Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Age It Right, Part III

by
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.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Age It Right: Part II

by
Kathryn Page Camp


When writing for children, the subject matter must be suitable for the age level. That doesn’t mean you can’t deal with tough issues, but you must do it appropriately.
I’ll use death as an example.
Even the youngest children can be faced with the death of a loved one, so it makes sense to cover the issue in picture books. Some tell a story using animals as characters. Others talk about the death of a pet. Then there are books like Tomie dePaola’s Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs, which emphasizes the memories that remain after a boy’s great-grandmother dies. Regardless of the approach, the purpose at this age is always to comfort and never to frighten.
In picture books, the death usually occurs by natural causes, such as sickness or old age. There is no violence.
Although violence is still unusual, middle-grade books treat death differently. Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia is the classic middle-grade novel on the subject. It beings by developing the friendship between the protagonist, Jess, and the new girl, Leslie. We come to love both characters, and when Leslie dies in an accident we cry with Jess over his (and our) loss. But the death takes place off-stage, and Jess learns to live with it. If you want to know more, you’ll have the read the book for yourself.
Bridge to Terabithia doesn’t treat death as gently as picture books do, but it still has a lighter touch than most young adult fiction. In fact, YA books can be quite dark. Two World War II novels by Ruta Sepetys illustrate this.
In between shades of gray, fifteen-year-old Lina, her mother, and her brother are arrested by the Soviets and sent to Siberia. Salt to the Sea follows four young people, three of whom are fleeing through East Prussia to escape the Soviets. Both books contain multiple deaths. Many are onstage, and all result from cruelty. As readers, we never come to terms with those deaths, and that’s how it should be.
As you can see, the age of the audience doesn’t necessarily limit the subject matter, but it does dictate how the writer treats it.
So tread carefully.
__________
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 later 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.


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Age it Right: Part I

by
Kathryn Page Camp

One of the most important—and difficult—aspects of writing for children is getting the age level right. Unfortunately, aging books appropriately is more of an art than a science. The best advice I can give you is to read recently written, currently popular books aimed at your audience. If you don’t know what they are, go to a physical bookstore and see what it carries on its shelves, then take them home and read them. Or you can get them at the library (or for your e-book) after you’ve complied a list of titles, but don’t do your original research there. A brick and mortar bookstore gives you a better idea of what today’s children are actually reading.
Years ago, I decided to write a series of early chapter books. I read books in that category, studied length and vocabulary levels, and wrote my first two masterpieces. Then I submitted them to publishers and my dream collapsed. I’m particularly grateful to the one publisher who gave me detailed comments that helped me see that I didn’t understand what was appropriate for my audience.
I shelved that project and turned to writing for adults. But eventually I gave children’s books another try, this time at the middle-grade level, and my first historical novel, Desert Jewels, is coming out later this month.
Although the general process is more art than science, there are some guidelines you should be familiar with when writing for children, and these guidelines are more science than art. They aren’t rules, and if you are J.K. Rowling or have an established following, you may be able to ignore them without serious consequences. But most of us are better off sticking to the guidelines.
The guidelines vary from publisher to publisher and few people are in complete agreement about what they are, but the following chart is representative. The categories come from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and I referred to several sources when preparing the actual guidelines.

In general, children prefer to read about main characters who are just slightly older than the reader. As for length, when writing middle grade and young adult fiction, the longer lengths listed in the chart apply to fantasy and science fiction only, which tend to be longer than other genres. And don’t confuse category and genre. Children’s books—especially at the middle grade and YA levels—cover the same range of genres as adult books do, from historical to humorous to fantasy to YA romance. The “type” in the chart is a category, not a genre.
The guidelines are helpful, but the hardest part of aging your book is finding the right subject matter and sensitivity level. That is the topic of next week’s blog post.
__________
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 later 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.