Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Counting Syllables

Last Saturday, I came across a nonfiction book title that made me laugh out loud. I was at the Brooklyn Historical Society in Brooklyn, New York, taking in their exhibition on McLoughlin Bros., a New York publishing company that pioneered the mass production of inexpensive, full-color children’s books. During McLoughlin’s heyday, from 1858 through 1920, they also manufactured games, blocks, paper dolls, and other toys at their printing plant in Brooklyn. I first became aware of them when I purchased an original edition of their 1890 board game, Round the World with Nellie Bly, on eBay for use in my upcoming photobiography of Nellie.

Back to the book with the funny title. There it was, The History of the United States: Told in One Syllable Words by Josephine Pollard. Of course the subtitle itself breaks the book’s promise, but the entire concept seems absurd. A U.S. history, published in the late 1800s, without Washington, or Lincoln, or 22 of the other presidents who served through that time. (Only one president from that era could have made it into the book, based on his first and last names. Do you know who?) No Indians or Native Americans, no Revolutionary War or Civil War, no Louisiana Purchase, no NiƱa, Pinta, or Santa Maria. In fact, other than the Gold Rush, most of the defining moments of U.S. history through the the turn of the 20th century would have been disqualified for being multisyllabic.

After doing a bit of research, I learned that McLoughlin published a whole series of “One Syllable Word” books and that the volumes actually used multisyllabic words, but they were shown broken into syllables (for example, Wash-ing-ton). So their claim to fame clearly was a case of false advertising. But it hit a nerve because it implied that a hokey device such as breaking words into syllables could make a book more appropriate for young readers. It caused me to flash back to my early years of writing for Scholastic's magazines, when every article had to be “leveled” with a readability formula. Nothing inhibits creativity more than performing long division on the sentences you’ve just written.

A friend of mine suggested that using those readability formulas might have helped me internalize certain rules about writing for children. Maybe so, but I’ve always believed that any good writing was a matter of rhythm and flow, not numbers. That’s why I felt so liberated when I wrote my first book, A Whole New Ball Game. Although a trade book is a commercial enterprise, I felt unrestrained in every way. There were no word counts, no page counts, no rules about how to present the story I wanted to tell. Sometimes all that freedom can be terrifying, but in this case it was empowering.

So as charming as the McLoughlin Bros. books were, I’m glad I live and write at a time when successful children’s nonfiction is influenced more by inspiration and insight than by syllable counts and the formulas of Spache and Dale-Chall. But if you happen to be in Brooklyn before the end of August, check out the McLoughlin Bros. exhibit. It’s a window on children’s book publishing of the late 19th century featuring some beautiful books and some curious concepts that, thankfully, are now resigned to the past.

By the way, that monosyllabic president was James Polk.


Anonymous said...

Trade book authors may not use readability formulas today per se, but those who write for the school market, unfortunately, are still, way too often, at their mercy. And though, to my knowledge, school libraries do not use a readability formula when trying to determine what titles to add to their collection, there are certainly other rules and criteria (both written, spoken, and just understood) that they must either accept, ignore, or fight when making their purchases.

Though I agree that we are in a much better place than those who wrote for kids a century or so ago, there are still many underlying "rules" that apply when writing for kids--some good and valid; others that perhaps, a century from now, will still be seen as antiquated--things like whether some will be offended if religion is presented in certain ways (unless of course they are published by a religious publisher), how family is depicted (how traditional or not), and so on.

We've come a long way, but even today there is still always room for improvement.

Linda Salzman said...

My son just read your entry and you've inspired him to go see the exhibit with me this Sunday. The Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory afterwards was my idea.

Sue Macy said...

The Ice Cream Factory is definitely a good selling point.

Also look at the Little Slovenly Peter booklets. They're cautionary tales, where a kid gets his thumbs cut off because he's a thumb sucker, and an overeater actually explodes. Scary stuff!