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Use of 'adult' words in picture books?

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I'd love some advice from you PB experts! In a picture book/early reader, is it acceptable to use words that wouldn't usually be in a young child's vocabulary? Words that the adult reading aloud may have to explain? Specifically, I'm thinking words such as 'fjord' and 'surmise' (both of these words work well with the meter and style of my rhyming work-in-progress PB).

I know that when I read to my 4-year-old, I often have to interpret words for him... I'm all for expanding his vocabulary so it doesn't bother me, but I'd love to know the consensus on this.

Thanks so much in advance!
#1 - July 30, 2014, 04:34 PM

As a book seller in a reading city, I'd use that as a selling point. And as a new mom who has been reading to her five month old baby since birth, I'd welcome interesting words. Personally, I don't think there's a problem with less common words (especially ones that can show up in illustrations) as long as the book is being read TO the child. Once it gets into chapter book, it's time to scale the vocabulary to what the kid can pronounce or learn meaning through text.
#2 - July 30, 2014, 04:57 PM

Picture books and Early Readers are very different animals. I did readability analysis for several years and pbs often come in at a rather high level. Early Readers, on the other hand, were always among the lowest readability levels.

Picture books, read to kids and having the benefit of illustrations, can have much more advanced vocabulary.

Early Readers, on the other hand, need to foster a love of independent reading and not be so difficult as to put off emerging readers.

Also, there's a difference between non-fiction and fiction. Non-fiction picture books often include very difficult words.

Hope that helps!
#3 - July 30, 2014, 05:16 PM

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I've been reading THE GRUDGE KEEPER by BBer Mara Rockcliff and Eliza Wheeler and in that there's this, "ruffled feathers, petty snits, minor tiffs and major huffs, insults, umbrage, squabbles, dust-ups, and imbroglios." Have you ever heard or read the word imbroglios? It doesn't matter because you know roughly what it must refer to, given all the other words with it. This is key, I think. Putting in an advanced word because it fits the meter might not be a good idea because the parent might have to explain the word and mess up the rhythm of reading to the child as a result. If the words around the advanced word give clues as to what it means, however, then I think it'd be okay.
#4 - July 30, 2014, 06:08 PM


I don't think when folks refer to  avoiding "adult" words in PBs they are referring to words outside a child's vocabulary, but rather words that sound like an adult speaking to them or preaching to them. Kid-friendly words should excite the young reader, create a sense of wonder, make them smile or laugh or feel. Fran's examples are great ones. Notice how fun those words are, and I bet the story is full of fun and surprise!
#5 - July 31, 2014, 03:17 AM
« Last Edit: July 31, 2014, 09:10 AM by Dionna »

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Thanks, all!
#6 - July 31, 2014, 07:29 AM

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I say yes to big words! I love it when my kids ask me what a word means when I am reading to them. Isn't that one of the reasons we read to our children? To expand their vocabulary? Even better if the words you are using directly relates to the illustration.  That way when they ask what the word means you can say, "look at the picture and tell me what you think it means."
#7 - July 31, 2014, 09:26 AM

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I've got a PB WIP loaded with big words. I'll let you know what happens with it.
#8 - July 31, 2014, 09:28 AM
Jean Reidy
Coming soon: Pup 681, Truman, When the Snow is Deeper Than My Boots Are Tall, Group Hug , Specs and Specs II.
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I used the word "surmise" in one of my rhyming picture books (THE SEVEN SEAS). No one seemed to object.
#9 - July 31, 2014, 09:52 AM

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Elizabeth Spurr's THE BIGGEST BIRTHDAY CAKE IN THE WORLD is packed with "big" words. It's a wonderful PB, but it was published in 1991. (My kids and I loved reading it over and over. ) I don't know if it would sell today? Hoping yours does, Jean  :goodluck .
#10 - July 31, 2014, 12:15 PM
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Trains Don't Sleep, HMH 2017
Big Sister, Little Monster, Scholastic Press, 2017

I say "yes" to big words as well!!!
#11 - July 31, 2014, 12:27 PM

It would depend. If you're using these words because they rhyme with other words you love and they don't go well with the tone of your story, then you're using them in a forced way and that's bad. If the whole ms is filled with these types of words and they seamlessly go with the meter then they're fine. If you even have an inkling that they don't go well with your story, don't use them. I've found my instincts are correct (meaning my brain), but a lot of times, my heart won't allow me to go with my brain until my crit partners and/or agent force me to.
#12 - July 31, 2014, 01:15 PM

Brianna Bright Ballerina Knight series

Princess Peepers
Multiplying Menace

If you don't introduce children to new words then how would they learn? I'm sure if a parent is reading to a child, they will help the kid out or use a dictionary.

Also, many times context will help out with meaning so it's not just an adult word used without purpose.
#13 - July 31, 2014, 06:39 PM

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My kids adored picture books with big words. They still do, I think. My almost 19YO son still loves Awful Ogre's Awful Day by Jack Prelutsky. Vocabulary includes besiege, cudgel, agitate, commence, tentative, ominous, cascading, bravura, pirouette, panache, pendulous ... One particularly delightful spread reads as follows:

Awful Ogre Speaks of Stature
When elves and gnomes encounter me,
They often shriek, "Grotesque!"
I bow with magnanimity
and murmur, "Statuesque!"

What child wouldn't be delighted with that?
#14 - August 01, 2014, 05:32 PM


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