Tag Archive for Twain Mark

Me and My Books: The Grammar Conundrum

grammar
My books and myself? My books and I? Are you finding this difficult to read? And now I’ve started a sentence with ‘and’, which is okay in literary prose isn’t it? Although children are taught that you absolutely mustn’t start a sentence with ‘and’; it’s not deemed to be an acceptable sentence opener.

Seriously though, how much does it bother you? I read a LOT of books. Or a great many books! So many of them contain grammatical errors, particularly when I read them on the kindle, although admittedly many of the ebook errors are typos, which leaves me wondering if the digitisation was just a tad slapdash. Are we making more grammatical errors because our language is evolving and we deem it to be okay to finish a sentence with a preposition, split an infinitive, or use that instead of which, or are we just not taught grammar correctly anymore? Are there less copyeditors (yes, I know it’s fewer) with a good grammatical grounding?

The Super Adventures of Me Pig

Does it matter more if the grammar is correct in children’s books? Some children’s books are supposed to contain grammatical errors. The funniest book in our house at the moment is The Super Amazing Adventures of Me Pig by Emer Stamp. It starts like this:
“Hello.
Me I is Pig. I is 562 sunsets old. Well, I is guessing that is how old I is. I is not brilliant at counting. I got a bit confused around 487.”
The grammar here is not annoying because it’s supposed to be terrible – the author is writing as if he is a rather stupid pig, so the grammar reflects this, and it makes the book funny. The children testers for this book found it hilarious because they knew instinctively that it was grammatically very badly written. However, in order for them to find the style funny, they have to know the correct grammar to start with. But what about if the author is writing from a young child’s point of view, but in the third person narrative voice:
“He did, however, out of the corner of his eye, catch them doing that sarcastic thing they did, where one of them – Barry didn’t like separating TSE into two, as that was kind of recognising that they existed, but if he had to, he would refer to them as Sisterly Entities One and Two – would pretend to write down something he said, as if it was really important. Which of course was their way of saying that it wasn’t important at all. Barry really hated it when they did that.”
The Parent Agency, David Baddiel, illustrated by Jim Field

Heidi

What’s the difference between the book containing grammatical errors or just being badly written? Would a book flow better if the grammar was correct? Take an extract from Heidi by Johanna Spyri. Some might argue that the language is too ‘heavy’ and the style of writing too old-fashioned, and therefore it becomes prohibitive as a modern child needs something lighter. I don’t necessarily agree with that:
“Heidi looked at the jug that was steaming away invitingly, and ran quickly back to the cupboard. At first she could only see a small bowl left on the shelf, but she was not long in perplexity, for a moment later she caught sight of two glasses further back, and without an instant’s loss of time she returned with these and the bowl and put them down on the table.”

Narrative voice should also make a difference. If we can’t excuse David Baddiel for the writing above, would we be more willing to excuse it if he had written the book in the first person instead of the third person? The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is acceptable because it’s written in a colloquial way in the narrative first person.
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”
However, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is as much about accent and social commentary as it is about grammar. Do we always need to be grammatically incorrect to talk in a child’s voice? The following books all use grammar incorrectly for effect – to create the child’s personality and they’re all in the first person. Are the grammar mistakes immediately apparent to the average child?

Emily Sparkes

“This is completely a bad start and I am just thinking I need to change the subject quick because she is on an ‘eco-roll’ when it is too late and she says the terrible words.”
Emily Sparkes and the Friendship Fiasco by Ruth Fitzgerald

Clarice Bean Spells Trouble

“I go home in a very downcast-ish mood and even my older brother Kurt says, “What’s the matter with you?”
Which is unusual because usually he doesn’t notice other people’s gloom, he is too busy feeling gloom himself.”
Clarice Bean Spells Trouble by Lauren Child
But then surely, if Clarice is quoting her mother, as she does in the next extract, would her mother, as the adult, speak slightly better than she does here:
“When I ask Mum why he’s so cheerful, she says, “He’s just got himself this weekend job at Eggplant and it has really put him in a good mood.” To me, this still sounds like Clarice Bean – or is Clarice not quoting her mother directly, but twisting it from her memory into ‘Clarice speak’. Is bad grammar excused if it’s in speech marks because it’s representative of how we speak, which is often grammatically different from written prose?

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney is American, and so of course a reader should expect Americanisms, but the author also deploys a lack of good grammar for effect – it is a child’s diary after all.
“Us kids have pretty much figured Fregley out by now, but I don’t think the teachers have really caught on yet.”
However, if it’s being an ‘authentic’ kid’s diary – would the spelling all be correct, or should the editor be modifying that too to create ‘personality’? Tricky one, hey? What about apostrophes? They all seem to be correct in the Wimpy Kid books…should they not be? Do your children speak like this? Can readers/writers get inside the head of a youngster without resorting to bad grammar?

I have a child in my house who insists on saying “Me and my friend went swimming” instead of “My friend and I went swimming”. I correct her constantly, which must be ‘super irritating’! However, did she pick this up from reading, or from her other friends? One children’s book, which I read recently, made this one error all the way through, even though the rest of the book was grammatically correct. For effect or just an error? Has our language changed so much from the days of Johanna Spyri that it’s now acceptable for modern literature to have bad grammar littered throughout? Does the expanse of bad grammar in our midst mean that children’s authors have a responsibility to write with even more care for correct grammatical usage to teach our children what’s right in the first place? If our children pick up their language tools from reading, at what point do we think its okay to break the rules for effect? And one day will they even know the difference?

When does bad grammar become a literary style?

