Sunday, 1 July 2018

What’s in a Word? Yes you CAN use challenging vocabulary in a picture book! • by Natascha Biebow

I was inspired by Geraldine McCaughrean’s recent Carnegie Medal speech in which she praises the book industry for at last allowing authors to tackle virtually any subject (for older readers anyway), but raises an important concern about the apparent focus on keeping vocabulary manageable: “Vocabulary must not be too challenging. Books will not be published unless they are accessible.”

What is 'accessible language'? Surely this is largely open to interpretation and depends on the reader, the individual child, and their circumstances? Luckily, in picture books, the pictures very often provide contextual cues and the person reading out loud with the small child is there to support and decode tricky language, exactly to make it accessible . . .

Why is it important to include diverse vocabulary anyway? Here again McCaughrean sums it up in a nutshell: “. . . because you need words to be able to think for yourself.” Quite right. The only way to master words, McCaughrean argues, is to meet them.

So I wondered: are our young readers meeting them? Those words, words, words, all kinds of words for every occasion and need?
I took a look at my bookshelves to see how authors are using interesting, challenging and diverse vocabulary and language to tell their stories:


McCaughrean is right: we as authors have a moral obligation to deliver words – lots and lots of different savoury words – to young readers by the truck load, so that we can give them "the LEGO bricks for building" and thinking and therefore create expressive, problem-solving, creative, forward-thinking individuals. They will, after all, be the future of our world. And they need those words!

Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor
Natascha is the author of The Crayon Man (March 2019), Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. She runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission. Check out her Cook Up a Picture Book courses!


Deborah Fajerman said...

I totally agree! I really hope that books can be a way of sending children tempting and tasty new words! I haven't looked up the research about this but I would think that vocabulary and literacy are tied in a complex way to all the other parts of a child's life. So simplifying the language in books probably isn't the way to solve literacy problems. I work writing health information in a highly accessible style, which means using pared down language. One reason for this is to ensure that the majority of people will be able to access the information they need. But the aim of a children's book is quite different, it's not just about giving information, it's about inspiring children, and building a library of memories and ideas in a child's mind. You can use rich and challenging language in a way that does not exclude readers, I believe.

Jane Clarke said...

Absolutely! Made me smile as I have clear memories of reading (and explaining) Click Clack Moo, Cows that Type (Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin) to a class of first graders - includes 'neutral party' and 'ultimatum' :-)

Natascha Biebow said...

It's one of my favourites - so original!

Natascha Biebow said...

A library of memories - I like that analogy! Thanks for reading and commenting!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

I feel that we're in a better position with picture books as they're meant to be read aloud and we can use words that just sound great, backed up by pictures, in a way that books for older children sometimes don't get away with any more... and my guess is that it happens even more so in rhyming texts where the sound is so important to the feel of the book.