Depictions of Language Change and Dialect Diversity in Children's Books

By Tina L. Hanlon
Ferrum College
June 2008


Note: This paper was presented at the Children's Literature Association Conference, Normal, Illinois, June 12, 2008, where the conference theme was "Reimagining Normal." The original title was "Reimagining Normal in Literary Depictions of Language Change and Dialect Diversity." This is a work in progress. If you know of other children's books with explicit treatment of language change and dialect diversity, please contact Tina L. Hanlon. Appalachian references in this paper are to comments by Anndrena Belcher and books by Rebecca Caudill, Ruth White, Laurence Yep, and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, as well as Roberta Herrin's essay.


Anndrena Belcher, an eloquent, funny Southern storyteller, was in the second grade when her family moved from Eastern Kentucky to Chicago. She tells how they then weren't supposed to say "git" for get or "gueetar" for "guitár," and the phrase "hain't got nary 'n" was forbidden as a double negative. But her old home was "where most everybody, even my teachers, said 'hain't got nary 'n ' except when they was trying to talk proper—the schoolbook stuff, you know, when they said 'I haven't one.'" The discomfort of her new environment made Belcher want to go home and talk to her grandmother, although she knew that being a hillbilly in the city had been described by Elvis in the 1950s and she discovered that immigrants had many similar stories and cultural traditions to share, when they got smart enough to stop calling each other names. She says they "could find a home in each other's tales." She describes herself as "lucky to go to school with children from all over the world" and "one of the lucky mountaineers who got to come home" later in life.

A fictional child who endured culture shock earlier in the twentieth century is Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Mary's experience is the opposite of Belcher's in a way, since she has no emotional attachment to a nurturing home before she is sent to Yorkshire. Because her situation is so unusual at Misselthwaite Manor, the only people who care about talking to her speak more freely than they normally would with an upper-class person. The housemaid Martha realizes that she speaks too much Yorkshire to work upstairs in a house with a grand mistress present and that she has to switch registers when Mary can't understand her dialect in their first conversation. Learning how to understand and talk a little of their Yorkshire dialect helps Mary make friends for the first time in her life, first with a robin and a gruff gardener, and then with a farm family. When Mary first meets Martha's intriguing brother Dickon, the novel says, "She wished she could talk as he did" (58).

In Rebecca Caudill's 1966 chapter book Did You Carry the Flag Today, Charley?, a younger child whose initiation adventure is only a bus ride away down a familiar mountain is told by his numerous siblings what to expect at preschool. When he says of the teachers, "I ain't scared of any of them," brother Claude warns him, "You don't say 'ain't' in Little School,' …. You have to talk proper" (18).

The preteen narrator in Ruth White's 1996 novel Belle Prater's Boy observes, "Even though Grandpa was a schoolteacher at one time and knew better, he sometimes let his grammar slide back to the way he talked when he was a boy on the top of Wiley Mountain. He called it his everyday voice" (111).

These children, real and fictional, illustrate some common experiences for anyone who has moved from one region to another or gone to school or lived in a place where sharp distinctions separate social classes. Language is a major aspect of their feelings about home, their own identity, and their place in a community and society. In all these examples the child is learning that we use different types of language in different situations. In at least three of these four examples, the storyteller or writer is emphasizing that language variation is normal and healthy, that it's natural to vary the language we use to suit the region, the occasion or company, and the formality of situations we find ourselves in.

However, these obvious realities are not understood or accepted by enough of the American public. One of the unfortunate ways that educational and societal influences "reimagined normal" in the past few hundred years involved imposing unrealistic, inaccurate, and elitist views of language on those who aspired to be educated and successful in mainstream society. Far too many American students and adults still have contradictory, faulty impressions and attitudes about language change and variation. We have not progressed enough since the 1880s, when Mark Twain poked fun at the reading public's ignorance about dialects by expressing concern in the opening of Huckleberry Finn that "many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding" ("Explanatory" preface). While our long political campaigns today include debates about whether women, mixed race political candidates, Appalachian people, or working class Americans in general are victims of our most persistent forms of discrimination, we should recognize that language bias is one of the strongest remaining types of socially acceptable prejudice and ignorance throughout America. As linguist Walt Wolfram wrote in 1991, "The equity issue with respect to dialect does not stop with perceptions and attitudes; the failure to recognize dialect differences may lead to a kind of discrimination that is as onerous as other types of discrimination" (268). And Donna Jo Napoli, a linguist and writer of children's books, wrote in her 2003 book Language Matters, "language discrimination is tolerated by people who would never tolerate discriminatory remarks based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or many other characteristics" (121).

