Notes From a Children's Librarian: Descriptive Language

Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.

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These beautiful books exemplify descriptive language for Grades 1–6.

Once Upon a Northern Night, by Jean E. Pendziwol, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, is the perfect mentor text for descriptive language. While a little boy sleeps, a snowy night scene is painted for both the boy and the reader.

“Once upon a northern night/pine trees held out prickly hands/to catch the falling flakes/that gathered into puffs of creamy white,/settling like balls of cotton,/waiting.” Check out Pendziwol’s description of deer: “They nuzzled the sleeping garden/with memories of summer.” And “... a great gray owl gazed down/with his great yellow eyes/on the milky-white bowl of your yard.” There are also some beautiful examples of alliteration.

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Another go-to text for vivid language, When the Moon Comes, by Paul Harbridge, illustrated by Matt James, captures a nighttime hockey game in the woods.

“End to end and around we fly, the long black stripes of our shadows moving across the moonlit ice.” James’ lush, indigo pictures match the intensity of the language. Along with alliteration, figurative language abounds. There are similes: “Our wet pants freeze solid in the cold, and we walk clanking like knights in armour, lances over our shoulders, hoods like helmets around our faces.” And personification: “... the face of the sky is freckled with stars.” 

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The evocative language in Sky Sisters, by Jan Bourdeau Waboose, illustrated by Brian Deines, elicits all senses. Waboose captures the wind, the darkness and the cold as two sisters climb a mountain of snow to see the Northern Lights.

Each sentence lays down one more step toward the climactic sky alive with colour; for example, “Sister’s hair falls free from her hat and swirls about her face. Her purple scarf twists and turns behind her. She leans into the wind and stretches her arms out to me.” Try reading this one aloud, with the illustrations hidden; the words will conjure the imagination. The occasional simile also appears: “Her words are as soft and light as the snowflakes.”

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Sun Dog, by Deborah Kerbel, illustrated by Suzanne Del Rizzo, is the story of Juno, a sled dog pup who longs to be big.

Rich language is evident throughout: “The sun looks like a yellow ball bouncing low over the mountains. The sand-coloured sky is like a wide-open beach. The air is as soft as a whisper.” The similes continue:  “It’s strange to be outside without her boy. [Juno] feels like an iceberg adrift on a giant sea ... Her heart pounds like a stampede.” The dog ends up protecting the boy from a polar bear: “An army of fur and fangs rally around Juno. A storm of barking shatters the midnight sun.”

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Virginia Wolf, by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, is about a girl coaxing her sister out of the doldrums.

“I painted trees and strange candy blossoms and green shoots and frosted cakes. I painted leaves that said hush in the wind and fruit that squeaked, and slowly I created a place called Bloomsbury. I made it look just the way it sounded.” For the savvy older reader, the story itself is a metaphor for transformation with the sister trying to tame her sibling’s inner wolf: “The whole house sank. Up became down. Bright became dim. Glad became doom.”

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Book Cover Henry Holton

For the younger crowd, Henry Holton Takes the Ice, by Sandra Bradley, illustrated by Sara Palcios, features Henry, an avid skater, who discovers he’s more figure skater than hockey player.

Alliteration is scattered throughout, in the description of skating skills: “He swished, swooshed, and swaggered.” And when Henry first sees figure skaters: “The skaters below were like kites—brightly coloured kites, swirling and twirling in the wind.” Grandma has her own way of describing her hockey career: “... I finally picked up the lumber and landed the biscuit in the five-hole with a mighty slap shot.” (A glossary at the back explains Grandma’s phrases.)

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Yuck, a Love Story, by Don Gillmor, illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay, has a simplicity in the language that appeals to younger grades. “The moon was as round as a plum.” “Her birthday dress was red and it shimmered slightly when she walked.”

Gillmor provides just enough description to build character and tell the story: “She had curly blonde hair and freckles on her nose. Her shoes had small bows on them.”

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The Quiet Book, by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Canadian Renata Liwska, is useful for student writers in that each page depicts a different kind of quiet. For example: “Lollipop quiet/ Best friends don’t need to talk quiet.” This one’s a great lesson in how an idea can be described in a multitude of ways.

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On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press.

January 16, 2020
Books mentioned in this post
Once Upon a Northern Night

Once Upon a Northern Night

edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover
More Info
SkySisters

SkySisters

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
More Info
The Quiet Book

The Quiet Book

Illustrated by Renata Liwska
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
More Info
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