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. Clarike Bowman-Jahn says:

    Hi Susanna! Good luck with your college search!

    The question of what is appropriate language for picture book lovers was answered very appropriately. I think you did an awesome job! Right now I don't have anything better to add. Thanks for sharing such an awesome answer to a difficult question. I know I wrote my book “Annie's Special Day” so kids could read it to themselves if they wanted. And there is an audio to go with it so they could follow along. 🙂

    I agree that there should not be more than a handful of difficult or new words in a book at a time.

  2. Erik The Great says:

    Have a nice trip! I like the answer to the great question! 🙂 I think it must be hard to have to write picture books for different ages, especially young kids. I learned a lot from your answer 🙂

  3. Angela Brown says:

    Safe driving and hoping the trip is both fun and enlightening. Since Edna is taken, perhaps you can call your GPS Connie. It's sort of close to sounding like compass, which provides guidance as well. I call mine, “Please don't get me lost”

    Interesting advice regarding the Oh Susanna question. I hadn't really considered that a PB really had two audiences to contend with but that's true.

  4. thefeatherednest says:

    Keep safe and may I suggest “Luna” as a name for your GPS. Luna is protectress of charioteers (auto drivers). It is also a pretty name that goes well with your “Princess” theme.

  5. Renee LaTulippe says:

    Haha, I like the Thomas Paine example! Wise words as always, Susanna. I have a question for you too, which I am emailing now. Don't look at it while you're driving, though!

    I think your GPS should be called Gertie.

  6. Tracy Campbell says:

    Before my day runs away from me, I'd like to leave a comment or two. The colour (Cdn. spelling) of your car caught my attention because my Chinese Crested Powder Puff (no, he's not a dessert) is Indygo (Indy). Hmm…interesting.
    Your comments on the posed question was one I'd heard before, but a great reminder.
    In the middle grade novel I'm writing, the POV's mother tells her she's too impulsive. So in one scene where she's talking to her sidekick, she repeats the word and emphasizes it by saying (im-pul-sive) like the two are trying to figure out what it means.
    Thanks for listening to my two cents worth.
    Have safe and wonderful trip.

  7. Beth Stilborn says:

    Great to see how close Elizabeth's pitch was to perfection! (I really want to read that book when it comes out…)

    What a fantastic answer to Pam's question, Susanna. I so appreciate your mention of not writing down to kids, but letting them “read up” into new vocabulary. (Your example showed me why I prefer reading picture books to reading Thomas Paine, for sure!)

    I have pondered attempting to write early readers, but opted for chapter books, as there are many more restrictions on word choice, length, complexity of thought in an early reader than in either a picture book or a chapter book.

    Hope YOU ate your Wheaties before setting out on your adventure. Love the name of your new vehicle. When we were on vacation in England last year, our friend's GPS (or SatNav as she called it) had a name attached to the voice we heard. We were quite happy to be directed around Walton-on-Thames by “Emily.”

    Hope you see Jack, Lack and the rest! (At least their statues…) Do let us know!

  8. Iza says:

    Just a simple tweak on a well-written pitch. I can't wait to read the book! Susanna, that was a great response. And I agree that introducing a few low frequency words in context is a wonderful way to expand children's vocabulary and to engage them. At readings, if there is a word I think kids may not know, I also ask them, and then tell them the meaning. And sometimes they ask me first. But I like to sprinkle my stories with a few words that children may not recognize- but that may be clarified in the context of the sentence or in the illustrations.
    have a great trip!

  9. Vivian Kirkfield says:

    Make Way for Ducklings…one of my all-time favorites! Safe travels and best of luck, Susanna, on the college tour and w/the new wheels. I loved the theme of this post…the advice from Erin and from you will be quite helpful as I polish each pb ms…it makes me want to keep “marplot” even more. 🙂 🙂

  10. Penny Klostermann says:

    I'm with Beth….I want to read your book when it comes out, Elizabeth! Really good pitch!

    Wonderful question, Pam…and excellent answer, Susanna. I love that you went into detail about including “challenge” words as my favorite-brilliant-greatest-first-grade-teacher-in-the-world friend calls them.

    Have fun looking at colleges!

    GPS name??? Well, since your car is Princess Blue Kitty, you could call your GPS
    a favorite princess name. Do you have a favorite princess?
    Cinderella-for comfy coach rides
    Snow White-who I'm sure has fairer map skills than the wicked queen
    Rapunzel-“Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Don't make me pull out my hair.”
    Fiona-she's a strong woman who has a mind of her own
    Ariel-she navigates the sea…so why not land?
    Jasmine-sure to take you on a magic carpet ride

    OK…you get the idea and I'm fresh out of princesses for now 🙂

  11. Robyn Campbell says:

    You gave a super answer. As always! Love what you said about the illustrations helping with the understanding. A-1 advice as usual. That book sounds like a lot of fun. Cannot wait to read it.

    I hope you enjoy these college visits. And the new car. Princess huh? *envious* 🙂

    My GPS is called that dadgum thing. Because that dadgum thing talks back to me, I tell you. Mwah!

  12. genevieve says:

    Good advice about picture books having a handful of new words. And of course, a picture speaks 1000 words, so yes the illustrations will help, and they will serve as a great prereading use of picture-cues. I think the GPS should be named….CUPCAKE!

  13. Kirsten Larson says:

    Enjoy your trip to Boston. Stop by the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum for me. As for language, I've found some sites where you can type in a paragraph from your manuscript, and it will tell you what reading level you are writing for. Here's one:http://www.readabilityformulas.com/new-dale-chall-readability-formula.php Normally, I've found a year or two beyond your target audience is ok. For example, if you think you are writing for kinder, and find out your language is more “grade 2,” that can be ok. I've also found the Children's Writer's Word Book to be helpful.

  14. Tiltonph says:

    Hope you have a fun and great time visiting colleges. I have a 2002 Honda Accord that only has 63,000 miles on it and I plan to keep a long while. It looks and run great. We call our GPA Dick or Jane, depending on which voice we select.

    Enjoyed your thoughts on writing for the child and the adult. Thanks Kirsten for the website.

    Want read Elizabeth's book when it comes out. Like the story.


  15. Pam says:

    Thank you so much for answering my question, Susanna. This is really excellent advice. I especially appreciate your saying that the concept of the book must be developmentally appropriate so that when unfamiliar words are introduced, the text and illustrations will aid with context clues.

    As for the name of your GPS, how about Gabby?

  16. Cathy says:

    Quite selfishly, I hope one of the Boston area institutions of higher learning accepts your prodigy for further study so that you will make frequent sojourns to my area!

    (Fancy college speak, you know)

    May your GPS guide you safely here and home!

  17. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    We had a great time. I shudder to tell you how many miles are already on my 8 month old car! More than 1/3 of what's on your 10 year old car! I think I'd like to change my GPS voice to a posh-sounding British guy but I can't figure out how 🙂

  18. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Glad if the answer was helpful! College visits were very fun and Princess Blue Kitty was fabulous and now needs an oil change before we head off to wherever we decide to go next week… Pennsylvania maybe? Your dad gum thing and mine would get along famously! They could talk back to each other!

  19. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Each genre has it's own unique challenges – part of what makes it fun 🙂 I think I like the name SatNav 🙂 And alas, in my wanderings, I did not manage to find Jack and the gang – limited time for much but college viewing – but perhaps next time!

  20. Rena J. Traxel says:

    Elizabeth, I wish you the best in sending this story out into the world!

    Great question Pam. I get annoyed when I read a book that talks down to the reader.

  21. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Oh! So cute! I thought Chinese Cresteds didn't have any hair – he looks like he's all soft and fluffy 🙂

    Tracy Campbell wrote, in response to Susanna Leonard Hill:

    Here's Indygo (Indy) at 8 weeks in daddy's boot.

    User's website
    Link to comment

  22. Tracy Campbell says:

    There are three types of Chinese Cresteds. Hairless, hairy hairless and powder puffs. Indy's parents are both hairy hairless. The photo below is of Indy and Latte (his sister). Indy's mom had three pups, two hairy hairless and a powder puff. They are rare. He also has blue eyes like Paul Newman. I'm dating myself, LOL. I could go and on about them, but I must try and do some writing today.

  23. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    See, I'm learning all these new things! I love that he has blue eyes 🙂 Maybe you should write a story about him, or chinese cresteds, or trying to climb out of a boot 🙂

    Tracy Campbell wrote, in response to Susanna Leonard Hill:

    There are three types of Chinese Cresteds. Hairless, hairy hairless and powder puffs. Indy's parents are both hairy hairless. The photo below is of Indy and Latte (his sister). Indy's mom had three pups, two hairy hairless and a powder puff. They are rare. He also has blue eyes like Paul Newman. I'm dating myself, LOL. I could go and on about them, but I must try and do some writing today.

    User's website
    Link to comment

  24. Tracy Campbell says:

    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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