Choice Additions: Tracking Publishing Trends and Choosing Books for a Smaller Library
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.
An Interview With Tami Charles
Hosted by Kelly Carey
Tami Charles' debut middle grade novel launches this month and the buzz is already high for LIKE VANESSA (Charlesbridge). The novel is a Junior Library Guild selection and has earned a Kirkus starred review that praises the work as "a treasure: a gift to every middle school girl who ever felt unpretty, unloved, and trapped by her circumstances".
24 Carrot Writing is thrilled to have author Tami Charles join us for a candid interview exploring her path to publication, networking and marketing advice, and some thoughts on how she approaches working in different genres and with different editors.
A big 24 Carrot Writing welcome to Tami. Thank you so much for joining us.
Congratulations on the publication of your debut middle grade novel, LIKE VANESSA (Charlesbridge, Spring 2018)! Can you tell us a bit about your journey from teacher, to freelance writer, to author of a Kirkus starred review middle grade novel? (With ahem…more happy buzz and more books on the way!)
First of all, thanks so much for including LIKE VANESSA on your blog! I was a teacher for 14 years, beginning as a substitute teacher and then an elementary teacher of third and fifth grades. I’d always loved to read and write as a child. As I grew older, I sort of forgot about my dream of becoming an author. Once I became a teacher and started reading wonderful books with my students, my passion was reignited and my students encouraged me to write again. I’m so thankful for them! So, I started writing stories, picked up a few freelance article gigs along the way, which taught me discipline, and once I finished writing LIKE VANESSA, I knew I had to take the plunge.
In an online article, you credited your husband with the quote “If you want to be great at something, you have to surround yourself with people who are doing it and doing it better than you.” How did you act on that advice and how has it made a difference both for your pre-published self and for you now as a debut author?
My husband is one of the smartest (and funniest) people I know. When he told me this, I did the research and found the SCBWI and Women Who Write. Who knew there were organizations out there that supported aspiring writers? I had no clue! Joining these groups put me in touch with critique groups where I had the opportunity to have my work read by other writers. This level of feedback was crucial to improving my craft. I’m certain that being in a critique group played a role in my publishing journey. To this day, I still have online critique partners. The give-and-take is invaluable.
You once wrote “Having the talent is a HUGE part of making it in this industry, but don’t rule out the power of networking.” What is your networking advice? Can you give the 24 Carrot Writing crew a do’s and don’ts list?
To me, networking is everything! My grandmother used to say, “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” And she was right! You’ll get what you need to progress if you have the courage to ask for it. My two cents on networking: A thank you note goes a long way (this can be hard copy snail mailed or a quick email). Study the bios of who will appear at writer’s conferences. Get to know the editors’ and agents’ work to see if they’re the right fit for your work. Last but not least, don’t be pushy. Your work should be able to speak for you. If you get a rejection, take it with a grain of sugar. More craft, more work, and your time will come!
What do you wish to accomplish with LIKE VANESSA?
I’d love for readers to take away that no matter what hardship they may face in life, there’s always something beautiful waiting for them if they stay focused on the journey. This, I feel, is what Vanessa learns in the story.
For a bit more on LIKE VANESSA, check out this Author Discussion video.
At 24 Carrot Writing we are big on goal setting. Do you set detailed writing goals, broad yearly goals or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
How about all three? Ha! I do make it a habit to wake up, Monday through Friday, at 4:30 a.m. This is my best time to write when the whole house is sleeping and no one is bothering me for a snack. If I’m on a deadline, I do set (and try to stick to) my goals. But if not, I absolutely just go with the flow.
How have you approached marketing your debut book? What lessons have you already learned? What are you going to do again and what might you avoid next time? Has your experience as a teacher helped you construct school relevant material and visits?
