Monday, February 10, 2014

Dictionary Meanings for and by Children

Between the lines: learning the meanings depends on the book

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 12:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 5:38pm

"What's 'magical?'" my younger daughter asks. "Magical means muo shu," my elder daughter replies.
When my younger daughter wants to know what something is, her big sister simply gives an English or Chinese translation (depending on what language they're conversing in) rather than provide an actual definition.
My younger daughter, armed with only an English equivalent of a Chinese word or vice versa, somehow figures out their meanings.
I try to extract more from my elder daughter by asking: "And what does muo shu mean?" She replies: "It means magical." This is a drawback of growing up in a bilingual home.
I use the Kingfisher First Dictionary to show my children that there are generally accepted definitions of words.
For example, a button is defined as "a small round thing on clothes, that you push through a hole called a buttonhole to keep your clothes done up". The sun is "the big, bright star that we can see in the sky during the day".
Leading American writer Ruth Krauss cleverly compiled definitions as explained by children in A Hole is to Dig: A First Book of First Definitions, and even more cleverly invited Maurice Sendak to provide accompanying illustrations.
When my younger daughter asks what something is her sister gives the Cantonese translation
This pint-sized book was first published in 1952, and it's amusing to compare these definitions with the modern dictionary versions.
In A Hole is to Dig, "buttons are to keep people warm" and "the sun is to tell you what time it is every day".
Sendak's simple black-line drawings are recalled in Isol's illustrations for Doggy Slippers, another amusing look at what comes out of the mouths of babes.
Both are renowned illustrators: Sendak was the inaugural winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2003, and Isol (the pen name of Marisol Misenta) is the most recent recipient of this prestigious international children's literary award.
First published in Spanish as Pantuflas de PerritoDoggy Slippers is a book of poems by Jorge Luján. He asked children around Latin America to write about their pets.
Some children described their pets, while others shared how they felt about their animals. Luján curated these writings into poems shaped by these children's thoughts and feelings, with quirky illustrations by fellow Argentinian Isol.
On my bookshelf are the only five books written or illustrated by Isol that have been translated into English. She has published 24 children's books and is also an accomplished recording artist of chamber music and pop songs. Isol has the uncanny ability to capture both the temperament and squiggly lined drawings of children.
At first glance, her illustrations seem unpolished, almost as if they were drawn by a six-year-old. Consequently, the drawings allow a child to grasp the artist's intent. They also give adults a glimpse of life through their childhood eyes.
My favourite poem from Doggy Slippers is the first in the book. It is accompanied by a cartoonish drawing of a pony-tailed, wide-eyed girl looking up towards the reader from a vast and sparse room.
It reads: "I want to buy/a toy poodle/a black/girl/puppy whose name is Olivia./Do you know where she lives?"
Annie Ho is board chairwoman of Bring Me a Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving children's literacy by reading aloud to them. Visit

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