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How to Write Like a Professional
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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Word Choice in Picture Books, part 1

Sometimes as children's writers we wonder if there are word lists out there for us to use. Schools do have word lists for each grade level, but I don't think a children's writer necessarily needs to utilize them. YA novels have a fairly well-established audience that knows how to use context clues, and how and when to use a dictionary. Actually, the same goes for middle-grade novels.

Word Choice in Picture Books || reading lists | vocabulary for children | word lists | how to write for children | vocabulary in picture books

With chapter books, I would try to create as many context clues as possible, and don't use words that a child wouldn't typically know until the 6th grade, since most readers of chapter books are 7-10 years old (2nd through 4th grade). Now, if you write easy reader books, then definitely get yourself some word lists for 5-8 year olds.

But picture books? It's another whole ball game. Specifically the 4-8 year old "classic" picture book. Since picture books have several things working FOR them, word choice (in one aspect) doesn't have to be so specific to the age. Picture books are meant to be read aloud. Picture books have pictures to help act as context clues. Picture books to teach context clues is a common technique teachers use to teach older children how to write.

Since an adult is usually the one reading the story, if a child doesn't understand a word, then the adult can explain it. So long as the general story is understood, if a child doesn't understand a word or two, it will probably not be detrimental.

How to Analyze a Picture Book with a Story Board

Here is a list of SEVERAL examples of words in picture books of which a child may or may not know the meaning. Some will, of course. Older children will, of course, know more words than a 6-year-old. Concrete nouns that a child wouldn't know can always be illustrated. You may find some homonyms in the lists below. The meanings of the words are the ones that a child may not understand, such as 'bear' being used as a verb.

Brave Little Pete of Geranium Street by Rose and Samuel Lagercrantz, adapted from the Swedish by Jack Prelutsky
  • hoisted
  • thump
  • herring
  • stumble
  • ignoring
Scaredy Mouse by Alan MacDonald
  • floorboards
  • scrambled
  • heaved
  • trailing
  • gleaming
  • tracks
  • nervously
  • narrowed
Father Sea by Clayton Creek
  • journey
  • weathered
  • examines
  • precious
  • fragments
  • restored
  • encourage
  • honor
A Net of Stars by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
  • midway
  • brave
  • rungs
  • whirling
  • squinty
Sally Arnold by Cheryl Ryan
  • arranged
  • sampled
  • lively
  • empty-handed
  • hollow
  • ginseng
  • battered
  • gatherings
  • spying
  • embarrassed
Mirette on a Highwire by Emily Arnold McCully
  • boarding house
  • devoured
  • mimes
  • expert
  • vagabond
  • retired
  • disappointing
  • led
  • courage
  • flailed
  • managed
  • wavering
  • strict
  • sharply
  • nerves
  • hesitated
  • mounting
  • hemp
  • winch
  • securing
  • commotion
  • hubbub
  • saluted
  • intense
  • agent
The Plot Chickens by Mary Jane and Herm Auch
  • ecstasy (spelled eggstasy in the book)
  • exhilarating (spelled eggsilarating in the book)
  • impressed
  • develop
  • plunged
  • qualified
  • rejection
  • devastated
  • brood
  • review
  • odoriferous
  • perils
  • dramatic
  • expression

