POLKA DOTS: Using Moderation when Writing for Youngest Readers

Last summer, after a long flight, I stood at the baggage carousel next to a woman in a white dress with bold red polka-dots. She carried a matching polka dot purse. A similarly polka-dotted scarf held back her hair. Several minutes later she plucked her bags off the carousel and they matched too! “Wow!” I exclaimed. “You really match.” She feigned surprise, then we both laughed.

That over-the-top polka-dot image, however, has stuck and reminds me of the importance of moderation in writing – especially when writing for youngest readers where there is an awful tendency towards cutesy.

Here are three things I try to use sparingly and/or carefully when writing for youngest readers:

Fluffy descriptions – In primary school our kids are taught to make their sentences pop by adding vivid adjectives and adverbs. This strategy works well for that age group. However, as adults, with full-grown vocabularies, our sentence popping strategy needs to shift from fluffy to active. Instead of “ big heavy rock”  try “boulder” or “chunk”. Instead of “walk slowly” how about “amble” or “traipse”  or “poke”. With well-chosen nouns and verbs, pieces for youngest readers will pop without being overly wordy.

Alliteration – A little alliteration can be fresh, but too much alliteration and a story or poem will seethe with sappiness, so much so, that I’ve been known to edit as I read picture books aloud from the library.

Rhyme  Good rhyme is hard to carry off because it must also be paired with perfect meter. Good rhyme doesn’t call attention to itself. Good rhymes are unexpected and not forced. The content of the poem or story always come first. So, unless you have real passion for rhyme and are good at it, I’d recommend avoiding rhyme.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What other “polka-dots” should writers for young kids be using in moderation?

10 thoughts on “POLKA DOTS: Using Moderation when Writing for Youngest Readers

  1. My personal “over Polka” gripe is the cute talking animals, clear stand-ins for humans. I’m a huge fan of Winnie the Pooh, but there are too many animals and two few kids. (=Not the goat kind)
    To me the use of animals is a shortcut to using narrative powers- if you want character well, just make it a snake, etc.
    I agree with your points also. Now about that airport lady… She belongs in a picture book.

  2. Reminds me of high school when I used to match my lipstick to my accessories! I agree. Everything in moderation. Unless it’s purposely over-the-top. Talking animals don’t usually bother me, though. I think they’re easy for a broad range of kids to identify with because there aren’t any issues of race, or curly vs. straight hair, etc. Also, animals can do things that kids can’t do and they don’t need to have parents around. Anyway, my older daughter responds more to animals whereas my younger daughter likes people. I guess there’s some personal preference involved too.

  3. Diana and I are crit partners so she knows well that I too have a fondness for animal characters. However, I think there is a distinction between stories that just have animals who stand in for kids and stories where the character and setting of that animal is played up and becomes integral to the surprise twists in the plot. I like to think that I write the latter. I hope so anyway.

  4. What a fun image! I am so glad to hear that others “edit” the picture books they read as they read them. I’ve actually felt guilty for doing that LOL

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