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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Vocabulary

Poetry from Stones

Beach

[photo credit: Candice Ransom]

Outside my window right now: bare trees, gray sky, a brown bird. No, let’s try again. Outside my window, the leafless sweetgum shows a condo of squirrels’ nests, a dark blue rim on the horizon indicates wind moving in, and a white-crowned sparrow scritches under the feeders. Better. Even in winter, especially in winter, we need to wake up our lazy brains, reach for names that might be hibernating. 

Candice Ransom

[photo credit: Candice Ransom]

In November, I taught writing workshops at a school in a largely rural county. I was shocked to discover most students couldn’t name objects in their bedrooms, much less the surrounding countryside. Without specific details, writing is lifeless. More important, if children can’t call up words, can’t distinguish between things, they will remain locked in wintry indifference. Some blame falls on us.

Oxford Junior DictionaryA recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary swapped nature words for modern terms. Out went acorn, wren, dandelion, nectar, and otter. In went blog, bullet-point, attachment, chatroom, and voicemail. Updating dictionaries isn’t new. And maybe cygnet isn’t as relevant as database, but it’s certainly more musical.  If we treat language like paper towels, it’s no wonder many kids can’t name common backyard birds.

When I was nine, my stepfather taught me the names of the trees in our woods, particularly the oaks. I learned to identify red, white, black, pin, post, and chestnut oaks by their bark, leaves, and acorns. Labeling trees, birds, and wildflowers didn’t give me a sense of ownership. Instead, I felt connected to the planet. I longed to know the names of rocks, but they kept quiet.

That same year we fourth graders were issued Thorndyke-Barnhart’s Junior Dictionary. I fell on mine like a duck on a June bug, enchanted by new words. My parlor trick was spelling antidisestablishmentarianism, the longest word in the dictionary. Kids can Google the longest word in the English language, but the experience isn’t the same as browsing through a big book of words. 

Emerson wrote, “… the poet is the Namer, or Language-maker … The poets made all the words, naming things after their appearance, sometimes after their essence, and giving to every one its own name and not another’s.” I believe young children are poets, assigning names and making up words to mark new discoveries. After they become tethered to technology, they parrot words from commercials, programs, and video games. That fresh language is lost.

The Lost Words: a Spell BookSo imagine my delight when I found a new book for children, The Lost Words: A Spell Book. British nature-writer Robert MacFarlane paired with artist Jackie Morris to rescue 20 of the words snipped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Words like newt and kingfisher are showcased as “spells,” rather than straight definitions. MacFarlane’s spells let the essence of the creature sink deep, while Morris’s watercolors create their own magic.

On their joint book tour throughout England, MacFarlane and Morris introduced children to words—and animals. On her blog Morris writes: “I was about to read the wren spell to a class of 32 six-year-olds when the booksellers stopped me. ‘Ask the children if they know what a wren is, first, Jackie.’ I did. Not one child knew that a wren is a bird. So they had never seen a wren, nor heard that sharp bright song. But now they know the name of it, the shape of it, so perhaps if one flits into sight they will see it, hear it, know it.”

The Lost Words makes me want to take children by the hand and tell them the names of the trees and birds and clouds that illustrate our winter landscape. By giving kids specific names, they can then spin a thread from themselves to the planet.

Ammonite

Ammonite [photo credit: Candice Ransom]

“Language is fossil poetry,” Emerson continues in his essay, “as the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.”

Rock rasps, what are you?
I am Raven! Of the blue-black jacket and the boxer’s swagger,
Stronger and older than peak and than boulder, raps Raven in reply.

From The Lost Words

Let’s dig up lost words before they become buried beneath the rubble of STEM-worthy terms. Feel the shape of them, polish their shells, let them shine.

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Marion Dane Bauer

Marion Dane Bauer and her books are respected and loved by children, parents, educators, librarians, editors, and writers. She began her career as a novelist, turning to picture books later in her career. Celebrating the release of her newest picture book, the charming Winter Dance, we were curious about how she writes these short books so we asked! And this long-time teacher of other writers provided heartfelt answers.

Marion Dane Bauer

Marion Dane Bauer (photo credit: Katherine Warde)

If You Were Born a KittenWhen you sit down to write a picture book, what has inspired you?

Sometimes I begin with an idea I want to share.  If You Were Born a Kitten, for instance, comes out of my very impassioned belief that the miracle of birth is hidden from most young children in our society—from most of us, really.  I wanted to celebrate birth in a way that would show it both as miracle and as part of our solid, everyday reality. 

Sometimes the concept comes from something I read or something someone says to me. Winter Dance came from an editor’s saying, “What about celebrating the first snow?” 

But the actual picture book begins, always, with language.  I can’t even begin to flesh out my idea until the opening line is singing in my head.

