I have to confess that one of the problems I have as a reader is that I’m a writer. I tend to approach every new book as if it were a manuscript I’m supposed to critique. As a result, it often takes me longer to get into a story because instead of getting lost in the action, I start to mentally edit words and phrases.
This issue occurred again recently when I read Christopher Paul Curtis’ Elijah of Buxton. It is the fictional story of the first free-born child in a Canadian village inhabited by slaves who had escaped from America.
I’ve enjoyed Curtis’ work before particularly Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons go to Birmingham. I looked forward to being propelled into the 19th century. I didn’t get propelled at all. Instead, I had to squeeze through that literary wall called dialect.
Using dialect in your stories is a tricky thing. You want to use enough so that the reader gets a sense of the period, or the character, or the part of the world in which the story takes place. Too little dialect provides no help. Too much dialect becomes a distraction—especially for the child reader. Some writers prefer not to use dialect at all and instead work more strongly on setting and characterization.
Veda Boyd Jones, in a June 2005 article for The Children’s Writer entitled “Cut the Chit Chat” said, “Don’t use dialect, which makes reading hard for kids. Don’t even drop those final g’s. For instance: Jackson said in his slow southern drawl, ‘Ah’m goin’ fishin’ with him.’ That is much harder to read than ‘I’m going fishing with him.’ You can use colloquialisms in speech patterns to show how a character speaks. If Jackson hails from Texas, he’d say ‘I’m fixing to go fishing with him.’”
But colloquialisms can cause problems, too. What if your reader doesn’t understand the words your character uses? While I read Elijah of Buxton I spent so much time wondering if kids knew what certain words meant, that I got taken out of the story:
Pa said, “Hold up, Zeph, they were supposed to be up in Chatham, that means they gunn come from the north. ‘Sides you shouldn’t be out there without no gun, someone with a firearm should go with you.”
“…but hearing ‘em singing all by theirselves like that, they might as well’ve been haints or ghosts singing.”
“…I’m-a-need you not to rile her and n’em girls up none by crying and carrying on…”
An adult will have no problems with these words but I’m not sure the same will be true for kids. I believe they’ll lose momentum as they try to figure out why ‘gun’ is sometimes spelled with one ‘n’ and sometimes spelled with two. An then, when the young readers figure out that “they gunn” is the expression for “they’re going to” they will have been taken out of the action long enough to have to re-read sections. How long will they be willing to do so before they give up?
Elijah of Buxton is a terrific story and Curtis covers a subject not usually presented in children’s literature. The text I read was called a Literature Circle Edition because it included discussion questions at the end of the book. I wish Curtis—or his editor—would have included a glossary as well. It might have helped some children navigate through words like “haint” for “haunt” and other unfamiliar terms and spellings.
If you decide to use dialect or colloquialisms, be spare. Try to find other ways to bring your reader into your character’s life. Use setting. Describe clothing, buildings, vehicles or furniture. Sometimes characterization will contribute. A person living in the 1700s will act differently than a person living in the 1900s. If you must use dialect, be sure the context provides clues. Keep your reader comfortably in the action.