Monday 18 December 2006

New Yorker's 'Bah, humbug!' round-up of picture books

...why do we tell stories to our children? In my experience, mostly it is to get them to shut up.
A review so negative it manages sneery when it's trying to be complimentary

Ah, writers and children's book lovers, if you want to get really, really angry, read the New Yorker piece Goodnight Mush: The Year in Picture Books

Written by critic Elizabeth Kolbert, it describes the picture book as an "instrument of control" and then proceeds to demonstrate how some classic picture books — such as Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Madeleine by Ludwig Bemelmans, Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban — pretend that children have power only to bring them down in the end.

The tension, or, if you prefer, bad faith implicit in this arrangement is itself one of the great themes of bedtime literature, and many of the tales now regarded as classics celebrate children as artists (and artists as children), only, in the end, to sell them both out.

Meanwhile, picture books for today's "post-spanking set"tend to do just the opposite — "that the old order be uprooted and the fool become the king".

After a humourless discussion of scatological PBs — Walter the Farting Dog Goes on a Cruise by William Kotzwinkle and Glenn Murrey, (illustrator Audrey Colman),Gee Whiz! It's All ABout Pee by Susan E. Goodman (illustrator Elwood H. Smith) and The Truth About Poop by Goodman and Smith again — she proceeds to describe unsavory details of the beloved author Margaret Wise Brown, whose bedtime book Goodnight Moon celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

This is a review so negative it manages sneery even when it's trying to be complimentary. As Alice Pope, editor of the Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market, commented in her blog:

Never have I read an article on children's books that sucked the joy out of them. Never have I read an article on children's books that made me want to cry.

Friday 15 December 2006

Christmas Book Lists

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, the agents and editors are now totally ignoring their slushpiles, so what is left for us slushpilers to do? We must shop.

And as future members of that industry, it is incumbent that our christmas lists be laden with books. So here are two lists to peruse:

The first is a compilation of recommendations from then annual Christmas Books Special on Radio 4’s Open Book programme (don’t you love the BBC?). Britain’s best beloved children’s authors Lauren Child (Clarice Bean), Meg Rosoff (How I Live Now), David McKee (Not Now Bernard) put forward their favourites from this year’s stock.

The second is the NestlĂ© Children’s Book Prize, administered by Booktrust, an independent charity which promotes books and reading.


Meg Rosoff’s choices

Mayfly Day - Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross (Andersen Press)

Beauty and the Beast - Max Eilenberg and Angela Barrett (Walker Books)

A Swift Pure Cry - Siobhan Dowd (David Fickling Books)

David McKee’s choices

When We Lived In Uncle's Hat - Peter Stamm and Jutta Bauer (Winged Chariot Press)
here’s where you can look inside the book

Sophie and the Albino Camel - Stephen Davies (Andersen Press)

The Witch's Boy - Michael Gruber (Simon and Schuster

Lauren Child’s choices

When a Monster Is Born - Nick Sharratt and Sean Taylor (Orchard Books)

Jake Jellicoe and the Dread Pirate Redbeard - Joanna Nadin and David Roberts (Walker Books)

The Thirteen And A Half Lives Of Captain Bluebear - Walter Moers


9 to 11 age category

gold: The Diamond of Drury Lane - Julia Golding (Egmont Press)
silver: The Tide Knot - Helen Dunmore (HarperCollins Children’s Books)
bronze: The Pig Who Saved the World - Paul Shipton (Puffin)

6 to 8 age category

gold: Mouse Noses on Toast -Daren King – illustrated by David Roberts (Faber and Faber)
silver: Hugo Pepper - Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell (Doubleday)
bronze: The Adventures of The Dish and The Spoon - Mini Grey (Jonathan Cape)

5 & under age category

gold: That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown - Cressida Cowell & Neal Layton (Orchard Books)
silver: The Emperor of Absurdia - Chris Riddell (Macmillan Children’s Books)

Wednesday 13 December 2006

A Perfect Response to Rejection

First Lines that Hook: Are We Selling or Writing?

Sorry folks for taking such a long break from note-taking. What can I say? I was busy trying to get published.

Now back to wallowing in the slushpile.

Slushpile survivors spend a lot of brain time worrying about the hooking power of their first chapter, their first page, their first line. For the unpublished, the first chapter is the key to catching the attention of that elusive publisher/agent/editor.

If your first line doesn't hook, are you really doomed?
Hooking is all about the supplicant (you and me) getting the supplicantee (the publisher/editor/agent) to read your manuscript in its entirety and then, hopefully, taking it and you to published glory.

For many of us at this level, it’s not even about engaging the reader, turning on the engine of the story, and all that stuff published writers have the luxury of worrying about.

We just want the editor/publisher/agent to read our work.

I used to get a lot out of manuscript critiques at SCBWI conferences. But I don’t go for them anymore. Most manuscript critiques focus on the first chapter or first three pages of a manuscript. Which can be only so useful. Once you are writing the meat of your story, what you really need is a Middle-of-the-book Critique or even an Ending Critique.

I keep being told that the first line is absolutely crucial. I know people who have spent two hours in a workshop just reading first lines and saying whether or not they'd read on.

Is this really the state of the industry today? If my first line doesn't grab an agent by the throat, am I really doomed to failure?

This from one slushpile loyalist over at Miss Snark’s. The response of the stilleto-wielding literary agent was uncharacteristically kind:

you don't need a perfect first line. You just need a first line that doesn't make me think "this sux".

We (agents) set things down when they're bad, not when they're not good enough.

There's a big distinction. It's hard to describe. Two days in my slush pile and you'd see it clearly.

It's such a preoccupation amongst writers that The Writer's Life blog is offering feedback on first manuscript pages and Miss Snark's 'Crapometer' hooking competition — hugely popular amongst her masochistic followers — snarkily returns this Friday, 15 December, at 8pm (EST).

And yet Imogen Cooper, fiction editor at Chickenhouse, told writers at a SCBWI retreat last summer that first chapters were the first things changed by editors once a manuscript was accepted. She said she would rather writers submit their best chapters as samples rather than the traditional first chapter since, in her experience, this inevitably needed more editing than the rest. So why are we so hung up on first lines?

Published authors have big discussions about the balance that has to be struck between marketing one’s self and focusing on the writer’s job: to write. Check out the discussion about what a writer’s job involves at author Justine Larbalastier’s blog last spring.

I think there is a parallel to be struck between the marketing vs writing debate and the unpublished writer’s first line neurosis.

Selling is the point of writing first lines that hook - in the same way that selling is the point of self-promotion by a published author. You'll never get read if you don't sell.

So sell, sell, by all means. Hook them, land them, get those editors salivating for the rest of your manuscript.

But tread warily.

Does the rest of your manuscript live up to those perfectly honed first lines?

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