24 Carrot Writing is pleased to host Andrew Jenrich, Director of the Taft Public Library in Mendon, MA. All four of us have benefited from Andrew's comprehensive knowledge of the publishing industry, as well as his ability to place "just the right book" into our hands (as well as the many library patrons' hands!). We hope you'll find his perspective on what he's acquiring, and what he hopes to acquire in the future, helpful in your writing process.
Guest Post by Andrew Jenrich
As Director at the Taft Public Library one of the most rewarding tasks I have is developing the library’s book collection for children and young adults. That’s not to say it isn’t a daunting job, especially since so many new titles release weekly. If there is any frustration in the collection development work I do, it stems from the nagging feeling that I’ll forever be chasing the publishing game and will never quite catch up.
We are a smaller library and, since the shelf space in our library is limited, I realized long ago that I would need to be particularly selective about what winds up on our shelves. So, what determines the choices I ultimately make for our library? What catches my eye and peaks my interest enough to convince me to part with the library’s dollar? Those are interesting questions. I do know the criteria I use for evaluating a board book vs. a chapter book vs. upper-level juvenile fiction for purchase are different. There is no one method I employ. And there probably shouldn’t be. Audiences for each format vary and publishers have become very savvy about what appeals to different age groups. The challenge for me is in anticipating what our patrons will want of what does get published.
Some of the selection process is straightforward – series books for characters like Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious, Pete the Cat, and Dog Man always circulate and they, along with series like Wimpy Kid, I Survived, and Spirit Animals take up a fair bit of space on the shelves. Add in books by renowned authors – your Rick Riordans, Mo Willemses, J.K. Rowlings, and Kate DiCamillos – and that’s a significant portion of the collection. But having those titles does not mean every interest of our library patrons has been met. There is still plenty of room for diversifying, for growing the collection beyond the core popular titles. Below is a synopsis of what I look for when selecting titles for the Children’s and Young Adult collections at our library. I’ve broken it down roughly by age group and, within each entry, I’ve tried to highlight some of the current trends I’m seeing and, where possible, pointed out the genres, subject matter, and storylines that seem too prevalent in some of these categories.
Board Books and Picture Books
I’m a fairly visual person so I admit that the first thing that draws me to a board or picture book are the illustrations. They don’t need to be a certain style. In fact the good news in publishing for the very young is that there are many styles illustrators can employ that work effectively. Sure there’s a bit of mimicry here and there, but there are plenty of illustrators whose style is unique and distinct. So, yes, I’m drawn to the illustrations. That said, there’s nothing more disappointing than a picture book which delivers on the illustrations but is weak on storyline and content. The words do matter. When I was a Children’s Librarian and hosted storytimes I have to say I gravitated to titles with less text (kids can only sit still for so long). The books I liked most in those situations were the ones that “brought the silly.” Mo Willems, Jules Feiffer, Jon Agee, and Jan Thomas were always a hit. If a book could bring the silly and convey a lesson, well, all the better. Some books with more text did work during storytimes (Tomie DePaolo’s Strega Nona and Michelle Knudsen’s Library Lion worked far better than I imagined, Marla Frazee’s books were great too), but those instances were rare.
What have I seen too much of in storybooks the last few years? Dragons, dinosaurs, princesses, penguins, mice, and bears. Don’t get me wrong, we still purchase titles with all of the above precisely because they circulate, but there’s entirely too much of it. And I do like anthropomorphism (Valeri Gorbachev and Peter Brown’s humanized animals are favorites of mine), but give me characters, animal or otherwise, I don’t normally see. Give me Lady Pancake, Sir French Toast, and Crayons that quit. I’ll likely take notice.
Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books
Some authors like Jan Thomas and Mo Willems have successfully moved into easy reader territory and we carry their titles. What’s nice is they continue to do work that isn’t text-heavy. I’ve found that text-heavy easy readers have a very limited appeal. If a child is looking for more text often they just move up to early chapter books like Nick Bruel’s Bad Kitty series or Doreen Cronin’s Chicken Squad books. Illustrations still matter in easy readers and early chapter books. In fact more and more books from both these categories seem to be taking a cue from graphic novels incorporating full page panel layouts, word and thought bubbles and other comic book devices. Scholastics’ line of early chapter books called Branches does this very well. They’re intended as a bridge between leveled readers and regular chapter books. Kung Pow Chicken, Monkey and Me, and Owl Diaries are all Branches titles that kids gravitate to here at the library. There’s plenty of text, it’s just that it’s often presented in comic book format with splashy engaging illustrations.
