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I would like to write a children's story which is appealing to both children and adults. However, the world in which the story takes place requires the use of higher vocabulary and slang (it is a real world, for example, the petroleum industry). Most adults know the words, but children don't. Can I use footnotes to define or describe the word so that children can follow along as well?

Thanks.

  • 2
    The book is not about the oil industry; that is just an example. – writersam Nov 8 at 14:54
  • Can you specify what age of children is your target group? I personally believe that footnotes would be lost on children below the middle grade, but in middle grades I enjoyed having footnotes in historical (fairy)tales. – Alexander Nov 8 at 19:20
  • The main character is ten years old. So, I'm thinking the reading level is for 8-12-year-olds, or 3rd-7th grade depending on whether the child reads below or above their reading level. – writersam Nov 9 at 9:26
  • 3rd to 7th grade seems to be a rather wide range. Books which appeal to a third grader are unlikely to appeal to a seventh grader, at least in my experience as a third grader, a seventh grader, and the parent of third and seventh graders (at the same time). – Bob Jarvis Nov 10 at 22:13
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I don't think this is the right way to go about it.

I have to say I'm not a fan of explanatory footnotes in fiction, it's far too much of an immersion breaker. In fact I'd go so far as to say they are flat-out awful and should be avoided wherever possible. It's a mental load having to go down to the foot of the page, read something that necessarily breaks the flow of what you were just reading and then scan back up the page to where you were and try and pick up mid-flow.

It's jarring and unpleasant as an adult who is used to doing just that (I've read far too many scientific papers over the years not to have had lots of practice) - asking a child (who is likely to be a significantly less experienced reader than an adult) to do so, and to assimilate the new information at the same time feels like a great way to suck all the fun out of reading your story for them.

If you are finding that your primary intended audience don't know the words you are using frequently then you either need to find a better way to introduce what those words mean in the story itself or you need to find alternative words.

As for how to go about introducing the vocabulary of the "world" to the younger reader an audience surrogate can be extremely useful here. Have a character that is going to have a similar knowledge level of the world to the reader and have those "in the know" explain what these terms mean. The reader then learns alongside the surrogate character.

If you're trying to have the story appeal to both younger and more adult readers then you need to keep the accessibility of the story aimed at the younger end. Adults can easily skim quickly through the explanations of any terms they already know with minimal disruption to the experience.

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    even when reading the great Terry Pratchett's works I find his foot notes slightly exhausting despite their comedy – BKlassen Nov 8 at 16:07
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    @BKlassen Indeed.. Pratchett was obviously using them with a different purpose to the OP (has humorous asides rather than straight explanatory notes) and as you say even with that in mind and with a writer of considerable skill at the helm it didn't always work. – motosubatsu Nov 8 at 16:25
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    Thinking of fiction that uses footnotes well (e.g. Terry Pratchett, or Susanna Clarke in Strange & Norrell), they’re usually a very deliberate and explicit part of the style, that readers are intended to consciously notice and enjoy for their own sake. I can’t think of any cases where footnotes used as unobtrusive asides end up being effective. – PLL Nov 9 at 13:21
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    With Pratchett, the footnotes are all optional; they're asides, bonus gags, and other irrelevancies. You can read the main text, completely ignoring all the footnotes, and follow it all. Whereas the OP expects that younger readers will have to read the footnotes to understand the text — and as this answer says, that's likely to be asking too much of them. – gidds Nov 9 at 17:00
  • I disagree (see my answer). In fact the benefit of footnotes is that they don't disrupt the flow as much as other means of intercalating remarks. One can first finish the context in which the footnote appears, then read the footnote, then again read the main text over the footnote. Yes, that means some duplicate reading, but in IMO that's not bad. – leftaroundabout Nov 10 at 21:16
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You don’t say what age of children you want to address and I’m not sure whether your use of the young-adult tag indicates older children or if that is intended to cover your ’adult’ audience.

If you are talking about children who have a minimum 4-5 years of schooling, I’d suggest considering a glossary as a section either at the front of the back of the book. I loved glossaries in books when I was a child. The opportunity to look a term up if I needed to without having to go and find a dictionary or other reference book was ideal to me. I didn’t feel condescended to by an in-text explanation of stuff I knew and I didn’t have to break the flow to read a footnote only to discover that I already knew the term.

TBH, I still love glossaries and think a lot more publications should have them to minimise misunderstandings and confusion.

