It never fails. Whenever I visit my mother for a few days, I make my way to the basement bookcases. A bouquet of old stain, pine and mildewed pages welcomes me as I peruse my fondest childhood memories that line the shelves. Each time it seems that one or two books find special notice, and most recently it was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a hardcover, beautifully illustrated first edition I used to carry around everywhere. The writing in those pages took me inside the most interesting factory I’d ever known, introduced me to a lovable, eccentric candy maker, even helped me taste the scent of chocolate that antagonized Charlie’s desperate hunger. When I was done reading it, I still held that book close. Dahl’s words drew me in to Charlie’s story, and I didn’t want to leave. Words that writers choose and how they use them have power. Children can learn to fashion words to tantalize their readers as well.
Two fundamental parts of speech can create wonderful imagery for the reader: adjectives and verbs. Most kids understand adjectives to be describing words, and it is important that they learn how to create sensory images using adjectives. However, adjectives can also be used in other ways. When I write, “My mother was somehow prepared for the news, her lined face, stoic,” we are drawn to and impacted by the last two words because of stoic’s unexpected placement after the noun. Likewise, C.S. Lewis writes, “It was a desolate, featureless sort of country mainly devoted to cabbage and turnips, with poor hedges and few trees.” The use of “poor” to describe hedges is another unexpected use of an adjective that evokes a different image than bare or ugly. Therefore, adjective choice and order can affect the reader. Let’s also not forget the delights of a good verb: “Then Jonathan went tramping to the gate, his boots making big footprints in the snow” (The Bears of Hemlock Mountain by Alice Dalgliesh). The verb tramping evokes the sense of an over-bundled child trudging happily through the snow, something that wouldn’t come through with a verb like walked. Finally, children love funny and unusual words and often enjoy making up their own to describe something. Professional writers do as well. Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Room had trees and bushes that were “eatable” after all, and Out of the Silent Planet’s Ransom did not have a “man-of-the-world air.” With these techniques, children will welcome the freedom to let their inventive sides shine.
Just like movies use special methods for creating visual and audio displays, a writer sometimes needs to move beyond the standard grammar rules to create an image or feeling. Figurative language is one of those special effects writers use. Simile, onomatopoeia, alliteration, and hyperbole are four of these techniques that children of any age can learn to some extent. Metaphor is useful as well but is best introduced after second grade. Another special effect is using styled sentences. A long-winded sentence, one that seems to go on and on, can convey excitement, frenzy, or drifting thoughts. When Esperanza describes her mother’s hair in The House on Mango Street, the reader feels carried away with her reflections because of the long-winded sentence structure.
Now most people learned that they should always write complete sentences and that paragraphs should be at least five sentences long. Hogwash. A well-placed fragment can get the reader’s attention and emphasize or echo an idea. Felicia McSweeney (age 11) artfully places a fragment in “Beautiful Night:” “Every time I lifted my head up to breathe in the salty air I noticed how beautiful the moonlight caught the waves, how the symphony of the ocean crashing against the rock was so enchanting. And then silence.” This final fragment gets the readers’ attention, takes them from one emotional state to another. A fragment isn’t the only one liner that works. A one-sentence paragraph also draws attention and underscores. Poor Mr. Popper spends nearly three pages on the phone explaining and re-explaining his penguin problem to city officials, each time being transferred from one bureau to another.
“He decided to hang up.”
I’m sure we can all relate to his situation. The tension and frustration that builds up over the three pages is released in that final one-line paragraph.
Punctuation is like glue—it connects our ideas (but I bet you knew that). Want to make a side comment to the reader? Use parenthesis like I just did or dashes work as well. The latter acts like a blinking arrow on a highway saying, “Pay attention to what’s coming up,” as it did in the first sentence of this paragraph. The same effect can be made with colons, which are also useful for other things: showing an example (like we are right now), and expressing thoughts or dialogue. And last but not least, the elusive three little dots. The ellipsis is often mistakenly used in place of a comma, but used correctly, it conveys a lost train of…. What was I writing? Oh yes, a lost train of thought, a continuing idea or action, or a loss for words.
There are related topics also worthy of teaching including those that deal with organization and tone, such as genre studies. Of course, the basics should always come first, such as general sentence and paragraph structure, basic punctuation, and the parts of speech (at least to have a common vocabulary with which to discuss writing). These four are like the hammer and screwdriver in a toolbox. They’re fundamental. While word choice, special effects and other punctuation are like a miter saw or drill. They can help children expand and refine their creations.