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Challenging vocabulary in picture books?

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Hi! I am new to this. In my critique groups, I am often receiving feedback that some of my word choices (not many, but 1-2 words in particular) are too challenging for children's picture books. I am prone to disregard this feedback as I have read countless picture books (those by Ralph Fletcher, Jane Yolen, Mem Fox, Kevin Henkes) that have at least one challenging word. Where do you stand on this? I feel like this concern reflects persons' viewpoints on what children are capable of understanding. I am a mother of two children under 6 and they use, misuse, and comprehend all sorts of challenging words. By challenging I mean words like "amplify", "undulate", or "jaunty" -- not all in the same text. Like, I said, I'm not writing picture books that are filled with numerous examples of challenging vocabularies, but might have 1 challenging word per book. I selected the particular challenging word b/c it was the most precise word for the description. What do you think? Tell me I'm wrong :)
#1 - February 26, 2019, 05:32 AM

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Amy, I don't control vocabulary when I write PBs. I use the best word! I believe PBs should be rich and layered, fun to read out loud, and beautifully written because a parent (or another grown-up) will be reading to the child and such a special time. I can't stand dumbing anything down for children. Good luck with your writing and critique group. Perhaps you can show them the best PBs. It's a good time to learn together.
#2 - February 26, 2019, 05:50 AM
BOUND (Bodach Books, 2018)
TEN EASTER EGGS (Scholastic, 2015)
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As Vijaya points out, that's what I think some well meaning people forget when they say no challenging words... that it's the parent/an adult who will be reading to the child and if a few words stumps the child, they will ask what's that mean. I think it's great that reading time becomes not only about the story but a conversation.
To be honest, I still will be reading a novel and come across a word I'm not sure of, haven't heard before and no one in publishing has ever said don't use words that are challenging to Chris :)
#3 - February 26, 2019, 07:09 AM
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To a kid learning new words, all words are the same difficulty level. Can you understand it from context? Is it the only difficult word? Will there be a picture of it?

I poked around online (the most accurate resource, of course! lol) and found stats like this: "From age 6 to 8, the average child in school is learning 6–7 words per day, and from age 8 to 12, approximately 12 words per day." (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vocabulary_development)

Why can't one of those new words be yours?

(Disclaimer: I am not an agent and I do not work for a publisher, so...it's those people you have to convince.)
#4 - February 26, 2019, 08:18 AM

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One caveat for me...

I don't mind hard words, but sometimes concepts can prove difficult.

e.g. Amplify is easy - make it louder
Jaunty would probably be associated with the image
But how would undulate come across? Even with a (static) picture, would the concept be easily understood?

To me, a good PB is like a good joke. It loses it's impact if you have to explain it in the middle.
#5 - February 26, 2019, 09:23 AM

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I think it's all about voice. I carefully choose words that fit with the overall voice of the story. And sometimes those choices (e.g. pensive, surreptitious, discreet) can be challenging and surprising.  After all, picture books are not meant to be Easy Readers.
#6 - February 26, 2019, 10:22 AM
Jean Reidy
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I ditto what everyone said above. :yup

I'll add this: if the comment is from a publishing professional (agent or editor) with a R&R, I make the changes. They are the gate-keepers and regardless of how I think of a specific word choice, I will do what I can to keep the door open. If this is feedback from a CP, I will consider and weigh replacement words, but won't necessarily make the changes. I fully understand that PBs work on two levels: entertaining the listening audience (3-5 or 5-8 years old) AND the ones reading to them, (all ages) so it is a fine balancing act.
  :ladder

{The comments from CPs that "word is not kid-friendly" can also mean two different things. It could mean the word is above the vocabulary for the age OR that it doesn't sound like a word a child would use in dialogue where a young person is speaking. The latter should really be changed if you realize this is so.}
#7 - February 26, 2019, 12:39 PM
THE VOICE OF THUNDER, WiDo Publishing Aug 2012
THERE'S A TURKEY AT THE DOOR, Hometown520 July 2011

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. . . OR that it doesn't sound like a word a child would use in dialogue where a young person is speaking. The latter should really be changed if you realize this is so.}
I agree! When a word used in dialogue makes it sound like an adult (not a child) is speaking, it feels out of character - and character is what drives the story. In the FANCY NANCY picture books, for example, Nancy says "challenging" words because she is "fancy" so using "fancy words" is part of her personality.  (It all comes back to the character and the voice.)  :goodluck

#8 - February 26, 2019, 01:42 PM
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Kids often do read picture books on their own. They are meant to be read to kids and by kids. (Of course, sometimes it's reciting and not reading.) I use the right word for the job. Here are questions to define the right word:

Who is the narrator? Would the narrator know and use that word? (A child narrator might not but an omniscient narrator might.)
Is the word in dialog? Does it fit the character speaking?
Would a 7-8-year-old reader be able to figure out the word using the context and images?
Is it going to take an adult more than a few seconds to explain the meaning? If it does, the reader might get too distracted from the story. I never want to take my readers out of the story for more than a brief stop. A toddler might just squirm to the floor. Sometimes, they don't come back.

I hope this helps.
#9 - February 26, 2019, 06:28 PM
« Last Edit: February 27, 2019, 06:14 PM by Debbie Vilardi »
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  (It all comes back to the character and the voice.)  :goodluck

This. Worth repeating a hundred times!!!

#10 - February 27, 2019, 06:50 AM
BOUND (Bodach Books, 2018)
TEN EASTER EGGS (Scholastic, 2015)
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in my current MG project, whenever I use a $5 word (once $2; inflation) I try to couch it firmly in explanatory context, such that a reader can bridge over it without losing the greater meaning or tripping out of the narrative.

In revision I will fire up a tool such as ProWritingAid to highlight instances of complex or high-reading level words, then pick and choose which ones are appropriate to nudge the vocab level up a smidge, but never too much or too often.
#11 - February 27, 2019, 01:49 PM
Persist! Craft improves with every draft.

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I'm with Jean. I think you choose the right word for the story, even if that word is challenging (and even better if it's surprising!) In one of my picture books, Maurice the Unbeastly, I use words that might be considered too difficult for children...gargantuan, abominable, and infiltrate, for example. But these word choices add to the voice and overall feel of the book, and it is one of the things readers and reviewers comment on most often. They like the vibrant vocabulary. So I definitely think it can work, depending on the story.
#12 - March 06, 2019, 09:42 AM
ANNIE B. MADE FOR TV, Running Press Kids 2018
MAURICE THE UNBEASTLY, Sterling 2017
SOPHIE'S ANIMAL PARADE, Sky Pony 2015
MARATHON MOUSE, Sky Pony 2012

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I'm responding to this as a long time kindergarten teacher. I loved reading books with "big words" to my class.  We hunted for them,  discussed them, kept a list of them, and tried to use them. 
#13 - March 26, 2019, 07:02 AM

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