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Gangbusters for Grammar

By Teresa DiFalco

Grammar gets a bad rap. It's a daunting word; it conjures up squeaky chalkboards and starkly lit classrooms. It sounds vague and unmanageable, and slightly sinister like something you could base a horror film on -- the protagonist tied to a wooden chair with giant modifiers and conjunctions stalking the room wielding razor-sharp commas.

A bit dramatic, perhaps, but let's face it, grammar has baggage. It's one of those things grown-ups insist is good for you, but kids rank up there with creamed spinach. And while we do reserve a modicum of respect for the grammatically able (surely there's a study somewhere that shows those who have a handle on possessive pronouns make piles more money than those who don't!) - there is little glory in all the lessons learned on the way. No one gets trophies or newspaper features for their accomplishments in grammar (ESPN's coverage of the Scripps National Spelling Bee notwithstanding). And there is a shocking lack of Grammar Fairs in our schools. Children are introduced to science by making mini volcanoes and rock candy, selling them on prepositional phrases and the relative clause is a much tougher road.

My point: if you're writing a book about grammar, you've got your work cut out.

In college, I had to take a writing course that focused on grammar. The textbook we used was called, cleverly, Understanding English Grammar, Third Edition. It was 489 pages and including breathtaking missives like this: "Consider the relationship between the possessive noun and its headword in the following noun phrases." They taught the course spring term in the afternoon, in an airless room. I've lugged that book around all these years like shrapnel from a war wound. Sentence diagramming goes down much easier if you've established a healthy relationship for linguistics early on. So where were Lynne Truss and Patricia O'Conner when I was young and impressionable?

Eats, Shoots & LeavesTruss and O'Conner each hit adult bestseller lists with grammar blockbusters — Eats, Shoots and Leaves and Woe is I, respectively. They're aficionados who've now made successful forays into the children's market and I'm grateful to them for it. (Noam Chomsky, are you listening?)

Girl's Like SpaghettiTruss' children's books are written for a younger set, ages 4-8, and they're wonderful primers. Her first, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, focused on commas, while her latest, The Girl's Like Spaghetti, takes on the apostrophe. That might sound heavy-handed, to repeat the same rule for an entire book, but it's not at all. There are just enough side-by-side examples of punctuation in each book (14) to drive home the lesson without losing the fun.

Truss takes great advantage of Bonnie Timmons' humorous illustrations in both books. In one sentence comparison, for instance, the left side of the page — "Look, it's behind" — shows a picture of squiggly drawn kids pointing to a slow turtle. The right side — "Look, its behind" — shows a child giggling at the back of a horse. Additionally, the back of each book features a thumbnail appendix of the examples with a more academic explanation of the function an apostrophe or comma serves in each. I'd like to see her take on the more cantankerous semi-colon next.

Woe Is I, Jr.O'Conner writes for an older audience and knows exactly how to hook them. Her grammar book for tweens, Woe is I, Jr., has burps, boogers and farts galore. Not to mention a tasty cast of characters, from Ramona and Beezus to The Simpsons. She doesn't, however, mollycoddle.

Parents may recognize the same bold-colored cover and Garrison Keillor blurb from her adult book, and will be pleased that her Junior work is also flush with the same dry (yet not condescending) wit. And there's a bonus in Woe is I, Jr. — cartoons!  I took one Amazon reviewer's advice and read parts of O'Connor's book to my kids out loud, they loved it. If you want to sneak in this more advanced material to younger kids, that's a great way to do it.

As an introduction to language and its rules, Truss' books are a veritable duck soup. Your kids could have apostrophes and commas down pat by first grade. O'Connor throws her readers into deeper water, but with enough jokes, rhymes, riddles, and useful memory tricks to keep them afloat. Both writers' derring-do in taking something like grammar — the educational equivalent of creamed spinach — and making it fun is nothing short of flabbergasting.

L is for LollygagNow onto words. Words are fabulous, aren't they? They're empowering. They impress at birthday parties and business meetings alike and the sooner kids develop an appreciation for them, the better. Conveniently, the staff at Chronicle books have put together a bevy of delightful ones in 'L' is for Lollygag. There's an ominous line in the book's introduction about unused words falling out of the language, so in a sense this is an endangered word list. Save the words!

I've italicized morsels from the book throughout this article, but let me sum up by saying it's rollicking fun. You'll go through it like gangbusters. And if the jazzy art and madcap presentation don't get you, there's a plethora of great trivia in the sidebars, including a nod to Edward Lear who made up my all-time favorite eating utensil, the runcible spoon.

Truss and O'Conner both hit their mark, and "Lollygag" is brain candy at any age.

"I" is for Indubitably.


L is for Lollygag: Quirky Words for a Clever Tongue
Ages: 10 and up
Author: Editorial Staff
Chronicle Books, $12.99 (Hardcover)
Woe is I Jr.: The Younger Grammarphobe's Guide to English in Plain English
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
Author: Patricia T. O'Conner
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile, $16.99 (Hardcover)
The Girl's Like Spaghetti: Why, You Can't Manage without Apostrophes!
Ages:  4 - 8 yrs.
Author: Lynne Truss    Illustrator: Bonnie Timmons
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile, $16.99 (Hardcover)
Eats, Shoots and Leaves: Why Commas Really Do Make a Difference
Ages:  4 - 8 yrs.
Author: Lynne Truss    Illustrator: Bonnie Timmons
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile, $15.99 (Hardcover)


About the Author
Teresa DiFalco is a mother and freelance writer in Oregon. She is currently finishing her first novel, The Futile Pursuit of Happiness.

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