 

By the way, last Thursday I guest-blogged on another site, MG Strikes Back, about the role of animals in middle grade fiction. You can read it here. It mentions some of my recent favourite MG books too.

MG STrikes back

Children’s Classics

I’m not going to explore what makes a classic children’s book – this is best saved for a university essay, but there is a wealth of children’s literature which is universally recognised as being the classical canon. Whether it’s the Victorian/Edwardian canon of The Railway Children, The Secret Garden or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or the 1950’s canon of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Charlotte’s Web, these books have something in common. They endure through the ages, they are well written with quality narrative and most of them can be read on two levels – the basic story childhood level, such as children stepping through a wardrobe into a fantastical land, or into a secret garden, but if you care to look you will find them imbued with deeper meaning, such as the allegory of Christ as Aslan in Narnia, or the motif of the Garden of Eden before the fall in the grounds of Misselthwaite Manor in The Secret Garden.

I was recently inspired to write on classic children’s books by two events. One, the currently trending #2015classicschallenge on http://theprettybooks.wordpress.com/2014/12/27/2015-classics-challenge/ , which if you are inclined to social media you should look at, but mainly by my trip to the theatre at Kings Cross to see E Nesbit’s The Railway Children.

The Railway Children

Although many adults may balk at the ‘prison’ spying storyline for little ones, in essence the story starts with a miscarriage of justice. Even the five year old who accompanied me to the theatre fully understood that premise – many a time they have been ill accused of a misdemeanour at home when in fact someone else was to blame. The bulk of the story revolves around neat little incidents as the children get used to their new home in Yorkshire alongside the railway line, befriending the locals and helping out, particularly Mr Perks, the stationmaster, and the children’s endless optimism fires each adventure. E Nesbit’s books are always beautifully full of hope. The older children to whom I read the story both commented on how neatly and satisfyingly all the storylines come together in the end. And they couldn’t get over the mother’s utterance:
“Jam OR butter, dear – not jam AND butter. We can’t afford that sort of reckless luxury nowadays!”

Peter Pan and WendyThe Adventures of Tom SawyerTom Sawyer illus

In fact reading classics aloud to children aged between six and 10 (or any age) is in itself enormously satisfying. They often see it very differently from how you remember the story. One thing I’ve always tried to do is to use illustrated classics. Although the e-reader has its place (as I’ve said before) I haven’t heard of any parent (yet) using this to read aloud to their child at bedtime. So many of the illustrated classics allow the children an insight into a tale that is usually set a long time ago and can be quite a leap in the imagination. A small drawing can do wonders and start the ball rolling in their own imaginations. Pick carefully though as the illustrations can stick in the mind for many years. One set I’ve used many times is those illustrated by the great Robert Ingpen. His imaginings of Peter Pan and Wendy by J. M. Barrie are quite startling, and a long way from Disney. Be warned, the story too is a long way from Disney. In fact, our perceptions of the classics may be somewhat different from the reality as we read them as children ourselves and memory can be shapeshifting. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain has ceased to be taught in schools in the US as it contains the ‘n’ word more than 200 times, although of course this was widely accepted when published in 1884, and I don’t remember it being a huge issue when I was a child (no age reveal here though!) The language in Peter Pan is quite difficult and dated, and the undercurrent of sexuality and frustrated loneliness in the boy who never grows up is never far from the surface. Of all the classics I’ve reread with children, this was the only one where I wished I’d stuck to an abridged version.

The Secret GardenThe Secret Garden illus

Other beautiful illustrations are those of Angela Barrett for The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, although I have shown the cover version illustrated by Charles Robinson, another fine illustrator, as it is easier to purchase. The language here is not difficult, only reading aloud those Yorkshire accents for we Londoners, and is quite captivating from the start:
“When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.”
The characters in The Secret Garden are loveable and sympathetic despite the fact that sometimes (like us all) they can be quite selfish and stubborn. This is a beautiful story of how Mary, and her cousin Colin, despite their disagreeable misfortunes, come in time to recognise the beauty around them and to embrace it, eventually bringing warmth and friendship to the cold harsh Yorkshire household in which they live. It has magic and darkness and timeless quality. In my 1983 Octopus Books edition, there are full page colour illustrations every so often which highlight a particular phrase from the book:
“She put the key in and turned it” illustrates the door to the garden but doesn’t quite let you see inside – that is left magically for your own imagination.

Alices Adventures in WonderlandAlice in Wonderland queen

Of course a book will always conjure slightly different impressions depending on the age at which you read it – and perhaps the person reading it to you, but one book that never fails to delight – even amongst five year olds who don’t really get it – is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This I read in any version that sticks to the original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel. No one else can illustrate the Queen in quite the same way:
“The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, began screaming ‘Off with her head! Off-“
It’s a fantastical, subversive adventure where nothing really makes sense, but it should make you laugh. Also written as a satirical viewpoint on Victorian life, people hurtling to keep up with the industrialisation and inventions of the time, and the autocratic behaviour of the queen, there is no end to the depth of the Alice books. However, reading it to children introduces them to fantasy and ‘wonder’ and hopefully will invest them with a sense of the possibilities of literature.

As I said before it’s not just literature from more than 100 years ago. Puffin Modern Classics have cited as classics both the The Sheep-Pig by Dick King Smith, and The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross, as well as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.

But a literary culture is always fluid. Will Harry Potter last as The Railway Children has, and be the ultimate children’s classic of our time? The past couple of years has seen a growing chorus of new children’s literature that demands to be read– including Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders, see my review here – and The Last Wild by Piers Torday (soon to be reviewed). This year too is filled with promise. The question is which titles will endure?