Sierra Weiner did her Undergraduate Degree at the University of British Columbia in a combination of fields that would lead many to sneer at the jobless prospects they seem to offer post-graduation: Literature, Linguistics, and Creative Writing. However, as chance would have it, those studies made her uniquely qualified for the position of Head Writer at Squiggle Park– a company that needs engaging content for kids with an ear for early language skills development. Serendipity is an eleven letter word.
If Squiggle Park’s goal is to get all kids reading (which it certainly is), and beyond that to get all kids to LOVE reading, then the content they offer has got to be something special. We sat down with Sierra to talk about what’s most important when writing for kids, and what she’s doing to help make the magic happen.
Q: So, what is most important when writing for kids?
A: Don’t talk down to them. This can seem like a tricky concept if you get too cerebral about what is appropriate for kids and what isn’t (especially if you are dealing with diverse groups of children), but I think it’s actually pretty intuitive if you allow it to be. I think we do kids a disservice by assuming too much that they won’t get the joke, or by dumbing down the level at which we interact with them. Most kids are happy to be recognized as kids, but they have a razor sharp sense of when they are being pandered to. Get in touch with the kid in you, and then write what you find funny, engaging or awe-inspiring– chances are that kids will love it too!
Q: What is the difference between writing for kids and writing for adults?
A: Less than one might initially think. I love using rich, colourful, and fun language no matter who I’m writing for. I am a proudly pro-silliness adult so I think that works into my “grown up” writing too. Kids can understand a lot of the same issues that are most compelling to adults, one just has to put those themes into situations that are legible to them. I would say, especially for young kids, that the main difference is attention span. Adults will sit through a lot of roundabout (bad) writing to see where it goes, whereas your average 6 year old has little time for leisure reading that is not pleasurable.
Q: What makes these stories and poems better for teaching kids to read than other children’s literature?
A: The stories and poems being created for Squiggle Park are enhanced reading tools in two ways:
1) Each story is created from a specific list of key words and graphemes that mirror the groups in which children naturally develop reading skills in English. The stories are crafted almost entirely out of this carefully selected content, giving kids a lot of practice in these skills while they read, and letting them build confidence to move onto new material.
2) Each story in our Mystical Magical Monster Book series (buy the books here) is directly aligned with the teacher-approved educational content of the worlds in the Squiggle Park games. So that means that when kids finish a world in the game, they’ll be able to practice using that knowledge for comprehension as they read the book that corresponds! I love this about the books because I think it is a great way to interweave on-screen with off-screen, and to bring play and playfulness to all aspects of learning to read.
Q: Does it really make a difference if kids connect with the content of what they are reading, as long as they learn how to do it?
A: Yes! Yes, yes, yes it so absolutely-positutely matters! Squiggle Park is a tool that helps a lot of kids who are struggling or reluctant readers. Some kids have a hard time learning to read because they never get to read things that interest them, or else because it feels more like a chore than a pleasure. Once that happens, a cycle begins in which reading difficulties become more pronounced as children age, causing them to feel ashamed and even less likely to want/be able to read things that engage them. As with any skill, the more we enjoy doing it, the more we will do it, and the better we get at it! In raising a life-long reader, it is crucial to introduce reading as something fun and imaginative, rather than something laborious and dull.
Q: What are some of you favourite works of writing for children? Who are your favourite children’s authors?
A: The classics are the classics for a reason. May I be struck down where I stand if I don’t pay huge homage and influence to Dr.Seuss, Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak, Robert Munsch and Roald Dahl. All of these authors have in common such a beautiful sense of whimsy, it is no question why they have been beloved by children for generations. Perhaps slightly lesser known loves of mine are Mr. Magnolia by Quentin Blake, and Strega Nona by Tomie DePaola.
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