This is going to be a difficult post because I want to be very careful that I do not express too much of my own personal opinion. I am writing this because I want to ask the opinion of the hive mind about the use of accents in children’s fiction.
As you can imagine, I read a lot of books for children and young people. A lot! Sometimes I am reading for pleasure, sometimes I am reading for another purpose such as a focus group or for a themed or targeted book project. In the last two months I have been reading (and re-reading) books for specific purposes, and I have particularly been looking at cultural appropriation, diversity and inclusion. I have a neat little pile of books that I think do it very well (and that list will be out in due course), and I also have a little pile of books that I feel do not, and another of books that make me frown.
It's the frown pile that I’d like to discuss today. On my frown pile are a number of books that feature characters from all around the world (which is a good thing) but my concerns and my frowns stem from how they speak.
I’ll give you some examples from one I have just finished reading. I won’t name the book, but this book has characters from all over the world, and they speak like this…
Character from France
“I am going to go to zee boat, is good no?”
Character from Germany…
“Ja, you is goot and dat is vy vee are friends with nosink to vorry about.”
Character from Italy…
“Is-a going to be a good-a day-a for us all-a, si?”
Character from Russia…
“Niet niet, now sleep, tomorrow mek many question.”
Okay, you get the idea. The phonetic-type words used in my examples have been taken directly from the text, but I have jiggled the sentences so that they can’t be googled.
It is worth mentioning that none of the characters that have English as a first language manifest any kind of regional accents. These all speak in RP, even though they are all American. In fact, some of the characters are from areas of America with very pronounced regional accents, but these are not written out in the same phonetic style. (There is one noticeable exception where heavily disguised characters seem to speak like Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars. I do not want to make any conclusions based on this as the characters remain physically disguised throughout.)
I don’t want to make sweeping statements, but in my experience this seems to occur more frequently in books written and published in America. If you are an American writer, do your editors feel that this is fitting in your books? I wonder if this is naivety on the part of the writer and/or editor, or simply a desire to demonstrate European accents?
What do you think? Does this make you uncomfortable? Which accents do you feel can be written phonetically, and which can’t? How do you feel about your accent being portrayed? Is this just clumsy stereotypical portrayal, and is it damaging?
Over to you!
Footnote – Katherine Langrish wrote a brilliant piece a while back about successfully using regional accents. I won’t repeat her wise advice on this blog, but please do read it. I refer to it often in my own work. You can find Katherine's article here
Dawn Finch is a children’s writer, librarian, and children's reading professional.