On Using "Big" Words in "Little" Books
While I was signing at a bookstore a few years ago, a lady came up to me with a unique compliment. She said she liked that I used "malicious" in my title since it is a fun word to say, and it's important for children to learn big words.
Not a few minutes later, I heard from a man whose opinion was entirely the opposite. "Why," he asked with more confusion than offense in his tone, "would you use a word kids don't even know?"
Suffice to say I am in agreement with the lady. To the man I would (and did in fact) ask, "how else are they going to learn the word"?
Here's another relevant question I was asked at the same signing: "did you do a lot of spelling bees as a kid?" My answer surprised the lady: "No," I said, "I only ever did one spelling bee, and I lost badly. I was a terrible speller as a kid." The look on her face spoke volumes. It screamed, "how can a professional writer be a bad speller?"
And therein lies the crux (heh) of my argument.
Though I learned the basic building blocks of spelling in school, the vast majority of my current grammar and spelling prowess came from...
Writing. All the time. At some point, as I played around with my own worlds, stories and adventures, the ability to spell and use proper grammar emerged. My learning was entirely hands-on.
The exact same thing happened with my vocabulary, only it wasn't writing that taught me, but reading.
To this day there are words I can easily use in-context which I have no idea how to pronounce. "Copse" is one such word, for example. That's because I only know of these words from the books that used them. And these weren't schoolbooks, they were fiction -- fantasy, sci-fi, and other fun stories that I fell in love with, written by authors who didn't worry about whether or not their readers would understand every word they used. Most of the time it was easy to guess the definitions as they were used in-context. For the ones that weren't, I looked them up. Either way, bingo, I learned a new word! And these words meant more to me than any on a vocabulary list, because they had described something I cared about: a character, a world, an action that mattered. In mattering, those words stuck in my memory.
Do all of my young readers know what "malicious" means? Well, maybe they didn't before they read the book, but chances are they do now. Book 2 is titled The Counterfeit Zombies of Noc. My young fans will learn that word too -- along with many others inside the book -- all while enjoying a good story that will stir their imaginations and excite their spirits.
That, to me, is worth its weight in gold-lined royalties.
"Big" words don't have to be intimidating. If you use them, they will be learned.
For fun, here is a list of "big" words I have used in my kids' books along with a very simplified definition of each:
Malicious - Evil
Shoddy - Sloppy
Atrocious - Horrible
Counterfeit - Fake
Advantageous - Lucky
Ethereal - Not Solid
Duress - In Danger
Tow-head - Blonde
Martyr - Person Who Died Doing Something Heroic
Sentient - Self-Aware
Tarn - Slimy, Wet Place
Cacophonous - Loud
Dias - A Low Stage
Malcontent - Unhappy
Crux - Important
Woebegone - Sad
Insidious - Evil in a Smart Way
Those aren't all of them, but you get the idea. These aren't words children are usually taught, nor are they words that most adults use in everyday life. The fear of not using them -- that's what makes them intimidating. And that intimidation is what leads to no one-- kids or adults -- ever learning new words at all. So how will they ever be learned if not in stories? Don't be afraid to challenge your young readers. Someday, they may thank you for it.
And, in this world of netspeak and reality television, we writers may very well be the last bastion of hope for the continuation of exquisite soliloquy within our species.