Writing Up to Children

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 18th, 2013

I couldn’t resist diving right into the ARC for Kate DiCamillo’s new novel, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, even though it’s not coming out until September and I have stacks of ARCs from more recent months waiting to be read. This isn’t going to be a review of the book, yet; I’ll save that for closer to the pub date. However, even just a few pages in, it is clear that, once again, Kate DiCamillo proves herself to be one of those rare authors who write up to children, understanding that kids’ intelligence, curiosity, and ready sense of humor will be piqued by encountering a wide range of characters, experiences, and lively, rich language.

Nothing flattens a book more than the attitude that children shouldn’t encounter words they don’t already know — which, if you think about it, is a pretty silly cul-de-sac to drive down. Some years ago, when my younger nephew was five or six, I met the family for dinner at a restaurant. When I walked in the door, my little guy ran over, gave me a big hug, and said, “Auntie Boo, you look pulchritudinous this evening.” (Then he asked me if I knew what the word meant. That was pretty adorable, too.) He and his mom had been reading a Dick King-Smith chapter book, and my nephew had absorbed new vocabulary with delight.

I suspect it can be be hard to get words like “pulchritudinous” green-lit for the 6-8 crowd, and I understand there are some good reasons. Fancy language that draws attention to itself in a way that distracts from the story being told is a nuisance. But no one takes as much joy in delicious words as a child. When I travel to schools as a visiting author, one part of my presentation to elementary school kids is a slide of words I love, “catawampus,” “deliquescent,” “discombobulated,” and a couple dozen more. This is always a place where kids start reading the words aloud, rolling them around to see what they feel like.

Along with Kate DiCamillo, M.T. Anderson and Polly Horvath are contemporary American authors who don’t pull the plug on their vocabularies (or ideas) when writing for children.

Who else, dear Readers?

11 thoughts on “Writing Up to Children

  1. D.R. Maddock

    When I was a kid, I was obsessed with huge words. Pulchritudinous was a favorite of mine, as was the (oft debated) floccinaucinihilipilification. I can still say the word without a hitch because I would often shout to my third grade teacher that the homework assignment she gave us was “floccinaucinihilipilification itself!”

    When I write for kids, I don’t try to put big words in, but I feel like a few of them just flow naturally. Sinuous is one that makes it in a bit. Disentangled is another. Mostly verbs that don’t fit in the “vanity words” category. I like putting words in in a way that I think they can learn from. I do the same thing with the science in my science-fiction.

  2. dana alison levy

    Maryrose Wood’s The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series is one that does a great job both introducing more complex language and also explaining it in a fun way. And as both a writer who loves words and a mother of an eleven-year-old son who describes his feelings about gravy by saying “I’m indifferent: I don’t relish it or avoid it,” – well, I’m glad these books exist.

  3. Elizabeth

    Megan Whalen Turner, who uses sentences like, “You will have a sinecure, a pathetically easy job.” to build the definition right in.

    And Lemony Snicket.

  4. Carol Chittenden

    How I loved interesting words as a child! I used to have a collection of the 5-syllable ones: “antihistamine” was a favorite, and “occasionally” and “vocabulary” among others.

    For exciting current wordplay, I’m loving Dear Life, You Suck, by Scott Blagden. It’s full of delicious profanity that pops emotions out the side of the mouth, sometimes with a sneer, sometimes with a kiss.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      (And I am waiting for YOUR novel, Wordsmith Chittenden.) Speaking of your liking the word “occasionally” as a child, I love the phase little kids go through when they discover the use of the word “actually.” They all seem to hit a phase where they preface many sentences with, “Actually…” Makes a three- or four-year-old sound oddly adult.

      I also love making up words that should exist but don’t. There was a book I loved by Eleanor Cameron, called A Room Made of Windows. In it, the main character has just been severely disappointed (not allowed to go to a play) by her mother and I think stepfather or her mother’s new boyfriend, and she yells out the window after them, “I regard you with the utmost despision!” (From memory, so I may have the quote a little bit off.)

      The word “obstinate” has always seemed to me to be better as “obstinant,” for some reason, and it wasn’t until college that I learned I had it wrong.

      1. Mary

        My son is almost 4 and currently right in the throes of his “actually” phase. My favorite was not long ago, when we were driving somewhere and I commented on a field of cows we saw from the car window. “Actually, Mom,” he said, sounding very superior, “I believe those are animals of a different type.”

        Ohh-kaaay. :)

  5. Spellbound

    I remember being impressed with the vocabulary in Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs, especially because it’s a contemporary, realistic mystery/adventure story featuring a twelve-year-old boy. There is no fanciful world-building or trying to be quirky… just an average kid who happens to know words and uses them. It made me happy.

  6. Ellen Scott

    Cat Valente in The Girl Who Circumnavigated FairyLand in a Ship of her Own Making and its sequels is another author who writes for the kid willing to chew on new vocabulary and phrases. There isn’t much that bothers me more to hear from a customer than “oh, he/she won’t like that book– he/she doesn’t know what that is/what that means/where that is” and this is most often from the parent who should be and is in most cases the child’s primary teacher!!

  7. Amy

    Cat Valente, Cat Valente, Cat Valente. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making and The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There are gems…Thank goodness there are more books coming!

  8. Kate

    When I read Ingrid Law’s SAVVY and its followup, SCUMBLE, I felt like she did an amazing job playing with language and challenging kids to stay with her ideas. Her books appeal to both genders, which is a great find when buying books for the family!

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