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Study Suggests ‘Mr. Greedy’ Children’s Book Is Almost as Hard to Read as Steinbeck Classics

The analysis judged texts’ complexity based on sentence length, average word length, vocabulary level, but did not look at reading comprehension

Mr. Greedy received a "readability" score of 4.4, while Of Mice and Men received a rating of 4.6 (Roger Hargreaves/George Salter)
smithsonian.com

At first glance, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men—a classic account of migrant workers struggling to survive the Great Depression—doesn’t seem to have much in common with Roger Hargreaves’ Mr. Greedy, a children’s book detailing the gluttonous tendencies of its wobbly, hot pink protagonist.

But the texts actually do share one key characteristic: According to a new analysis that rates more than 33,000 books’ “readability” on a scale of 0.2 to 13.5, Hargreaves’ tale is nearly as difficult to read as Steinbeck’s meditation on Dust Bowl migration in the 1930s.

Of Mice and Men boasts a difficulty score of 4.6, while Mr. Greedy comes in close on its heels at 4.4. The Grapes of Wrath, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel also penned by Steinbeck, scores just marginally higher, receiving a rating of 4.9.

The survey, as Alison Flood reports for the Guardian, was led by education software company Renaissance U.K., which judged works’ complexity based on sentence length, average word length and vocabulary level. Jonathan Swift’s satirical Gulliver’s Travels topped the list of most complex texts, earning the highest possible score of 13.5, while classics including Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet rounded out the top 10.

At the other end of the spectrum, Laura Hanbleton’s children’s picture book Bad Bat earned the distinction of being “easiest” to read with a score of just 0.2.

As David Sanderson points out for the Times, the ratings found Mr. Greedy outpacing several works by beloved children’s book author Roald Dahl. Fantastic Mr. Fox, for example, scored a 4.1, while George’s Marvellous Medicine received a 4.0. The Twits, a story centered on the vindictive, prank-playing Mr. and Mrs. Twit, matched Mr. Greedy in difficulty, earning a score of 4.4. It’s worth noting, however, that many of Dahl’s best-known novels, from Matilda to The Witches and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, scored higher than Mr. Greedy—albeit only slightly.

Speaking with Dave Speck of TES magazine, Paul Clayton, director of the U.K.’s National Association for the Teaching of English, points out that while the language of Hargreaves’ story may be more complex than Dahl’s, its plot—as well as that of other Mr. Men and Little Miss books—is simpler, emphasizing “happy endings” and straightforward resolutions.

“Roald Dahl’s stories, on the other hand, are often more ambiguous and morally ambivalent,” Clayton says. “So whilst Dahl might be linguistically simpler, [his books] might well be perceived to be more challenging.”

Mr. Greedy’s unusually difficult style stems from Hargreaves’ “creative use of slightly unusual words and his habit of stringing them together in long sentences,” Renaissance U.K. explains. A prime example of this occurs around the middle of the book, when the narrator identifies the source of a “delicious smell” as a “huge enormous gigantic colossal plate, and on the plate huge enormous gigantic colossal sausages the size of pillows, and huge enormous gigantic colossal potatoes the size of beachballs, and huge enormous gigantic colossal peas the size of cabbages.”

In comparison with this long-winded turn of phrase, the opening lines of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men are concise and easy to follow: “A few miles south of Soledad,” Steinbeck famously writes, “the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool.”

But just because children are capable of reading these words doesn’t mean they’re capable of understanding the historical context, nuance and complex themes the book holds.

As Cecelia Powell, managing editor of Renaissance U.K., tells the Guardian’s Flood, readability ratings should be considered in conjunction with accompanying “interest levels” detailed on the company’s book catalogue. While Of Mice and Men receives a relatively low complexity score, for example, its target audience is described as ages 14 and up for a reason. Instead, as she explains, the survey is strictly an exercise in grammar and vocabulary: “It is just, literally, can you read the words?”

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