Friday, January 7, 2011

I made it through Epiphany and the holidays have given way to writing again. My friend Margaret, who has a treasure trove of old books, lent me a curious children’s book, Robinson Crusoe in Words of One Syllable by Mary Godolphin. Lucy Aiken wrote under this pseudonym in the 19th century. The book was published by George Routledge & Sons, one of a series that included The Swiss Family Robinson.

I opened the book, skeptical about its readability, and was surprised to find that it reads very well. Here’s an excerpt:

I could swim well, but the force of the waves made me lose my breath too much to do so. At length one large wave took me to the shore, and left me high and dry, though half dead with fear. I got on my feet and made the best of my way for the land; but just then the curve of a huge wave rose up as high as a hill, and this I had no strength to keep from, so it took me back to the sea.

Read the entire text here
As a former reading teacher of primary students, this book interests me. It’s a window into the way reading was thought to be accessible in those days. It’s really the first of its kind. The preface says that other one syllable literature consisted of unconnected sentences in spelling books.

Without undertaking a complete analysis of the text above, we can see a big difference when compared to readability markers we are used to today. No concern for sentence complexity is evident in this passage. There are several consonant blends and no repeated words to anchor on. In document readability, it sc ores a Flesch Kincaid grade level of 8.3.

Colin Whitely viewed this book as a translation in his blog The Translation Bridge
He says, “One interesting way to consider the art of the translator is to compare it to that of a poet. Both attempt to express ideas in writing within some very specific constraints.”

Lucy Aiken produced an amazing book within the constraints of one syllable. It’s worth a look at this predecessor of today’s easy readers.


  1. Hi Joyce-I've heard of this book somewhere before. How lucky you are to have a beautiful edition of it!

  2. Lynne,

    It's amazing that the author could tell this story well with one syllable words! I don't own the book - loaned by a friend with many antique books. Watch for Daughters of Genius.


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