Last Saturday, I came across a nonfiction book title that made me laugh out loud. I was at the Brooklyn Historical Society in
Back to the book with the funny title. There it was, The History of the United States: Told in One Syllable Words by Josephine Pollard. Of course the subtitle itself breaks the book’s promise, but the entire concept seems absurd. A
After doing a bit of research, I learned that McLoughlin published a whole series of “One Syllable Word” books and that the volumes actually used multisyllabic words, but they were shown broken into syllables (for example, Wash-ing-ton). So their claim to fame clearly was a case of false advertising. But it hit a nerve because it implied that a hokey device such as breaking words into syllables could make a book more appropriate for young readers. It caused me to flash back to my early years of writing for Scholastic's magazines, when every article had to be “leveled” with a readability formula. Nothing inhibits creativity more than performing long division on the sentences you’ve just written.
A friend of mine suggested that using those readability formulas might have helped me internalize certain rules about writing for children. Maybe so, but I’ve always believed that any good writing was a matter of rhythm and flow, not numbers. That’s why I felt so liberated when I wrote my first book, A Whole New Ball Game. Although a trade book is a commercial enterprise, I felt unrestrained in every way. There were no word counts, no page counts, no rules about how to present the story I wanted to tell. Sometimes all that freedom can be terrifying, but in this case it was empowering.
So as charming as the McLoughlin Bros. books were, I’m glad I live and write at a time when successful children’s nonfiction is influenced more by inspiration and insight than by syllable counts and the formulas of Spache and Dale-Chall. But if you happen to be in
By the way, that monosyllabic president was James Polk.