Oh Susanna – What Vocabulary Is Developmentally Appropriate In A Picture Book? and Straight From The Editor #8

Good Monday Everyone!

Right this very second, while you guys are sipping your coffee, dunking your donuts, and/or eating your Wheaties, I am racing driving sedately along the road to Boston to look at colleges!  Very exciting 🙂

No doubt my GPS and I will bicker incessantly.  We have a love/hate relationship.  (She needs a name, by the way, my GPS.  My husband’s GPS is named Edna, so that’s taken.  All other suggestions will be entertained :))

The idea of navigating traffic in an unfamiliar city fills me with terror, but hopefully we’ll muddle through without causing any major incidents 🙂  I hope while we’re in Boston I’ll get to see Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Oack, Pack and Quack (and I hope you all know to whom I am referring! :))

Many of you missed my earliest posts when I still had the dogmobile – my 2002 Toyota Sienna which I totally loved but which, at 10 years old with over 200,000 miles and A LOT of wear and tear, had to be replaced in October.  So now we drive in style with Princess Blue Kitty who is a Subaru Outback – so sporty 🙂  She is called Princess because she’s so beautiful, and Blue because she’s so blue – indigo blue pearl is her official color – and Kitty because she purrs like a very large cat 🙂  I’m just telling you this so you’ll recognize me should I happen to pass you on the way 🙂

Alrighty then.  I’m driving, you’re reading Straight From The Editor followed by Oh Susanna 🙂

You will recall that the May Pitch Pick was won by Elizabeth with her pitch for Magnificent.  Here, once again, is the pitch:

Working Title: Magnificent
Age/Genre: Picture Book (ages 4-8)
The Pitch:  When the synchronized swimming Savanna Belles lose their watering hole to drought, the troop of elephant calves decide ballet is the perfect way to make them feel magnificent once again. Facing the challenges of trunk-tickling ants, loss of weightlessness, and the scarcity of tutus, can the girls tame the doubtful roars, hisses and cackles of the their wild friends, proving that they really can be magnificent ballerinas? Follow the tutued journey of these silly mammals as they sashay, leap and plié their way into even the wildest of hearts.

And here are Erin’s comments:

This is very cute. My only suggestion is to trim it a bit and make it simpler.
Here’s what I would do to make it more to the point.
When the synchronized swimming Savanna Belles lose their watering hole to drought, the troop of elephant calves decide ballet is the perfect way to make them feel magnificent once again. Facing the challenges of trunk-tickling ants, the scarcity of tutus, and gravity, can the girls tame the doubtful roars, hisses, and cackles of their wild friends? Follow the tutued journey of these silly mammals as they sashay, leap, and plié their way into even the wildest of hearts.

Very helpful, no?  Also proof that Elizabeth did a good job and has a good idea 🙂

Now then, onto today’s Oh Susanna question.

Pam asks the following:

As a teacher, I love reading books with lots of descriptive language and low frequency words.  This is important when I’m doing a lesson to expand vocabulary with words that 3s & 4s don’t hear every day.  But as a writer, how can I know if I’m writing a developmentally appropriate book?

This is a good question, Pam.

One of the difficult things about writing picture books is that you’re writing for two audiences – both your child listener and your adult reader – something that is true of no other genre.

But this is also one of the best things about writing picture books.  You’re not depending solely on a child’s existing vocabulary or knowledge of the world – there is an adult reader to explain and clarify.

In addition, if done well, the illustrations can really help with understanding.

This puts you, as a writer, in the wonderful position of being able to expand a child’s world.

That said, when you’re writing for the under-eights, you’re not going to write, “Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom.” (from Common Sense by Thomas Paine) in a child’s picture book 🙂

Developmental appropriateness is a combination of concept, sentence length, and vocabulary.

Your concept must be one a child can relate to – getting a new sibling, wanting her own room, fighting with a best friend, being afraid of thunderstorms, wishing his first tooth would fall out, losing a pet.  Or, if you choose something a little more beyond their range of experience, like living under the sea (as in Rainbow Fish or The Pout-Pout Fish), it still works if you connect with their emotional experience (not wanting to share, feeling sulky).  Concepts like violence or adultery would obviously not be developmentally appropriate! 🙂

While your sentences should vary somewhat in terms of length and structure, for the most part they should be short enough for the child to understand easily and for the adult to read aloud without gasping for air 🙂

As far as vocabulary, you have a unique opportunity to introduce new words.  As long as there aren’t too many unfamiliar words and as long as they fit neatly into the context and are explained by the situation and illustrations (at least to some degree), you can count on your adult reader to supply any remaining clarification necessary.  For example, in Can’t Sleep Without Sheep, I used the word “chaos.”  This is a word that many children don’t know.  But it’s clear from the story that things are getting way out of hand, and one look at the picture shows animals stampeding, wood splintering and flying, clouds of dust, etc… which clearly indicates an utter lack of order and organization.  Most kids get it.  But when I’m reading, I usually ask them if they know what chaos means.  If they say no, I ask if they can guess from the story and pictures.  If they still can’t, then I explain it.  Any child who didn’t know the word has now been exposed to it.

As I said, you don’t want too many unfamiliar words in one picture book.  A handful is okay.  After that it’s possible that you’re writing at too high a level to be comfortable for this age.  But I am firmly of the opinion that as a writer you should not talk down to children, and that you should introduce appropriate new vocabulary.  As you mentioned, it is an opportunity for learning.

I hope that answers your question, at least partially!  If not, please ask for clarification in the comments!  And I also hope that all our talented readers who have knowledge and experience in this area will chime in with their thoughts.

Have a great day, everyone, and please forgive me if I am a bad commenter today.  I will try my best to catch up when I get home.  I will be reading, probably at the end of the day, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how to comment off my phone and besides those letters are so tiny! 🙂

52 thoughts on “Oh Susanna – What Vocabulary Is Developmentally Appropriate In A Picture Book? and Straight From The Editor #8

  1. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Any time 🙂 Stop by Summer Short & Sweets when it gets going July 5 – it might help you get your pen in gear 🙂

    Tracy Campbell wrote, in response to Susanna Leonard Hill:

    Thank you for your encouraging comments. I'm in the process of designing a new website and revamping my blog. I will be gearing my posts to young mom's. Although my children have flown the coop, my dogs, especially Indy, acts like such a kid, so I plan on making a correlation between the two. I just have to get my act in gear and actually sit down and come up with some ideas–the boot idea is one that is wonderful. And Susanna, I want to thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to respond. Thank you!

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