by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
When I was a kid, it was definitely not okay to say the word “suck” out loud or in any kind of writing for school (or at home for that matter). It was considered a curse word, one letter away from the really bad one.
These days, I see the word “suck” used freely in school; in books that librarians and teachers and parents recommend and feature on library shelves; and on authors’ and educators’ public social media.
When I hear someone say “verse” as opposed to “versus”—as in Brown “verse” Board of Education or New England Patriots “verse” the New York Giants—I wonder if a similar acceptability shift happened? Even though it sounds like nails on a chalkboard* to me, is it now considered okay to say “verse” instead of “versus”?
(*An old-fashioned whiteboard.)
I still don’t use the word “suck” in writing, and I will always correct you if you say “verse” vs. “versus.” (Copyright © Spauln/Getty Images)
I consider myself a big thinker. My day job as President and Reader in Chief of Scholastic Book Clubs is to work with lots of smart and talented people at Scholastic to develop strategies for getting 800,000 classroom teachers across the country and their students connected to brand-new and favorite books. We want to help inspire all kids to see themselves as readers.
But I also sweat the small stuff, particularly when it comes to word usage and grammar.
I was born what we would now call a “word person.” (In addition to not using the word “suck” in school, we didn’t really have “word persons” back in the day. We didn’t refer to someone as a “people person” or a “cat person” or an “instant-coffee person.” You just liked people, or cats, or Sanka—or you did not.)
I didn’t have many hobbies, but I read and loved words and word games and puzzles and quiz shows.
I used my precious TV allowance to watch word-based game shows such as College Bowl…
Nice upset by the women of Agnes Scott College versus the men of Princeton. (In the video, note the lack of traffic on Atlanta streets and the shameful lack of diversity in the contestants and the audience.) (© GE College Bowl)
Password was a less-challenging word game (since we, the audience, saw the answer). In this episode, it is fun to see a young and ever-perky Betty White (left). (Copyright © CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
I started playing Scrabble as a kid on a flat playing board. It was exciting when the turntable was introduced so you could rotate the board and see the letters right-side up no matter where you were sitting. I got one for my 11th birthday.
Talk about a word guy! According to Scrabble’s official Hasbro website, “There were many victims of America’s Great Depression in 1929. But in 1933, an out-of-work architect named Alfred Mosher Butts invented a game that would lift the spirits of millions. Legend has it Butts studied the front page of the New York Times to make his calculations for the letter distribution in the game. This skilled, cryptographic analysis of our language formed the basis of the original tile distribution, which has remained constant through almost three generations and billions of games.” (Copyright © Milton Bradley)
With my babysitting money, I bought stacks of Dell crossword puzzle and word-search books.
Years later, when I first came to New York, it was a special thrill to be employed by Dell Publishing’s then Director of Publicity, Isabel Geffner (working just one floor away from the staff who created and marketed my beloved Dell crossword puzzles!).
In addition to hiring me to work so close to the “puzzle people,” Isabel sharpened my writing. She edited our work (press releases and The Dell Dateline, which was my job to write every week) and insisted on excellent copyediting and grammar.
Forty years after she first explained to me when to use “between” versus “among,” it is a real thrill to report that Isabel, who is now the Advancement Director of Book Harvest, and I are reconnected and working on an incredible early childhood literacy partnership project.
It was my job to write The Dell Dateline every week with impeccable grammar. Thanks to my trusty resources—The Elements of Style, The Chicago Manual of Style, a dictionary, and a thesaurus—I got the job done!
Now, three decades later, Scholastic Book Clubs staff who work with me today can confirm that Isabel’s tutoring stuck. I push everyone to follow Isabel’s rules, such as:
1. “Over” means height; “more than” means quantity.
2. “Between” is for two; “among” is for more than two.
3. Use “such as” instead of “like.”
It is a wonderful thrill to be working with Isabel, now Advancement Director at Book Harvest, again after all these years.
Later, I graduated to the New York Times crossword puzzle, which I still depend on solving to feel as if I’ve had a successful day.
Recently, the New York Times created a special puzzle supplement. It features a jumbo crossword puzzle (which I am saving for a lazy day when I have access to a big table) and a clever “photo crime” puzzle created by Marvin Miller called “The Deadly Mystery.” Marvin, a great friend of all of us at Scholastic, is the author of numerous books for kids, such as the Codemaster and You Be the Jury series, and a passionate fellow puzzler and word person. Please check it out.