Being a teacher for 14 years really guided my marketing decisions. Ultimately, I write for children, so I knew I wanted to incorporate a strategy that involved young readers and their responses regarding what they got out of the book. I learned a lot in creating this campaign—how to write a script, secure participants, budget, and edit. I don’t regret a second of it. Moving forward, I’m sure I will come up with new ideas.
In the meantime, I’d love to share a reader’s response video below:
You write both fiction and non-fiction, both PB and MG, and I hear that a YA is in the works. Can you talk about the different skill sets you employ to write in those different genres and for those different age groups?
Let me just say that I haven’t written a new picture book since last summer and I MISS THEM SO BADLY!!!! I’ve been busy writing MG and YA these days. And you’re right, I need a different mindset for those. For my current YA, it’s set in 1984, so I had to research slang, clothes, fads and watch way too many old school movies to capture the essence of the story.
Voice is important no matter what you write. To fully immerse myself, I can only work with one category at a time. I find the voice to be snarkier with middle grade than YA. With YA, I can cross certain lines that I can’t with middle grade. There are times I’ll write a swear word and I’ll cringe just a bit, but then I remind myself it’s totally allowed in YA.
With picture books, I have to become a student to capture the inner child as best as I can. This involves reading lots of mentor texts and Disney watching!
How did you find your agent? What have you found most surprising, most rewarding, and/or most daunting about working with an agent?
I found my agent the old fashioned way. I queried her. I can’t say enough about Lara Perkins. I have no clue how she manages to carry her client load and still make me feel like I’m her ONLY client, which I know isn’t true. She has quite the roster of successful authors! Lara is a cheerleader and she gives me a good kick in the literary butt when I need it. Her advocacy for my work has been the greatest reward!
So many writers spend years writing without the input from an editor. How did you find working with an editor? Did the experience differ between editors? And has the experience with your MG been different from working on your PB, FREEDOM SOUP (Candlewick, Fall 2019)?
Picture books are a different animal from middle grade. A lot of the work is in the hands of the illustrator and that takes time. I find the editing to be heavier with middle grade because there are no pictures to rely on. I’ve done some edits on FREEDOM SOUP and there will likely be further small edits once the art is in place. On the other hand, the edits for Vanessa were pretty ongoing and extensive. May I also add that I adore both Karen Boss and Carter Hasegawa? It’s been a great experience!
What is up next for you? And where can readers find you and your books?
Right now, I am revising the follow up to LIKE VANESSA. This will be a companion YA novel featuring Beatriz Mendez, who is a secondary character in LIKE VANESSA. She comes across as a bully in the first book, but in the follow up, we learn her backstory and see her passion for dance reignited. I also have a middle grade novel, DEFINITELY DAPHNE, publishing with Capstone in October.
Thank you Tami. We wish you continued success with LIKE VANESSA and in all your writing endeavors.
If 24 Carrot Writers would like to purchase a copy of Tami's debut novel LIKE VANESSA, please click on the links below. To learn more about Tami, please visit her website at https://tamiwrites.com/ .
Start A KidLit Book Group
by Kelly Carey
I've been a part of book club with a group of friends for years. I’m sure many of you have too. You gather and chat about a book you have all read. It’s fun and social, and you end up reading some books you might not have picked up otherwise. But, we always read adult books. Recently, I joined a new type of book club, and I want to encourage my children’s writing friends to do the same.
The wonderful Julie Reich at The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA started a KidLit Book Group. This group of writers gets together monthly and discusses a YA or MG novel. We look at the book not as readers, but rather as writers, looking for techniques of craft that we can apply to our own work.
There are many things that can be learned by examining a YA or MG novel with other YA and MG authors. First, you may be startled to find that we can be tough on the writing of successfully published, acclaimed writers. Hearing someone offer a negative critique of character development, or point out plot holes, or question different literary devices used in telling a story – of a published author – makes me think a bit more cautiously about how I interpret criticism of my own work. For every book clubber who liked a book, there seems to be an equal number who dislike the book. This will be true of your own manuscript. So take heart. Don’t rush to your manuscript and make immediate changes after every bit of advice. Instead, listen to the feedback, look for trends and consistency across critiques and then apply your own writing sensibility to the information before you make changes. Hearing folks offer feedback on a published novel in your KidLit book group will give you the courage to defend your own work.
