By Margo Sorenson, an Author of over thirty traditionally-published books for young readers
Because I grew up as a young child in Madrid, Napoli, and Bari, words in different languages were my lifelines. Learning and speaking three languages at the same time seemed normal to me and to my friends. Even as a kid, the similarities and differences among words in each language intrigued me. Juggling all three at the same time—my parents spoke English, my nanny and her cousin spoke Spanish, and all our friends spoke Spanish or Italian and at least one other language—was not a problem; it was expected that we could and should manage the hop-scotching from one language to another.
It was not a huge leap from those beginnings to enjoy playing with words, to explore their many shades of meanings, so the backstory of enjoying words for their own sake was the inspiration of my newest picture book, CALVIN GETS THE LAST WORD, (Tilbury House, 2020). Words have always made me smile and it’s been lots of fun to be able to play with them in my children’s books.
We moved to the United States when I was in elementary school, and my fascination with words increased, especially since I was now exposed to American slang, with which I had little experience. We had no television in Napoli or Bari, so the only slang I heard was from visitors coming from the U.S. I was especially helpless when it came to slang regarding American culture. If you looked in a dictionary under the word “clueless,” there was a picture of me. I had never heard of Elvis Presley and had no idea what a 45 RPM record was. Thus, I became a little human sponge, trying to make my way in a new and very different world of words.
As a newcomer to the U.S., my love for words did have one unfortunate effect. True confession: in my middle school, I aspired to win the “Best Actress” of my 9th grade graduating class. That was not to be. I ended up being voted the “Walking Dictionary.” ☹
When I wanted to turn my love of words into a children’s book, the idea of a kid’s search for just the right words appealed to me. You may know that an author’s favorite phrase is “What if?” What if a kid named Calvin had a super-annoying older brother—and what if Calvin just had to find the perfect word to describe that brother. You know that brother—the one who tells jokes right when Calvin’s mouth is full of milk, so he “Phhhhts!” milk all over the breakfast table—and the baby!
Talented illustrator Mike Deas did an amazing job of taking the text to the next level—spitting broccoli, pulverizing a baseball, the subterfuge of passing chewing gum in the library, and so much more, as you can see. My editors at Tilbury House Publishers also had the brilliant idea of turning the endpapers (the pages glued to the front and back covers) into a “dictionary” of the words Calvin tries out–for even more chuckles. Together, our team really brought the meanings of the words to life, helping to earn CALVIN GETS THE LAST WORD a New York Times “featured best children’s book about books” in the New York Times Book Review, Sunday edition. We’re still pinching ourselves in disbelief!
Although I speak other languages, Italian is my favorite, hands down. The words just roll off the tongue and not only sound beautiful, but many of the meanings are profound, especially in idiomatic expressions. They are priceless and so evocative in Italian—far more so than in plain old English, in my opinion! One of my most favorite sayings in la lingua piu bella del mondo is, “Non tutte le ciambelle riescono col buco”—not every donut comes with a hole in it. Another is “Non fare il salame! We can’t express ourselves more vividly than that, right?
Even though there are no Italian words in CALVIN GETS THE LAST WORD, I hope young readers and their parents will get a few giggles from the story and Mike Deas’s hilarious illustrations—and they’ll find out exactly what is the right word for Calvin to describe that pesky brother. Perhaps some readers may even be inspired to find Italian translations for the words—and maybe they also would like to polverizzare il fratello? 😉
Author of over thirty traditionally-published books for young readers, Margo Sorenson spent the first seven years of her life in Spain and Italy, devouring books and Italian food and still speaks (or tries!) her childhood languages. Her most recent Adult/Young Adult novel, which does have a lot of Italian language vocabulary in it, SECRETS IN TRANSLATION (Fitzroy Books, October 2018), takes place in Positano, with heroine Alessandra, whose being able to speak Italian helps her to feel at home in Italy, once again—and solve a mystery that threatens those she loves. For more information on where to find or order this mystery, or CALVIN GETS THE LAST WORD, or any of Margo’s other books, please visit www.margosorenson.com