What would I like to see more of in easy readers and early chapter books? I’d like to see more nonfiction easy readers and rebus readers where pictures occasionally take the place of common nouns throughout the story. Based on patron requests there’s a demand for both. I’d also like to see early chapter books with a bit more heft and content to them. The great thing about series like J.C Greenburg’s Andrew Lost or Osborne’s Magic Tree House is that you learn something in the process.
With Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, and the Dork Diaries series you’re seeing hand-drawn diary and graphic novel techniques infiltrating juvenile (chapter book) fiction too. It’s clear publishers think kid culture is much more visual now and, based on readership of those series and others, it’s hard to argue they’re not right. We purchase all of the above and countless other series. Realistic fiction titles (school stories, family stories) seem to be on the increase due to the popularity of the Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries books. Most juvenile fiction series (and, believe me, publishers are obsessed with making everything into a series now) fall into the fantasy and adventure categories though. I loved the Harry Potter series but so many publishers started to roll out fantasy series during and after Harry hoping to “catch lightning in a bottle” that the result was a fair bit of forgettable fiction, though authors like Rick Riordan, Brandon Mull, and Pseudonymous Bosch capitalized. Bosch’s Secret series and Mull’s Fablehaven books are both very worthy and most everyone knows what a hit Percy Jackson has been with younger readers.
What’s lacking in juvenile fiction? I don’t think there are enough mystery and compelling historical fiction titles written for preteens. Every so often a series like I Survived stokes the imagination of young readers, but it doesn’t happen enough. More sports novels for girls would be helpful too. Mike Lupica, Tim Green, and John Feinstein write excellent sports novels, but they feature boy protagonists in male-dominated sports.
Young Adult Fiction
In my twelve years at the library no one area has grown so much as young adult fiction. The number of titles has grown and the category itself has matured. I think YA fiction suffered under the assumption that much of it was bleak and focused on hyper-dysfunctional families and relationships. There is a percentage of it that still does (and dysfunction provides drama), but I see authors taking more chances with genre now. Yes, YA literature had its vampire and werewolf phase (thanks Twilight) and it still clings desperately to its Hunger Games-inspired dystopias. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, Alexandra Bracken’s The Darkest Minds, and Neal Shusterman’s Arc of the Scythe series all mine this territory and do it fairly well. But I like when an author takes an even bigger chance like Ryan Graudin does in Wolf by Wolf and its sequel Blood for Blood, novels that take place in Nazi Germany and feature a girl protagonist who is also a shape-shifter intent on assassinating Hitler. It sounds like a lot to swallow, and it is, but Graudin pulls it off beautifully. If an author is going to imagine an alternate world I like it when they go all in. Thankfully more of that is happening.
There is still plenty of room, of course, for realistic and topical teen fiction. I’ve been happy to see more teen mystery and suspense titles recently and it’s nice when historical fiction series like Laurie Halse Anderson Seeds of America books receive recognition and a devoted readership. I’ve also been particularly pleased that recent multicultural titles like Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone have found a wider audience.
In truth there is so much good stuff out there now for children and teens to enjoy. Some of the best work being done right now across the juvenile and teen book landscape is in graphic novels. Shaun Tan, Gene Luen Yang, Raina Telgemeier, Noelle Stevenson – I could go on ad nauseum about the brilliant work they’re doing. Perhaps another time.
Right now I have orders to place, so if I could kindly ask that publishers sit back and take a short break? I really need to catch up!
The Taft Public Library is located at 29 North Avenue in Mendon, MA.
By Anna Crowley Redding
My fourth-grade science classroom is burned into my memory. If I close my eyes, I can still see the glass aquariums in the back of the room that held soon-to-be-hatched snake eggs, turtles, and mice. Adorning the perimeter of the room? The steps to the scientific method. On the board? A parade of brainy topics from the Sputnik to Dr. Jarvik and the artificial heart. The highlight of the year? Walking into the classroom to find the desks have been pushed together, are covered with trash bags and newsprint to accommodate what our teacher picked up from the butcher: a set of bonafide cow lungs. We will all take turns blowing into them to investigate how this organ works in humans. (Tip: If you blow into the wind pipe to inflate the lungs, close your mouth quickly ‘cus what goes in the lung, comes out––only with a new lung-y taste and smell.) It was a time of wonder and first touch with meaningful scientific inquiry. It was an amazing experience.
What I don’t remember from that time? Our textbooks or any science-based picture books. And for good reason. All of the joy of hands-on learning, the pull of a magnetic intellectual journey died in our books. And this was no fault of my marvelous teacher. By and large most nonfiction texts of that day were boring, caught in the trap of regurgitating facts.
