Dumbing Down?

When Carnegie Medal Winner, Geraldine McCaughrean, recently slammed children’s book publishers for moving towards ‘accessible’ prose and simplistic stories, it caused me to think about my own approach. Her fears are undoubtedly valid, grounded as they are in the concern that dumbing down language in children’s literature will lead to ‘an underclass of citizens with a small but functional vocabulary: easy to manipulate and lacking in the means to reason their way out of subjugation’.

I believe writing for children – in my case it’s mid-grade to young teens – comes with a huge responsibility. You want to help shape their thoughts and give them skills for critical thinking, so they’ll question the world around them, while developing a love of reading and literature that will stay with them as they grow. This isn’t an easy challenge and you’d be mistaken to think you can rely on simplistic tropes and plots to get the job done. When you’re a children’s author, and you’re in a battle for minds and attention with video games, phones and YouTube, you really find yourself deliberating over the words you use, the characters you develop and the yarns you spin. These need to grip children immediately and keep them enthralled, whether through mystery, discovery or action (or, more often than not and combination of the three). When I wrote Archie’s Mirror, I had ‘action’ at the forefront of my mind. Action drove the story’s pace as the characters leapt from one perilous situation to the next, while all the time maintaining a key mystery that was only partially revealed by the end. Frustrating for the reader? Possibly, but once they’ve closed the book they’re actively encouraged to draw some conclusions of their own.

Having recently completed Dragonspeak, the sequel to Archie’s Mirror, I realised that my style and approach had shifted. One reader of an early draft highlighted the language and plotting – ‘…it seems a bit grown up,’ they said. ‘Do you think it’s right for your readers?’

This caused me to pause.

Was the language too grown up? Was the plot too complex? Were parts too disturbing? Then I thought back to one of my favourite books growing up – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Written by Alan Garner, and set in Alderley, close to where I lived as a child, this is often described as one of the greatest fantasy novels of all time. It’s a tale that’s both complex and multi-layered, mixing local legend and folklore, and it positively revels in its use fantastic and fantastical language. As I hinted at earlier, it’s important not to under-estimate your younger readers – they’re smart, hungry to know more, and more than capable of working out things they perhaps don’t immediately understand. They don’t need - or want - to be spoon-fed happy endings…they want to be challenged!

I’ve been reading La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman’s prequel to His Dark Materials and The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (the first in the Chaos Walking trilogy). Both are ostensibly children’s novels, but neither could be accused of ‘dumbing down’ their language or playing safe in terms of plot and character. Both are rich in imagery and peril, and brave in the journey they take the reader. I know that these are just two books in a multitude that are published for youngsters each year, but I don’t think we’re quite at Geraldine McCaughrean’s cliff edge of ‘functional vocabulary’ yet – I only hope that publishers take heed of the warning.

I’ll leave the final word to her: ‘Young readers 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.’

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