  • This might even be necessary if the slang is obscure enough that common dictionaries don't include them. You don't want kids searching Urban Dictionary. – muru Nov 11 at 2:41
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When I was a kid, I had the Walking With Dinosaurs and Walking With Beasts companion books, and I read them over and over. I didn't know a lot of the more technical terms, but I could either look them up in the dictionary, or just guess what they meant based on context. It didn't affect my enjoyment of, or engrossment in, the stories in the slightest.

I personally wouldn't worry about including footnotes or a glossary. If a child reading your book doesn't know what a word means, they can always ask their parents/teacher/dictionary/Google what it means. I would worry about making them do this too often, though: they will either get bored of having to look things up, or simply get confused. Either way, they'll stop reading.

(Disclaimer: I was a fairly precocious child so my experience may not be true of all children, but that's also partly why I advise making sure you don't overuse technical language.)

  • A glossary would be good, I think, if it doesn't put the book over to the next page count band and make it more expensive. – wizzwizz4 Nov 9 at 13:22
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    Mmm. I think younger readers can be very good at picking up meanings from context — or at least, enough meaning to follow. So the writer's job is to make sure that there is enough context that sufficient meaning can be inferred. Hopefully without it being too obvious! – gidds Nov 9 at 17:02
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If you need footnotes, you're not doing it right.

It never hurts to be redundant, especially in children's books. E.g.

Johnny was a roughneck. He did whatever jobs the driller asked him to do. But Bill was only a roustabout. He had to do whatever work anyone asked of him.

Having a glossary provides even more redundancy, and makes it easy to look up words whose definition one has already forgotten.

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I agree with the answer by @motosubatsu, +1.

What I would add is it seems you are not really writing a children's story, which just doesn't demand very challenging concepts for them. I think you are writing a story for adults and trying to disguise it as a children's story, to slip it under the radar, or to indoctrinate children and/or adults into some POV on the oil industry.

Personally I think the oil industry is packed wall to wall with evil incarnate, but understanding why is far beyond the mental abilities of children still being read to by their parents; heck it is clearly beyond the mental abilities of some voters that have graduated high school.

Children's stories have simple plots and simple concepts, simple dangers they can grasp. At the age when they are being read to, their rationality is so weak they will believe in anything their Mommy and Daddy (or equivalent) tell them, including that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are real live people. Including magic and superheros that can do anything, because they saw them on TV with their own eyes.

If you have to explain more than one word in your book, I don't think you are writing on their level. You can devote a children's book to them learning one new word with examples of how to use it, but I think very few parents are interested in teaching their four year old what "fracking" means or even what a "pipeline" is.

I'd pick another topic, or write for a different audience, one developed enough to ask their phone to define the occasional word they do not understand. 10 year olds and up, perhaps.

  • The book is not about the oil industry; I just used it as an example. But thanks for your input. – writersam Nov 8 at 14:53
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One possibility would be to have child characters of different ages or intellectual development in the story and have more knowledgeable kids explain things to less knowledgeable kids.

And possibly there could be a scene where an adult uses a technical term and say that the kid felt very grown up to know that the term meant ______ and put in what the term meant. And the narrator might add: "even though he had only learned that three weeks ago."

And possibly there could be a scene where a child makes the correct decision to survive based on her knowledge and thinks "Thank God i was paying attention in class that day" or "It's a good thing I read that book and knew what to do."

And possibly there could be a scene where an adult explains things and the kids don't understand one or more of the words and one kid is curious enough to ask what they mean, and later in the story that knowledge is vital for the kids.

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I'm going to disagree with the “bad idea” answers. I'll give as the example the first book I read containing explanatory footnotes, which happens to be one of all time's best-selling German children's books, Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotivführer. I distinctly remember my enjoyment... They worked perfectly well for me, even though – or perhaps because – I wasn't used to footnotes. Namely, when I came to the † symbol I did not stop and skip down to the footnote, rather I kept on reading the rest of the page and right into the footnote itself. Granted, that did then disrupt my reading, but it was fine: I interrupted, read the footnote by itself and thought “ah, now I get it... I was confused at that point, and this extra info explains it”. Then I started again from the † symbol, and this time turned the page before the footnote. I believe I did think it was a bit weird, but in a good way.

Ok, maybe I'm just a “footnote person”, I also use the over-proportionally often in my own scientific writing. (Tempted to insert a footnote right here, just for the sake of it.) Ah, see: that parenthetical remark was actually more disruptive than it would have been as a footnote, don't you think? But at any rate, the success of Jim Knopf (as well as Terry Pratchett, who was already mentioned) demonstrates that footnotes can be fine in un-sciencey, child-friendly books. Just perhaps don't overdo it.

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