Lost in Translation: Should Non-standard English be Used in Children’s Books? By Carol Higgins-Lawrence
Like all writers, I delight in language and love to play with it! The world's languages are rich and colorful. Language enables us to express our thoughts, feelings, and unique identities.
I have strong and proud Jamaican roots. One of my fondest childhood memories is sitting around our dining room table surrounded by my aunties and uncles listening to them speak and tell stories in patwa (Jamaican talk!). Patwa (patois) is an English-based Creole language with West African influences. Like many other languages in the Caribbean, it is an oral language that uses non-standard English forms when spoken and written.
Over the years I’ve written stories that feature characters with diverse voices. One of the keys to authenticity in any story is creating authentic voices. It can be tricky to use non-standard English especially in picture books. As is the case with patwa, there is no standard written form. Often times editors and publishers may be concerned with readability, and whether or not readers outside of the feature language group will understand the story.
An editor once commented on one of my manuscripts. She feared that the non-standard English text would misteach young children. I disagree. Literacy isn’t simply knowing how to read or spell a word. It includes those skills, but also a greater world of ideas, imagination, and comprehension of cultural mores.
I’ve realized that there is a delicate balance between maintaining an authentic voice while ensuring the story is readable and accessible. I’ve worked hard to incorporate different varieties of language in manuscripts. It’s not an easy task, but it is well worth the effort when a child proudly recognizes themselves, or their family and community in a book.
Here is a board book that does the job successfully. Check out Tickle Tickle by Dakari Hru (Author) and Ken Wilson-Max (Illustrator).
Carol Higgins-Lawrence wrote her first story at the age of five. Her father paid her a quarter for it and she's been writing ever since. She's taken a variety of courses in writing for children. Multicultural perspectives are of particular interest to her. Carol is of Jamaican descent and was born and raised in Canada. She has a BA in Communications and Sociology and she has completed coursework towards a MA in TESOL. She has worked as a literacy educator for the past 15 years. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two young children. You can visit her website at carolhl.weebly.com
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