Choosing the Words for a Children’s Book

Every writer knows that word choice is essential—but this holds especially true when writing a children’s book.

Before The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock, I had never written a children’s book. In fact, I don’t even have that many kids in my life to remind me how children think. In a way, this put me at a disadvantage when I accepted that challenge from my friend to write a children’s book. I didn’t have an abundance of child-speak running through my brain from which to draw inspiration, nor did I have kids around to bounce ideas off of at the beginning.

Thankfully, though, I have a vivid memory.

Along with many early childhood memories, I remember the first time I heard and learned several words. And I remembered that many of them came from books.

In fact, I can still see the pages and pictures on which I encountered new words, whereafter I looked them up in a dictionary. (Remember when we used to do that?? Personally, I’m more likely to remember a word when I physically find it in a dictionary as opposed to Googling it.)

Why is this important?

It was an important reminder that children’s books are opportunities to teach kids—not simply entertain them.

One of the reasons I had shied away from trying children’s stories in the first place was because I had assumed that they dumbed everything down. How wrong I was! That’s what comes from temporarily losing touch with your childhood during your immersion in academia. Not to say that people in academics inherently lose their appreciation for the lighter things of life, but I found that my dense diet of the classics and rhetorical theory for four years formed a rather austere literary palate. For those four years, I never trifled myself with re-reading stories I grew up on—in part, because the nostalgia was too emotional in wake of my father’s death, but also because I didn’t consider the simple worth my time. What a literary snob I became! Perhaps you can relate?

Snobs and snubs aside, the realization that books had taught me a fair amount of my vocabulary motivated me to pass that advantage on to the eventual readers of The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock.

And yet, because it was a children’s book, it had to be fun. So the real challenge had taken shape: how to make Melvin a learning experience for kids while making it fun.

As I said before, that meant it had to be fun for both me and the readers. If you’re not having fun writing your book, no one will have fun reading it—especially a little kid!

Thankfully, the book’s primary tool of both education and entertainment was already folded into the title: alliteration. Although you’d be surprised to hear that I didn’t actually think of using alliteration until I wrote the first sentence of the story:

            Meet Melvin.

Two “m’s.” Huh. Look at that. Well, what should the reader know about Melvin up front? He’s nothing special—at least, he doesn’t think so. So he’s got to be just about as bland a sock as you can get. (Here, I pictured a large white “Hanes” brand sock, which was what my dad always wore around the house.) And obviously, Melvin is one of two socks in a pair, which means his match needs a name.

            Melvin was a plain white sock who lived in the master’s dresser. Melvin and his twin Marvin shared the drawer with many other kinds of socks.

This was about when I realized that alliteration with the letter “m” had to be a recurring theme—not because of a formula, but because I was only three sentences in and already I was having fun!

From there, I let the plot develop and take direction at its own pace, all the while welcoming the alliterative “m” words that came to mind. Big words, small words, medium words, smooth words, bumpy words… you get the picture. 🙂 In fact, anytime there was a summary statement at the end of a page or paragraph, I looked for the most fitting “m” word that could express the idea—and often those were more sophisticated than your mundane, mediocre “m” words. So already, just by setting a pattern of alliteration, I was able to weave new words into the fabric of the story in a way that would make kids want to know what the words meant. Also—of no small significance—the alliteration made Melvin fun to read aloud.

The sound of a children’s book is extremely important.

Just like a speech, the words in a children’s story are written to be spoken, not just read. And depending on the style and feeling of your story, the sounding of the words you choose will change.

As for me, I discovered the style of Melvin as I wrote. This happens quite often and is not a bad thing, but it means that during revision you need to smooth out any discrepancies in style and sound. It’s surprising how much the tone and cadence of a narrative can change in only a few hundred words! And the shorter the story, the more crucial it is to be consistent.

The other thing about reading the story aloud? Oh yeah, it means you need an audience… which means you need to identify people with whom you are both comfortable and confident that they will have insight to contribute. Still, though, sharing your work can be scary—which is why I’ll cover it next week in an article of its own.

In the meantime, what are some of the most memorable books you read growing up? Which children’s stories, if any, do you think impacted you the most?

What do you do when you encounter a new word? Do you web search it or turn to the dusty dictionary on the shelf? I’m extremely curious about this one, which is why I’ve included the little poll below. Please fill it out before you leave, and I’ll share the results next week!


Got kids? Grandkids? Nieces and nephews?

Or are you just plain curious to find out where all the missing socks go? Find out one ambitious sock’s journey by ordering your copy of The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock!

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