OpenFiction [Blog]

Prose Style – Bedtime stories

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on May 26, 2006

I’ve found reading bedtime stories to my kids to be a great experience in learning about prose style. Because Olivia and Daniel–like most kids–crave repetition, we end up reading the same stories again and again. They are also quite aware of any changes made to the text of the stories, so if I vary at all from the printed words, they call me on it. Over time, this combination has made me acutely aware of books in which I admire the writing, and the ones in which I don’t.

Because kids like repetition so much, children’s books probably face greater challenges that most other types of writing. In most other genres, a reader is often willing to forgive flabby and awkward prose if the plot is compelling enough (have you read “DaVinci Code” yet?), but with a children’s book, over a short period of time, the novelty of the plot wears off, and the language stands naked. And as with human nudity, it’s usually either compelling or appalling, with perilously little in between.

For me, children’s books rapidly sort into either those I enjoy reading over and over or those at which I cringe when the kids pick them up. When Livi was an infant, I read her Goodnight Moon nearly every night with out ever tiring of it. It’s the only piece of literature I really have reflexively memorized and can recite without effort. With Daniel, I discovered Where the Wild Things Are, which I don’t remember reading as a child. Both of these books use language that delights even after a great many readings, language that is enjoyable to speak aloud, words your tongue wants to say. “Goodnight comb, goodnight brush, goodnight nobody, goodnight mush.” “Please don’t go–we’ll eat you up, we love you so.”

Books like Curious George and Make Way for Ducklings, while providing a level of imagination that may be entertaining at first, become painful reads very quickly, with pedestrian prose that will get you to the end, but won’t make you want to go there. The kids often catch me revising these books on the fly, and make me go back and read the story as written. In these moments, I am made to consciously confront shortcomings of the text, whereas if I were reading to myself I might just pass them over. At some point, when I have a book in front of me, I may do a close read of the style issues in one of these.

Curious George at least provides an entertaining field for critical examination, from the point of view issues (it mostly seems a close third person from George’s POV, except we do get occasional thoughts from the man with the big yellow hat and the sailors), to the obvious racist and colonialist issues, to more subtle concerns like the telephone wires as both George’s betrayer and liberator (a statement about the double edged nature of technology’s impact on our lives?).

At this point, Olivia and Daniel are much more focused on plot than on the delights of language, so they seem to select both categories of books about as often. This means I should have plenty of opportunities to continue studying this….

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  1. […] One of the other things I’m learning by reading stories to my children is more about how we internalize the artificial process of reading books. At the very basic level, the ability to enter into the reading process, and to filter out the artificial externalities of the physical book, the typeface, the binding (not to mention the environment around you as you are reading) is every bit as important to the creation of the vivid and continuous dream as is the skillful use of narrative conventions. Have you ever not been able to read a book, for instance, because the typeface was simply distracting? Or find that you simply can’t read in particular environments? Sadly, most of these externalities are also outside of the control of the author. […]


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