Wordy Wednesday

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What with my travels last week, I completely forgot about Wordy Wednesday. Not that the outcry was deafening. . .but I’m sure one of my two blog readers was disappointed so I will persevere!

Twice lately, I’ve been asked if I limit the vocabulary I use in writing for younger readers. Both times, I answered (probably a bit snippily) that I focus on staying true to the story and trying to tell it as honestly as I can. I think my dander got up because it feels like there’s an implication in the question that books for kids need to be “dumbed down” in some way. And I certainly don’t feel that. One of the things good stories can do for kids is enrich their vocabulary, and pique their curiosity about words.

But then I thought about writing Two Bobbies with Mary. We certainly thought of our young readers as we selected which details to include about the hurricane and its aftermath because we didn’t want to frighten them. And with Nubs, we chose not to go into detail about how his injuries happened. So, while I would say we weren’t limiting the vocabulary, we did work hard to select details that wouldn’t unnecessarily distress those young readers. . .or even our grown-up readers! The same can be said for Hattie Big Sky and for the two novels I’ve written this past year.

So tell me. Do you take your audience into account when you write? If so, how?

It’s time for share and tell!

No Responses to “Wordy Wednesday”

  1. Faith Pray

    I’m revising a manuscript deemed too sophisticated for today’s kids. I am willing to change it, but struggle with the idea that middle grade students don’t have the brains to deal with big words. I hope I can find a balance like you did with Hattie Big Sky, because that certainly didn’t feel “dumbed down.”

  2. Kirby Larson

    I’m curious, Faith — who deemed the ms. too sophisticated? I see readers devouring things like the Mysterious Benedict Society, which seem pretty upscale concept and language-wise. This is a puzzle, isn’t it?

  3. Michèle Griskey

    Hi Faith and Kirby,
    I was thinking about language in books yesterday at the library. We have the Accelerated Reader system at our schools, and my sons have to read books at a certain grade level (instead of what they want to read). I have some very negative opinions on the AR system.
    I spend some time in the YA section searching for book for my son Holden. I finally picked The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, which he seems to like. He’s not allowed to read his favorites like Harry Potter or the Mysterious Benedict Society because the AR level is “below” his reading ability.
    I had to laugh (or perhaps I was alarmed) that Ellen Hopkins’ books were labeled at a third grade level. Can you imagine an eight-year-old reading Crank?

  4. Laura Canon

    I’ve been re-reading Anne of Green Gables and I’ve been struck by how L.M. Montgomery’s style by today’s standards would be too descriptive (in fact I skip a lot when I’m reading it out loud to my son.) I think today’s books are definitely simpler in style and vocabulary, while more sophisticated in concept and characters.

  5. Kirby Larson

    Have you read the Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing? M.T. Anderson is a brilliant writer but the book is beyond bleak.

  6. Kirby Larson

    I can relate to this, Laura! I love, love, loved Tuck Everlasting but could never get my children to read it and I think that had a lot to do with the quiet, descriptive (but beautiful!) opening of the book.

  7. Barbara O'Connor

    I never think about vocabulary. Never.

    The only way I “censor” my writing due to age group is with the use of mild profanity – and that’s only because I’ve caught flack about it in my earlier works. I’m very conflicted about it. I prefer to write true to character, but I also understand the “issue”. To be honest, I think if I didn’t care about my books being read and used in schools, I wouldn’t be as worried about profanity. When I was young and dumb, I didn’t think about it so much. Aaah, the good ole days

  8. Michèle Griskey


    Yes, Octavian Nothing is bleak, but Holden will probably not be fazed. His class read Tuck Everlasting, and he found the story, in his words, “revolting.”
    Too much romance for his taste. 🙂

    I don’t like to think about the words I’m using when I write, but I did have to consider vocabulary when I wrote my middle grade biographies. The publisher wanted them to be at a specific grade level. Now that I am working on YA fiction I would like to think I have more freedom.

    Interesting discussion.

  9. Martha Brockenbrough

    I actually think about vocabulary all the time. What word would my character use? How close do I want the perspective to be? How does it sound next to its neighbors? Have I used it before in the book. Is there a good reason to repeat a conspicuous word? If it’s a picture book, is it a fun-sounding word? Will it be clear from the context if not the eventual illustration?

    So it’s not so much “will the reader understand,” though that’s certainly a part of it. It’s really more about conveying my intention and doing the right thing emotionally for the reader.

  10. Kirby Larson

    This is such a great discussion; Martha, thanks for this insight. Right you are that we do think about word choice — but we think about it in a different way than those two interviewers who got my nose out of joint do. Now, I’m looking forward to the next person who asks me this question because I’m going to paraphrase your answer and look brilliant! 😉

  11. Grier Jewell

    This has really been bugging me because it gets at a much deeper issue than vocabulary. It drives right to the point of what makes children’s literature distinct, and this is where value judgements come into play. The question you were asked assumes that the only difference between writing for children and adults lies in a readability score. Underneath it is the belief that children’s stories are simplistic.

    I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into adult lit courses that, in the end, turned out to be really great experiences. One of the things it did was to clarify for me just how much more difficult it is to write for kids than adults.

    What I learned boils down to this: all literature has to be clear about what’s happening, but not what it means. When it comes to writing for adults, there can be great leaps between these two states. In fact, the meaning can be so vague it’s exhausting to figure out (I am famous for misunderstanding poetry, for example).

    On the other hand, in writing for children, the distance between what’s happening and what it means has to be so finely tuned it’s like dancing on the head of a pin. Unskilled writing leaves nothing to the imagination–what’s happening and what it means are the same. I think this is why picture books are hands down the most difficult form of all because the relationship between what’s happening and what it means needs just the right touch of breathing space. A great picture book has meaning that runs deep, but the journey is gently led. Bonny Becker calls this movement “simple, but profound.” Ha! No biggie.

    Different ages and intentions (as Martha says), plus the style of the writing will shape the writer’s challenge. I like to write humor and horror, which require tightly controlled leaps. You’ll think what I want you to think, when I want you to think it. This is the fun and challenge in writing for kids that, frankly, doesn’t exist in adult lit.

    If anyone had asked me about vocabulary, I’d tell them that writing for kids is a lot more sophisticated and challenging than writing material for legislators who don’t have the time or inclination to sort through what something means–for them, I keep it simple. Of course, no one asks me because I would beat them up.