Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Words: A First Grader’s Question

When authors visit schools, we are likely to hear many of the same questions.  What inspired you to become a writer?  Where do you get your ideas?  What’s your favorite book?  How much money do you make?

I am generally prepared for these kinds of questions, and I love the resulting interactions with young readers.  But, occasionally, a child (and it’s usually a very young child), asks something that floors me.  This happened recently, after I’d done a Zoom presentation focused on Juneteenth with students at an elementary school in Potsdam, New York.  After my visit, students from a first grade class sent me lovely handwritten letters, and one child—I’ll call her Madison—asked me this:

“How do you think of your words?”  Madison had also drawn a crown that was inscribed “Queen of Words” followed by a little heart.  My heart did a little skip and my mind spun for a moment.

This was my response to her:

I’ve never been asked this.  It is an amazing question.  Sometimes I think of a word to describe something and I write that down.  Then maybe, when I read it over, I decide it’s not exactly the word that I want to use because it doesn’t quite say what I want, so I scratch that one out and I think of a different word.  Often, I use a book called a thesaurus that is filled with words called synonyms.  Synonyms are different words that mean the same or almost the same things.  A thesaurus can give me ideas for other ways to say what I want.  I always keep a dictionary and a thesaurus close by when I’m writing.  Sometimes I try many words before I am finally happy with my choice.  I like to see just how beautiful I can make my sentences.  Choosing every word carefully is important.  The words you choose and how you put them together are what make up your personal style as a writer.

I sent this off to her teacher with replies to other students’ questions and moved on—or I thought I did.  But I couldn’t.  It wasn’t over for me and isn’t still.   I can’t seem to shake Madison’s letter.  Her crown haunts me.  At first I was simply amused and flattered by being called “Queen of Words”.  I felt honored and, to be honest, a little puffed up.  A part of me told myself I shouldn’t place much stock in the opinion of one first grader with limited experience with wordsmiths and ‘smithing’.  But I do.  And the more I think about Madison, the more I feel I need to honor her expectations of me.

I never want to get lazy or complacent with my words.  I take pride in the efforts I give to finding just the right words and arranging them in just the right way to try to make my sentences as beautiful as I can.  Madison has given me a gift—a little kick-in-the-pants reminder, a renewed responsibility to my readers.  I want to live up to Madison’s image.  I want to be a queen of words.

Now, in the future, if I ever find myself looking at a word and thinking ‘that’s good enough’ or ‘I think that says it’, I will remember Madison’s crown and will pick up my dictionary or thesaurus just in case there is a better way to say what I’m trying to say.  Just in case there is a way to move from ‘good enough’ to wonderful or stunning, magnificent or glorious.

I do love words, and I hope that little heart Madison added at the end meant not only that she loves me but, even more, that she loves words, too.