Monday, March 29, 2010

Vocabulary the Pest

Over the past few years, I’ve done a pretty good job of familiarizing myself with the young adult book market. But the new historical fiction series I’m starting stars a nine year old, not a sixteen year old. So now on top of brushing up on my archeology, I also have to learn about the exciting world of children’s literature.

After visiting a couple of bookstores and doing some on-line research, it appears that children’s books fall into three basic catigories. First there are picture books. Then there are “early reader” chapter books. These books are typically 3,000 to 10,000 words and contain very simple and repetitive language. Even though the text is divided into short chapters, there are often illustrations on almost every page. These books are geared towards children just starting to read on their own, typically between kindergarden and second grade.

After the “early readers”, books jump directly to “middle grade”. Middle Grade books are described as being for 9-12 year olds. They are books for tweens and often involved middle school aged characters, think Harry Potter. MG books can be as short as 25,000 words, but often extend to 45,000 words or more.

Since I hope to have my series star a nine year old, it was originally hard to tell where my series would fit. Is it an early reader or middle grade? I desided to search for other well known books with 8-10 year old characters. After visiting multiple book stores, I can attest that “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing”, “Harriet the Spy”, “Amber Brown is Not a Crayon”, and “How to Eat Fried Worms” can all be found in the middle grade section.

To give myself an idea of what type of language is used in these books, I picked up a bunch of younger spectrum MG books to examine sentence structure, word length, ect. I started out by reading Beverly Cleary’s classic, “Beezus and Ramona”. Naturally the first thing I noticed was that Ramona is a gazillion times cooler than Beezus. I actually pity any kid that identifies with Beezus. No nine year old should be that uptight.

The second thing that I noticed while reading “Beezus and Ramona” was how difficult the story was to read. There were many complex compound sentances that strung together so many clauses I had to stop and go back in order to figure out what was happening. I have to admit that as a child I was a huge Ramona fan. I loved Ramona. I wanted to be Ramona. And I eagerly listened to every Ramona tale my parents were willing to read me. But I think this reading of “Beezus and Ramon” last weekend may have been the first time I ever successfully read a Beverly Clearly book to myself.

In “Beezus and Ramona” the character of Beezus is nine and the character of Ramona is four. I remember my parents reading me Ramona books before bed when I was in kindergarden. And I expect most second and third graders would love to read about Beezus and Ramona on their own, assuming they can decode all the words. But this book doesn’t just have long complex sentances. It also has tons of multisylabic words. Beezus is constantly getting exasperated with Ramona. Seriously, how many seven year olds do you know that even know what exasperated means? And how many of them would want to keep reading after they found that word on the second page of a novel about a four year old?

I am extreamly dyslexic, and obviously had a different early reading experience than the average child. When I was in second grade, I didn’t know the alphabet and wasn’t reading anything. Still, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been capable of decoding “Beezus and Ramon” until I was well into high school. I don’t think I ever fell more than five or six years below grade level, so I seriously doubt there are very many modern second and third graders who can read this book without difficulty. I still remember shedding tears as an eleven year old when I continued to struggle and fail to read about Ramona.

I know many people think putting large words in children’s literature helps kids develop vocabulary. But I still think authors writing for young readers should think about readability when considering word selection. Forget about the agrivation of a pesky little sister. I can tell you, there is nothing more exasperating for an early reader than being unable to unlock your favorite book. I loved Ramona Quimby as a kid. I still love her now. She’s quirky and funny and overflowing with life. But Beverly Cleary was my least favorite author as a kid. I hated not being able to read her books more than all the others.

Obviously, kids today want stories more exciting than “See spot run.” But I would like to make a promise to all my future readers. I will never use the word exasperate in a novel whose intended audience is under the age of ten. I will limit my sentances to two clauses. And I will consider both familiarity and phonix when using words with more than three sylables.

Joke of the Day
Why is monosylabic such a long word?

1 comment:

Stephanie Faris said...

I write middle grade, but for the older middle grade...they now are calling that a "tween" market. I think everything is fragmenting even more than it's always been...picture books, early reader, middle grade, tween, young adult, new adult, adult...

But then, new adult and tween are just VERY small subsets...the primary ones are the ones you listed and these two new ones could be just a trend.