Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Pleasure of Words

"'I am half sick of shadows,' said the Lady of Shalott" has been going through my mind ever since I had a cataract removed. I was sick of shadows; cataracts prevent clear vision in situations of alternating light and shade. But the phrase from Tennyson's poem made me think of words...alliteration, and the use of letter combinations that give such pleasure to the eye, the mouth, the brain.

I looked up a few more alliterative phrases of earlier authors: Poe's sentence in "The Cask of the Amontillado":"I again paused, and, holding the flambeaux over the masonwork, threw a few feeble rays upon the figure within." And I bet you haven't seen this identified in a while: "Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs, And as silently steal away."... the last lines of Longfellow's "The Day is Done."

Careful and thoughtful choice of words in children's literature is key to timelessness. Consider the opening line of Henry's "Misty of Chincoteague," "A wild, ringing neigh shrilled up from the hold of the Spanish Galleon." Or O'Brien's first sentence, "Mrs. Frisby, the head of a family of field mice..." and my favorite opening sentence, "The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world," from Robinson's "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever."

As writers for children we are plot-oriented. Every word, action, character, must "move the plot along." That's probably true, but I sometimes think that in our haste to get tothe end, the BIG MOMENT, we fail to stop and consider words for their own merit, their sound and hidden meanings. So in revision, once we've hammered out the details of plot, character and setting, we need to add the "music;" words that will make our phrases memorable for the reader.


  1. Oh! I absolutely LOVE the way words read/sound. A good book about how to use words in your writing is called Word Magic by Cindy Rogers.

  2. What a marvelous post! Yes, the cadence of words means so much in writing.

    I just finished reading the new Newbery, The Graveyard Book, and the beginning of one of the sentences has stuck with me: "Ever since the child had learned to walk he had been his mother's and father's despair and delight . . ."

    What could say it better for anyone who has been responsible for a toddler?

  3. My son just finished reading The BFG. He loved all the giant-speak Roald invented, words like "snozzcumber" and "strawbunkles". He walks around the house saying "that's redonkulus." Ah, the magic of language, real or invented.

  4. And how great is it when you have a sentence or paragraph that just isn't right. You've ignored it through several revisions, because it isn't necessarily "wrong." Finally, you work on it. And it sings. Ahhh. Magic.