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I can't believe I'm starting an MG vocab thread...

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Katrina S. Forest

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As a general rule, it drives me nuts when writers feel they need to simplify vocabulary in YA. But now that I'm writing MG, I feel totally lost. My rule of thumb in YA was always to keep it natural. After all, if I was talking to a fourteen-year-old, I'd speak to them with the same vocabulary I use with adults, wouldn't I?

Now, the book I'm writing is upper middle grade. The target audience is possibly only a couple years younger than my last YA novel. But for some reason, I'm second-guessing every word and thinking, Shoot, is the word "destination" too much? What about "prevent"? "transfer"? Are they okay as long as they're not in the same paragraph together? Wait, they ARE in the same paragraph together. Nooo!

The worst part of it is, I've taught elementary school and I generally know which words my students probably won't know and I'll ask them, "Do you know what that means?" before I move on. With writing, you can't really do that.

I guess mostly I'm looking for emotional support and maybe some tips from more seasoned MG writers. Do you even think about vocab while writing? Is it something you do a pass for in the editing stage? (ie, Swap out "prevent" and replace it with "stop" since it makes just as much sense in context?) Help! :)
#1 - October 29, 2013, 04:15 AM

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Middle graders are going to know words like that, sure. But I think what you want to watch for is how/where you use them. In 3rd person narration, sure. In dialogue or even 1st person narration, not so much. I'd probably read my text out loud and see what parts feel a bit stumbly for a kid that age--ie, the question is not so much, do they know that word (they probably do), but rather, would they *use* that word?
#2 - October 29, 2013, 04:59 AM

Agreeing with what Olmue said. Word choice is a delicate balance in both YA and MG. Kids may have a huge vocabulary, but only certain words are in their comfort zone. Just being mindful of what words teens/tweens would or would not use is the key to writing believable dialogue. Writing the third person narrative is more tricky for me. I always feel I can take leeways with using more grown-up words in the narrative. I sometimes get called on this by critique partners. Still, I think it's okay. I also think it's okay to have grown-ups use dialog with words the MG reader doesn't know. They can figure out the meaning with context clues or they can just look it up. Reading, after all,  is supposed to help us grow.
#3 - October 29, 2013, 06:11 AM
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I write leveled readers and test passages and think about this quite a bit. I typically write the story first, then revise it to fit the guidelines. These books serve a particular purpose, but for any other book, I wouldn't worry about it, whether it's a PB, MG or YA (exception is EZ). What's important is being true to the voices of your characters and the narrator. We'd be very poor if we threw out delicious words simply because they are more difficult. And kids figure things out through context.

Good luck writing your story.
Vijaya
#4 - October 29, 2013, 07:01 AM
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Like olmue said, whether you're using first or third person will matter. In first, your narrator's voice rules. The words he or she would use are what should appear on the page. In third person, you have more latitude because the narration is in a storyteller's persona -- although, I think the sensibilities on that are in flux. I've found that a lot of people today seem to feel that all third person narration must be so close that even there you are using the POV character's voice.

Even though you want what fits the voice, there is value in using a plain, short word rather than the "dollar-and-a-quarter" word at any reading level, so I'd say simplify when you can, but keep the more challenging word if only that word will do.

You may want to get CHILDREN'S WRITER'S WORD BOOK by Alijandra Mogilner, published by WD books. It's a dictionary/thesaurus of sorts and a general guide to what words kids know at what grade levels.

Try reading a variety of MG books that use more advanced language. One, for example, is Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz -- one of my favorites in years -- which is in third person and to my mind is a MG/adult crossover. (It is not at all YA.) Another is Flora and Ulysses, in which both child characters have a bigger than normal vocabulary. Books with fantasy and magic seem to up the language level, too.
#5 - October 29, 2013, 09:31 AM
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What everyone has said, plus: Don't be afraid to use an unfamiliar word once in a while that the reader can decode from its context. This age group does not want to be spoken down to. They want to read up and, I think they are pleased when the author trusts them to stretch a bit without being taken out of the story.

Be aware of the age, but don't dummy it down.  :blackcat

Laurel
#6 - October 29, 2013, 11:51 AM

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I consider who is saying the word. If a 12-yo is speaking, he may not use a "big" word, depending on the kid, so I might choose a simpler word for him. If an adult in the story says it, I let it go, even though a kid might not know what the word is. They can look it up or decipher the meaning from the use.

I've had CPs say that this or that word isn't "kid-friendly", but I, as an adult, don't consider every word I use as to whether it's kid friendly or not when I'm speaking with kids. I think it rings true to have the adults in the story speak the same way.
#7 - October 29, 2013, 01:58 PM

Katrina S. Forest

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Thank so much for the encouragement, everyone. I think I got worked up by some critiques on another board that suggested some of my words were too hard for the age group, and I started second-guessing myself on everything. Now that I think about it, I've never consciously tweaked my vocab even when writing PB manuscripts; I just think about how I would talk to someone in that age group. And, as everyone's pointed out, ten to twelve-year-olds are beyond the point that I would simplify my language for them. (And now I can envision my twelve-year-old self smacking me upside the head and telling me to get it together.)
#8 - October 29, 2013, 11:50 PM

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(And now I can envision my twelve-year-old self smacking me upside the head and telling me to get it together.)

 :lol4
#9 - October 30, 2013, 08:51 AM

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 :new: Hi everyone!

This topic is one I feel so strongly about. Word choice in my opinion shouldn't be limited solely by age or grade. Word choice to me (perhaps in my naive way) should be dictated by story.

I cringe when I think that literary treasures like Peter Pan and Wonder Wizard of Oz or Treasure Island (or so many of the other books that shaped our love for language) would be at high risk of never being publishable today. Their vocabulary is gorgeous. Even picture book authors like William Steig did not censor a beautiful vocabulary word when it fit the storyline.  I know many very young children who crave lushly written books.

Anyway...Just my opinion. Go with you heart.
#10 - October 30, 2013, 11:03 AM

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One more thought on top of what's been said ...
Much of our vocabulary comes from being stretched, from reading and hearing unfamiliar words in understandable contexts.
Okay, a second thought ...
If you make it a point to note how ordinary kids phrase things, some of their word choices can be surprisingly sophisticated.
Like everyone else said ...
Just be true to your voice and your characters, and just write.
#11 - October 30, 2013, 11:41 AM
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