One of the great challenges of "reimagining normal" in children's books, as in all literature, is finding ways to represent natural speech patterns through the artificial codes of writing. I am not a creative writer or an expert on how writers choose the language they use for dialogue or narration, but I believe they face incredibly complex problems that are linguistic, aesthetic, and societal. I've heard from authors that representations of dialects in their books often provoke conflicting advice and criticism from editors, reviewers and readers. Linguistically, it's impossible to reproduce anyone's speech accurately in writing with only twenty-six letters in the alphabet to represent more than forty phonemes in English speech; with few writing conventions for indicating tone, intonation, or regional differences in stress patterns; and with the reality that too many vocabulary items, idioms or grammatical constructions that are not familiar to general readers will make reading difficult. Moreover, usage varies widely within dialects among individual speakers and different generations and subgroups, so readers are bound to have different impressions of how realistically or gracefully their own or other dialects are represented in a work of literature.

Socially, literary use of dialect is politically charged because language represents groups that conflict and try to dominate or eradicate each other through our society's long histories of prejudice of various kinds. Education and assimilation offer minorities opportunities for prosperity and equality, but with the educational system in the English-speaking world conditioning people to think in terms of standard English as "normal" and everything else as "improper" or "incorrect," arguments continue about whether the culture and language of the oppressed should be reclaimed and celebrated or suppressed. Several callers to the radio show Talk of the Nation this winter described themselves as victims of a double standard, criticized by other black people for talking "too white" or "too proper." Randall Kennedy, author of Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, responded that allies in social movements need to tolerate different approaches to changes in society.

Thus attempts to represent dialects in literature may be seen as demeaning to minority groups rather than as a respectful or celebratory way of acknowledging their language. Readers understandably have a wide variety of responses to different authors' attempts to use dialect in works of literature. What is fun or challenging or uplifting to one reader seems annoying or tedious or offensive to another. Sometimes we need a little time to become accustomed to a new author's rhythms of speech or style before we can appreciate it. Anndrena Belcher refers to her childhood as the time before "they" talked about the poetry of Appalachian English and its roots in medieval and Elizabethan English. Carolivia Herron's 1997 picture book Nappy Hair became the center of a bitter national controversy because having fun with minority language, culture and childhood can be confused with making fun of them. Authors with good intentions have written many books that are perceived as biased today for following the convention of representing, sometimes exaggerating, dialect features of some characters but not the speech of authority figures or more affluent characters. Lucy Maud Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Nancy Drew books, and Lois Lenski's regional novels are criticized for their treatment of minority or lower class characters although in some cases they were formerly praised for representations of regional cultures.

Our conflicting attitudes about dialect create a huge dilemma for authors and teachers. Studies by Robin Carr and others in the late 1960s and 1970s showed that "sixth grade students were found to react more negatively toward literary characters represented as speaking nonstandard English than toward the same characters when the dialogue was written into standard English" and "those most negative toward nonstandard speech were those people who spoke a nonstandard dialect" (Carr 4). Carr also found that "children are less negative toward spoken dialect than they are toward written representations of the same dialect. This finding implies that there is something inherent in the techniques required to suggest dialect in the written mode which evokes negative connotations toward that speech."

