Gift Guide 2014 (No. 2): Three Books for the Linguist (Ages 6-12)
November 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
Children have an inherent drive towards language. As infants, they hang on our every word. Once they begin to speak, they never tire of the sound of their own voice; and, as they develop more self-control, they relish in the discovery of expressing themselves (“Use your words!”) to get what they want. But it’s in the elementary years, when our kids are at last reading and writing on their own, that they become most keenly aware of the power of words, not only to shape and alter meaning, but also to connect them to the world.
Of course, it can’t hurt to nudge an awareness of the nuance of language into the forefront of our children’s minds. (We have to believe our kids are capable of more than “It was fine,” when asked about their day.) It just so happens that 2014 has given us three exceptional books (one picture book and two middle-grade chapter books) that showcase the power of language.
Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (Ages 6-12) introduces children to the notion that, in the vast archives of the English language, there is a “right” word to express a precise meaning. Bryant and Sweet have become masters of picture book biographies in recent years (remember this post?); but their portrait of the man who invented the thesaurus is their most magnificent to date. The story of Dr. Peter Roget’s life is narrated beautifully for a young audience; but it is the way in which Sweet has visualized Roget’s fascination with language that truly captivates the reader. Like the thesaurus itself (which comes from the Greek word meaning “treasure house”), this is a book that’s impossible to absorb in one—or ten, or twenty—sittings. Visual feasts of collage beckon the eye on every page.
The next time your child reports that his day was “fine,” give him a peek at this page:
Beginning when he was just a boy, Peter Roget kept a journal—only instead of filling it with stories or autobiographical entries, he made lists of words. He organized these lists by ideas, and every time he thought of another way to say something, he’d add it to a list. “Words, Peter learned, were powerful things. And when he put them in long, neat rows, he felt as if all the world itself clicked into order.”
My seven year old loves lists. As a newly independent reader and writer, there is something inherently non-threatening about a list. Sweet has woven a multitude of word lists into and around Bryant’s narrative: some resemble the actual hand-printed classifications from Roget’s early notebooks, while others are imagined and brought to life with colorful, fanciful typography.
From the first time we read this book together, JP has been excited to read these peripheral lists to me, while I continue the main storyline. One of his favorites is the first in the book, which lists Roget’s life stages from birth to death (and is responsible for introducing a new favorite word in our house: “whippersnapper”).
In the spirit of Peter Roget, comes my new favorite heroine of 2014: the shy, intensely feeling, optimistic, and resilient Felicity Pickle, a sixth-grader with a special affinity for words. While you wouldn’t know it when she opens her mouth (usually tripping over her words, “standing there blinking, openmouthed, like the Queen of Dorkville”), the star of Natalie Lloyd’s A Snicker of Magic (Ages 9-12) has an inner life that is the picture of eloquence. In the sad Tennessee town of Midnight Gulch, where the washed-up reality is tinged with the tiniest bit of magic and legend, Felicity has a unique power: she collects words. She literally pulls them out of the air—where she sees them hovering over people, or erupting out of a sound—and captures them in a notebook, eventually turning them into poetry to restore the hopes and dreams of a community she comes to love.
Even when she doesn’t realize it, Felicity’s attunement to language paves the way for her to connect with others. Embedded in the words that appear in the air when she meets people, are clues about their past, present, and future (their “word baggage,” if you will). When the uncle she’s never met before shows up on her doorstep with nothing but a guitar, Felicity sees the names of all the places he has traveled circling his head. When she passes a woman hunched over on the side of the street, Felicity might have passed right on by, if it weren’t for the strange and beautiful sequence of words silently emanating out of her: “Magnolia,” “Star root,” “Dragon,” “Luminous.” By the end of the novel, words like “Lonely” and “Clutzerdoodle,” which have followed Felicity around for as long as she can remember, are replaced with “Sunshine dress,” “Blooming,” and “Hearts fold.” If ever there was a book to seduce you into falling in love with language, this is it.
In Rain Reign (Ages 9-13), esteemed author Ann M. Martin gives her readers a new lens through which to view language, by allowing them to see the world through the narrative voice of a high-functioning autistic girl. Rose, we quickly learn, retreats from the pain of her home life and her social difficulties at school with a laser-sharp fixation on homonyms (words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings). Rose (homonym: rows) keeps lists of homonyms. She has rules for why one homonym makes it on her list and another one doesn’t. She identifies homonyms in (inn) nearly every exchange she has; and she has a difficult time listening to people without dissecting their sentences for possible new (gnu) homonyms.
Reading this acutely poignant book, I couldn’t help but think about the “letter” to parents going around Facebook right now: a teacher’s plea not to rush to judgment about “that kid” in school, the one who might regularly disrupt your more appropriately-behaved child; a plea to trust in the behind-the-scenes efforts of professionals to strengthen and support these “difficult” children. Rose is that kid. She sits in a mainstream classroom, but she sits beside an aid; she has to take frequent breaks in the hallway when she can’t control her outbursts; and her quirks—like her obsession with homonyms—more often than not estrange her from her classmates.
And yet, Rose wants so much to connect. To connect with her emotionally-distant father; and to connect with her classmates. One day, a hurricane threatens to take away what she loves most: her dog, Rain (homonym Reign). In the compelling adventure that ensues, as Rose searches for her missing dog and uncovers a mystery requiring even more bravery, we get a window into the purity, courage, and humanity that lies within “that kid.” I can’t think of a greater lesson in empathy for any child reader.
The wonderful Annie Dillard once wrote, “She reads books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.” Whether our children are conscious of it or not, each time they pick up a book to read, or a pen to write, they are poised with the opportunity to devour language. If they let it, if they really drink it in, then that language has the power to transform them—and, afterwards, to send them back into the world to enrich the lives of others.
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