Last week I had the chance to talk about complexity and readability with an experienced children’s books author, Sabine Ludwig (see also the page on the German Wikipedia). She has published around 30 books so far, as well as a dozen books which were translated from English to German. Some of them were awarded. The most successful one, Die schrecklichsten Mütter der Welt, had sold about 65.000 copies by the end of 2011 (although a few booksellers first thought it was unadapted to children). I was able to record the interview so that I could take extensive notes afterward, which I am going to summarize.
Sabine Ludwig writes in an intuitive way, which means that she does not pay attention to the complexity of the sentences she creates. She tries to see the world through a child’s eyes, and she pretends that the (inevitable) adaptation of both content and style takes place this way. She does not shorten sentences, neither does she avoid particular words. In fact, she does not want to be perfectly clear and readable for children. She does not find it to be a reasonable goal, because children can progressively learn words from a book and also because mysterious words possess an aura.
She does not take for granted the aspirations towards readability, which she identifies as a tendency which has been going on since the 70s and which impacts the content as well. Neither does she find the growing categorization of the books useful. The criteria are not obvious, the choice of a given category is often determined by the state of the market. She does not really know what her target audience is, although she does have a feeling about it. She found empirically that satire or irony for instance are features which discriminate between children and books for youth.
She does not use any patterns when writing a book. But she does use a common word pool containing expressions that last, so that the story can be read again (for instance in thirty years from now) without seeming outdated. She tries to write in a standard idiom of German with no variation and no sociolects whatsoever, as she thinks it would not be considered as relevant by the children. The challenge consists in finding a sustainable form of common speech.
According to her, readability has to do with the rhythm of the text, the cadences of one’s prose. The sentences have to be smoothed out, but not simplified or shortened. The fact that words are often repeated in English should not be evaded in German, because one does not really spend time reading several “he/she said”, they might even be omitted by the reader.
As a conclusion, I found it very interesting to interview an author, but not for mere practical purposes. I did not learn from Frau Ludwig how to apply new readability measures, on the contrary It reminded me that readability checking could not capture the inventive talent. It fails to take into account a sense of writing that makes of seemingly complex or long texts parts ideas or stories which are easier to understand. I also realized that not all genres are equally measurable. Narration in particular is based on interwoven features for which there is hardly a grid to design.