Author Archives: Amy MacDonald

About Amy MacDonald

Children's book author. Teaching artist.

The Right Word: or Eschew that Thesaurus

When I visit elementary classrooms, I frequently see a list, posted on the wall, of synonyms gleaned from a thesaurus for overused words like said. This is an admirable attempt on the part of teachers to add some freshness to student writing–though it can be overdone. (Let’s face it, sometimes said is the right word for the job.)

I’m asked a lot if I use a thesaurus to vary my vocabulary. I don’t. Aside from the fact that it seems like cheating, it also often produces an uninteresting word, or worse, one whose meaning is at best a close cousin to the one you need. As Mark Twain put it, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning, and lightning bug.” The thesaurus often gives us lightning bugs when what we need is a paralyzing electric shock.

Instead of a thesaurus, I have taped to my laptop a list of words that I encounter when reading but that aren’t part of my active vocabulary. (As you probably know, our active vocabulary–the words we employ ourselves–is a fraction of our passive vocabulary.)  The hope is that having the words in front of me will encourage those words to slide from passive to active vocabulary. Currently on my list:  Svengali, discomfit, peroration, kewpie doll, bravura, captious, immanent, strangulated, sere, canard, valence, eschew, baleful, languor, coruscate, cynosure, and otiose.

Recently I was reading one of my favorite authors–the comic master P. G. Wodehouse (of Jeeves and Wooster fame)–and I started jotting down the words he used instead of walk. Jeeves the butler never walked into a room: he streamed, shimmered, floated, trickled, flowed, sifted, slid and trickled. Other, less reserved, characters surged round, rocketed, and bounded.

Would Wodehouse have found any of those words in a thesaurus under “walk?” Your Honor, I rest my case.

So, have I convinced you to eschew the thesaurus?

PS I’m curious to know what others have taped to their computers for inspiration?  And teachers: what techniques do you use to broaden your students’ vocabulary?

Categories: Writing/Publishing Tips | Tags: | 2 Comments

Rest in peace, Maurice Sendak

Readers of this blog know how much I adore Maurice Sendak and his work. (See previous post, and the one linking to a very moving Terri Gross NPR interview on death and children’s literature.) He was wise, funny, and biting, right up until the end, and in honor of that, I now post a link to  his interviews with Stephen Colbert in which he speaks his mind (sadly prophetically) about e-books and many other things. (Warning: salty language, bleeped out!!)

Categories: Children's Literature | Tags: , | Leave a comment

“He saw it. He loved it. He ate it.”

Why you should always write to your favorite author:

Source: Shaun Usher, Letters of Note

 

 

 

Categories: Children's Literature | Tags: , | Leave a comment

“I like words”

Uncle Philbert & Aunt Mattie

“I like words.”

That’s how a would-be screenwriter once started a job application letter. “I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady…. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde.”  Aside from landing the author a job, the wonderfully witty letter (here)  is a testament to the amazing richness of English, a language that combines the best of Anglo-Saxon’s bluntness (ooze), Greek and Latin’s multi-syllabic gravity (mortician), and the Romance languages’ elegance (demi-monde).

I too like words. For years I collected strange words: words I heard old-time Mainers use; words I gleaned from reading the dictionary (yes, I read dictionaries for fun; how else am I going to find a word like fubsy?); archaic phrases no longer in use; or nonsense words my mother’s family invented. My file bulged with weird words.

When I started my chapter book series (No More Nice, No More Nasty, Too Much Flapdoodle), I found the perfect use for them. I had created eccentric characters—Great Aunt Mattie and Great Uncle Philbert—and I wanted them to have distinct ways of speaking.  Mattie was somewhat refined, so I had her use my favorite archaic words, like Pecksniffian or rodomontade.  Philbert was a farmer, more earthy than Mattie,  so it was natural for him to use the old-fashioned Maine terms, like jizzicked.

Lastly I had Mattie and Philbert use some whimsical made-up words. Like Mattie, my mother used to greet her children each morning by asking “How does your corporosity seem to gashiate?” To which the answer was: “Very discombobulate, great congruity, dissimilarity.” I didn’t know what the words meant, it was just what you said in the morning. (Nor did I suspect that ours was the only family to greet each other this way.

   Favorite 5th grade words

Children, too, like words. Many children’s book writers are afraid to use language that is above grade level, but during school visits I’ve found that kids love the challenge of strange new words.  In fact, they liked the obscure words so much, they were doing things like searching dictionaries to find their own weird words (above).

The strange vocabulary did create some problems. I had to do battle with Flapdoodle copyeditors who insisted on changing downstreet into ‘down the street’ and putting a would in front of druther. I’ve also gotten lots of queries from readers about what the made up words mean (not to mention from the German translator having a, well, conniption, over how to translate gashiate). To all of whom I say: you’ll have to discombobulate an answer yourself.

