Saturday, October 13, 2007

Aah! The Power of Words: Wordgatherers in Children's Books

Donavan’s Word Jar
By Monalisa DeGross
Illustrated by Cheryl Hanna
Trophy, 1998

One of my favorite stories that I read with my students every year is Donavan’s Word Jar by Monalisa deGross. Donavan collects words, but he realizes that his word jar is too full. He doesn’t know what to do. He has a collection of wonderful words like bamboozle, emporium, kaleidoscope, persnickety, and cantankerous. He asks his grandmother for help. One day he finds that people from her retirement community have taken the words out of his jar and are using them for their own purposes. I love this book because Donavan learns that words have power, and in this case, the power to help. It also is a celebration of words that sound really awesome. Kids love words that have unique ring to them, and Donavan picks out those kinds of words for his collection.
One of my favorite things about this story is that is always helped me lead the way to our own word collections. We always do a Writer’s Notebook entry called “Favorite Words too Fabulous to Forget” where students collect words from themselves and family and friends and write them down. Then we keep a running list of our favorite words. The word “snickerdoodle” makes it onto the list every year. I’ll admit, it is a cool word.
This year, I found two other books that are along the same theme. In fact, it’s uncanny how similar they are to Donavan’s Word Jar. But they each have their own unique qualities.

Max’s Words
By Kate Banks
Illustrated by Boris Kulikov
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006

Max’s Words by Kate Banks is about a boy named Max who has brothers who have collections of their own, but they won’t share with Max. He decides to collect words. His word collection is not made up of unusual words like Donavan’s though. Max is a younger character who collects common words. My favorite part of this book is the celebration that a word collector doesn’t just have separate words. Max realizes that his brother that collects coins just has a bunch of coins; his brother that collects stamps just has a bunch of stamps. Max, on the other hand, doesn’t just have words. When he puts them together, he can create a story—and the story can change depending on how you arrange the words. This is an excellent celebration of writers who love to collect words.
The Boy Who Loved Words
By Roni Schotter
Illustrated by Giselle Potter
Schwartz & Wade, 2006.

My most recent find is The Boy Who Loved Words by Roni Schotter. This book would even appeal to the older audience because of the use of so many large vocabulary words that might intrigue older readers. Selig, the main character, loves to collect words. In fact, others think he is an “oddball” because of it. One night he dreams of a genie who tells him that his word collection needs to have a purpose. He too, learns to share his words and even spreads them out in a word tree, which is stumbled upon by a poet who needed just the right word. The author suggests that Selig might have legendary power. If you are looking for just the right word and you find it, it might be Selig offering it to you.
This books also includes a glossary of all of the large words and their definitions used throughout the story. And there are lots of big, unusual words in the story. I must confess, I had to look a few of them up myself.
I would recommend all three books. All three of them do a wonderful job of acknowledging the power and the breadth of words in our language.
Donavan’s Word Jar is a short chapter book. Max’s Words is a picture book that is simple enough to be enjoyed by children as young as four, but appreciated by a much older audience as well. The Boy Who Loved Words is a picture books, but would appeal mainly to children 8 and older.

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