'Words, words, words and the case against dumbing down'

This was the title of children's author Geraldine McCaughrean's talk at the Oxford Literary Festival earlier this month. The double-Carnegie medal winner was interviewed by Suzi Feay, reviewer for the Guardian and the FT, and argued passionately for authors to use challenging and interesting vocabulary and ideas in their books for children. The discussion was based loosely around Geraldine's latest book 'Where the World Ends'. This is the fictional account of a historical event from 1727, when a group of men and boys were put ashore on Hirta in the Outer Hebridean archipelago of St Kilda to go wild fowling, as was the custom every summer. They were abandoned there and her story becomes their story.

The discussion initially focused on whether children's books should be strictly age-banded - to which both author and reviewer answered that children should certainly be allowed to read books that deal with tragic and difficult circumstances. Challenging texts for younger readers act as a spur to learn new vocabulary and Geraldine said that 'as a mark of respect - we should expect a lot of our children'. She herself has been challenged on using unusual words in her books, but her answer to that was that 'it is the greatest gift, to give children words and vocabulary'. She has often been asked, even by publishers, to substitute alternative - more recognised - words into her manuscripts, but she feels that it is when one is challenged that one learns and remembers. This lead to a discussion of the falling rates of vocabulary in younger children, and to the reasons for this reduction in speech and, apart from social factors, screens were suggested as a cause.

In general it was a most thought provoking and interesting talk, and Geraldine’s books are without a doubt classics of our time. The talk took place in the sublime surroundings of the Divinity School at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which will be familiar to many at the Hogwarts infirmary in the Harry Potter films.

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