In part II of this series I suggested that writing for children should not condemn you to “See Jane Run” type sentences. I believe, as I have said previously, that child readers are smarter than this, and that as writers we can help them become smarter still. We can do this not only by using more complex sentence structures, but also by using a variety of recognizable and difficult language, or as I call it here, “known” and “unknown” words.
Writing for the Child Strategy #2: Use both “known” and “unknown” words
I can’t think of a better children’s book series to use for examples of this strategy than Daniel Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (ASUE). One of the many wonderful things about the ASUE books is his adult narrator, the heartbroken and pessimistic Lemony Snickett. Without condescension, Snickett introduces child readers to unknown words and phrases such as “rickety,” “flaneur,” “nervous,” “rampant,” “dowager,” “penultimate,” “denouement,” and “adroit technical faculties.” He does this in a variety of ways and uses overt explanation.
Here are three different types of overt explanation Handler uses to introduce unknown words to child readers.
The Narrator Explains:
“the word “rickety,” you probably know, here means ‘unsteady’ or ‘likely to collapse’” (ASUE 1, pg. 2).
Notice here that the narrator gives the audience the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they “probably know” what the word means, but giving an explanation for it anyway.
An Adult Character Explains:
“…your Aunt Josephine lost her husband recently, and it maybe possible that he drowned or died in a boat accident. It didn’t seem polite to ask how she became a dowager. Well, let’s put you in a taxi.”
“What does that word mean?” Violet asked.
Mr. Poe looked at Violet and raised his eyebrows. “I’m surprised at you, Violet,” he said. “A girl of your age should know that a taxi is a car which will drive you someplace for a fee” (ASEU 3, pg. 6).
Notice that this technique, in this instance, emphasizes the adult speaker’s condescension and inability to understand the child. It seems clear that the word Violet is confused about is “dowager,” but Mr. Poe misses this and instead attributes her ignorance to the much more obvious word, “taxi.” It is probable that this technique appeals to the child reader’s experiences of being talked down to, of being misunderstood.
A Child Explains:
“Dowager,” Klaus whispered to Violet, “is a fancy word for widow” (ASEU 3, pg. 6).
Notice that in this sentence, which continues that passage quoted above, it is the child, Violet’s younger brother, who understands and who answers the question where the adult cannot. Klaus often functions as the Baudelaire children’s dictionary because of his love of reading and of obtaining information and knowledge.
I would like to add to these three overt ways of explaining unknown words to child readers a more subtle method: context. By making the context surrounding the word clear and concrete enough, you can explain a word’s meaning without using the language of explanation. I know that context is mostly how I learned new words as a child so that, even as an adult, I could use a word correctly without being able to provide a dictionary definition.
I remember learning the word “avian” this way, though I cannot remember the book that taught it to me. The author, having made clear that topic was a bird, referred to the bird as “avian,” and even though, for me, that was an unknown word, rereading the sentences that came before made the word’s meaning clear–it had something to do with birds!
Teaching language through context requires a sophisticated and detailed attention to language on the sentence level. Unclear pronouns and subjects can confuse rather than illuminate definitions of unknown words. If the author had not been clear that the subject described as “avian” was a bird, I would not have been able to intuit the unknown word’s meaning.
I try to keep all this in mind as I write. I try to choose the right language–words that not only accurately describe my story, but that speak to my readers’ current literacy levels as well as to their linguistic curiosity. By balancing known and unknown words, I stay true to my story as well as to my audience.