While being in a KidLit book group can help you become less sensitive to critiques of your own manuscript, it can also allow you to really understand the feedback your manuscript is getting. When your KidLit book group is talking about character or dialogue, you will hear how the comments are framed. What do people say when they like a character or feel engaged in a story? You will have lightbulb flashing moments when you recognize that similar comments were made about your own manuscript. You will hear a book group member say why they liked or disliked a scene, and you will recall the same phrasing used to offer feedback on your own work. Being able to examine the feedback directed at someone else’s writing will give you a comfortable distance before you then consider the ramification for your own work. It’s a nice, easy stroll to the heart of a problem that your own writing may suffer from when you hear it discussed in someone else’s writing.
This is not to say that a KidLit book group is all about the negative. It's not! The most inspiring, I-can’t-wait-to-get-my-fingers-typing moments are when you feel emboldened to write because you have been uplifted by the talents of other writers. When the group gets excited about a book, and gleefully discusses the expert use of sentence structure to control pacing, or the introduction of a subplot to add tension, you start to feel your hands itch. I imagine this is how a painter feels when presented with jars of wet paint and fresh brushes. You will be inspired by the creativity in front of you. When you look at the tools another author has used, you will want to reach out and grab them and try those techniques for yourself.
Finally, so much of writing can be a solitary business, including reading in our genre (something universally recommended in the KidLit industry). A KidLit Book Group is a way to take a lonely component of your writing world and make it a social group activity. You will be gathering with other writers to look at books--folks with a similar passion, discussing from a unique perspective the books we love. It's a wonderful way to get to know each other, understand our reading and writing likes and dislikes, and even find new critique partners.
For the nuts and bolt of how it works, I can only share how my KidLit Book Club functions:
* We pick a host for every month. The host is responsible for selecting three options of MG or YA books for the group to read.
* The group then votes (you will like this type of voting – every option will be a good one!) and picks the book for the following month.
* We meet for two hours and the host provides the refreshments.
* As a way of starting our discussion, we go around the table and allow everyone to give their overall impression of the book and what they liked or disliked about the writing. This is really all you need to get going. The points folks will bring up in their share time will spur on other discussions and questions and before you know it a two hour book group will have passed and you will have spent it in a productive and completely enjoyable way.
Find a coffee shop, a café at your independent book seller, or a room at your local library and invite MG and YA published and pre-published authors in your area to join your KidLit Book Group. It could be the start of a wonderful new endeavor.
~ by Amanda Smith
Kate Messner is passionately curious and writes books that encourage kids to wonder, too. Her titles include award-winning picture books like Over and Under the Snow, Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, and How to Read a Story; novels like Capture the Flag, Wake up Missing, All the Answers, and The Seventh Wish; and Scholastic’s popular Ranger in Time chapter book series about a time-traveling search and rescue dog. Kate lives on Lake Champlain with her family and is trying to summit all 46 Adirondack High Peaks in between book deadlines. Follow her on Twitter @KateMessner and check out her website, www.katemessner.com.
We asked Kate about her new novel, THE SEVENTH WISH (Bloomsbury, 2016), her writing process, and her goals.
Charlie, the protagonist in THE SEVENTH WISH, is a well-rounded, fully developed character. Can you give us some insight into how you develop characters? What techniques do you use?
As human beings, we all play lots of different roles in the world. I’m Kate the writer, Kate the family member, Kate the hiker, Kate the child of two educators, Kate the traveler, and I could go on and on. All those elements meld together with all the people who have passed through my life and all the things that have happened in my life history (and the ways in which I’ve reacted to those things) to make me who I am. People are made of lots of complicated bits, and characters – good ones, at least – should be the same. Knowing a character means exploring all the different parts of that character’s life, so I spent time thinking not only about Charlie’s hobbies, her family, and her backstory, but also the things she wished for herself and for the world, and the things she feared.
