Tuesday, February 25, 2014


On a kid-lit chat board a writer asked for input on whether a glossary is advisable when writing fiction set in another time or place.

Good experienced writers chimed in, and most were in favor. I was in the minority.

I have nothing against glossaries. Some of my best friends are… er, working on and with them. Most of us, who spent many years in school reading non fiction, are comfortable with them. A good friend is working on an academic project that will yield the definitive glossary to a fourteenth century poem. Let me tell you, it’s a lot of work. Glossaries have my respect.

Glossaries freed us from having to remember a definition after looking it up in a separate book the first time. There was always the Glossary of Terms, in the trusty back of these textbooks. Isn’t it an advantage if literary fiction for children looks more like a textbook, now with the New Common Core standards for Language Arts curriculums?

But that is my reservation. They give a book a textbook feel. Glossaries interrupt pleasure reading. They should rarely be used in trade fiction.

It’s much more challenging to find a way to make the paragraphs vivid, complete, and comprehendible without the easy and neat use of a glossary.

My fun example:

“She left the Shtetl* and never looked back. Her Bubbe** might cry a bisel,*** but she didn’t give bupkes.****”

*Shtetl= a segregated Jewish quarter, typical of European cities and towns until the mid 20th C.
**Bubbe= Grandmother
***Bisl= a little bit
****Bupkes= trivial, little, not much (literally Polish for “beans.”)


All right, the example is flavorful. The equivalent- “She left her childhood home in the Jewish quarter and never looked back. Her grandma might cry a little, but she didn’t give beans” does not have the exact same feel. But the first isn’t fun to read unless Yiddish is your second language.
I had thought about this long and hard when writing The Voice of Thunder, set in another time and place but written for American young readers. I managed to use a little Hebrew and work the English meaning in as seamlessly as I could. I felt I had succeeded when Kirkus referred to the book’s “readable style.” Mazal Tov*- Success!
;=) *Mazal Tov= Hebrew for “Congratulations!” (Literally “good luck.”)


  1. Interesting post, Mikra! I'm with you. I don't like having to flip to the back of the book to figure out what's going on.
    This is something I'm working on too, since I tend to set my books in other countries. It sounds like you hit on a good balance with your book.

  2. I love when I can figure things out solely via context, but I do appreciate a glossary of terms when there are a multitude of foreign words.

    Great example and cartoon!

  3. At first I included a glossary of Dutch words with my novel, but eventually I translated everything, or made it easily understandable in context instead. Because, yes, it does make the novel seem too much like a language lesson.

  4. I love the way Mazal Tov sounds- it just sounds like a happy word!

  5. That's why I tend to avoid books that require a glossary to read them.

  6. This is a very thought-provoking post, Mirka. I have always liked glossaries only if they are unobtrusive. Love your example!

  7. I want to learn Yiddish now. It just sounds flavorful.

  8. That was my first thought: With Common Core, they'll become more, well, common. I'm cautiously fine with it. But I am concerned, too, about letting the academic encroach on more and more pleasure reading.

  9. Gulp, I've just submitted my MG novel for formatting and I don't have a glossary. After reading your post, I feel better. I don't like the textbook-feel to it either.

  10. I'll admit, I get frustrated if there are a lot of foreign words and no glossary.

  11. Interesting point, Mirka, about glossaries, making fiction books look like a textbook. I never thought of it that way. Heaven forbid!