Luckily, that is no longer the case and thank goodness! Today’s nonfiction books are at turns poignant, jubilant, and fascinating––written with a hook that leaves the reader wanting to go deeper into any topic, whether science, history, social studies, math, art, etc. Not only is this an obvious win for students and young readers but this is a win for writers, too, freed from outdated misconceptions of what nonfiction must look like. Yay!
So, as a nonfiction writer where do you begin? Here’s some advice that people have given me along the way that’s made all the difference.
When I was a TV news intern in Boston, a more seasoned reporter said to me, "When you are going around in life or learning about something, and you have that thought: ‘OH! I never knew that!’––train yourself to listen to that thought, because you are not alone."
That’s tip #1 – If you hear these thoughts-- “Oh, that’s cool!” or “Gee, I never knew that.” STOP what you are doing, write it down. Write down that cool thing. NOW, look at your paper. You have a story idea! Woohoo.
Well, I learned how to answer ‘Now what?’ from one of my college professors. I took his class as an elective, because I wanted to understand how public policy was made, so that as a reporter, I would recognize flaws. That professor was none other than Governor Michael Dukakis. To this day, he is one of the smartest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of talking to (and one of the most committed to helping young people learn and become public servants).
Listening to his process, I realized it applied not only to public policy, but also to reporting and storytelling. Let’s run through it. Tip #2 is Do as Dukakis Does!
Step 1 – Take out three sheets of paper. Label the first one “history and background.” So, you have your idea. Put on your investigative hat and start jotting down bullet points that go deeper. Is your story idea about Albert Einstein’s childhood? Find out the important dates. What else was happening in the world then? What were other kids of the day like?
Is your topic cannibalistic insects? List them. When were they discovered? What are the facts, as you dive in, that still have you saying “oh, I never knew that!” List them.
Fill your page with facts!
Step 2 – Grab your second sheet of paper. Label it “Key People/Sources.” Now you are going to list off all the people you and the Google search engine can think of, who might be an expert on your topic or be able to point you to an expert. I say ‘people’ but it can also be museums, websites, books. If your story is about crop-killing bugs, you’ll want to make sure you have farmers on the list. If your story is about the Titanic, you’ll want to read first-hand accounts from survivors. If you are writing about Mars, NASA’s website might be helpful. Brainstorm who you need to talk to, places you need to visit, websites to read, books to check out, etc. Fill the page!
Step 3 – Grab that last sheet of paper and write “Connect.” Working from your “Key People/Sources” page, list all the people or places you are going to call, visit, e-mail. This is a working list so you can check them off as you go along. And as they suggest other important contacts or sources, you can keep adding to the lists.
Wait, that’s a lot of work. What’s the point?
It helps you get your arms around your story idea and research quickly and comprehensively, adding structure to the process.
So, you have a ton of information. Now, what?!
Tip #3 – Find Your Hook
Now, you need to think about your hook! In that mountain of research, what really got your attention? What do you find yourself thinking back on over and over again? When I was in journalism school, this little sentence was offered as an exercise to find the hook. Here’s the cleaned-up version:
“HOLY MOLY! I just found out that . . . !”
When you complete that sentence, you know what your hook is.
Sometimes your first paragraph is centered around your hook. But sometimes you need to set it up. To understand which group your story idea fits in to, break your story down into moments. If your story is about a person, typically the moments of their life start with 1) potential 2) effort 3) setback 4) growth 5) another setback and repeats like this until 6) Eureka! Breakthrough. This is a similar story arc to fictional stories.
If your topic is about science or math, it may too have this arc, or you might be organizing ideas together in a way that tells a story.
Tip #4- Play story time leader!
But imagine this, you are sitting in a rocking chair at story time, and you begin to talk to the wide-eyed, riveted children seated at your feet. They want to hear all about your book. Using your very best story time voice, where do you naturally begin? Full disclosure: This particular author is not above grabbing stuffed animals and acting out this scenario. It helps.
Even when you are writing for middle schoolers and young adults, you still have to tell a story.
Wait! I just realized . . . you came up with a story idea, researched it, and figured out where to start and what your hook is! I guess we better end here so you can get busy writing, because we want to read your book!
In the meantime, I am hoping in my time machine to drop off some books to my fourth-grade classroom. I think I’ll take …
Terrific Tongues by Maria Gianferri, Volcano Dreams: A Story of Yellowstone by Janet Fox, Two Truths and a Lie by Ammi-Joan Paquette and Laurie Ann Thompson.