I often use a character-building activity where I design my character’s bedroom, going into more and more detail. So what starts with a simple floor plan evolves into a description of every little detail. What color is the bedspread, and when was it purchased? Does she still like it? What’s displayed proudly on the bulletin board? What’s hidden under the bed or shoved in a box in the back of the closet, and who gets to see those things? You can learn a lot about a character that way.
I love how you have certain threads that run through the book, such as the word game, the ice, and the serenity prayer. I am always curious about a writer’s process. Were these threads mapped out from the beginning and or were they organic?
Mostly, those kinds of threads appear as I’m writing, and then I go back to strengthen them during the revision process.
What prompted you to write a MG novel that includes heroin addiction?
This element of the story was sparked by a personal experience. I was floored a few years ago when a neighborhood friend told me that her beautiful, smart, joyful daughter was hooked on heroin. My neighbor’s daughter got help and survived, and she’s doing well now, but I still struggle to understand how it could have happened. When I struggle – when something really scares me – I write. That’s where this theme in THE SEVENTH WISH came from.
What did you wish to accomplish with this book?
Before anything else, my goal is always to write a great story that kids will love and to create characters who feel real to them. But beyond that, I hope Charlie will be a particular comfort to families in situations similar to hers. Kids who have family members struggling with cancer or heart disease or diabetes get all kinds of support, but addiction is something many families still keep secret. We haven’t overcome that stigma yet, and as a result, the thousands of families affected by opioid addiction are often left feeling alone. They’re not, though, and I hope knowing Charlie helps kids to understand that.
Exactly. This novel is so timely. Substance abuse affects families on all levels and many young children carry hidden anger and shame because of a family member’s addiction. You addressed those feelings spot-on in Charlie. How did you conduct your research for such a sensitive subject?
I spent a lot of time talking with my neighbor’s daughter after she got clean. I was nervous to ask her for help at first. I didn’t know if she’d be open to talking about her experiences, but when I approached her, she said, “I’d LOVE to talk with you. We all need to talk more about this to help end the stigma.” And she told me everything – how it started, how she slipped further into addiction, how she lied to her family, and how she eventually told her mom the truth and asked for help. It was a sobering conversation for me, particularly when I asked her how she could have made that choice, knowing all that she must have learned about heroin addiction in health class at school. “All my friends were doing it,” she told me. “I know that sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. They were all doing it, and they were fine.” Until they weren’t. And then it was too late.
I also spoke with an admissions counselor at a drug treatment center in Vermont. She talked me through the process of checking in to a rehab center and explained what that kind of help looks like for both the addict and the addict’s family. We talked about what might happen when a younger sibling came to visit, what questions kids often had about loved ones in recovery, and that was tremendously helpful as I wrote Charlie’s story.
The problem of substance abuse is a hard reality, and yet you included a fantasy aspect to the novel with the wishing fish. What was your motivation for the fantasy element?
Sometimes, I think fantasy gives us the distance we need to look at things that might be too scary or controversial without that lens of magic as a bit of a filter. We see this a lot in the Harry Potter series, which addresses all kinds of issues – from violence and hate in our world, to the persecution of groups of people based on their heritage. I feel like magical stories often give us a way in to explore those tougher issues in our real world – and a way to talk about them more openly.
Even as you deal with sensitive subjects, the information you share is age appropriate. I recognize an educator’s hand and heart in your novels. How did your background as a teacher influence your writing?
