Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Big Words for Little People

Granted, Dr. Seuss worked miracles using limited vocabulary to create The Cat in the Hat and other classics, but there's something to be said for authors who aren't afraid to deploy difficult words when writing for children. My favorite example comes from an early practitioner of the picture book, Beatrix Potter. In her The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, she famously begins:

"It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is soporific."

Now soporific is quite the word to chew on, and I suspect that many adults aren't exactly sure of its meaning. Luckily, Potter was at heart a reading specialist because in her next two sentences she provides a context clue and then repeats the unfamiliar word, reinforcing its meaning.

"I have never felt sleepy after eating lettuce; but then I am not a rabbit. They certainly had a very soporific effect on the Flopsy Bunnies!"

Bravo, Ms. Potter!

Another master of the picture book, Tomi Ungerer, liberally sprinkles his prose with challenging words. One of my favorite of his books, The Beast of Monsieur Racine, contains the following words: secluded, predator, marauder, cavalry, cuirass, avenger, frolicked, conglomerate, meticulous, and amphitheater. In an interview, Ungerer had the following to say about his decision not to talk down to young readers: "I think children have to be respected. They understand the world, in their way. They understand adult language. There should not be a limit of vocabulary. In The Three Robbers I don't use the word gun. I say blunderbuss. My goodness, isn't it more poetic?"

Yes, Mr. Ungerer, it certainly is.


  1. I love this. And it's how kids learn. The other day my 3yo used the word "persisted" correctly because she'd heard it in a book (sadly I don't remember which one).

  2. I know adults who get offended when they come across a word they don't know in a book. Maybe they didn't have enough predators and amphitheaters in their life when they were young.

    Kids are natural puzzle solvers. What's more fun than coming across a blunderbuss or a marauder (one of my favorites) and figuring out what it means.

  3. I love children's books with fabulous vocabulary. I recently read The Wind in the Willows, and was completely staggered at the vocabulary it contained. So many words I didn't know. I do a meme each Wednesday with new words I've found- and TWITW will fill out four weeks! You don't have to dumb it down for kids. I still read to my 11 year old when we can- he's been trained to stop me and ask words he doesn't know- tonight he learnt opaque and translucent. I remember soporific being in Beatrix Potter- it's a wonderful word.