Darcy Christianson reported in 2002 on her study of eleven language use categories in sixteen books for children and young adults about four ethnic cultures in America, using a framework for linguistic analysis developed by Caryl Gootlieb-Crowell in 1995. Christianson observed that few previous studies "specifically address linguistic elements as part of determining the authenticity of multicultural literature" and understanding how language is or is not used to represent ethnic groups in literature, and noted that further research is needed (1). I have not attempted such a complex analysis, but I have looked for children's books that draw attention to the "normality" of language diversity and use innovative methods for re-adjusting assumptions about the status of standard and colloquial varieties of English. For example, some of Laurence Yep's novels, including Star Fisher and Dream Soul, about a Chinese family moving to West Virginia, contain one innovation that helps readers rethink what is normal for speakers in America, although this example is about bilingual families rather than dialects of English. As sociologist Susan V. Mead observed, "Yep’s technique of italicizing the text when his characters speak English and using the plain type when they speak their native tongue is a [an] effective technique which normalizes and even celebrates the presence of the ethnic diversity in the Appalachian region—it is the English speakers who seem out of the norm with their words in italics."

My only example of a children's book with a major focus on the reality that many people are bidialectal is Irene Small's 2003 picture book Don't Say Ain't. In it Dana's experience of being torn between two urban dialects and communities is framed realistically in the context of changing to a new, "advanced" school in 1957. Don't Say Ain'tThe Library of Congress subject headings for this book label it as a school story and do not mention language, which made it hard for me to find other similar books and won't help other seekers of stories about language variation find this book. Dana's godmother, who believes "speaking proper shows you gots a good education" and can get a good job, calls out, "Don't say ain't, children. People judge you on how you speaks," after Dana and her friends enjoy a traditional jump rope rhyme that begins, "Don't say ain't / Or your mother will faint." Dana's new teacher gently asks her not to say "'ain't' in school" and Dana's self-consciousness about speech is part of her struggle to fit in at a school where dress, manners and other expectations are unfamiliar. When her teacher visits her home, she is amazed to hear the teacher herself use "ain't" while reminiscing with her godmother about some shared family history in Charleston, South Carolina. Dana tells her friends that it's funny how her teacher "talks like real people here." She also convinces her friends that doing well in school and "talking strange," or "proper," do not make her feel superior and should not damage their friendship. She has to think hard about these confusing social changes but she figures it out and makes up a new jump rope rhyme about being bidialectal—about using "ain't" at home but not at school, where "speaking proper sets de tone" / So folks won't moan."

Although Irene Small provides a positive depiction of a child figuring out for herself how to adjust to complex social and linguistic realities, Dana's adjustment might have been easier if the adults explained dialect diversity to her more fully, as one West Virginia teacher does for Marty, the protagonist in Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Shiloh trilogy. In the second book, Shiloh Season, Marty's nice new teacher has a talk with him while giving back reports on possible careers. She marked many corrections on his report although Mary and his friend got good grades after talking to professionals for their research. The teacher gently tells Marty that in her family, similar to his; she likes relaxing during family visits and talking their "personal talk; family talk," which "is slow and quiet and as soft and beautiful as a summer day" (82). But she explains that if Marty wants to be a veterinarian, he needs to learn not to write the way he talks or he won't be understood, as people don't talk that way everywhere. People who speak differently at home and at school just need to learn to be more careful. Marty feels encouraged rather than reprimanded and after this scene he occasionally "corrects" his own grammar in the narration, including in the second line of the third novel, after the word "ain't." These standard English corrections inserted between dashes may seem disruptive to some readers, as corrections imposed by oneself or others are in real-life discourse. They could seem to denigrate Marty's native dialect or they could seem ironic since they appear occasionally but they are vastly outnumbered by the nonstandard constructions he continues to use throughout his narration. Roberta T. Herrin observed in a 1991 article on "attitudes toward language in Appalachian children's literature" that children typically "reject…those who are concerned with language propriety, be it a peer, parent, or teacher" (197). I'm not sure exactly what Naylor had in mind but I think she shows fairly realistically in this and other ways that Marty is learning from adults who are good role models about what it takes to become a successful professional, yet he's still a country kid, and since he's the narrator, all his narration as well as the dialogue show that he and his community are fully articulate in their native speech patterns.

Marty's teacher says what I think everyone should learn early in life as an obvious reality, but my impression is that it is still the exception rather than the norm for basic linguistic and social concepts about language diversity to be discussed in American schools. I skimmed the Virginia state standards of learning for English without finding any learning outcomes about understanding language change or dialect diversity and I talked to some teacher education faculty to confirm my impression, but a recent argument with my eighteen-year-old nephew really confirmed my fears about how biased younger generations remain about the language of their peers who are in different ethnic or social groups from their own. A 2002 paper by Riki Thompson argues "that it is the job of teachers to present students with appropriate knowledge about language and to raise awareness of nonstandard dialects, rather than perpetuate myths." In spite of research about minority dialects in America since the 1960s and the "deep social and political implications" for the teaching of reading and improving students' acquisition of standard English, Thompson believes continuing opposition from the U.S. public makes it necessary for college English teachers to do more to "effect change in the outside community."

In Belle Prater's Boy, the same novel with the grandfather who sometimes speaks in his "everyday [southwestern Virginia mountain] voice," when the two main characters start seventh grade, their male teacher's gender is a novelty at their school. When Mr. Collins says "hoose," Woodrow asks what it means. An outspoken boy explains, "That's how they say 'house' in eastern Virginia' and the narrator refers to this boy "giving us a short lesson in dialect." The boy goes on, "'My uncle lives in Fincastle and out there they say 'aboot the hoose' instead of 'about the house.' That didn't bother Mr. Collins one bit. In fact, he said it was an amusing observation. I [Gypsy] decided I was going to like him" (147-49). This is a tiny scene that accomplishes a lot. Since literature that uses dialect is often criticized for not drawing attention to speech variations of characters in positions of power, it is interesting that this time an adult man who is a teacher and who is not from the Appalachian mountains is singled out as having the curious speech patterns. The teacher is good-natured about the boy who has observed eastern vs. western Virginia pronunciation patterns, rather than being defensive about speech that might be perceived as nonstandard. The author, Ruth White, wove in an amusing illustration of dialect differences without trying to represent pronunciation extensively throughout her text.

In her picture book Flossie and the Fox, Patricia McKissack adds an additional layer of linguistic significance to the tradition of trickster tales in which a physically small or vulnerable hero uses verbal tricks to escape from a dangerous opponent. As Flossie walks through the woods to deliver eggs to a neighbor, she fends off a predatory fox by refusing to believe he's a fox. An article on "Flossie Ebonics" by Joseph O. Milner and Loraine Moses Stewart describes this text's "subtle sociolinguistic messages." I think it's brilliant that McKissack has the fox speak in standard English while the narration, and especially the dialogue of the child who uses speech to outwit the fox, contain many features of African American English. Although some readers object to the little girl's minority dialect while the predatory male sounds like a pretentious white man, this is not a typical example of putting dialect only in the mouths of minority characters. Milner and Stewart, who praise McKissack for showing that she can shift among standard English and other dialects proficiently, identify the central question: "What do we believe about the intellectual power of the speaker of a dialect that is not standard English?" (212). Moreover, the fox doesn't just speak in unvarying mainstream English; he uses colloquial expressions, such as "Top of the morning to you, Little Missy," in dialogue that is sometimes overly familiar and sometimes overly formal. Flossie starts to mock his arrogant diction in her retorts. When he says, "I beg your pardon," she responds, "You can beg all you wanna….That still don't make you no fox." He begins to stutter and plead for a chance to prove himself. Christine Doyle observed that "the fox's language more or less disintegrates as he gets flustered—he stutters, stammers—it's not dialect, but disintegration." He's "a snob" who "loses his sense of identity" while Flossie "keeps speaking just the way she speaks!"

Betty Bacon's excellent essay "'I Play It Cool and Dig All Jive': Languages in Children's Books" criticizes adults who think minority or working class kids have inferior verbal skills, who want to avoid books with challenging language, buy only those written in the language of their community, or translate classics such as Peter Rabbit into Black English. Bacon argues that "It would be a poor civilization in which we gave A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich with its subtle permutation of Black English only to Black children or The Hobbit with its literary English-English only to the families of professors at Oxford or Harvard. Children have a right to the whole world. They have a right to see their own lives—including their language—reflected in their books, but they also have a right to go beyond that to other people, other times, other places, and other languages" (238). Because our society is full of conflicting and confusing attitudes about language, books that provoke us to rethink old stereotypes and draw attention to dialect diversity as normal are especially valuable. As Milner and Stewart's article on Flossie, says, "sometimes books teach us best" (212).

Works Cited

Bacon, Betty. "'I Play It Cool and Dig All Jive': Languages in Children's Books." How Much Truth Do We Tell the Children? The Politics of Children's Literature. Minneapolis: Marxist Educational P, 1988. 229-240.

Belcher, Anndrena. Performance at National Storytelling Festival, Jonesborough, TN, 1991. Recording 91FERT01, archived at National Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. 1911. New York: Norton, 2006.

Carr, Robin L. "Dialect in Children's Literature: An Issue of Importance." Annual Meeting of the Illinois Reading Council of the Interracial Reading Association. Charleston, IL. Mar. 3-4, 1978.

Christianson, Darcy. "Language Use in Multiethnic Literature For Young Adults." 2002 19 pp. ERIC document ED477555. <http://eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/1b/24/3d.pdf>.

Doyle, Christine. E-mail to Tina L. Hanlon. 1 June 2008.

Herrin, Roberta T. "'Shall We Teach 'Em or Learn 'Em?': Attitudes toward Language in Appalachian Children's Literature." Journal of the Appalachian Studies Association 3 (1991): 192-98.

Herron, Carolivia. Nappy Hair. Illus. Joe Cepeda. New York: Dragonfly Books/Random House, 1999.

McKissack, Patricia C. Flossie and the Fox. Illus. Rachel Isadora. New York: Scholastic, 1986.

Mead, Susan. "Celebrating Diversity: Exploring Social Issues Through Appalachian Children's Literature." 2000. AppLit: Resources for Readers and Teachers of Appalachian Literature for Children and Young Adults. Ed. Tina L. Hanlon. Ferrum College. <http://www.ferrum.edu/applit/studyg/Diversity.htm>.

Milner, Joseph O. and Loraine Moses Stewart. "Flossie Ebonics: Subtle Sociolinguistic Messages in Flossie and the Fox." New Advocate 10 (Summer 1997): 211-214.

Napoli, Donna Jo. Language Matters: A Guide to Everyday Questions about Language. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.

Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds. The Shiloh Collection. New York: Atheneum, 2004.

Small, Irene. Don't Say Ain't. 2003. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge Pub., 2003. N. pag.

Talk of the Nation. National Public Radio. 7 Feb. 2008. Discussion of Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal by Randall Kennedy. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18775691>.

Thompson, Riki. "African American Vernacular English and Dialect Awareness in English Departments." 2002. 7 pp. ERIC ED475742.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Charles L. Webster, 1885. Project Gutenberg. <http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/76>.

White, Ruth. Belle Prater's Boy. New York: Yearling, 1996.

Wolfram, Walt. Dialects and American English. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991.

Yep, Laurence. Dream Soul. New York: HarperCollins Juvenile Books, 2000.

---. The Star Fisher. New York: Puffin, 1991.

Additional Quotations

"In sum, variation in language is something we all participate in, and, as a linguist and a writer, I believe it's something we should revel in" (Napoli 115).

"Another response to language differences would be to educate (especially the people in power) for tolerance of differences, for an understanding of differences. This could be naturally done, easily done in elementary schools but only by teachers who are themselves free of language prejudice" (Wayne O’Neill, "Paul Roberts' Rules of Order: The Misuses of Linguistics in the Classroom," 1968, quoted in Carr 7).

"Let us in no way underestimate the importance for children to find their own native way of speaking put down in a book. This has much to do with learning to read, it has much to do with self-respect. Your own language, your own usage, in your own book has a great influence in how you feel about books in general. Are they something of yours, or are they alien?
     It is a ruling class myth that working class kids are nonverbal, and that they have great trouble learning to read because they are unaccustomed to using words. Nothing could be further from the truth....
     Ideally, all children deserve education in many varieties of language—their own and other people. The rich culture of the world should be theres, and they should have the tools to deal with it—including pride in their own language and pleasure in crossing its boundaries" (Bacon 235, 237).

The Secret Garden:

To Come and Go Like Magic by Katie P. Fawcett (2010, set in Kentucky mountains):


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