This was something my editor and I talked about a lot as I revised THE SEVENTH WISH. I wanted to tell this story in a way that was honest and true, without sugar coating the realities of opioid addiction, but also in a way that was age appropriate for readers aged 9-13. I think my roles as educator and parent both played into that. Kids can often handle so much more than we think. We knew that kids who had been through similar experiences might find a lifeline in this book, as it reflected back their emotions, but we also knew that the book would probably be a window for many other readers, giving them a glimpse at a family experiencing a crisis that might not be familiar. This is how we build empathy, how we think about what it might like to be someone else, and also how we might react if we were in a similar situation some day. Given all of that, my editor and I had to work hard to make sure the depiction of drug use wasn’t over-the-top scary. All of the heroin use, for example, takes place out of Charlie’s sight, and therefore, out of the reader’s sight as well. So the story really ends up being about the experience of a family member who loves and worries about an addict and has to deal with her own emotions swirling around the family crisis as well.
You use a traditional fairy tale device with the wishing fish. It works in this modern setting because, unlike old-time fairy tales, Charlie realizes the absurdity of it. She even refers to her English classes about wishing stories, and the difficulty in wishing right. If you should ever catch a wishing fish, what would your wish be?
I’d think long and hard before making any wishes. The temptation, of course, would be to find just the right words to wish for world peace, but like Charlie, I’ve read enough wishes-gone-wrong stories to know that even the most kind-hearted wishes can backfire.
At 24 Carrot Writing we are big on goal setting. Do you set detailed writing goals, broad yearly goals or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
I keep a bullet journal, so I have pretty detailed lists of my monthly writing goals as well as daily to-do lists. Also, I am geeky enough that I love talking & writing about how I organize my writing life, so if you’re interested, I have a whole blog post about my bullet journal here: http://www.katemessner.com/bullet-journaling-childrens-author-version/
You are such a prolific writer, yet you do school visits and many other public appearances as well. How do you structure your writing time? Do you write on specific days or do you write every day?
Hahahhaha!!!! Oh, sorry…. You’ve asked this question about balance on a day when I haven’t been home in three weeks and I’m staring down a full in-box as well as two manuscripts that need revising, and all of that is buried under two suitcases full of laundry. I hope you’ll forgive my maniacal laughter.
In a perfect world, I do try to keep some balance. Typically, I try not to travel more than a few days a month, and on the days that I’m home, I do write every weekday, usually from around 8am to noon. Then I take a break to work out and have lunch, and I’ll either deal with email and business things after that or get another hour or two in after lunch, before my daughter gets home from school. On my travel days, the writing is more sporadic and tends to come in quick bursts, over dinner at the airport, on the plane, or scribbled in a notebook in the car.
What is next?
Right now I’m working on a novel called BREAKOUT, about what happens in a small town when two inmates break out of the maximum security prison, launching a massive, two-week manhunt that changes life for everyone. It’s a thriller in some ways, but it’s also written in all different documents that show how everybody in town sees the situation a little differently. And I’m also working on the seventh book in my Ranger in Time chapter book series, about a time traveling search and rescue dog. This time, he’s going to Normandy during the D Day Invasion.
Thank you, Kate for giving us a peek into your fabulous writer's mind, and for being brave enough to write a book that provides support for children with family members caught in addiction.
For a review of THE SEVENTH WISH, click HERE or visit our Book Picks page.
HOOK ‘EM INTO YOUR BOOK
By Annie Cronin Romano
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.
As you probably know, the above excerpt is the opening of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, a classic in children’s literature. When I was a child, it was one of my favorite books. When I read the first page and realized those cute little piglets could be in danger, I kept reading. Fern’s concern about a threat to the piglets is established right away, and I had to find out if and how Fern could stop this horror from occurring. I was hooked. The same goes for picture books I love. I’m compelled to read past the first page in picture books whose openings create a strong curiosity about a situation:
On a cold afternoon, in a cold little town,
where everywhere you looked was either the white of snow
or the black of soot from chimneys,
Annabelle found a box filled with yard of every color.
In these first lines of Mac Barnett’s Extra Yarn (illustrated by Jon Klassen), I was pulled in by my wonder of how this colorful yarn was going to affect the plain little town.
