Modern children's books prioritizing diction and vocabulary?
March 10, 2016 11:37 AM   Subscribe

The children's books I've seen prioritizing good diction and vocabulary over 'accessibility' are published in Victorian/Edwardian times - which causes a problem if you want to raise children with those things, but without some of the additional moral "bonuses" that those times produced. Do these exist, published in the last half century? Essentially, I'm looking for the modern equivalent of Anne of Green Gables or A Girl of The Limberlost or E E Nesbit.

I am looking for children's books, primarily designed for ages 5-14, that have excellent diction and a broad vocabulary, with at least somewhat morally upstanding characters, where none of the main/centered characters use slang or variant dialects. Bonus points if you can find ones without the casual sexism/racism/etc that unfortunately a lot of the older books have.
posted by corb to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Are you looking for books where the speaking of the characters is particularly precise, or books with extensive vocabulary? I read lots of children's books, and I'm having a hard time thinking of books where the characters don't use at least some slang or dialects relevant to their story. For instance, my six year old reads the My Little Pony Equestria Girls books out loud to me, and I have always been impressed with the variety and complexity of the vocabulary, as well as the lack of sexism/racism/whatever. But, it's teenager ponies talking, so, you know.
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:44 AM on March 10, 2016

I've read and gifted several books by Avi; I think they hit on a lot of your desired points (depending on your definition of "modern"; they are books by a living author but the ones I've read are historical fiction.)

You may also want to look into nonfiction. It's rare that nonfiction books get particularly slangy.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:49 AM on March 10, 2016

Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship Of Her Own Making (and sequels) would work well here. They're modern books with extreme diction.

Also, while they're not modern, John Bellairs may be another option -- they're from the 1970s-1980s and are missing a lot of the earlier morals that you may object to, and the vocab is complex and widely varied.
posted by pie ninja at 12:05 PM on March 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Joan Aiken's "The Serial Garden" may serve if you don't mind short stories with a magical bent.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:27 PM on March 10, 2016

I would like to suggest any of Patricia Polacco's many books. Some of them do have slang or vernacular, but they are generally literary, deep, and meaningful, and have "upstanding moral characters". I would characterize them as being somewhere between illustrated books and chapter books.
posted by OCDan at 1:04 PM on March 10, 2016

Try Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series, and Emily of Deep Valley for the older kids. I don't recall Nancy Drew being particularly sexist or racist. I also recommend Beverly Cleary and Lois Lowry (I used to love the Anastasia Krupnik series).
posted by serenity_now at 1:18 PM on March 10, 2016

I don't feel like I really understand what you're looking for, and why. Maybe I'm getting too hung up on the "no slang or variant dialects" thing. That seems like it rules out some books that would otherwise be good choices. Take Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, for instance. It's a Newberry winner that seems like it might fit most of your criteria. It has sentences like, "Christopher-John's whistling increased to a raucous, nervous shrill, and grudgingly I let the matter drop and trudged along in moody silence, my brothers growing as pensively quiet as I." But the characters say "ain't" and "gonna" and "y'all" and so forth. So that one wouldn't work for you?

Anyway, here are some I think might work:

Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series (definitely ticks all your boxes, but it's aimed at the upper end of your age range)
Kenneth Oppel's Silverwing series
The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles and Mandy, both by Julie Andrews Edwards
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin
No Flying in the House by Betty Brock (just barely makes it into the last half century)
posted by Redstart at 1:31 PM on March 10, 2016

Yeah, I know it's a tall order and I'm not that hopeful but really anything helps.

To clarify, I guess: I am looking for that kind of precise diction - like, imagine diction as spoken by a PBS or BBC newscaster - combined with vocabulary more skewed towards the adult end. But the slang - stuff like "ain't" or "gonna" or repeated use of "like" or what have you - is kind of a dealbreaker for the kind of thing I'm specifically looking for, unless its specifically repudiated in text. For example, I'm pretty sure in Five Little Peppers And How They Grew some of the younger boys use slang, but they're corrected by their older sister.

Actually maybe it will help to kind of describe the ideological underpinnings behind this. I'm looking for books I can give the young children of kind of strict religious conservative parents, where I can say "Yes, Billy says his sir and ma'ams and speaks correctly and this is definitely edifying literature that you can safely give your Sally" while not replicating all the other stuff that was often combined with time periods when it was considered desirable to have kids speak like miniature adults. So something with the aesthetic of traditional conservative children's literature, without the ideology of it.

Does that maybe make more sense/help?
posted by corb at 2:29 PM on March 10, 2016

Hmm, if you're aiming to satisfy religious conservative parents, maybe some of my suggestions won't work so well after all. I can imagine they might not be thrilled about fantasy worlds where there is an afterlife and some spiritual beliefs, but it's not at all in line with Christian beliefs. That would rule out the Earthsea and Silverwing series. Actually, I can see every single book I listed (except for Mandy) possibly being problematic for conservative Christians. Or do you think the parents you have in mind really only care about diction and vocabulary?

Here's another possibility - the Swan Lake trilogy by Mark Helprin. The writing and diction are just what you want, I think. However, in the first book, a child is conceived out of wedlock. So it might not work for your particular audience.
posted by Redstart at 2:58 PM on March 10, 2016

I would think The Phantom Tollbooth might work. If you haven't read it yourself, the Wikipedia entry on it has a pretty detailed explanation of the plot and themes, so you can see what you think.
posted by gudrun at 5:45 PM on March 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

Edward Eager uses lush, varied vocabulary, and while he does include some kitschy versions of un-pc midcentury cultural tropes (Indians, cannibals) every now and again, I don't recall any deeply problematic attitudes in his books. There's occasional deployment of stylized '20s-era slang ("Twenty-three skidoo"/"Nuts!"), but not in concentrations that'd be likely to prove corrupting to a young reader.

E. Nesbit has a great book of Shakespeare play retellings, Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare, that, while doubtless not ideologically perfect from a modern standpoint, probably contains less casual racism/sexism/classism than her original fiction. You can get a lovely illustrated used version of that one for cheap off amazon or abebooks.

James Thurber's Many Moons is very short, but beautifully written with varied diction and considerable delight in language.

Lastly, have you considered Victorian fairy tales as possibly more ideologically neutral (or at least less ideologically contagious) than everyday-life stories? Dickens' The Magic Fish-bone is just wonderful, and while it does have a little girl who takes care of her siblings/the household, there's no particularly sexist discussion of the fact. George Macdonald is also great, as are Oscar Wilde's children's stories. Or Lewis Carroll?
posted by Bardolph at 7:30 PM on March 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Have a look at the offerings from the New York Review's Children's Collection. Esther Averill's "Jenny and the Cat Club" was a great favorite with my little girl. Many of the books are just over your 50-year limit, but may otherwise fit the bill.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:51 AM on March 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yay! I came in to recommend the Phantom Tollbooth, and am proud to see it already mentioned. I just bought a copy for an adult friend just last week because he discovered the word cacophony and I recalled that I had learned it as a child, among many other wonderful words and concepts, from the Phantom Tollbooth.
posted by sweetmarie at 2:59 PM on March 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

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