Challenging Children: Long words or short?

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As a writer of children’s books, I’m always concerned about whether my prose is pitched at about the right level for its intended readership. You know: are any of the words too long, sentence construction too complex, cultural references above their heads, subject matter too ‘adult’?

This is compounded by the fact that reading ability varies so much. Well it does for adults too, of course, but when your target audience is as narrow as 8-12-year-olds or thereabouts then you don’t have to be especially off-target to miss it. If the bull’s-eye is an averagely competent ten-year-old reader, then your book may be beyond a struggling eight-year-old (at least without adult help), yet also not testing enough for a high-flying near-teen. (Then again, advanced seven-year-olds and some young teens might still be within range.)

For this reason (as for so many others) the sharp eyes of beta-readers and editors are invaluable. Then again, I’m a firm believer that kids shouldn’t be patronised, and that there’s also scope to stretch them a little. Indeed, surely that’s part of the value of reading. If they never come across new words, for instance, how will their vocabulary grow?

An example: an editor of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer picked up on the word ‘sumptuous’, used to describe an especially spectacular starry sky beheld by Danny one night. Would your younger readers know what that means, they wondered?  Might a simpler word be used in its place?

I should emphasise that I did take that editor’s advice probably 90% of the time; and even when I didn’t, I always thought carefully before rejecting it. I’m certainly not suggesting they were wrong to ask the question. They wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t. But ultimately, the author themselves has to make the decision. The editor’s opinions are always to be respected (you’d be wasting both their time and yours if you didn’t) but they are never the last word.

In the end, sumptuous stayed. I love that word. It’s so, well … sumptuous. An extravagant, opulent, overflowing kind of word; but crucially, for me it was the very best one for the job in that particular sentence.  Another place, another time, I might have agreed with the editor and changed it.

Of course, as I said above, it’s a matter of balance. Too many new, long or challenging words might discourage the young reader. The prose should be accessible; and after all it’s there to tell the story, not get in the way, jump up and down and shout, ‘look at me, aren’t I clever!’. Too many pauses to consult the dictionary are bound to obstruct the reading experience and prevent the child’s full immersion in the adventure.

It’s a similar thing with sentences. I tend to keep them short and simple more often than not. But the odd longer, more complex sentence is no bad thing, and the variety should serve to make the text more interesting – and, yes, challenging. In that sense, it’s little different from adult fiction.

If the young reader gains in knowledge and ability through your book, that’s a wonderful thing. I’d love to think that some kid, somewhere, might one day say, ‘Dad, thanks, that dinner was sumptuous!‘, just because they read Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer.

 

5 thoughts on “Challenging Children: Long words or short?

  1. Are you consulting with librarians and schoolteachers? There may be a lot of written guidance out there about writing for children, but much of that may be of a theoretical nature. I should think that professionals who are always in the trenches with young readers would be in the best position to advise on what really works. They may grant your manuscripts access to a large pool of age-appropriate beta readers, too.

    • All good ideas. I have shown my work to children, yes, and also had it reviewed by editors with experience of children’s books; and, of course, I read a lot of books aimed at the same age range.

  2. I agree. Beta-readers are crucial for this. As are editors, though I have no experience with them as of yet. Most of my first drafts start with language that might be too complex for kids, then I go back through and change it. Though not as much as maybe others would. I hated reading books that pandered to kids below my reading level. I adored more challenging reads as a kid, but I don’t think that’s the way of things now.

    • Yes, it’s another reason why a fresh pair of eyes on your book, whether a beta-reader or paid reviewer, is essential if you really want to improve it. I don’t know whether the level thing has really changed or not. Some kids probably still like to be challenged, and be bored with a book that’s too dumbed down, and others maybe not. They’re all different I guess, just like adults.

  3. Pingback: Horrid Henry: An apology | Christopher Peter

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