A few weeks ago, at the end of class, one of my students asked a question about her book – about the way it sounds when she reads it. She was reading Girls Like Us by Gail Giles and was wondering about dialect used by two characters named Quincy and Biddy.
The novel is about two girls who have just graduated from a high school special education program. They are very different in personality, but end up rooming together in their first apartment. They help each other through some tough times, and ultimately discover that they are more similar than they realized. My students who have read it love it, and it has been shared among my ninth grade girls quite a bit.
Quincy’s opening line is “Most folk call me Quincy. I ain’t pretty but I got me a pretty name. My whole name be Sequencia.”
My student thought that maybe Quincy should be a little more grammatically correct, or speak properly, or something… she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
The question took us to a lesson about dialect, which ultimately led us to a discussion about voice.
I made copies of both characters’ first lines: both Biddy and Quincy have unique dialects, outlooks, and voices. I asked my students to annotate the excerpts, looking for examples of dialect and voice.
I have to admit that when I sat with them to annotate the Biddy section, I couldn’t help but get out my teacher pen and teacher attitude. I didn’t annotate; I edited.
I then read my corrections aloud. Imagine:
” My name is Biddy.
Some people call me other names.
Granny calls me Retard.
Quincy calls me White Trash sometimes and Fool most of the time…
I can’t read or write…
There are many things I cannot do.”
Imagine if Quincy had started with “Most people call me Quincy. I’m not considered conventionally pretty, but my name is pretty. My full name is Sequencia.” It does not have the same sound or impact. No question.
When I read Biddy’s “corrected” version aloud my students weren’t impressed. One even said something like “I don’t mean to offend you, but your version wasn’t as good.”
Exactly. That’s exactly what I wanted them to get at. That the dialect and the imperfections are an important part of what give a character voice and individuality.
Over the next few days, I went on to give them more examples. I started with a familiar one:
In chapter six of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Hagrid introduces the hippogriff to Harry. Imagine if he had said instead,
Now class, the first thing you should know about hippogriffs is that they are proud creatures. They are easily offended, so refrain from insulting them. It could prove to be very dangerous.
After the easy, familiar text, I shared the first page of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with these grade nine students.
Imagine if Huck Finn had started with:
“You don’t know who I am unless you have already read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, written by Mark Twain.”
Then think about the first book of the Harry Potter series. The famous scene when Harry learns that he’s a wizard.
Imagine if my teacher pen had corrected Hagrid into saying something like
“Of course you’re a wizard, Harry. Once you’ve had a decent education, you’ll be an excellent one. With heritage and genes like yours, what else could you possibly dream to be?”
Trust me, after hearing the “corrections,” students understood the power of dialect, and how it creates voice. I really didn’t need to say much more.
I asked my students to include dialogue and dialect in the narratives they were writing, and to be purposeful. They were able to apply what they had learned, and their writing was better for it.