How I Learned Geography

Author and Illustrator Uri Shulevitz

Big Words:

devastated
crumbled
empty-handed
dung
steppes
surrounded
scarce
bazaar
approached
announced
triumphantly
apologetically
bitterly
furious
meager
enthusiasm
morsel
envied
cheerless
flooded
fascinated
exotic
savored
incantation
transported
wondrous
enchanted

How I Learned Geography is an autobiographical story. It holds lessons for every age: forgiveness, resilience, and the power of imagination. It transports readers and listeners to another time with new places and cultures. It gives parents a vehicle for gently introducing the concepts of poverty and war.

The Caldecott Honorawardees don’t always have rich vocabulary, but this one has deep words to accompany the deep themes it conveys. Buy this one. Read it to your babies, read it again when they’re elementary-aged, then again when they reach pre-teen, and again to your teens. There are layers upon layers to learn from this incredible and challenging book.

The Library

Author Sarah Stewart
Illustrator David Small

Big Words:
nearsighted            incredible
adrift                          olympiad
manufactured
preferred
promptly
goddesses
attending
volumes
parlor
ripe

This sweet biography tells the story of Elizabeth Brown, who is a role model for all book lovers. Her story is told in flowing rhyme and expressive illustrations, making it a pleasure to read aloud. The simple watercolors are framed by informative line drawings and filled with surprises and supplementary characters, some so subtle you might miss them on your first read. But on subsequent readings, their antics will have everyone laughing and looking more closely.

‘The Library’ serves multiple purposes in a family library: sharing the biography of a real-life philanthropist, celebrating a deep love of books and reading, applauding differences seen as ‘nerdy’ in some circles, inspiring smiles and giggles, recognizing the value in repeated readings, and filling little ears with words to grow broad vocabularies. This is one to own and share regularly.

Big Words for Little People

Author Jamie Lee Curtis
Illustrator Jamie Lee Curtis

Big words:

privacy
impossible
stupendous
superb
celebrate
consequence
irate
cooperate
appropriate
inappropriate
patience
disgusting
green-snotted
understand
inconsiderate
considerate
responsible
persevere
intelligence

Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell have created several fun, purposeful books. Their creations empower families by tackling the real challenges of being and raising small children. Humor and sincerity are balanced perfectly, making them useful tools in every parent’s toolbox.

The title brought this one to the forefront, of course. Big Words for Little People could almost be the title of this website. The book checks all the boxes: Funny, engaging, enriching illustrations that add layers of meaning and beg to be examined; novelty portrayed through the illustrations of families in familiar, but subtly intriguing situations; and rich vocabulary used in meaningful and memorable settings. The only reason this might not make your permanent bookshelf is the stilted rhyme scheme. Read-alouders may struggle to find rhythm never found by the author. Check it out at the library and try for yourself. We found amusement and talking points in the Yoda-esque reaches for rhyme. (e.g. “you persevere till the right piece you find.”)

Curtis and Cornell give parents a couple of bonuses in this fun book: extra big words in the dedication and cover flap texts, and validation of some hard-fought parenting values. The text tells kids, “Many things are too old for you that lots of your friends may still get to do.” and “Different is never something to hate.” Family, Respect, and Love are defined and celebrated beautifully, and the artists leave kids with a challenge to go ‘have some really great fun’ with their own big words! It’s invaluable to find books to give us additional opportunities to communicate these parenting universals.

Crow Boy

Author and Illustrator Taro Yashima
Published by Puffin Books

Big words:
tiny
forlorn
amuse
“kill time”
interesting
trudging
imitate
hatched
arriving

Caldecott Medal and Honor books are recognized by the American Library Association as “the most distinguished American picture books for children”. The new winners are often apparent at bookstores and libraries, but the old ones are worth seeking out for timeless vocabulary and read-aloud joy. Crow Boy is a 1956 Caldecott Honor book that allows read-alouders to transport listeners to an unfamiliar culture where they learn the values of acceptance, observation, perseverance, industry, and kindness. Synonyms for words toddlers hear frequently are embedded and recasted and well defined within context.

Readers fall in love with Chibi and empathize with the abuse he receives from his oblivious classmates, who fail to see the talents Chibi is developing as he struggles to attend school every day.  We cheer as Chibi’s gifts are recognized and valued by his community, and we wonder how many Chibis we know in our own lives.  Wondering this aloud lets families share a bit of introspection and personalizes the story.

Parents do super-multi-tasking when sharing this glorious classic.  Bathing little ears in vocabulary, introducing an impoverished, agricultural lifestyle, and teaching universal values.  This is one to own and read repeatedly.

Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse

Torben Kuhlmann, Author and Illustrator
Published by NorthSouth Books, Inc.

My cheeks hurt from smiling through five readings of Lindbergh!  This is a gem!

A loveable little mouse demonstrates innovation, invention, and overcoming failure through persistence using the engineering design process! He struggles, evades predators, and then succeeds in flying across the Atlantic. I enjoyed the suspenseful, hopeful, funny build up to the joyful conclusion, and read-alouders and their attentive kids over 3 will love it, too.

Parents looking for a quick bedtime story may recoil at the thickness of this picture book. But half of the pages are double page spreads filled with enchanting, enriching illustrations! Don’t shy away from Lindbergh! It’s worth owning and enjoying for years.

As a bonus, a short history of aviation is included at the end.  These mini-biographies add to the wonder of this fictional tale by introducing the real inventors of flight.

This book layers on big and bigger words for everyone: toddlers to adults:

inquisitive
curious
remarkable
swarmed
haunts
abundant
contraptions
nightmarish
exiling
rapid
feisty
mighty
countless
fortresses
ventures
ghostly
monstrosities
bellowing
alarming
components
housings
tinkered
amid
rotating
altitude
plumes
courageous
impressive
cogwheels
unleashed
aviator
determined
silhouettes
mysterious
glaring
refined
mere
chugged
spectacular
masterpiece
despite
lurked
persecutors
predators
abandon
dozing
shrouded
solitary
colossal
tremendous
skyrocketing
wildfire
fascinated
gigantic

The Grudge Keeper

by Mara Rockliff
illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
Peachtree Publishers
Big words:
toupee
ramshackle
accusations

Really big words:
umbrage–offense or annoyance
imbroglio–extremely confused or embarrassing situation
dudgeon–a feeling of offense or deep resentment
pique– feeling of irritation or resentment resulting from a slight, esp. to one’s pride.

This book is a vocabulary-builder, moral-teacher, and smile-generator in one! Several examples of figurative language are thrown in, too: left-handed compliment, took offense, flung accusations, high dudgeon, pet peeve, bone to pick, get my goat, mad about you. College-level words fill the text, accompanied by recasting for several different terms.  The illustrations are complex and engaging and add depth to the text. The Grudge Keeper is one to add to your home library, as it will provide vocabulary layering options from preschool to college.

Teach your kids the value of releasing grudges in favor of kindness as you fill their ears and your own with exciting new words to help solve your next disagreement!

Ed & Fred Flea

by Pamela Duncan Edwards; Illustrated by Henry Cole; Scholastic printing

Big words:

content
selfish
measles
madly
flee
abandon
mayday
bound
hound
dusted
sobbed
Ed & Fred Flea is a hilarious and entertaining little book.  The flowing rhyme is easy to read and the pictures contribute meaning and humor.  Kids laugh at a grumpy voice for Bad Fred, the “Abandon Dog!” tick, the weasels lined up for medication administration, and the chicken’s spotted eggs.  Read-alouders enjoy the humor and the vocabulary plus an added bonus of a moral at the end: mean, selfish, dishonesty leads to misery.  Ed & Fred Flea is a must-read!

Bugs for Lunch

By Marjorie Facklam
Charlesbridge Publishing
Bugs For Lunch is a short poem designed to introduce kids to the many creatures who eat bugs and various strategies for catching these meals.  The twist at the end introduces the idea of entomophagy…people eating bugs.  Sylvia Longs illustrations are inviting and vibrant.

As a bonus, at the end, the author gives short interesting paragraphs on each featured feaster.  Bugs For Lunch is one of those fabulous books that can be a 5 minute read or a springboard for long, ponderous reading, talking, and thinking.

The rhyme and great pictures make this fun to read, and watching your child ponder the possibility of eating bugs on a stick is amusing.  Filling tiny ears with varied words for ‘catch’ and ‘eat’ is validating, and I always like to say ‘entomophagy’ just to take it a step further.

Presenting synonyms in conjunction with familiar words is called ‘recasting’.  It’s a strategy used by speech therapists and teachers.  Parents can use it as a tool for getting words in kids’ ears.  It can become a bit of a game, as you and your parenting partners search for new words for familiar ideas.

To recast: Say a word, then say it again, using a synonym.   “Big” can be “gigantic, huge, monstrous, tremendous, immense, colossal, enormous”.  When ‘big’ comes out of your mouth, tack ‘immense’ or ‘colossal’ for emphasis:

“That’s a big truck.  It’s immense!”