Before diving into the deep end of writing for children, Anna Crowley Redding was as an Emmy-award winning investigative reporter, TV anchor, and journalist. The recipient of multiple Edward R. Murrow awards and recognized by the Associated Press for her reporting, Anna now focuses her stealthy detective skills on digging up great stories for younger readers―which, as it turns out, is her true passion. Her book, Google It: A History of Google, is available now in a bookstore near you.
To learn more, visit Anna's website at https://annacrowleyredding.com/
by Francine Puckly
In the past two or three weeks, I’ve come in contact with nearly a dozen writers and illustrators who are struggling. So this post is part blog, part book pick and suggested reading, and part battle cry for all of my creative friends who have hit the wall and are questioning the pursuit of publishing books.
We are living and operating as artists during a time when we are expected to project a lot of energy outwardly—connecting, marketing, networking. Through the conversations I’ve had with writers in the last month, several of them said they had lost their way, and in all of the cases their energy had been depleted by social media, conferences, and the revolving door of submissions and rejections. As another friend told me today, “I have become a professional student, chasing after classes to inspire me to write. I just need to sit down and write.” We featured Melissa Sweet for our illustrator month, and she spoke of the lessons she learned from E. B. White while writing and illustrating the exquisite book, Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White. While E. B. White might have been eccentric in his need for nature, he can teach us about pulling back, sitting with an idea, and letting nature nurture us as our ideas are developed. Any man who spends a year studying spiders has something to teach me about pacing myself. We owe ourselves a break from the fast lane in order to reconnect to our writing. We can only spin like a top for so long before we lose steam, wobble, and topple over.
Instead I say, let’s embrace and find inspiration in life. If I stop and look around, I can find inspiration in all of my day-to-day surroundings. For starters, I am inspired by my daughter’s 99-year-old dance teacher, Georgia Deane, who continues to teach, dance and sing every day. (Here she is performing in Arizona last month.) And then there’s my critique group member who has spent years pulling together a family tome of photos, family trees and stories, poetry, and Ancestry.com details to pass along to her nieces and nephews. When she shared the book Monday night, we were speechless. The detail and care that had gone into creating it could rival any book written. Big publishing house project? Nope. But what a gift. Another friend faces a recurrence of cancer but remains upbeat and continues to draft her most riveting YA fantasy yet, and I can’t wait to read it! I’ve been on all sorts of adventures this summer with my son as he searches for a new home next year—at a university that will embrace all of his loves. It’s taking over a great deal of my “writing time” but I wouldn’t miss this journey for anything. The writing will have to wait.
This is life. We live it. We embrace it. We feel it. We will eventually create from it.
My friend and 24 Carrot co-founder Annie Cronin Romano said in one of our goals meetings last month that she was going to “throw it at the page.” Her wisdom hit me like a slap across the face. I have been struggling with a complete rewrite of a novel, but I was spending an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to control the direction of the writing. I had lost the love of sitting down with a cuppa, my favorite pens, and a pad and writing for the sheer joy of seeing something new—something never written before—on paper. It had been a long time since I had experienced that oneness with a snippet of a thought or story. Long overdue. So despite the fact that I have a meaningful and immediate deadline ahead, I am reeling myself in. I am going to dip in, splash it, mix it, repeat. I will trust that this is the only viable process if I’m going to deliver something fresh and engaging. I will probably miss my deadline but I'm determined to enjoy this process.
Autumn is here. Nature beckons, as do our creative souls. Go back to the basics. Do whatever you need to truly live and retrieve the joy you once knew when you sat down to draw or write. If you live in a place with seasons, take a hike, play in a pile of leaves, drink warm cider. If you live in a place without seasons, go to the beach or bask in the warmth in other ways! If rain drives you inside, buy a box of crayons or a set of watercolor paints (the kind with only eight colors and one brush). And listen to E. B. White’s wisdom. Explore The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic by Michael Sims and The Essays of E. B. White by E. B. White. And definitely don’t miss out on Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet!
By Kelly Carey
We are abuzz at 24 Carrot Writing, as one of our founders, Annie Cronin Romano, prepares for the launch of her debut picture book, Before You Sleep, due out October 9, 2018 from Page Street Publishing.
I’d like to take this time to reflect on the integral part Annie has played in our writing group and on the way our group has supported Annie on her writing journey. My purpose is to highlight the benefits of joining a writing group, encourage you to become an active and fully engaged member of a writing tribe, and to point out the significant advantages, for all writers, regardless of where they are on the writing path of belonging to a writing community.
I’m Just Starting. What Could I Possible Offer?
