“When it comes to telling children stories, they don’t need simple language. They need beautiful language.”
Today I read this quote and cheered. This is exactly how I feel about writing for children. Too many books these days are focused on sounding authentic – though that will be dated all too soon – or using language appropriate to a particular reading level. I’m not talking easy readers here. I’m talking about all those systems that claim to define your child’s reading level: Renaissance Learning’s AR, Fountas & Pinnell, and that ilk. While they can be a good classroom tool, I worry that children are losing the chance to be challenged, to discover the beauty of language in itself.
I was a very early reader. No one knows how I learned; one day, I just announced that I could. And I did. My parents were great about my reading: they left me alone to get on with it. They did not worry about appropriate content or reading level – though looking back, I definitely read some very inappropriate things! – and in the process, I read my way through authors as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock, Charlotte Bronte, and J.R.R. Tolkien. In fourth grade. Oh yes, and Judy Blume and the Nancy Drew mysteries and plenty of age-appropriate reading, lest you think I was too precocious for my own good.
But I suspect I became a writer because of beautiful language. “Once upon a time…” Are there any words as sweet in the English language? (Well, except “I love you.”) Philip Pullman is a wonderful writer, and I was dazzled by his complex and lyrical world in the trilogy of “His Dark Materials.” One day while working in my daughter’s school library, a child whom I knew to have trouble reading picked out The Golden Compass. I started to ask if he would;t like something else, then stopped myself. I checked it out to him and told him to come back and tell me what he thought about it. (All the children I work with know my mantra: “This is the library. There’s no test. You don’t have to finish the book if you don’t like it. Just bring it back and try another.”)
To my surprise, he loved it. Yes, he told me, it was hard. Parts were really hard! And he didn’t understand all of it. But what he understood, he loved. I was taken back to my first time reading The Lord of the Rings. Could I pronounce all the words? No. Did I understand the mythos behind the story and its potential as an allegory of the world Wars? Nope. Did I love reading about three hobbits and their quest in language so rich, so full, that Tolkien created his own languages for certain characters? Yep!
A writing friend recently asked me which authors inspire me and whom I aspire to be. Well, Mr. Pullman, for one. All children need beautiful language and rich stories. Not just the “gifted” ones.
I aspire to be an author whose language challenges, awakes, and inspires readers.
Thanks to Rob Sanders for the quote which made my day!