Marvin created the special puzzle “The Deadly Mystery” for the New York Times, which was published on December 16, 2018.
I looked forward to our Friday spelling bees at the John Ward School and being on a class debate team at Weeks Junior High School in Newton, Massachusetts, where I grew up.
(On the debate team, I had to defend eminent domain. At the time, I was outraged both by the concept of eminent domain and by the fact that I had to defend something I didn’t think I believed in. In any event, I learned a whole new set of words to support my reluctant argument: appropriate, just compensation, inverse condemnation.)
All these childhood experiences were language-rich for me, featuring deep fountains of words. They enhanced the vocabulary I had been absorbing since birth, all day long at home and at each meal; during story time and bedtime; and from the books and magazines and music in our home. Those experiences—coupled with being surrounded by my immediate and extended family and family friends, all of whom used extensive vocabularies to communicate with me and each other—meant I had a word-rich childhood.
We know that reading to kids and exposing them to as many words as possible early in life helps boost their academic success. As publishers and writers and educators and parents, we have to work together to build all children’s vocabulary—regardless of socioeconomic status—so they can better make sense of the world they live in, express their feelings, and make their ideas understood.
This past summer at the ILA Conference in Austin, Texas, I—along with 20 teachers—attended a wonderful, word-filled dinner celebrating Peter Reynolds and his new book, The Word Collector.
Near the end of the dinner, Peter asked all of us seated around the long dinner table to each write our favorite word on a placard and share it with the group. That night, the word I chose to share was “collaborate.” To me, that’s what we—publishers and authors and educators—are all doing every day: collaborating to help all children find books to read and connect with. To discover books they see themselves reflected in. To embrace books that open new worlds. The single-minded goal of our collaboration is to have all children see themselves as readers.
Peter Reynolds attended the ILA Conference in Austin, Texas, where he introduced several teachers to his new book, The Word Collector (left). A word-filled dinner party (right).
Peter dedicated The Word Collector to Dick Robinson, Scholastic’s Chairman, President, and CEO—and the son of Scholastic’s founder, Robbie Robinson. Dick has inspired all of us who work at Scholastic to dedicate ourselves to partnering with teachers and educators and book creators and publishers to make sure all children have access to great books so they can learn to love to read and make sense of the world they live in.
We thought it was particularly fitting to launch 2019 with Peter Reynolds’s The Word Collector as our featured Dollar Deal title.
“Reynolds elegantly and with almost ironic brevity demonstrates the entrancing meanings and sounds and textures of English words together…to capture the beauty of words and the wonder of sharing them with others.” —Kirkus Reviews
As we head toward Scholastic’s 100th anniversary in 2020, we want to make sure as many children as possible have access to The Word Collector. It is a rare and timeless and accessible picture book that has universal appeal to kids—and future “word persons”—of all ages.
As you know, at Scholastic Book Clubs we create book-order flyers, which feature The Word Collector along with hundreds of other books for all ages. I asked David Vozar, who is in charge of creating these flyers, what his favorite words are. Here’s his answer:
“One of the advantages of working with the same people for many years is that you develop your own shorthand vocabulary to communicate. When we all work together on the student flyers, we have our own words to describe problems we may find with the initial first drafts of the pages.
“Here are some of my favorite words.”
(I know the creative team all tried to make David proud and put all the puppies together with just enough bounce to not be too manic but definitely not boring and pastoral!)
The team at the Scholastic Book Clubs blog also put together some engaging material to help teachers, parents, and kids get the most out of The Word Collector.
The Book Boys share some of their favorite words; your class can work together to win an ultra-special reading-corner makeover by entering The Word Collector Classroom Contest; in Book Talks, a teacher shares how she uses The Word Collector in the classroom to help her students discover their own special words; and Peter Reynolds joins us for an exclusive interview in Behind the Scenes. We love The Word Collector so much that we decided to talk about it in Story Monsters Ink as well. Please check it out!
I hope you and your students read, share, love, and re-read The Word Collector; help spread Peter Reynolds’s message; and, like Jerome from the story, embrace the power of having your own ever-growing collection of rich and wonderful words.
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs