Mem Fox (we love Mem Fox) is a children’s book author of some repute. She’s a titan of children’s writing, for one thing. For another, she’s the reason I know that Australia is a real place*.
On her website she has videos about how to read picture books and if you ever attend a talk she gives, she’ll tell you how to write picture books. I don’t mean the normal bit about having a writing place and writing every day. Fox pays special attention to the cadence of words, and structures both word choice and story communication for a particularly lyrical experience. Each book is like a song.
One of the stories she told, that has stuck with me, is that she argued for a long word in a picture book. Toe to toe, nose to nose, fighting for her right as an artist.
She explained it a little softer than that, making the argument that children fall in love with the sound of words. They can figure out the meaning later. Her story required a three-syllable word in exactly the right spot, and the finished book was perfect when read aloud.
When I am writing within a character’s voice, their diction is my word choice, and I can’t betray their voice by choosing a word I think is easier to understand. Or a reference that is more accessible. It must make sense for that character.
The caveat is that I am aware that the diction will say things about the character. If the reference is too old, I need a reason for that character to be older than the target audience, or if the word is obscure, that character had better have a good reason to know it.
*At a conference, I eagerly picked up Possum Magic. It’s one of those childhood books that I know so well I can read the words off the page and my heart. As I turned the pages, I noticed the word lamingtons. Now, as an adult, I know that word. It’s important to note that I grew up in the Mojave Desert and for much of my developmental years, possums were considered mythical creatures. I mean, so were cows.
I had always read Possum Magic as a fanciful story about a magical possum in a made-up land and at the ripe old age of thirty, I brutally discovered that it had taken place in Australia. I called my mother.
I asked if she remembered Possum Magic and how much I loved that story. And she said yes, how I loved that story. I asked if she remembered how I thought it took place in a magical far-off land. She said yes.
I asked at what point in my development did she plan to tell me that Australia was real? And she laughed and laughed.
There is no betrayal like parental betrayal.