Like Mark Twain, I am a sucker for the right word. Twain’s the one who famously noted the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is akin to the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

For instance, I was immediately won over by my sister Susan Britton’s novel-in-progress which begins:

Jara, the lightest of sleepers, heard the noise first—the snick of a key in the lock, the creak of the door, the scuff of boots on the concrete floor of the main room below her. No light leaked up the ladder opening into the attic where she lay in bed. The Takers had a rule about no light. Immediately, Jara’s whole self went crazy with fear except for a small important part of her that knew exactly what to do. She had been practicing for this moment since she was twelve years old. Now she was fifteen.

She had me at “snick.”

Our very youngest readers deserve a rich vocabulary in their books even more. They are acquiring language, and the picture book has a big role in introducing a wide vocabulary. It can present ”the right word” in a context that reveals specific, nuanced meaning.

PZonka-Interior-WorkingA spectacular use of “spectacular” in Julie Paschkis’ new book, P. Zonka Lays an Egg, just out from Peachtree. “Spectacular” describes the title chicken’s first creative output.

Last month in the New Yorker, I read about a program in Providence, RI called Providence Talks that encourages low-income parents to talk more frequently with their kids. This effort is based on the word-counting studies done in the 1980s that determined the number of words children hear in their early years correlates with academic success, better health, and higher income later in life. (These studies also inspired Geoffrey Canada’s amazing Harlem Children’s Zone project).

The word-counting scientists found that wealthy parents talked more with their kids. As recounted in The New Yorker, “Among the professional families, the average number of words that children heard in an hour was twenty-one hundred and fifty; among the working-class families, it was twelve hundred and fifty; among the welfare families, it was six hundred and twenty. Over time, these daily differences had major consequences. Researchers concluded that with few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies were growing and the higher the children’s I.Q. test scores at age 3 and later.”

SWOOPMore perfect words: from Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson (Candlewick). The “swoop” makes me swoon.

The White House took on this issue, too, in a conference last October on “bridging the word gap.” Their conclusion had a different emphasis: “Among 2-year olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!); rituals (Want a bottle after your bath?”; and conversational fluency (Yes, that is a bus!”) were even a better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.”

Certainly being read to provides quality interactions involving words, as a letter the New Yorker’s Mail section noted a few weeks after the article about Providence Talks. The letter writer extolled the importance of the quality of words young children hear, and noted researchers at UC Santa Cruz found: “Picture books were three times as likely as child-directed speech to use a word that isn’t among the most common English words; a result found regardless of parents’ social class.”

That’s our job as picture book writers: to serve up quality words that exactly serve the story. The right word in context broadens vocabulary and fits like the snick of a key in a lock.

luluOne last example, from Harry and Lulu by Arthur Yorinks, illustrated by Martin Matje (Hyperion). The text reads:

Harry jumped up on the bed and licked Lulu’s face from top to bottom. Lulu was delirious. Then she remembered.

“Wait a minute,” she said to Harry. “You’re not a dog. You’re just a stupid stuffed animal and maybe I should throw you out the window or kick you down the sewer or something!!” Lulu went to grab him.

Harry thought of yelping for help, but instead he decided to speak English.

“Delirious.” A quality word.

9 responses to “QUALITY WORDS

  1. Maurice Sendak famously had to fight for the word “hot” in his last line–“And it was still hot”–in “Where the Wild Things Are.” Apparently his editor wanted it to read “And it was still warm.” Sendak knew “warm” just wasn’t sending the same message as “hot.” It’s true in picture books every word counts!

  2. I remember sharing a picture book that I liked, more than twice, with folks for the use of the word “anvil” which made me feel as if I had been struck by one (think Roadrunner vs Coyote) as much as for the unique usage…All these years later I remember the usage not the book, darn.

  3. I once shared the song, “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” with my 4th grade class, just to say the word, “arse,” and hear my poor teacher have to explain it.

    • I invented a story for Zelda and Ivy that involved pirate swords so I could start it with “Thwack! Thwack!” I love the “thw” words. There are two in my dictionary: thwart and thwack. Thwack was
      just itching to be written into a story, don’ t you think? Now for thwart….

  4. Lovely, Laura. Important.

  5. my two both loved Owl Babies when they were small – and that was one of my favourite pages – it always gave me a small lump in my throat…

    I remember when the Peter Rabbit books were rewritten a few years ago and the word ‘soporific’ was excluded because it was deemed to difficult – instead of offering it to children as a delicious word to get their mouths round and discover the meaning through context… I don’t think that version can have survived though.

  6. Laura, I so loved reading “Thwack” when sharing your Zelda and Ivy pirate story with my students! And, I relied on Martin Waddell’s book as one of my favorites for our first library visits for our incoming kindergarten students and their parents. I only wish I could have had this blog to share with the parents!

  7. Good to see your name in our comments section, Andrea. And interesting to hear that the fun of writing ‘thwack’ translated to the fun of reading. Hope you are enjoying retirement? and our paths cross again.

  8. What a perfect post, Laura. I think of Margaret Wise Brown’s use of the word “conservative.” Fun to pronounce and hilarious when used to describe Mr. Dog, AKA Crispin Crispian. My favorite editor, Tamson Weston, skillfully cut my overlong first submission for Carl’s Nose, but the phrases “malodorous risk” and “pungent peril” remained. Your post inspires us all to put more such words out there!

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