Kathryn Page Camp
Vocabulary is an important part of aging a children’s book. There are several resources to guide you on vocabulary level, including Children’s Writers’ Word Book by Alihandra Mogilner and online vocabulary and spelling lists for parents and teachers arranged by grade. Use them.
But don’t rely on them.
First, these lists can’t cover every word in a child’s vocabulary. Just because a word isn’t on the list doesn’t mean your readers won’t know it.
Second, readers want to be challenged. For each of the middle-grade books I have completed so far, I used between six and nine beta readers spread over four grades. I asked them to complete a questionnaire, and here are two of the questions I asked:
Were there any words you didn’t know before but could figure out from the story? If so, write them here.
Were there any words that you didn’t understand unless you looked them up in a dictionary or asked someone older? If so, write them here.
Even though I frequently used words from the fifth and sixth grade lists, the third and fourth grade beta readers listed them in response to the first question rather than the second, indicating that they got the meaning from the text. So don’t let these lists limit you.
While it is important to challenge your readers, it is equally important not to frustrate them. If they have to make frequent trips to the dictionary (or to the kitchen to ask their parents), they’ll put the book down and leave it there.
So how can you challenge without frustrating? The best approach is to use context clues. In my first middle-grade book, Desert Jewels, Emi’s parents tell her to come to the parlor after she finishes washing the dishes. I don’t come right out and tell readers that “parlor” was a common word for living room or what we might now call the family room, but when she got there she found Papa reading a newspaper and Mama knitting a sock and she sat on a piano stool to talk to them (implying the presence of a piano). Other passages explicitly mention the piano in the room and a fancy clock that sits on top of it. The piano and Emi’s parents’ activities while in the parlor help today’s readers understand what the room is.
Then there is the word “spews,” which occurs in a tanka (a type of Japanese poem) that begins the book. It was on one beta reader’s list of words that she had never heard before but could figure out from the context. In this case, it is the words immediately around it that provide the clues:
Hate spews from your lips,
Calling me a “Dirty Jap.”
I don’t understand.
Although I don’t look like you,
I am an American.
Although context clues are the best way to increase a child’s vocabulary, there are rare times when they are not sufficient or when using them makes the passage convoluted or clunky. Desert Jewels tells the story of a Japanese American girl caught up in the anti-Japanese sentiment of World War II. I used some Japanese words for authenticity, but I couldn’t define them by context alone. In some cases the solution was simple—my protagonist didn’t understand them either, so she asked what they meant, and the reader learned along with her. But that approach won’t work if the person asking would already know, so use it sparingly.
“Oh,” you may say, “I’ll just use a glossary.” Personally, I think that’s a copout. Expecting your readers to leaf back and forth between the story and a glossary is only a little better than sending them to the dictionary. Rely on context clues and a rare question instead.
That said, I did add a short glossary to Desert Jewels because of the Japanese words and some important but now mostly archaic English words and terms used at the time. But it is there to reinforce what the reader learns through context clues and the occasional question, not to replace it.
So when choosing vocabulary, write your story to challenge your readers without frustrating them.
Kathryn Camp writes middle-grade fiction as Kaye Page and adult non-fiction as Kathryn Page Camp. Her first middle-grade historical novel, Desert Jewels, will be released this month. She has written two more middle-grade historicals that are currently circulating to publishers and agents and is developing a new website devoted to her children’s books. In the meantime, you can learn more about Kathryn at www.kathrynpagecamp.com.