Thursday, October 29, 2009

TALKING UP: What Does Age Appropriate Mean Anyway?

In keeping with this month’s theme – using our books in the classroom – I’d like to share experiences about talking up/talking down to kids in publishing and the classroom.

When the question of age appropriateness arose on our new Web site,, I wish I had listed a broader age range. Some of you already have and hats of to ya! Material that is strong and fun and well presented is manna from heaven to a creative teacher. Kids, young and old, are savvy creatures who can handle big vocabulary and big ideas.

Step back: For years I’ve been trying to capture the voices of the participants who rule my subjects. Early on, in a book for young children called When I See My Doctor, I included the words “stethoscope,” “otoscope,” “sphygmomanometer,” and “hemoglobinmeter.” The copy editor wanted these words deleted because they were too difficult for kindergarten-age children. But four-year-old Thomas, the subject of the book, learned them from his doctor and shouted them proudly into my tape recorder.

It was a bit nerve wracking to argue with an editor because I was new to the field, didn’t have kids, and never studied early childhood education. But I trusted Thomas, my subject. Later, at school visits, children called out the words, teachers beamed, and I felt vindicated. Sophisticated language, one teacher said, encouraged the children to be students.

Jump to now: A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of doing a presentation with Marilyn Nelson, the poet whose picture book I recently illustrated. I had invited her to watch me shoot her book, using students from the Dance Theatre of Harlem as my models, but scheduling didn’t quite work out. Now that the book is published, we were asked to appear together in front of a large group of students. I was anxious. How would a classroom filled with both boys and girls react to my gals in tutus? What helped the most was the teacher. She greeted me with an enthusiastic bear hug and a huge – I mean huge – smile. That alleviated trepidations until I saw the kids. The first to arrive were the boys – big, boisterous boys who spread out in the front rows. Gulp! This is a book about ballerinas for goodness sake! Too late now to back out. Besides Marilyn had just arrived looking fabulous. There were more hugs as Marilyn whispered, “How shall we do this?” If she didn’t know we were in deep do-do land.
“You go first.”
“No, you go first.”
“No, you go first.”
Marilyn, the AUTHOR, went first. She described how and why she wrote the poem and revealed a few literary secrets, such as a riff on Yeats. [“Beautiful ballerina, you are the dance.”] She read her poem to a rapt audience and talked a little more.

My turn! Following Marilyn Nelson may have been a mistake. But I have a few secrets of my own, ones that surprisingly complimented her poetic structure. Showing photographs, I pointed out my secrets, historic balletic points of reference. There’s an homage to Swan Lake, to Degas, and to George Balanchine.

[The photograph above is a typical Balanchine shape.] There were no giggles, squirms or snickers from the audience. Instead, there were great questions and a very happy teacher. Oh, did I tell you who made up the audience for our picture book? Students at the University of Connecticut.

What experiences have you had, dear teachers, librarians, and colleagues, breaking the "age appropriate" barrier?

Jete’ to future: The next visit will be with third graders. I will not change one word in my presentation.


Linda Zajac said...

I know a lot of kids out at Uconn. Good to hear they were a great audience. Of course this left me wondering what class asked you to speak?

Vicki Cobb said...

Very young kids revel in learning the very long names of dinosaurs. The simplest level of measurement is called the "nominal scale" meaning naming. If something exists, it must have a name. Kids validate their knowledge by learning the name of something meaningful. Kids are also sponges when it comes to language. They're built that way. As one of my brilliant editors said to me recently, "High interest trumps controlled vocabulary and reading level every time."

Deborah Heiligman said...

It really does go both ways, doesn't it? I mean, when I start out my research for any topic,I always start with a children's book. And I am a wee bit older than those U Conn students. On the other side, an editor once said to me, "give them at least one word they have to look up or ask about." At least!

Great post, Susan.

Susan Kuklin said...

Linda, the class was made up of students at the African American Cultural Center. Some teachers and students of children's literature came, too. It was a wonderful evening.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

I love your last sentence saying that you won't change one word of your college presentation when you give this talk to third graders. I concur all the way! With certain subject matter, I can give the same basic presentation to third graders that I give to senior citizens and both groups get equally excited. It has a lot to do your mannerisms,of course, but the info can be so compelling that anyone would want to hear it.

Dorothy Patent said...

I'm so glad you brought this up, Susan. I've never taken vocabulary lists into account in my books for any age level. Instead, I always write as if I'm speaking to an adult who knows nothing of the subject and build the information. I define new words in context. It works every time. My only concession in my nonfiction picture books is to make the sentences and paragraphs shorter than I do for older children. Keep up the good work!

Susan Kuklin said...

That's pretty much what I do, Dorothy. And since I often know little about my subject when I get started, I build information for both the readers and for me.
Once, I asked a judge to explain a legal theory as if I was his six-year-old granddaughter. It worked perfectly for my YA book. The lesson to be learned: a good explanation can be ageless.