The Longest NightDo you know the ending of your picture book before you begin to write?

I always know the end of a novel before I begin to write, and if a picture book is a story, I know the end of that, too. So when I began writing The Longest Night, I knew before I put down the first word that the little chickadee would bring back the sun. When I write concept books, though, like How Do I Love You?, I have to find my ending in the playing out of the language.

Do you write with a specific child in mind?

I write always for a child, and in the case of picture books for the adult who will be sharing the book, but I have no particular child in my heart … except maybe the small child I was so many years ago.

Do you envision the illustrations while you are writing?

I envision space for the illustrations, which is a very different thing. I don’t think what the illustrations will depict, specifically, and I certainly don’t think about what they will look like. That’s the artist’s territory. But I make sure I have created an active changing world for the illustrator to take hold of.

How much do you consider the level of the reader’s vocabulary when you write a picture book?

Honestly? Not at all. Because picture books are usually read to a child rather than by the child, I never consider vocabulary. Sometimes a totally new word is, in itself, a kind of enchantment for a child. Think of Peter Rabbit for whom lettuce had a “soporific” effect! No, I’ve never used the word soporific or anything like it, but isn’t it a wonderfully resonant word? 

I should add, though, that there is one basic rule I use with all of my writing.  I believe the best word in any piece of writing for any audience is always the simplest one.  Sometimes, though, that best word might just happen to be soporific.

Winter DanceDo you ever begin a picture book feeling at a loss for how to write it?

Yes, and when I do I always stop, set it aside, give it time. When it begins to sing to me—if it begins to sing to me—then there will be no more loss.

Winter Dance, my newest picture book, actually began with an editor’s committing to a picture book I had written about spring.  For a complicated series of reasons the text the editor contracted had to be altered substantially, and during that process, my drafts got farther and farther away from anything the editor wanted.  I mentioned earlier, it was the editor who finally came up with the idea that I write about the first snow instead.  Great idea, but first I had to find my fox, and I had to discover that foxes mate in winter so he would have a reason to rejoice over snow.  And then, of course, I had to find the song to carry him through.

What is the word length you aim for in a picture book?

A maximum of 450 words.  Even that can be too long for some books. 

You were best known for your novels for middle grade and teen readers. What influenced you to try a different book form for a different reader?

The truth is I always wanted to write picture books. In the beginning, I simply didn’t know how to write them, even though I had read them endlessly to my own children and to various foster children in my home. Picture books are a bit technical to learn, and I had no one to teach me. In fact, I started out trying to write picture books and discovered I didn’t know what I was doing. So I moved on and found it easier, not knowing what I was doing, to muddle through a novel. 

The other piece, though, was that my first editor, at a time when we  writers were owned by our first editors, said to me when I showed him what I thought was a picture-book manuscript, “Marion, you are not a picture book writer.” Now, he could legitimately have said, “Marion, that’s not a picture book.” Because it wasn’t. But even when the publishing world opened up and I did learn and began publishing successful picture books with other houses, he refused to alter his vision of me as only a novelist. So I have him to thank for my career getting established in novels. Picture books are so much fun, if he had been open to younger work from me, I probably would have been off playing with picture books much sooner.

___________________

Thank you, Marion, for sharing your thoughts about picture books in such an instructive way. We’re always happy to learn from you.

Learn more about Marion Dane Bauer.

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End Cap: Miss Colfax’s Light

Miss Colfax's LightWe hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about lighthouses and their heroic keepers through the books recommended in June’s Bookstorm, and most particularly Miss Colfax’s Light. If you love puzzles and games, we hope you have a good time solving this Word Search. 

Simply use your mouse or touch pad to draw a line over your found words and the program will mark them off for you. Words can be found forwards, backwards, horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. As you find a word, it will be highlighted on the board and it will disappear from the word list.

Have fun!

Hidden Words

Puzzle by mypuzzle.org
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The Odious Ogre

The Odious OgreI’m a big fan of Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. I can remember reading it as a kid and thinking it both hilarious and clever. And I loved the words! So many words!

So when the Juster-Feiffer team came out with The Odious Ogre a few years back, I leapt at it. A picture book! A long picture book! My favorite kind! Full of long words and clever phrasings—it is a hoot. I’ve read it to pre-schoolers through middle-schoolers—they and their adults laugh.

The Odious Ogre lives on his reputation mostly—and it’s a ghastly reputation. He was, it was widely believed, extraordinarily large, exceedingly ugly, unusually angry, constantly hungry, and absolutely merciless.

At least that was his reputation—it’s what everyone thought or supposed or had heard or read …. As Juster says: No ogre ever had it so good. He terrorized the surrounding villages and everyone just … well, let him. They thought it was hopeless, that there was nothing they could do.

