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Shutta Crum wrote one of my all-time favorite Storystorm posts a few years ago about crafting an irresistible picture book opening. Her “four W” technique grounds the reader in time and place with the character, leaving just enough detail unanswered so one must turn the page to discover why. WHY????

When I learned Shutta the word whisperer released a new book celebrating words, I just knew she’d have lots of wonderful words to say about it.

Shutta, you know I’m a “wordie”—that’s a new word in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary this year and it means “a word lover”. Words bring Mouseling great comfort and belonging in this story. Which words foster those same feelings in you?

You ask a great question that I had to ponder quite a while. I mean, there are so many wonderful words that can engender feelings of comfort and belonging, like family and chocolate. So I thought about what I’ve lost and miss the most. And that would be my parents. They both died in 2008. Anyway, I bear my father’s nickname as my legal first name, Shutta. But he never called me that. He gave me a nickname, Shud. What I wouldn’t give to hear that word in his voice again! And thinking about my mother, I think of food. Specifically, biscuits and gravy, a Southern breakfast staple. It’s real comfort food, and makes me think of home and all the wonderful smells of Mom’s cooking.

So circling back to your childhood, did words give you comfort then? Were you an avid reader and writer even as a little girl?

Was I an avid reader?—hah! I read everything I could get my hands on, especially as we did not have many books in our home. I remember Mom telling me to put my books down and go outside and play. My siblings were real outdoor lovers and I think she thought I was a bit unusual. I also remember being proud when I could finish a book in a day. Sometimes I’d hide them in my textbooks at school as I read. Words were comforting, and amazing! Whole worlds were opened to me. As an avid reader I was also an avid day-dreamer. I’d play out scenes in my head all the time. I still do. It’s made me a very visual thinker and, I believe, a better writer.

A funny story: if I found a book, I’d pick it up and start reading it. One time, when I was in high school I found a rather salacious book at a bus stop. I opened it up in geometry class when we had a few extra moments to read and my teacher just about had a stroke. He came bounding over to me and ripped The Story of O out of my hands in an apoplectic manner yelling, “Where did you get this?” I’d only read the first page, or so, but my, oh my! However, most of my reading material was adventure, mystery and science fiction.

Why is learning tough (but fun) new vocabulary words important to young readers?

Humans have been communicating since the time we could only point and grunt. There is an instinctive desire to communicate—even with our first breath we communicate—we cry when we’re birthed. It means: Hey it’s cold out here! What’s happening to me? Where am I? And, This doesn’t feel right. Communicating is like breathing; it is part of our basic nature. And miscommunication can be disastrous. Deadly, even. So finding the right word or the right way to say something is important. When we build our vocabularies we have more skill at pinpointing exactly what we mean.

This is always important to writers! But for people who love words it goes beyond meaning to the music created by the sound of words, and even the way words sound in our mouths. We use all our senses to communicate.

In MOUSELING’S WORDS, Mouseling feels the whirr of “fur” in his throat when he says it. He sees the two round vowels that look like mouse tummies in the middle of the word “float.” He tastes the word “milk.” He smells “perfume.” And he hears the loud crinkling and crackling of the word he balled up to throw at the cat. I really wanted young readers to know that when we communicate we use our whole bodies—not just vocabulary words. But it’s also handy to have a large vocabulary to choose from. It’s like having lots of pairs of snazzy socks to wear. You wouldn’t want to wear the same old white ones every day. That’s the fun of words!

Obviously, you’re a “wordie” too. Any special hints for writers about word choice?

Well, I’ve just had an article published at the RYS site about wielding the right words and using the right journals that goes into this question in detail. I can sum it up by saying that when I think about word choice I think of words like people. Words have personalities, and like any person there is always more than what meets the eye. Words have emotional baggage, a cultural upbringing, physical sensibilities and an historical demeanor. Considering all of these factors is critical when writing for young readers. I only have so many words to play with—very few in the case of my picture books. Those words have to be weighed, analyzed and found to slot perfectly into its place.

I should also mention that I keep special “word” journals. I do not just journal generally. I note words I find, or phrases I love, from my reading. I keep an onomatopoeia journal and other specific journals. These help me keep the focus on word choice. The full article with examples from great writers can be found by going to this link at my blog.

Thanks, Tara, this has been fun…keep those lovely words coming!


Shutta Crum is the author of thirteen picture books, three novels, and numerous poems and articles. Her THUNDER-BOOMER! was an American Library Association and a Smithsonian Magazine “Notable Book” of the year. MINE! was listed by New York Times as “one of the best board books of the year.” Many of her books have made the Bank Street Best Books lists and have been short-listed for state awards. Her newest picture book MOUSELING’S WORDS is garnering glowing reviews. PW says: “…a tribute to the way books can unite even the unlikeliest of friends.” Booklist says, “This earnest and encouraging title fits on the shelf of books for book-lovers…” And Kirkus Reviews sums it up as, “Encouraging, lovely words.” For more, visit Shutta.com.

Shutta is giving away a picture book critique (less than 1000 words)—what an awesome opportunity! Just leave a comment below mentioning you want the crit (in other words, use your words).

A random winner will be selected at the end of the month.

Good luck!

7ate9
Winner of the 2018 Irma S. Black Award and the SCBWI Crystal Kite!
black kite

As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Early 2019

YOUR FIRST DAY OF (CIRCUS) SCHOOL
illus by Melissa Crowton
Tundra/PRH Canada
Summer 2019

THE UPPER CASE:
TROUBLE IN CAPITAL CITY
illus by Ross MacDonald
Disney*Hyperion
Fall 2019

FOUR WAYS TO TRAP A LEPRECHAUN
illus by Vivienne To
HarperCollins
Spring 2020

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