As with most aspects of a children’s book, vocabulary — or should we say diction? — or should we say word choice? — can become a complex topic, especially if you want to teach them new concepts, like how to dream. Even the word “dream” has two very different meanings. Let’s dive a little deeper into this topic and have some fun along the way.
Above is a word illustration or infographic that was automatically generated from the most frequently used words in our new book “Dream it!” Besides common words like a, and, the, I was surprised to see that dreams is the number one word in the book. And, I especially like how “life dreams” appears right in the middle. There are some other fun word combinations, too, like “get give” and “need want.”
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the tricky issue of vocabulary, here are some fun facts:
- Total words: ~15,000
- Unique words: ~2400
- Deleted words: ~1,000,000. (Seriously, well almost seriously…)
- Pages 80, plus the cover.
- Age range: Middle-grade 8-12. (This is a publishing industry classification.)
- Made up words:
- Zippity zap
- Donkeycorn (our favorite)
When I say that we wrote almost a million words, that’s just a guesstimate, but it sure seems close, especially if we were to count rough drafts, research studies, emails, editing, proposals… In fact, we wrote so much material that if you count the deleted pages, we have a whole, completed book set aside. We don’t mean a rough draft; we mean a finished, illustrated book. For example, we have two chapters written for the next two steps: Map It! and Play It! Plus we have an intermediate version that has been indefinitely postponed. And if you count all the finished pages that were rejected (some by the kids, some by the authors, some by the editors), we’ve written the equivalent of 5 books just to get this one awesome book.
We are NOT teaching kids what to think, but how to think, and we’re trying to do it in their own language. If you look at the word cloud above, you won’t see words and phrases, like: socioemotional learning (just to prove how cumbersome this can be, socioemotional learning is sometimes called social-emotional learning or social and emotional learning or simply SEL), optimistic thinking, experiential learning, inquiry-based, journal implementation, mindfulness, non-prescriptive… but these are things we are trying to teach.
The objective of the vocabulary level is to make the book more readable. (We talk about that below.) There are standardized vocabulary lists for every grade level, which can arguably limit a child’s ability to learn if they are only presented with words that they are already supposed to know. We solved the vocabulary level in primarily three ways:
- We all agreed kids need to be challenged with new words.
- We defined big words inline. We actually devoted a whole page to the word “dream” to distinguish life goals from sleeping dreams. And to make it more memorable, we asked kids to create their own definition.
- And, we simply challenged kids to look the word up in a dictionary.
As we mentioned, there are standardized vocabulary lists for every grade level, and there are tests to make sure it falls within a certain level. One test we used is the Flesch–Kincaid readability test. This test is far from perfect because it doesn’t measure vocabulary as much as it measures the syllables in a word. The shorter the word, presumably, the easier to read. And it doesn’t measure the grammatical structure of a sentence as much as it measures the numbers of words in a sentence. Again, the shorter, the better.
Just for fun, below is a readability test on this same blog you are reading. It’s my Yoast plugin, and it’s supposed to maximize my search engine optimization (SEO). I’m not sure who decides all this stuff, but one thing I’ve noticed is that the way people read on the internet is getting continually shorter. So, the text needs to be broken up into bite-sized pieces. I call it chunking. (Did I just coin a new word? One of my editors said that all good authors make up words.) You can see, I’m not scoring great. And now I’m going to have to go back and try to make this article more friendly.
Okay, I’ve been working on this article for a few hours now. I made some changes recommended above and then put it into my online proofreading app. I use Grammarly. It’s expensive, inaccurate and programmed to dumb-down everything I write, but it’s still the best grammar checker I can find. It also includes some stats on vocabulary. Below you can see that it is relatively happy. And — ooh — 33% rare words. That makes me feel like a smarty pants.
Usually, proofreading comes before editing, but I like to take everything as far as I can before turning it over to a real human editor. I don’t want to pay for any stupid mistakes. Trust me — good editors are hard to find. Luckily, we had an awesome editor for our new book “Dream it!” (Thanks, Sarah.) So, we didn’t have to get bogged down in the meaning of every word we wrote while we wrote it — that’s a recipe for writer’s block! Instead, we focused on the content, and why we were writing what we were writing before worrying about how it was written.
Oops, I just wrote another paragraph that needs to be checked. And, I should probably just let this rest for a few days and come back to see if I still like it. Anyway, I digress. I hope this article gave you a small window into one of the facets of writing a good children’s book.