other novelty books Simple, 1-2 syllable words.  Mainly basic nouns and first verbs.  (Here’s a list of basic nouns, for reference)
Children Ages 4-8 Picture books (paper or board) 32 pages, but vocabulary can vary.  For self-reading, stick to basic nouns and verbs.  In non-fiction, feel free to introduce specific terminology, like age-appropriate science concepts and terms, but try to use no more than 1-2 new words per spread.
Little readers Ages 6-8 Smaller than picture books Under 64 pages. Stick to basic nouns and verbs, as these books are for self-reading.  A child-read reader needs simpler language than a parent-read picture book… but without sounding “dumb.”
Beginning chapters Ages 6-9 Smaller than picture books; thin, easy to “stash” Dolch and other “sight words,” Gr 1-2 level.  Specific terminology may be introduced; max 2-3 new words per page, but not on every page, as this gets overwhelming.  Consider a glossary if there are many new words.
Chapters Ages 7-10 Closer to adult-sized books, fewer illustrations (perhaps 1-2 per chapter) For this age, bigger words are a challenge and a treat.  But don’t overwhelm.  Don’t go over 5 “big words” per page, and your average should be lower to improve reading ease.
Middle grade Ages 8-12 Adult sized books, 0-1 illustrations per chapter. A tricky age – use mainly adult vocabulary.  Explain concepts that may be new in the context of your story instead of with definitions or a glossary, unless they’re from a foreign language.
Young adult Ages 12-up Adult-sized books, few or no illustrations Write for an adult level.  But skim for language that may be too advanced, along with situations and language that may not resonate with this age group.  You’re more likely to run into trouble with voice than language – ie your characters may sound too “adult” or too “childish.”

Any post like this runs the risk of turning the passion for creating stories into something rigid, scientific, and let’s face it, not much fun.


Making big words sing.

(or soar, or screech, or zoom)

Even if you find yourself needing to change words to suit your audience, never lose sight of your story’s fun.  If you look at my definition of a children’s book up at the top, that’s Definition #4:  all about story.

There are fantastic, vivid, passionate nouns and verbs to suit every age range, I promise. 

imageSome writers swear by the Children’s Writers Word Book, from Writers Digest, which groups specific words by age group.  I’m hesitant to recommend it, because some writers find it formulaic and creativity-stifling.

(Amazon has used copies starting at a penny, so perhaps that small investment would leave you less ticked off if you didn’t end up using it all the time.)

If you must introduce a couple of new words, consider making a game of it, calling attention to the words and even playing with their pronunciation.  I will never forget how to pronounce “tagliatelle grande,” thanks to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Take a look at this post by Christie Wright Wild, which actually lists some of the great words from picture books for various ages.  Another helpful article:  words kids know and use, from the BBC.

Whatever words you use, trim any unnecessary ones, even if they felt completely essential at the time you wrote them down.  Painful, I know.

As Laura Backes says in this post, “Once you've trimmed the clutter, the remaining words will be more powerful.”

Fill up your book with big, beautiful, age-appropriate words, cut the ones you don’t need, and what you’ve got left… looks a lot like success.

How do you choose what words your readers can handle at different ages and stages?

[image credit:  HikingArtist via Wikimedia]


  1. Great post. Thanks so much for the chart--it's very useful. Yes, I'm one of those people that like charts!

    1. Me, too. Thank you for your kind words. :-)


As always, I love to hear from you.