How to Analyze a Picture Book with a Story Board

When Lightning Comes in a Jar by Patricia Polacco
  • reunion
  • gazillions
  • piled out
  • chimed in
  • perked
  • embarrassing
  • certainly
  • croquet
  • fetched
  • circuit
  • summon
  • flicker
  • horizon
  • contraption
  • hurtled
  • skidded
  • spewing
  • adjusted
  • cupping
  • rumbled
  • dash
  • scrawl
  • doorjamb
  • fleeting
The Wind Garden by Angela McAllister
  • sprouted
  • seedlings
  • wicked
  • proudly
  • flutter
  • rustle
  • shimmering
  • whirligigs
Tiny Tortillaby Arlene Williams
  • plaza
  • saguaro
  • masa
  • glazed
  • patiently
  • fluttered
  • muttered
  • sombrero
  • billowy
  • swirling
  • ledge
  • clutching
  • bristly
Clever Beatrice and the Best Little Pony by Margaret Willey
  • clever
  • streaked
  • flecked
  • burrs
  • thistles
  • expert
  • kneading
  • mound
  • scoffed
  • mare
  • crockery
  • foolish
  • dozens
  • protested
  • lumberjacks
  • scuffling
  • slightest
Baron von Baddie and the Ice Ray Incident by George McClements
  • genius
  • incident
  • foiled
  • nemesis
  • invention
  • unthinkable
  • stunning
  • revelation
  • chaos
  • sprang
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
  • rustle
  • insisted
  • conductor
  • wilderness
  • barren
  • pressed
  • pranced
  • paced
  • harness
  • struck
  • approval
  • cracked
  • cupped
  • outstretched
  • nougat
  • flickered
Welcome to the Ice House by Jane Yolen
  • illuminate
  • snowscape
  • lemmings
  • runnels
  • stalks
  • unpredictable
  • beyond
  • ptarmigans
  • arc
  • streamlined
  • dense
  • immense
  • strutting
  • defense
  • gyrfalcon
  • swarms
  • lupine
  • tundra
  • grubbing
  • voles
  • loons
  • pole
  • lingers
Welcome to the Greenhouse by Jane Yolen
  • lianas
  • bar
  • rootlets
  • fungal
  • canopy
  • slots
  • capuchin
  • flash
  • lunge
  • plunge
  • crimson
  • showy
  • troop
  • droning
  • tamarin
  • intruders
  • chorusing
  • fluttering
  • kinkajous
  • ocelot
  • swarm

And the DADDY of them all... There were some words that I didn't even know in this book. And of course, it's by the master, Jane Yolen. She also used a lot of made up words in this book. The first 8 words listed are in the FIRST sentence!

Where Have the Unicorns Gone? by Jane Yolen
  1. haven
  2. bowers
  3. dapple-down
  4. dimity
  5. dells
  6. golding
  7. glades
  8. shift
  • nightingale
  • tumbles
  • drifts
  • routed
  • gouts
  • knights
  • galloped
  • towering
  • gouged
  • iron-plowed
  • grazed-over
  • wade
  • clacketing
  • mills
  • catacombed
  • chuggering
  • cataphonetics
  • rambling
  • noxious
  • smog
  • wee
  • wisplets
  • scapes
  • fume
  • odor
  • spillage
  • gloom
  • bounded
  • contrails
  • swift
  • streak
  • beyond
  • moment
  • dawn
  • exert
  • cast
  • instant
  • mane
  • mare
  • wavery
  • eden

How to Analyze a Picture Book with a Story Board

Okay. That's it. WOW!!! Lots and lots of words, words, words. So let's expand children's minds and introduce new words in our books, but only if they fit in the story.

Word Choice in Picture Books, part 2 offers two more tips in choosing the right words when you write. Don't worry; it's a short post!

Happy writing and keep on keepin' on!


  1. Indeed, that is a lot of words!
    May I quote your blog in a presentation that I am giving in August about picture books?
    Thanks so much,
    Kari-Lynn Winters

  2. Sure! Maybe you'll win me a few followers?! I'm interested in your presentation, too. What's it about, specifically? Who are you presenting to and what for? How did you find my blog? Would love for you to be a follower, as well! Thanks for the comment, and thanks for asking for permission. Good luck!

  3. I am glad you have proved that picture book are great for vocabulary. Too often kids I know are rushing into those mind-numbing chapter books that don't have rich language.

    Pragmatic Mom
    Type A Parenting for the Modern World

  4. Well, thank you. I think rich language is one reason I love picture books so much.

  5. Wow that must have taken a long time, good on you.

  6. Thanks Christie for a comprehensive vocabulary list and a look at how words and vocabulary is used in writing for children.


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