Books with Big WordsWhy 'serendipity' and 'ecstatic' belong in the pages of a children's book
“It is impossible to be terrified of ‘mimsy borogroves’ – something ‘mimsy’ could never be terrifying…”
Writers are always looking for the perfect word – and when they can’t find it, some just make it up. Before Dickens, nobody suffered from ‘boredom’ or was called a ‘doormat’; you couldn’t be ‘flummoxed’ or have a ‘devil-may-care’ attitude, and anybody who has encountered Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit knows that a gamp is, thanks to Dickens, a large, bulgy sort of umbrella. Lewis Carroll invented some gorgeous – one might say ‘frabjous’ – words, creating a ‘frumious bandersnatch’ and ‘slithy toves’.
Playing with words is a wonderful thing, dancing with the sounds they make and the feelings they induce. Do children mind if they don’t understand every word they encounter? Not at all. It is impossible to be terrified of ‘mimsy borogroves’ – something ‘mimsy’ could never be terrifying – and those snatches of laughter are the sort of significant moments that lead children to develop an obsession with books.
“…would children balk at the idea, I wondered, of something that ‘flashed iridescent’?”
Oh, developing an obsession with books is no bad thing. As Roald Dahl said (I seem to have inadvertently quoted a good deal of Dahl in these articles, that is solely down to chance and what my mind happens to recall), ‘If you are going to get anywhere in life you have to read a lot of books.’ Reading books not only stretches your brain in new directions, it adds a hefty dose of vocabulary too – taking you from the average 10-20,000 words to, if you’re lucky, somewhere around Shakespeare’s 60,000 word internal dictionary.
‘Jolly Ollie Octopus’ has one word that gave me reason to pause: would children balk at the idea, I wondered, of something that ‘flashed iridescent’? It’s a captivating word, as beautiful as its definition, and I decided that something which flowed so perfectly off the tongue merited an inclusion. Likewise the reference to a ‘magnificent mollusc’. Children would be able to work out, I decided, that ‘mollusc’ was clearly a term for an octopus – and thus I could sneak in a little education on the side.
And that is the thing about books: they should educate us, either emotionally or intellectually. The best books leave us feeling enraged or heartbroken or lifted or destroyed; we finally close the covers and look out on reality a little changed from when we started. Once we feel something, anything, we are engaged – and once we are engaged, we are learning.
For years I came across the word ‘determined’ in my books, and it was only when reading out some quiz questions to my older brother and was mocked mercilessly for my pronunciation that I learned how to say it. I knew what it meant, I had long since figured that out from the context, but I didn’t know how to include it in conversation. This, too, is how we learn: by making stumbled mistakes and adding our new knowledge to old knowledge.
“Once we feel something, anything, we are engaged – and once we are engaged, we are learning.”
I have written countless story books for the Asian EFL (English as a Foreign Language) market, each one with the intention of teaching a particular grammar rule or set of vocabulary. Making them engaging and lighthearted has been a challenge, and with ‘Ollie’ I was suddenly free to play with words in new ways. The purpose of those other books I have written is very different: they are used in educational settings and rely on repetition, repetition, repetition to drum an idea into a child’s mind. There are times when this sort of learning is important, when we take the words we are aware a child knows and slowly, gradually, tentatively, build on these with new ones. The ‘Peter and Jane’ series that many of us grew up with is the classic example here, where we would read, ‘Here is Peter’ and then ‘Here is Jane’ and then – in a moment of great excitement – ‘Here is the dog’.
But books for children can be so much more than that, too. They can give the young readers and listeners something to reach for, a realisation that there is a whole world of words for them to discover, the opportunity for them to work things out for themselves and, perhaps most valuable of all, the knowledge that they don’t know everything. And wisest is he who knows he does not know…