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?