Some favorites from Too Much Flapdoodle:

Flapdoodle: nonsense.

Fub: mess up or mess around.

Weewaw: crooked.

Muckle: grab.

Whiffet: a small, unimportant person.

Hole in the snow: worthless (like a hole created by, well, whatever).

Teakittle up: tidy up.

Gormy: slow-witted, clumsy.

As in: That gormy cuss has been fubbing around with my fence all morning  and it’s still weewaw. He’s a real hole in the snow. As for you, you young whiffet, cut out the flapdoodle, muckle onto that mop, and help me teakittle up.

Categories: Amy's Books & Writing | Tags: | 1 Comment

New Arts Integration Resource from the Kennedy Center

As a Teaching Artist for the Kennedy Center, I’m happy to let you all know that the Center has just launched a new online resource about arts integration. It draws on more than a decade of work clarifying arts integration principles and implementing best practices.

The ArtsEdge website explores the what and why of arts integration, gives examples of arts integration practices, provides a wide range of resources, and has  info about their arts integration program in schools, called CETA (Changing Education through the Arts).

Categories: Professional Development | Tags: | Leave a comment

Maine Debut of Little Beaver

Had a great time watching Scarborough 1st and 5th grades perform the Maine stage debut of Little Beaver and the Echo last night. Thanks!

Categories: Amy's Books & Writing, Video | Tags: | Leave a comment

Mainers and the 100 Best Children’s Books

People are always publishing “Best” lists, and today Scholastic has announced its “100 Greatest Books for Children,” as compiled by its magazine Parent and Child. Such lists are always a little bit suspect and a lot bit controversial, and this one will be no different, I’m sure. (“Captain Underpants” at #97? Really, Scholastic? Might that have anything to do with the fact that you publish it?) By contrast, I hasten to assure you,  the lists I’m on (the N.Y. T. “10 Best” and Dillon’s  “Best of the Century”) were all exceptionally well compiled, and not at all self-serving or controversial.

But there’s something else interesting about Scholastic’s list (or anyone else’s “Best” children’s book lists): the disproportionately large number of Maine books included there. In fact, the top two places–“Charlotte’s Web” and “Good Night Moon”–are both held by authors that Maine has a strong claim to. E. B. White fled New York City as a young man to live in Brooklin. Margaret Wise Brown bought a summer house (the only house she ever owned) on Vinalhaven Island,  where she did much of her writing.

Brown is also the author of #32, Runaway Bunny.  The #25 book is “The Giver,” by Lois Lowry, who lived in Falmouth for many years. And #87 is the Newbery-honor winner”Rules” by Cynthia Lord of  Brunswick.

Thus 5 of the 100 books are by Mainers. Considering that the list draws from books published not just in the US but in the UK as well, that’s a pretty heavy percentage for our little state (population 1 million)  versus the rest of the English-writing world (population 370  million).

Even stranger, three of the five books were written by neighbors of mine (I have a house on Vinalhaven near Brown’s, and in Falmouth near Lowry’s).

Can anyone explain this? Does it have something to do with the magnetic pull of the ocean? Or of my magnetic personality?

Categories: Children's Literature | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Write Across America: celebrate with “The Seuss-inator”

Need a new angle for Dr. Seuss’s birthday? Tired of “Cat in the Hat” parties?  This year, celebrate the good doctor’s birthday and Read Across America by writing your own Dr. Seuss-style story.

As a Seuss fan and author of a half dozen of my own  rhyming books, I’ve developed a special “Dr. Seussinator” mini-writing workshop for elementary school children in which they write their own version of a Seuss favorite.

This year, send the kids home with their very own rhyming book. Make it  “Read AND Write Across America” Day!

Here’s my birthday wish to all children for this day:

One fish

Two fish

Here’s my

YOU wish:

Small tots

(all tots)

Read lots.

Write lots.

[Workshop details here.]

 

Categories: School Visits, Writing Workshops | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak

Terry Gross has done a very moving Fresh Air interview with Maurice Sendak, author of some of my favorite picture books, including Where the Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen. I’d always thought of Sendak as a grumpy old man (in the best way, because I have a soft spot for Grumpy Old Men–like Uncle Philbert), but Gross brought out a wholly new side of him. I found myself actually weeping as they talked. It’s a must listen.   Check it out here.

Categories: Children's Literature | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Sneak Peek: Little Beaver and the Big Front Tooth

Poor Little Beaver is worried about losing his Big Front Tooth. Can he be a real beaver without two front teeth? Little Beaver and the Big Front Tooth is scheduled for publication in 2012. Here’s a sneak peek at the cover (it’s illustrated by the same artist who did Little Beaver and the Echo, Sara Fox-Davies). It’s scheduled for publication in June 2012 in England.

Categories: Amy's Books & Writing | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: