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Difficult Language

June 2, 2009

Inspired by this post: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2009/05/26/hard-words/

I’m currently in the process of trying to write a childrens’ novel. A small group of people trusted to be brutal, honest, and absolutely glowing in their unmitigated praise have been allowed to read the draft so far. One comment has emerged more than once that has set me to thinking – “Isn’t some of the language a bit complicated for a young audience?”

This question goes hand in hand with another often asked question – “What age group are you writing for?” It’s a question I can’t really answer. Apart from the fact that I know it’s aimed at children, I have no idea. I’m just trying to tell a children’s story as best I can, without worrying too specifically about age group – I feel that would impose unnatural restraints on my language.

One of the reasons for this is the fact that “age group” is a pretty poor way to judge an individual child’s reading ability. I read above, below, and horizontally left in relation to my chronological age. At least, I did so in terms of attempts to age band the books I read. It’s an experience shared by most people I know who would classify themselves as “readers.” While my training in statistics makes me wary of drawing from a sample as small and biased as “people I know,” it seems like an intuitively correct assertion that most people who read a lot as children are not often constrained by age banding, except for the giant steel band dividing “childrens’” and “adults” stories. (Not “adult” stories. No snickering at the back) And many children make their way over that barrier as young teenagers, depending on parental attitudes and propensity to censor. This, I think, makes it veyr difficult to judge what “age group” a childrens story is for.

Now, you might argue that children who are prolific readers are a deviation from the norm – certainly, a majority of primary school aged children (5-12) that I have encountered in classrooms do not read for pleasure as a matter of habit. They read few books, if any. But given that we’re talking about writing to a target audience (Surely the aim of age banding is to help books find their target audience. Unless you take the view that it is more motivated by issues of censorship) then my target audience is the minority of “readers” – The very people who seem to flagrantly ignore age banding and just read what they like.

So I should just try and write a story that any reader would like to read. But what if my language is indeed too difficult in parts, and I drive away those who would like the story but will struggle with some of the language? That is not an argument I accept – If storytelling is a form of play, a way to exercise the mind and improve cognitive skills as many psychologists believe, then it ought to be challenging. There should be words you don’t know. Finding out the meanings of new words should be a source of pleasure, part of the mental exercise – You wouldn’t enjoy playing sports if it was always easy, so why should childrens’ literature be any different?  Reading is supposed to expand the vocabulary, and it can only do that if some amount of the language is outside the readers’ current comfort zone.

Further to that argument, I find a great deal of childrens’ stories (in any medium) tend to underestimate their audience. It’s why avid readers tend to abandon their “age band” in looking for good stories to consume. I believe the majority of children who enjoy reading can handle fancier language than we give them credit for. We should write for them in words that are as beautiful as we can manage. Children deserve gorgeous language, not coddling simplicity. I would like to think that any story I write, for children or adults, lets them appreciate the beauty, quirkiness, and general wonder of the written word. I don’t know yet if my ability are up to it, but I’m sure their ability to appreciate it if I pull it off is there in spades.

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