Another strategy is to recast your child’s words:

Kid: “Look at the big bug, Mom!”

Mom: “Oh my!  That bug is big!  It’s colossal!”

You could start with the SAT word, then recast:

“You have been a tremendous help to me.  You’ve made a big difference.”

Bugs For Lunch gives parents an easy way to recast the familiar concepts of ‘catch’ and ‘eat’.

Words for catch: work = prey = trapping = catching = zapping

Words for eat: Eating = snacking = munching = slurping

Stellaluna

By Janell Cannon
Publisher HMH Books for Young Readers

Stellaluna, by Jane Cannon, offers four words rarely used in casual conversation, many synonyms for ‘said’, and a heartwarming lesson on appreciating differences in friends.  Readers get to play with baby bird and bat voices, and stressful and playful situations can be emphasized through rate changes and pregnant pauses.  The rhythm and length of this story, followed by the moral at the end, make it a delightful tool for filling children’s ears with new words.   

Cannon could have inserted many strong vocabulary words in the text, but chose to include a scientific description of bats and their habits and diets in two concise but informative pages as a postscript.  This gives adults the flexibility to enjoy the book as a simple story, or use it as a powerful teaching tool.  Sometimes, you just want to read the story and get the kids in bed. Other times, it’s fun to peruse and ponder the factual clips. I appreciate authors who give me choices. The scientific description adds these meaty words to the mix: niche, preference, elongated, amphibian, species, domestic, native, implies, boasting, echolocation, keen, navigate, subtropical, forage, pollination, distribute, regeneration.  

As a read-alouder, I frequently choose to insert the more advanced words listed above at the appropriate time in the story.  Usually, I like to take every opportunity to expose kids to new words in fun contexts, so when the story says, “She stayed awake all day and slept at night.”  I recast and add, “She learned to be diurnal, like birds, instead of nocturnal, like bats.”  And I insert: “She (learned to be an insectivore and) ate bugs without making faces.”

Adding your own words, voices, and dramatic variation makes reading aloud challenging and fun!

big words:
crooned
anxious
clambered
peculiar


Opportunities for recasting with other big words:
diurnal
nocturnal
insectivore
frugivore

 

Fancy Nancy series

A friend introduced me to the “Fancy Nancy” series by Jane O’Connor.  The concept of the series is to expose kids to ‘fancy’ words, or bigger vocabulary words than you might hear in everyday life.  Fancy Nancy and I share that vision!

The Fancy Nancy books my friend gave me are level 1 readers.  I would have passed these over completely, assuming they were not worthy of review and incapable of much more than ‘Dick and Jane’.  I was so wrong.  These stories are sweet, funny, and beautifully-illustrated.  The stories are taken from real-life first grade.  They are written in first person, as the protagonist shares her experiences.  I love that Nancy uses big words, explains them to her readers, and looks for opportunities to use ‘fancy’ words throughout her days.

In ‘Fancy Nancy, The 100th Day of School’, Nancy struggles with the dilemma of finding an imaginative collection of 100 items to share with her class.  She tells the reader, “I have a dilemma. (That is a BIG problem.)”, then reuses ‘dilemma’ and ‘imaginative’ repeatedly in the 32-page story as she rejects many ‘not imaginative’ ideas.  Other vocabulary words in this little powerhouse book are: ‘elegant, fondly, huge, imaginative, slim, transparent, and verse’.  What great words to fill a small child’s ears, and each one has a build in defining aside: “The bank is transparent. (That means you can see inside.)”

As a bonus, the last page of each Fancy Nancy reader has a little glossary, listing and defining the ‘fancy’ words found in the story.  This provides an opportunity for pre-reading or review, adding an extra layer of exposure.

I must admit that I do cringe a little at great vocabulary words being labeled as ‘fancy’.  In the current political climate, ‘elitist’ is a derisive term commonly used to separate educated people from ‘regular folks’.   Education has become repugnant.

Research shows that vocabulary is the best indicator of future academic success.  The easiest way to democratize education is to create a society that celebrates rather than demonizes those with the courage to learn and use rich vocabularies.

Is ‘elitist’ a ‘fancy word’ for ‘fancy’?  If so, these books run the risk of alienating new readers more than educating them.

Parents need to decide for themselves.  Personally, I think I would read a few Fancy Nancy books and applaud Nancy’s use of big words.  It is important for kids to know that this vocabulary skill will not be appreciated by everyone.  These books provide an opening to discuss politics and ‘code switching’.