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Playing with Words in Children's Literature

Bookwitty By Bookwitty Published on August 22, 2016
This article was updated on September 1, 2016

Children’s literature is a space for abounding imagination, with stories filled with magical characters and whimsical settings. This sense of playfulness is often carried into the language the authors use. From puns and homophones in Roald Dahl’s The BFG (“Greeks from Greece is all tasting greasy”) to Tolkien’s captivating riddles in The Hobbit, children’s literature is filled linguistic playfulness. Not just a way of passing time, play of all kinds has been found to be crucial to children’s development, and word play is certainly no exception to this. In allowing young readers to explore language, to mess around it with turn it on its head, you give them the space to not only really understand how words work, but to know and love language itself. Below is a list of five children’s books which encourage a love for words and word play.


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Lewis Carroll: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

Of course the quintessential example of literary wordplay is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass. . The scope of Carroll’s ability to play with language and form is breath-taking, his poem the Jabberwocky is a triumph in creating new words that make complete sense in their context. There are many famous and often quoted sections, such as the unanswered riddle ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk’. But there are also more subtle examples of linguistic dexterity which are equally captivating, as seen in Alice’s interaction with the White Knight:

The name of the song is called “Haddocks’ Eyes.”‘

`Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it?’ Alice said, trying to feel interested.

`No, you don’t understand,’ the Knight said, looking a little vexed. `That’s what the name is called. The name really is “The Aged Aged Man.”‘

`Then I ought to have said “That’s what the song is called”?’ Alice corrected herself.

`No, you oughtn’t: that’s quite another thing! The song is called “Ways and Means”: but that’s only what it’s called, you know!’

`Well, what is the song, then?’ said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

`I was coming to that,’ the Knight said. `The song really is “A-sitting On A Gate”.

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Walter Moers: The City of the Dreaming Books

Moers’ fantastical novels, set on the imagined island of Zamonia, are crammed with allusions from across culture and history. They are often whacky but always clever, such as his creation a character in The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear called Deus X. Machina, a dinosaur whose job it is to save people at the last minute. However, where his wordplay really comes to the fore is in The City of the Dreaming Books. It is a story of a ‘Lindworm’ called Optimus Yarnspinner who travels to the city of Bookholm to find the author of a previously lost manuscript. He finds himself on a series of adventures as he becomes trapped in the catacombs (made of books) under the city. This is world of meta-literature, Moers has created canon of fictional authors for his world, each an anagram of a famous authour from our own world: Aliesha Wimperslake (William Shakespeare), Perla la Gadeon (Edgar Allen Poe) and Bethelzia B. Binngrow (Elizabeth B. Browning) are but a few examples. But Moers does not stop there, he goes on to reproduce extracts of these author’s works, all satirical takes on the real works. Moers' works (which he insisted are merely translated from Zamonian, the fictional language of the world he has created) are themselves translated from German. However the translator John Brownjohn does an incredible job of incorporating the dense textual references and wordplay, to convey this witty and whacky world.

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Susannah Leigh: Puzzle Mountain

Puzzle Mountain is just one in the numerous 'Puzzle' series written by Leigh, each of which provide exciting, fun adventures, which challenge young children to answer a puzzle on every double page. These activities are worked into a narrative, in the case of Puzzle Mountain, intrepid young explorer Poppy Pickaxe sets out to be the first person to reach the top of Puzzle Mountain. On the way she encounters a variety of challenges and mysteries. These charming stories are presented through wonderfully detailed cartoon-style illustrations. A great way to introduce children to interact with a text.

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Lemony Snicket: A Series of Unfortunate Events

Snicket's lengthy series involves an intricate mystery, with many recurring clues and conspiracies which the reader can attempt to investigate. His world is full of literary references, with character names like Poe, Baudelaire, and Murakami. Like Moers, Snicket enjoys using anagrams throughout the series, most commonly in Count Olaf's various disguises. However perhaps most enjoyable is Snicket's use of recurring clues to hint at the greater mysteries that surrounds the lives of the Baudelaire children. The stories feature a recurring initialism of V.F.D, and the Baudelaire children, along with the reader attempt to uncover its meaning. Eagle-eyed readers will discover a wealth of 'V.F.Ds' throughout the books as well as many other allusions and references. There's a lot to see and discover in these books, as Snicket hides hints and clues in every corner.

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Norton Juster: The Phantom Tollbooth

The delightful world that Juster creates in The Phantom Tollbooth is crammed full of clever puns and delightful wordplay. Whether it's the main character Milo unintentionally jumping to the Isle of Conclusions or the Kingdom of Wisdom's princesses: Rhyme and Reason, every aspect of this world plays with words and language. The writing is funny and clever, encouraging curiosity and warning against ignorance. A must for any children who loves words and language.

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Posts on this profile were created by members of the Bookwitty team. Here, we discuss books, authors, publishers and other literary-related topics. You’ll find our writers based between our ... Show More

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