In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Fancy Nancy and the teaching of vocabulary

Dear Aunt Debbie,

You ask about our experiences with Fancy Nancy.  Up till now, I have gently steered away from her -- we don't own any Fancy Nancy books, though we do have a Colorform set which came as a birthday present, and when Eleanor has picked out Fancy Nancy books at the library, I've read them to her once or twice and quietly moved them up onto the library shelf.  Today was the first time I ever sought them out, to respond to your post.

So how do we feel about them?  Eleanor is attracted by the glossy sparkly princessy covers, and Nancy's general fancy-ness: dresses and hair doo-dads and purses and bows.  There are a lot of pretty girls in Robin Preiss Glasser's drawings, and Eleanor likes that.  She wants to read the books when we get them, but doesn't request them over and over.  Then again, my own lukewarmness may affect my reading aloud.

I have mixed feelings.  I could do without the girly stuff, which we don't really need reinforced around here.  So much emphasis on primping!  However, I like the fact that there are alternate female characters depicted: Nancy's best friend, Bree, is black (though similarly fancy in dress); Nancy's mom sports glasses, a ponytail, and decidedly non-fancy tops and pants; and Nancy's adored teacher, Ms. Glass, is fancy in a different way: patterns, an artist's smock in the trip to the museum book, glasses, a pink streak in her black bangs.  (I admit it.  I am swayed by the depiction of the awesome cool teacher.)

Honestly, what annoys me the most about Fancy Nancy is the way the books try to teach vocabulary.  As a reader and as a teacher, I have always been of the Vocabulary in Context school of thought.  Once you've read a word in context several times, you figure out organically what it means.  When you begin to use it, then, you use it correctly -- you get a far better feel for the word than you do by rote memorization and drilling.  It's not hard to tell which of my 9th graders are the big readers, and which are the kids who learned their hundred-dollar words from test-prep classes.

The Fancy Nancy books each include a small number of words which Nancy designates as "fancy"over the course of the narrative.  At the end of the book, there's a page with all of the words and their definitions.  Here's the vocab page from Fancy Nancy: The Dazzling Book Report:
Some of these seem to me to be pretty good vocabulary words.  "Crestfallen" -- great!  But do "desperate" and "select" really need to be defined?  If you're a kid who knows "eye-popping," wouldn't you probably know "dazzling" too?

And then there's the way every single one of these words is introduced.  From page 1 of the museum book referenced above:

Ooh la la!
I am overjoyed.
(That's a fancy word for very happy.)
Our class is going
to a museum.

"That's a fancy word for..." gets old pretty fast.

Perhaps Jane O'Connor, who writes the Fancy Nancy books, agrees with me.  One of the two books we were able to pick up today at the local library was a fairly recent entry in the series: Fancy Nancy: Poet Extraordinaire!

In it, the fabulous Ms. Glass teaches a poetry unit.  Nancy and the other students have to survey their family and friends about their favorite poems, and the book includes several of these favorites (though not the text of "Annabel Lee," Nancy's mother's choice, or "Blowin' in the Wind," which is her father's).  The class makes a "poet-tree," and each student writes a poem up on a leaf and tapes it to a branch.  Ms. Glass writes encouraging comments on the back of each leaf.  There's a discussion of writer's block, inspiration, and the wide variety of poetic forms that exist in the world.  There is very little in-your-face vocabulary definition, and instead of the usual vocab page at the end, O'Connor includes an anthology Nancy is compiling of her favorite poems.  All in all, it's a pretty good foray into poetry for fairly young kids.

Foray: that's a fancy word for an early try.

Love, Annie


  1. I have mixed feelings about Fancy Nancy as well, although my daughter has received most of the books in the series as gifts from her grandparents. One book in particular I did like was Fancy Nancy and the Posh Puppy. I appreciated that Nancy ended up with a mixed breed dog from an animal shelter.

  2. You Bloggin' Ladies are a pleasure to read and brilliant to boot. I'm so happy this project has continued and that you're still writing! Someday I'm going to archive every one of these titles in case I ever have any kids of my own.