Saturday, December 11, 2004

Big words for little people

The ever-entertaining Bill Richardson looks at a few children's books in today's Globe and Mail.

Nothing is more creatively daunting than the picture book. True believers aver that Good Night Moon is an intellectual achievement just marginally more sustained than Gravity's Rainbow.

Bill was once a children's librarian. I feel I can trust him. He gives kids some credit for being able to handle things like creepy endings and big words.

I feel I need the help of a professional to navigate this genre. (I miss hearing about E and Tulip's adventures in reading.) Of course, once I can get past the sense of the overwhelming responsibility of shaping my daughter's reading sensibilities, this journey into the unknown is rewarding for both of us.

Richardson points out that many kids' books set out to reassure children or to impart a moral. The books are marketed to the parents, after all. One can't help but wonder if authors take fewer risks with creativity than they might.

Margaret Atwood steps up to the plate with another book featuring consonant alliteration. This time, "B" and "D," bold and delightful, bodacious and delicious.

What I like most about BB and DD is what some will object to, and that's that it's full of words that will be totally unfamiliar to many in its "target audience": "She had to drudge from dawn to dusk, dabbing with a dust mop and dealing with dirty dishes in a disreputable dive, where dirty-deed-doers drank daiquiris."

Some will say that this kind of thing, and there's a lot of it, means that you're forever stopping to offer up an explanation. Others will say that it's a good exercise in vocabulary enrichment and hell, you have to learn about rum some time, it might as well be when you're 4. Me, I think the virtue in this cascade of consonants is the joy that lives in the sound of the words, the merely phonetic exuberance that's at least as important, at a certain age, as meaning. Whether Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda works — and here I'm thinking of it as a read-aloud — will depend in large measure on the persuasiveness of the performance.

Time to start practicing.

A friend recently favourably reviewed Atwood's "R" book.

She brought to my attention an article in which Scholastic’s Language Development and Reading Specialist observes:

Young children love the sound of long and seemingly difficult words. Your child might suddenly blurt out that her friend's behavior is "ridiculous" or that the baby's diaper is "saturated." These instances of surprisingly sophisticated language use come from children's attention to, and interest in, the way adults use words to express precise feelings and reactions. So don't shy away from using words you think are over your child's head.

The beauty of it is that these are the words we use every day, that Helena hears every day, even if sometimes we choose simpler words when addressing her directly. Why should I avoid "ridiculous" in print when I blurt it out naturally a dozen times in the course of a day. (Really. We use the word "ridiculous" a lot around here.)

Atwood's "P" and "R" books are ready, wrapped, and waiting for Helena. "B" and "D" will find their company soon enough.
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