I was supposed to participate in MCBD 2018, but didn't. There, I said it. I feel extremely guilty. Let's face it -- it would have meant a lot of hits to my website to be in the Link-y, but I just couldn't do it. I was assigned a book to read and I read it. Several times in fact. However, I am not a fake person (alas, no poker face here) and cannot publish fake reviews and gush over a book that I really did not enjoy. So I thought, in the interests of everyone working toward publishing and circulating the *best* children's literature we can, that I would discuss the reasons I could not participate this year.
Honestly, who doesn't love a good story that's both new and different? Coming from the concept that there's no new stories only old stories told with new slants, it's refreshing to see stories told from points of view we haven't heard from before. However, when a story -- a picture book story -- begins with several main characters each drawn to *specific* diverse backgrounds, it starts off feeling considerably heavy-handed. Just sticking with this point for a moment -- these exact characters coming together (one of each race and religion) feels a bit, well, er...
deliberately created rather than arising naturally or spontaneously.
Secondly, this many characters is quite a lot for a picture book to today's standard which is 300-500 words average, so likely these character are going to play out as nothing more than "one-note."
There's no room at all for each character's narrative arc to develop. Not one character grew or changed either physically or emotionally. Each one was the same at the end of the book as in the beginning.
The best thing about reading a book is going on the journey with the main character -- both physical and emotional, as the main character(s) attempts to solve the story problem and fails several times, each time learning and growing until ultimately achieving that satisfying resolution of succeeding or accepting the consequences. Unfortunately, in this case, the plot was contrived, too.
So for me, characters, even in picture books represent children with struggles and their journeys. They do not represent an entire ethic group in a cookie-cutter character, but a person IN an ethnic group. They represent an individual who grows and changes. And if that individual finds magic (and I do believe there can be magic in stories) it comes from SOMETHING and is not just planted there and it is earned.
So let's keep mining the fields for those diverse stories and sharing them. But let's be honest to kids. They deserve that.
TITLE: I Will Not Eat You
AUTHOR: Adam Lehrhaupt
ILLUSTRATOR: Scott Magoon
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster
IMPRINT: Paula Wiseman Books
EDITOR: Sylvie Frank
JACKET FLAP: Theodore thinks EVERYTHING is a potential meal. Until something NEW approaches his cave. A BOY. Has Theodore found his favorite food? Or something more?
SNIPPET: Theodore lived in a cave. It was a quiet cave and that's the way he liked it.
For those who are studying the art of writing for children, the above beginning is what is called, "the ordinary world." It is a great way to ground, and also start, a story, as long as you show a crack in it.
Here it comes.
One morning, a bird flew up to the cave. It tweeted and squawked at Theodore. Tweet. Tweet. Squawk. Squawk. Tweet. Theodore thought. Does it want me to eat it?
An so this is the inciting event that initiates Theodore's story problem, which just gets bigger, and bigger, despite Theodore not being hungry and also attempting to ignore these problems.
For me, this is one of these books that you have to read several times to appreciate just how superbly clever and well done it is. Everything in it is planted (although subtly) in the beginning and important to the story, and every thing plays out as perfectly as it should. I am thankful to have had the fortunate opportunity to see Sylvie Frank discuss this book in a presentation at SCBWI Miami.
And I LOVE the ending. Pick up a copy and read it for yourself.
Please do leave your thoughts as to what YOU think about this book in the comment section. This is a fun one to discuss.
So while I do have an unpublished manuscript entitled Flight of the Snowflakes, it is a concept book that is different from this particular picture book.
So why read this "mentor text"? First because certainly there's something to be learned from any picture book (whether good or bad), AND because Melissa Manlove of Chronicle recommended it! If you have ever heard Melissa speak or been in one of her webinar's you will know she is very passionate about children's books and unique ideas.
She uses this book as an example of "never say never." When approached to see if she would be interested in a book about the "Subnivean Zone," she thought for sure that she wasn't interested. However, when she took a look, the author made her interested. Who knew? Basically, she recommends take something that I don't think or know if I would be interested in, and MAKE ME INTERESTED.
So despite this book not being a comp text for any one particular book of mine, there is much to be learned. The author, Kate Messner, found a way to introduce an unusual scientific term in a kid-friendly way. And, she used beautiful, lyrical text to guide the reader deeper into the story.
Over the snow I glide. Into woods, frosted fresh and white. Over the snow, a flash of fur -- a red squirrel disappears down a crack. "Where did he go?" "Under the snow," Dad says.
What child wouldn't want to follow that squirrel? So Messner presents a fresh and interesting topic that is STEM related, lyrical language which relates to language arts and introduces poetic terms like consonance, and assonance. You can literally SEE and HEAR why this book was bought.
At the author's beckoning, you follow the snow on a journey you didn't know you wanted to go on, and become glad you did. You meet toads that hibernate, rabbits whose coats change color, and shrews that make subnivean tunnels. And you come out on the other side, enlightened and more knowledgeable than before.
Notably, there's an author's note about the "secret kingdom under the snow" and fun facts. So much take away woven into one picture book. I too would have bought this book if I was an editor and it crossed my desk.
I hope I've helped illuminate some of the things we might look for in our own manuscripts when writing or revising AND given you a title to put on your mentor text list.
Please feel free to share your thoughts, questions and support in the comment section.
When I am very passionate about a project or manuscript (not all ideas, all drafts, or all completed manuscripts are or should be publishable -- some are for learning, practicing and exercising), I pull up my library website and start ordering comp titles (also called mentor texts).
There's many reasons to do this. To see what's ALREADY out there, what's DIFFERENT and what's BETTER about the books out there -- sometimes, even what's WORSE. I need my manuscript to be DIFFERENT and BETTER - A CUT ABOVE THE REST.
So in this example, I have a completed manuscript entitled 10 Little Pound Dogs.
Always. Always make sure to read comps. As children's writers, we need to know what's out there, what our "comp"etition is, AND who publishes what type of books. Obviously from this exercise I learned that the subject publisher will publish author/illustrators, dog books and concept books.
I cross-reference subject matter (dogs, pound dogs, community helpers, counting books) and order in any and every picture book remotely related (usually 25-50 books, but as many as I can find). If I can't find all at the library, I also purchase from the book store or Amazon Kindle, and sometimes get them ordered into my library. Importantly, And I read them ALL.
A CASE STUDY OF FOUND DOGS
I found that I really liked the title and that I liked mine just as much. Yet, it was different, so that was a plus. When I opened the book, the title page portrayed a city shelter. So while I liked that idea, that was a minus in the "been done before" category.
I noted, on the title page, that this book was published by Dial Books for Young Readers (2017), so of course, I would not submit to THAT publisher. Maybe there's another publishing house that doesn't already have a counting book that also teaches children the community helpers.
1 dog, long and low.
This ended up being a plus. My book counts down from 10 and also has an added level, that the dogs are being adopted by community helpers. So this was good.
I must admit here, that this book is simpler than mine, but in a good way. And the pictures were cute and provided fun counting opportunities. Also, this counted back down, which is nice. Mine was also rhyme, which for this age is a plus, but since the other one was too, perhaps a minus, but ultimately cancelling each other out.
In the case of this book, I did feel that mine had an important additional layer with the community helpers, therefore, it was different and had added take-away value.
Had it been counting dogs up and down and just somewhat random adjectives for dogs (and by that I mean not tied into the story theme), I might have set my story aside for good. But I feel my the art for mine would be very different, so all in all, more positives than negatives after reviewing this book.
But I read on and compare to the other comps. I hope you are doing the same, or if not, I hope I've inspired you to start!
Please feel free to share your thoughts, questions and support in the comment section.