The Children’s Book Review | November 29, 2016
Worrisome Words: Let’s Talk About Dialogue
How do we learn how to speak? I don’t mean how to form words and sentences: that’s a question for serious child development and early learning specialists. Babies and toddlers seem almost inevitably to work their way through “goo-ga” burbles to tentative shouts of “no” and “beep-beep!”, through to very complex sentence such as “I don’t want to go to bed!” and “I am a triceratops!” At least, that’s what seemed to happen with my kids. By “learn to speak”, what I actually mean is “learn to say things that are interesting and meaningful and our very own”. I think, for those of us who like to read, the answer is that we learn to speak by listening to the voices of the characters we love. So much of what I use in everyday life has come from the mouths of the characters I loved as a child: I get “rumbly in my tumbly” just like Winne-the-Pooh, and my knitting often gets as “snargley” as the hose through which Dr. Seuss’s Onceler tells his tale. How important is it, then, to make sure that the dialogue in the books we recommend to children and young people sings with originality and freshness? Very, I think. There’s nothing worse in a YA novel, in my opinion, than an endless string utterances of ‘OMG!” and “Like, really?” Here are a few of my favorites from current (and coming-soon) pickings:
Written by Leah Thomas
“Behold! The Teenage Lord of Glockenspieling!” cries Ollie from the first page of Leah Thomas’ Nowhere Near You, and he goes on to add, “Keep on beholding, though! Because thanks to all the letters we’ve written this year, when it comes to getting epistolary, I am basically motherfluffin’ Alexander Hamilton.” Written as a series of letters between two teens separated by an ocean and their experimentally mutated bodies, this novel sings with unique and idiomatic dialogue. It’s a multitextural layering of slang, technical language – “hazmat”, “womble”, “emolocation”, different languages – the German Motitz interlaces his letters with references to “Gutschein”s and “Bibliothek”s, and zingy metaphor – driving through car smog is like “bathing in a bowl of chunky oatmeal”. This one will stretch your vocabulary and leave you eager to find the words for your own world.
Ages 14+ | Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens | February 7, 2017 | ISBN-13: 978-1681191782
Written by Jeff Giles
“Men had looked at her like this ever since she was 12. When she first talked to her mother about it, her mom had said, ‘Zoe, sit down for a second. It’s time I taught you the meaning of the phrase “horrible lowlife perv”.’ Zoe had always loved her for that.” This exchange between the teenaged Zoe and her mother in The Edge of Everything is one reason why I love the dialogue in this book. It is a teen supernatural romance. It contains social media and technology references. For that reason, experience tells me there ought to be terrible and unimaginative dialogue. Refreshingly, however, Giles keeps it real. Her character’s speak to each like people with brains and personalities as well as phones and wallets. Love it.
Ages 14+ | Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens | January 31, 2017 | ISBN-13: 978-1619637535
Written by Donna Hosie
“This is not a battle, Alfarin, son of Hlif, son for Dobin … This is five ugly brutes against five even uglier ones. And my name is Elinor Powell, so ye can stop calling me woman right this instant … Ye slap my rump and I will play marbles with yer balls.” So begins the courtship of Elinor Powell by Prince Alfarin, two devils in Hell. The best part about the dialogue in the third book of the TeamDEVIL series is that it mixes anachronisms and cultural identities from so many different cultures and eras to explore the humor and complexity of identity. Enjoy the oddity of a medieval Viking attempting to establish a gendered relationship with a young woman who died in the Great Fire of London and another from 1970s San Franscisco, revealing all of the many ways in which language and dialogue unite rather than divide human beings.
Ages 14+ | Publisher: Holiday House | 2016 | ISBN-13: 978-0823436507
Three Young Adult Books That Sing with Originality is article one in the Worrisome Words column by Dr. Jen Harrison. For more articles like this one, follow along with our reviews and articles tagged with Worrisome Words and Young Adult Fiction.