The Controlled Vocabulary and Children’s Books

We picked up a CD ‘talking book’ of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleiene L’Engle at the library Sunday afternoon (in between tornado evacuations). It’s read by L’Engle herself, and she introduced it by saying it was a book that nearly wasn’t published. She said she’d already published some twenty books, but when she showed this one to her publishers, they all said it was far too complicated for children and they would never understand it.

She said she knew better, because her own children listened to the latest chapter every night at bedtime, and they urged her to write more.

It reminded me of a similar problem Norton Juster had getting his book published.

Here’s an interview with the author of the Phantom Tollbooth, and here’s an excerpt:

When the book first came out in the early ’60s, the revealed wisdom was that you could not give kids anything to read beyond what they knew already. There were vocabulary lists. Lord help you if you put words in a book for ages 6 to 8, or 8 to 10 that they felt a child of that age couldn’t understand. They also thought that fantasy was very bad for children because it disoriented them. It’s changed somewhat for the better. The publishers told me that they had great misgivings because they thought that the book was too far beyond children.

But I’ve found in my travels, talking with kids, that they like the story and if a story is compelling for them, they’ll get by any difficulty. They’ll get involved with something that interests them. I think that’s the great secret; it’s being interesting rather than sticking to those artificial standards that they set up.

Naturally, that reminds me of Phyllis McGinley’s story about reading Wind in the Willows to her daughter and Nancy Bond’s strange statement that if she wrote for younger children she would have to be careful of the number of words she used, so she prefers to write for an older audience. It must have been quite a rigid publishing world in the fifties and sixties, and it’s a wonder how many excellent children’s books managed to break through.
There is much to appreciate in Sixpence in Her Shoe, and one of my favorites is from chapter 18, Realms of Gilt, which is the source of the above Wind in the Willows tale.

Mrs, McGinley writes about the proliferation of childrens books, ‘books which flow out ceaselessly, year ofter year’ and what an ‘Eden’ this would seem to be

‘for a bookish child. But it is a flawed paradise. In all this treasury of the printed word, all this lavishness of binding and type and illustration, one lack diminishes the bounty. Much here is less than literature.’

Sixpence was published in 1960, and she notes that

‘the mass of writing is limp, listless, unoriginal, mediocre, and humdrum. Plots are insipid or mechanical. Too many pictures smother the story. And even when the writing lifts itself above accepted “juvenile” standards, its vigor is drained away by that leech among publishing structures- the Law of the Right Vocabulary.’

I would say it was worse than limp and listless, it was dark and dreary. But that’s another post. Let’s return to that Right Vocabulary.

Norton Juster says of The Phantom Tollbooth, that everybody told him “This book will never go. It’s too difficult. The ideas are too complex and too abstract. The vocabulary is beyond children,” and yet, of course it’s a delightful read, full of fun and whimsy and it repays reading and rereading.

Phyllis McGinley says the publishing industry ignores the likes and joys of real children and believes in ‘the new Commandment: “Thou shalt not mystify.”

She says a novelist friend of hers who had written a couple of excellent childrens’ stories saw a copy editor ‘busily referring to a manuscript and a syllabus, scratching out and rewriting like a schoolmistress with a term paper.’ Her friend asked lightly if there was a problem with censorship in childrens’ literature, and the copy editor replied:

“Oh, certainly… we have to be very careful. Here is a book intended for children from six to nine. And this paper contains all the words that six-to-nine-year-olds are supposed to be able to understand. I have to take out all the big words not on the list and put in little ones.”

The Language Wars have been going on a very long time.

Yes, indeed, a very, very long time. I own a 1909 Number Primer which I’ve posted about before. Charming as it seems- largely for the old fashioned illustrations- the preface boasts that ‘the problem exercises have been carefully planned as to vocabulary and scope. The vocabulary consists of 376 words distributed as follows-‘ whereby there is a dreary little list showing that for the first school year children will do their math while confining their vocabulary to 67 words, they may have 203 new words the second, and 106 new words the third.

Most of these words, we are assured, are such as may be found in the usual primers and first readers, so as long as the children get the necessary drill preliminary to a new reading exercise, and preparatory work of a nature similar to the printed problems, pupils can read and interpret the exercises of the text.’ They will feel a sense of power and independence, we learn, from their 67 word reading vocabulary, which includes such scintillating gems as ‘book, bring, cat, come, cow, cup, did, many, May, leaves, play, and quart. What power! No wonder so many good worlds are deemed ‘obscure.’

Mrs. McGinley says:

“Whose invention was this vocabulary restriction I cannot say [I can!]. Librarians deplore the trend, publishers disclaim responsibility, authors declare themselves stifled by it, children detest it. But the fact remains that somebody has set up as gospel the rule that odd words, long words, interesting words, grown-up words must be as precisely sifted out from a book… as chaff from wheat or profanity from a television program…. “Read-it-yourself” books now come cleverly planned around a vocabulary of three hundred fifty words or thereabouts, and the fact that they are often clever and occasionally brilliantly ingenious does not alter their crippling formula.
Are children never to climb? Must they be saved from all the healthy bumps and bruises of exploration? I suppose the theory drifted down from textbooks, those teacher’s-college-tested readers which are the common and insipid fare of elementary schools. Like many bad things, they were inspired by good intentions. Children, said the educationalists, must be gently led along the path to learning, seduced not prodded. So a vocabulary must be acquired in standard stages and according to procedures formed in a laboratory.”

Children once, Mrs. McGinley points out, read Fox’s Book of Martyrs and theological treatises for little Pilgrims, as well as Pilgrim’s Progress, and Robinson Crusoe. Now we give them graded vocabulary and grey books. No, they are never to climb. That might be dangerous.

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