Before Christmas I put up this link on my Facebook page (Children’s Books by Amanda Lonergan) to the video of actor B. J. Novak reading his book titled “The Book with No Pictures” to a hall full of young school children. Their reactions were a delight to witness, the giggles; the anticipation and the captivation were clearly evident and a poignant demonstration of how words alone can entertain. As an aspiring children’s picture book author with relatively average drawing skills this is a comforting thought that the words can evoke such enthusiasm yet at the same time I feel a little apprehension creeping in as to the responsibility this entails.
We all know how one misplaced word or a poorly phrased sentence in an email can change the whole tone and lead to misinterpretation and even cause unintended offence. In the same way if a child takes a dislike to a story, the vocabulary is incomprehensible to them or it causes nightmares it could easily put them off reading for life! Every book that a child (or adult) reads is an experience. This may be an experience of new information, new emotions, a new understanding or a reinforcement of previous feelings and judgements. Yet the same book experience can be interpreted very differently by each individual so inevitably will shape each individual’s world in a unique way. Take the following example from an early English nursery rhyme:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.”
What would you interpret this to mean? “It doesn’t matter what others think of me” OR “I should not feel hurt by someone else’s cruel words.”
Initially you may think that both interpretations essentially mean the same thing but look again and you will see that the first is empowering the reader whilst the latter is implying the reader is weak if they feel hurt by verbal abuse; which we all know is undoubtedly hurtful and it certainly should not be considered weak to acknowledge such emotions. These two interpretations would likely go towards shaping two very different outlooks on life.
So if we all interpret things differently, how can an author possibly write a book which is loved and adored by every single child around the globe? The reality check is that it’s absolutely impossible, however ensuring that the vocabulary used offers a positive experience and influence for all, is possible.
Children’s books need to be fun and light-hearted in order to be enjoyable, a pleasure to read and act as a platform for them to learn through play. Sometimes the books may broach difficult topics but that shouldn’t stop them being written in such a way as to help the child become a glass half full type of person rather than a glass half empty type of person. Like anything, maintaining a positive outlook on life doesn’t always come naturally, especially if life insists on continually throwing lemons at you, it needs to be learnt and one way to show children how to do this is by the books that they read helping them deal with their emotions and think positively from an early age.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
So does this mean all words in children’s books should strictly adhere to dictionary perfection and be full of words like strength, individuality and inspiration? Far from it! Some of the words in B.J. Novak’s book were in fact nonsense words and it was because of this that they got a giggle due to their lack of meaning and his well timed delivery and tone opposed to any deep and meaningful message. In the same vein Dr Seuss’s “wocket” from There’s a Wocket in my Pocket and Roald Dahl’s “snozzberry” from Charlie & the Chocolate Factory are brilliant examples of this use of nonsensical humour being incorporated into their stories. I’m not saying we should get sloppy and misspell words or avoid popping the occasional bigger word in to challenge the reader, but adding in a make believe word can show children it is fun to play with words and encourage them to think and imagine beyond what is traditionally accepted as correct. Knowing what isn’t strictly correct often gives them a firmer grasp on what is. Reading traditionally written books can expand a child’s vocabulary for better communication whereas reading a book incorporating made up words can show them they are in control of their own expression through words and language rather than the words and language limiting and controlling their expression.
On that note I’d like to wish you all a happy, healthy and successful 2015 and some additional articles to read.