Word Choice In Picturebooks

My editor and I used to debate my word choices. She’d say readers wouldn’t know what a particular word meant. I would argue that we were an English language newspaper and the word was in the English language so the reader had no cause for complaint. I lost. Every time. The newspaper shot for a reading age of 11, as many do, and that was that.

– from The Taleist, Are You Tired Of Writing For 11 Year Olds?


The two most powerful tools for increasing vocabulary are conversation and reading. Don’t hesitate throwing in some challenging words when you converse with your children. They’ll either figure them out in context or ask you about them.

– from Media Darlings, Vocabulary Building Ideas For Reluctant Readers


When writing a book for children, to what extent should you limit your vocabulary? There are two main camps when it comes to opinions on this:

1. No, because it is only by exposure that children learn language in the first place. If not from books, from where? Books are the perfect place to introduce new words. Picturebooks are especially good for this purpose because children can learn what the words mean from the pictures. Children are very good at picking up new words — perhaps much better than adults. Modern children’s books, with their simplistic language, have been ‘dumbed-down’.

2. Yes, because if a child doesn’t understand a book that child may be turned off from reading that book. Worse, children might be turned off reading altogether, thinking books are not for them. Enjoyment comes with understanding. Children will eventually come across all the words they need to know. No need to force them to learn difficult language before they are ready. Many children’s stories don’t need difficult language in order to be told. In fact, some of the best stories have very sparse text. Literature is entertainment, not medicine.

Then there are opinions in the middle, in which there is both a place for Literature (complex language) and Trash (simple, entertaining language).

Where do you fall on the spectrum? Do you buy books for children based on the complexity of language? Are you careful to provided scaffolded readers for your emergent readers, matching word complexity to their grade level using an online tool? Would you be annoyed if a school librarian told your child she couldn’t read this book or that because it was probably too difficult? Or too easy? As a child, did you sometimes read books that were too hard? How did you respond to them?