When our founding mother, Francine Puckly, first gathered our group of four together and suggested we start 24 Carrot Writing, I wondered what a group of barely published, novice writers, in the infancy of their writing careers could offer each other let alone a larger audience. Luckily, Francine drowned out those concerns with her dogged determination that we had big things to contribute both to each other and to the KidLit industry.
At the very beginning, we offered each other companionship as we set out on our writing voyage. And this has made all the difference in helping us persevere in the face of form rejections, harsh critiques, and self-doubt. Our shared goal, a desire to be successful KidLit writers, meant we brought a unique understanding of how it feels to struggle with plot, manage word count, construct a query letter, and suffer the pain of form rejections. We knew exactly how significant a completed first draft was, we celebrated a revision break through with appropriate verve, and we cheered raucously when publishing success found our group. Our non-writing friends and family were supportive, but our group of fellow writers offered a kinship only they could bring to the table.
That kinship is critical in a career that so often requires you to be alone with your laptop. If you are fortunate, your inner voice can help sustain you along your writing path. But, I would argue that the fresh and often kinder voices of trusted fellow writers are a necessary and crucial component to writing success.
Francine was right. No matter where you are on the path, or how new your journey is, if you want to write, if you are determined to become a KidLit author, then you have an impactful role to play in a group of like-minded writers.
We Can Cover More Ground Together
We could all agree that a single person cannot read every new KidLit book; devour every article in a trade journal; take every workshop; attend every book event; and connect with every single agent, editor, librarian, bookstore owner and KidLit author in our industry. But, if you commit to a group of writers, allow them to get to know your style, show them your manuscripts, talk openly about your writing strengths and weakness, then you will have a team helping you accomplish your goals.
Annie has recommended books that are great comp titles for Amanda’s PB. Francine has forwarded marketing articles to Annie, weeks after her contract was signed, because she knew Annie would benefit from the information. Just this week, Amanda sent me the names of two editors she felt might be a great match for a manuscript I have on submission. There is no doubt that our writing group is giving each of us extra writing focused eyes and ears to help us on our individual journeys.
We are looking out for each other, for our manuscripts, for our submissions, for our writing, and offering targeted advice and help. These informed knowledgeable connections that we bring to each other are only possible because we have freely and candidly opted to share our writing journey. You can certainly go it alone. But, a tribe will facilitate your path to success and you will reach your goal faster and with more joy along the way if you invite others on your trip.
The Friction of Give and Take Sparks Success
As Annie launches her book next month, our writing group will be out in force to help her set up her event, offer a knowing and encouraging wink, and ensure that this special moment goes off without a hitch. For months, we have acted as a sounding board as Annie worked through the steps of planning the arrival of her new book. We offered suggestions, forwarded marketing opportunities, shared Annie’s news on our personal Twitter and Facebook accounts, and helped make sure that Annie heard positive and encouraging voices when concerns or doubts surfaced.
In return, Annie has given us reason to celebrate. We are motivated by her success to send out queries with hopeful abandon. Sometimes the phrase “success breeds success” can have negative connotations, in the case of a solid writing group, I would argue that “success motivates success”. This is a rough rejection filled industry and feeling connected to Annie’s success has given each member of her writing tribe a burst of sunshine.
Having a front row seat to Annie’s success also means we have seen firsthand how a launch works. We may have been helping Annie with her book, but she has given us the opportunity to learn and prepare for our own launches. I know I am grateful that when my debut launches in 2020, I will have been a part of Annie’s journey and she will be a solid advisor who I will rely on.
Don’t Hike Alone
I love hiking because it offers the joy of communing with nature, the gorgeous vistas along the path, and the euphoric feeling of accomplishment when you summit at the end of the trail. But, I have never opted to hike alone. That seems scary and dangerous. So why would I ever choose to travel my writing path alone?
You could choose to hike into the woods, carrying everything you think you could possibly need in your own backpack. When you happen upon a stunning vista, I suppose it is glorious even if you have no one to share it with. But I would argue that the ability to share revelations, successes, and the burdens in your pack make the journey easier and more enjoyable. That is exactly what we did and why 24 Carrot Writing has become a growing and dynamic group.
The benefits of sharing your writing career are vast. Your writing tribe will keep you motivated, remind you to take advantage of workshops, greet you at conferences, buoy you when you hit writing walls, and celebrate your success.
If you are a part of 24 Carrot Writing – congratulations! You have recognized that you have something significant to offer a writing community, you have a team supporting your writing journey, and you will feel the success sparked by our collective energy. I’m so happy you decided not to hike alone!
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