FROM YOUR EDITOR Windows on the world

Words & Pictures Editor, Claire Watts, considers how books can open children's eyes to the world.

Last month brought the Carnegie Medal, the UK’s most prestigious children’s book prize, awarded by children’s librarians. The list of past winners is a showcase of the extraordinary literary talents at work in children’s books – Ruta Sepetys, Tanya Landman, Sarah Crossan, Kevin Brooks, Sally Gardner, Patrick Ness, just to name the last few. But in her acceptance speech, this year’s winner (for the second time) Geraldine McCaughrean pointed out that there is a trend amongst publishers today to ‘dumb down’ the language of books in books for children, focusing on accessibility, simple sentence structures and familiar vocabulary. Young readers, McCaughrean argues, “should be bombarded with words like gamma rays, steeped in words like pot plants stood in water, pelted with them like confetti, fed on them like Alphabetti spaghetti, given Hamlet’s last resort: ‘Words. Words. Words.’”

When I was thinking about this month’s editorial, I was considering writing about this and also about the discussion around lack of representation in the world of children’s books. (If you missed last month’s CLPE report Reflecting Realities - A Survey of Ethnic Representation within UK Children’s Literature 2017, you can find it here). Back and forth I went, shall I write about this, shall I write about that… And then it struck me. It’s all part of the same thing, isn’t it?

Writers and publishers are justifiably right to acknowledge that children from every background and experience should feel included in the world of books, and to do this, children should be able to find people like themselves in books. But representing diversity is not only about mirroring children’s own experiences. Books can open a window on the world. On the whole, children think their own lives are the norm. Books can bring children knowledge of things outside their own experiences, across time, distance, culture, race, ability, sex. Being able to step into the experiences of other people helps to develop empathy for others. And empathy can banish the ‘othering’ of people that is plaguing the world today.

Just as presenting children with experiences different from their own can expand their understanding of the world, presenting them with language that is different from their own can give them tools to develop their own use of language. Throwing gorgeous, precise words and beautifully crafted sentences into fascinating stories is the surest way to teach children to write well and to understand complex language. They need to experience those words and sentences from the inside, just as they need to experience other lives from the inside. They need to feel them.

In addition, writers and publishers need to recognise that just as children have different backgrounds and experiences, they use language in different ways. We should celebrate difference through language: there should be regional accents and dialect words, words from different classes and ages and languages, precise technical vocabulary, nonsense words, slang, swearing: words that make children think about words and what they mean and how they sound about how people and why people use them.

So here’s to all sorts of stories: the simple and the complex, the fun and the ones that make you think, the comfortable and the uncomfortable, the ones where you recognise yourself and the unfamiliar, the ones that feed a current obsession and the ones that spark a new understanding or interest. And here's to the sheer joy of rich and varied language which can bring children the tools to better understand the world and to express themselves.

Header image: Catherine Lindow

Claire Watts is Editor of Words & Pictures. You can contact her at

1 comment:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.