Although both these examples of opening lines grabbed me quickly, others may need to read further to know a book is a keeper. In novels, authors have some time to lure the reader in. A writer of longer works can take a few paragraphs to set the tone, or even a few pages to a chapter or so to bait the reader into the character’s voice or world. But in picture books, you have the first page. You’ve got to hook ‘em fast and come out swinging. It’s vital to the life of your story. Be it picture books or novels, if the author doesn’t capture the reader early on, the chance of losing the reader increases. A lot.
But what elements make a strong hook? What is it that pulls the reader in? To help you with examining your openings, I am going to give you an assignment. Don’t worry. There’s no exam at the end. I’ll use the honor system!
This exercise can help clarify what makes a strong hook and what doesn’t. Study the first pages of other works to help make your book’s opening the strongest and sharpest hook it can be. Then reel ‘em in!
by Annie Cronin Romano
So often we start a project with an idea, a glowing nugget of inspiration, and we decide immediately the kind of book it will be. It's going to be a picture book. Yes, definitely a picture book…about flying sandwiches. Excellent! Off we go!
We brainstorm, diagram, scribble, and plot. We develop our characters, our setting, and our pacing. We draft a beautifully crafted 550 word picture book about sandwiches that fly and submit it to our critique group.
And they tell us it should be a middle grade novel. About a food fight.
Why should we turn our picture book draft into a novel? Do we have to? Our critique group is not the boss of us, after all! True. True. But consider the reasons behind the suggestion. Is it because the setting or topic would appeal more to the older age group? Maybe the characters would present more strongly with an older voice? What about the plot? Perhaps it is one that is better suited (or even needed) in the older market. Or maybe your critique partners thought there was more to explore than you could do justice to in a shorter format. What if you played around with it, not as a middle grade, but as a chapter book? What if…
As participants in critique groups, we often expect the critiques to focus on the story itself. Would our character really say this? Are we showing or telling? Watch the pacing. This is working. That is not. What we don’t usually expect is for critique partners to suggest changing the target audience. But sometimes it's an insightful idea. A middle grade story may work better as a picture book or a young adult novel. A young adult draft may be better suited as a new adult story. What the writer has in mind for a story often can benefit from considering all possible audiences. The first instinct may still be the best. But give it due consideration.
Always ask, "What if…"
So the next time you sit down to work on a story, be it a fiction picture book or young adult science fiction thriller, look at your idea from all angles. It could be that your flying sandwich would make an excellent food fight.
by Annie Cronin Romano
As writers of children’s books, we are told to read the latest works out there in our genre to be aware of what’s selling, what topics might be saturated, and what areas are lacking. However, this past week I read two middle grade novels that were published about twenty years ago: Freak the Mighty, by Rodman Philbrick, and Tangerine, by Edward Bloor. Both books had been recommended to me numerous times by young and old alike. It took me a while to get to them as I have been doing what is recommended: reading more recently published children’s books to keep up with the current market. But the last time I saw my sister, she asked me if I’d read those books yet. “I loved them! So did the kids! Read them!” Because I’m smart, I don’t argue with my sister, so off to the library I went.
I am so glad I did! I thoroughly enjoyed both of them. Freak the Mighty particularly touched me as I work with special needs kids. And Tangerine won over my heart as this young boy stayed true to his passion of soccer while struggling to discover the truth about a family secret (I’d say more but I don’t want to give it away!). But what struck me the most about both of these novels was their timelessness. They are as relevant today as they were twenty years ago.
This made me consider my own writing. Will the stories I’m writing be relevant down the road? It’s a vital question. Some books can be dated and may not carry over well in the future. Others have a timeless quality to them and can be appreciated long after their initial publication. While longevity is not necessarily a prerequisite for publication, it’s something to think about when writing. So while it is important to keep up with the current children’s market, don’t ignore those oldies but goodies. They have a lot to teach us about the craft of writing.
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