No one can resist me, says the Ogre. I am invulnerable, impregnable, insuperable, indefatigable, insurmountable …. He had an impressive vocabulary having accidently swallowed a large dictionary while eating the head librarian in one of the neighboring towns.

Now I know there are those who will read that sentence of wonderful i-words and and the detail of eating librarians and they will think one of two things (if not both): There’s a vocab list! OR, why would she read that to pre-schoolers?!

My husband just looked over my shoulder at the illustrations and said, “Wow. That looks violent.” And there are violent scenes, to be sure. (Although they’re pictures in sweet pen and inky water colors, so the impact is softened.) The best scene is when the ogre throws a temper tantrum, leaping and hurling himself around the garden of a completely unflappable young girl outside of her beflowered cottage. She’d just offered him tea. And muffins. This floors the ogre. He worries that his reputation might be in jeopardy. So he bellows and stomps and blusters. He grimaces and twitches and snorts, all while belching, clawing and drooling in an attempt to frighten the imperturbable young woman. There’s a two-page spread of his reign of terror. The children adore it. The younger they are, the more they delight in it.

gr_odious_ogre_tantrum

The girl is at first overwhelmed. Then she recovers herself, sets down her plate of muffins and applauds with great enthusiasm for a full minute.

“What fun, how magical, how wonderful!” she exclaimed. “Would you consider doing that for the orphans’ picnic next week? I know the children would love it.”

It simply doesn’t matter that the three-year-olds cannot define all of the words. They know exactly what is going on—they’ve thrown such spectacles themselves, after all! They think it hilarious that the young woman wants the ogre to do it again on purpose.

Tucked in my copy of The Odious Ogre, I have sheets that I made that fold into a wee little book. It helps the kids to write their own story about  (Name) , The Most (adjective) Ogre. It asks them to name their ogre, describe their ogre, draw the ogre-y face, describe the ogre’s voice and sounds ….

Kids love this activity! At first I thought it was the size of the book (maybe 2 inches by 3 inches). But I actually think it’s the words. They come up with such creative words after hearing such thesaurastic strings of adjectives from Juster. They name their ogres things like Christilliblly and Amdropistily. They describe their ogres with words like humungo, tizzlly, and grubbling. They use all the crayons in the box when they draw their ogre’s portrait, and they change their own little voices in the most amazing ways to let me hear how their ogre sounds.

Big words, long rambly sentences, large art spreads—this is a great book for kids of all ages. I stand by my call for the longer picture book. I wish Juster and Feiffer would do a series for my personal storytime pleasure.

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Traveling In-Word

For this week’s writing road trip, I journeyed to the Alphabet Forest. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting, the Alphabet Forest is the remarkable creation of author/illustrator/innovator Debra Frasier, who through pure passion and persistence, managed to carve out an oasis for words in the midst of the consumable craziness that is the Minnesota State Fair.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the State Fair. I just don’t think of it as a place to sit quietly and muse deeply. And yet, Debra’s love of fair lettering started her on a journey that led to creating this enchanted place: in the midst of sunburn, sore feet, and stomach aches, here is a corner where there’s shade and plenty of places to sit down and people who offer you fun for free. But better yet, there are words enough to stuff your imagination even more than those mini donuts have already stuffed your stomach.

Lisa Bullard

Last year, I watched as my niece ignored every other fair offering (okay, with the exception of that giant brownie) as she obsessively filled out her Fabulous Fair Alphabet Game Card. This year, I had the pleasure of serving as author-in-residence at the Alphabet Forest for a day. I worked with oodles of kids who settled in at my table and promptly became utterly absorbed in writing or drawing. It didn’t matter that the parade was passing them by (literally!) and that there were still corndogs and cotton candy to be eaten: when given the option, their number one priority was to lose themselves in the creative act.

It reminded me, all over again, why I do what I do: giving kids the gift of words and story is like handing them the magic key to life. Even kids who think they hate reading and writing can be won over easily once you find the right key for them. A forest full of words can beat a clutch of corndogs any day.

If you’re near Minnesota, and you’re going to the fair, you can be inspired with ideas for how to create an Alphabet Forest in your own classroom or dining room. If not, there are a myriad of amazing downloadable resources to help you, starting at this link and moving on from there to Debra Frasier’s website.

You’ll be mighty glad you made the journey.

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joyinwords.jpg

Joy-in-Words Day

Isn’t it about time for a holiday? It’s been three weeks since the Fourth of July and we won’t celebrate Labor Day for another five weeks. Well, I hereby declare July 25th Joy-in-Words Day. Help celebrate! What’s your favorite word to say out loud? What word gives you joy as it rolls around in your […]

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