Category Archives: children’s books

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It’s never too late to start writing

What do you think about waiting until you’re almost 80 to start a new career? If you’re legendary book editor Dick Jackson, the answer is no time like the present!

As reported in a fascinating article in Publisher’s Weekly, Jackson retired from book publishing in 2005 after a long and very successful career as a children’s book editor. It was in 2013 when he was being treated for cancer that this creativity as an author was piqued and he began pitching ideas to former colleagues. He is still in treatment and his cancer is not in remission, and yet he now has 8 (yes, that’s 8!) picture books under contract! The first of which, HAVE A LOOK, SAYS BOOK, has just been published by Atheneum, where he previously had his own imprint. At the age of 81, he is making his debut as an author! And what a debut it is, with illustrations by Kevin Hawkes. Future books will be illustrated by Jerry Pinkney and Laura Vaccaro Seeger. It helps to have the kind of deep experience and relationships in children’s book publishing that he has, but even so it’s an amazing journey he’s taken from editor to author, especially given the circumstances of his age and health.

I hope this story serves as inspiration for those of you aspiring writers who might be feeling discouraged or frustrated that the process isn’t always fun, fast or rewarding. You never know when or how that might change and you will get the spark that becomes your first published book. Keep on keeping on!

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Today is St. Patrick’s Day, the city abounds with drunken revelers, and I am keeping a low profile. Though I am not Irish by extraction (a deficit my part-Irish husband generously overlooks) I am a Hibernophile. I quite like Irish literature (though I’m no Lauren Abramo) have an inexpert but nerdy fondness for illuminated manuscripts (hello Book of Kells), and while I can pass on the Stout, I love Irish music, especially fiddling. I’ve also been known to caper around with my arms at my sides in a terrible approximation of Irish dance. I had a roommate who was a champion step-dancer, and his occasional efforts to teach me a few moves ended in gales of laughter. I’ve been to Ireland on a number of memorable occasions, and while the shamrock-splashed, boozy holiday we celebrate here seems to have little to do with the place from which it ostensibly comes, today is a fitting day to think about books by Irish writers. There is, of course, no shortage, and the contemporary scene is a rich one.

My favorites include Edna O’Brien, Colum McCann, Colm Toibin, William Trevor and Roddy Doyle, but I first fell in love with the fictional Ireland when I read a middle grade fantasy by an American children’s book author named Mary Tannen. The Wizard Children of Finn told the story of a brother and sister swept back through time to the pre-modern Ireland. It was a rip-roaring, tunic-sporting, magic-salmon-swimming adventure that thereafter hooked me on tales of Finn McCool, the Fianna, and the various spooky and strange legends of Ireland. Leprechauns are just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, aside from Finn, I had no real idea how to pronounce most any of the names. Not that I let this stop me. Because these were books I read to myself, not stories I ever heard, I simply jerry-rigged my own pronunciations–glossaries be damned. Invariably it was in some semi-public and fully embarrassing way that I learned the correct (and still confounding) way to say Maebh, Cuchulain and Siobhan. Who knew Samhain was pronounced Sow-in? Not Jessica of 2015. Jessica of 2016? Well, she’s learned her lesson.

*Never to read Irish-sounding names aloud.

Who are your favorite Irish authors, contemporary or otherwise?

(*But you can watch others attempt it here). 

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Inspiration for Young Readers

I’ve mentioned a few times before that unlike most people in the publishing business, I did not fall in love with books at the tender age of 8 months.  I wish I had, and sometimes I find myself looking out for great books I might have missed out on at the time. There were no specific reasons for my not being interested in reading, I had all the resources at my fingertips but I just wasn’t bothered.

The same can’t be said for the many children living in the slums of India. I read this short article about an inspiring young girl named Muskaan, who at the age of nine runs her own library outside her house in the slums of Bhopal.

As she returns from school, Muskaan would find eager young readers awaiting her at the spot where she lays out a mat and arranges her total of 119 books (donated by officials from the State Education Board), then they would gather around and listen intently as she reads out loud to them. After these allegedly fun reading sessions, the kids would then borrow whatever books they can and settled on the mats to read, or take them as they leave.

Having read this article I am reminded how much we take for granted. While majority of the world struggle to have decent and well stocked libraries, we feel the need to cut the budget on libraries, perhaps ensuring children in the future won’t have the same library experiences most of us had growing up. At the same time, Muskaan’s courage also shows me how blessed we are as a human race because no matter what the situation may be, there is always something, despite how small it is that gives us hope.

 

 

The Long and Short of It

 

My turn to weigh in on the question of how long contemporary novels should be—a topic recently explored in The Booklist Reader and by my colleague Stacey Glick in her last post.

 

You can tell a lot from a query letter. When a debut writer lets you know that his novel runs 128,000 words, it’s often a sign of trouble.

 

As we know, so much of writing is rewriting, and that often involves a lot of cutting. Unless you’re getting a lot of good, solid feedback from a critique group or from mentors or other writers, you might have difficulty seeing the proverbial forest for the trees. What may seem like the right length to you could well be a word count drastically in need of pruning. It can be difficult for writers—even a successful, established ones—to get the proper perspective, and to know whether they are telling their story in the clearest, most direct way.   “I’ve read some novels lately, popular ones, that should have been a third shorter,” said Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cunningham (“The Hours,” “A Home at the End of the World”) in a recent Boston Globe interview.  “If a book needs to be 850 pages long, that’s how long it should be. Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ is not too long. But there are some novels out there that are weighing in at 700 and 800 pages that shouldn’t.”

 

He’s right about that, I believe. In rare cases, a writer may need that broad canvas, especially if the story at hand is a historical epic, or a multi-generational saga. But more often than not, a novel these days comes in at under 100,000 words.  Several acquiring editors at major houses have let me know that they feel 50-60,000 words is where a Middle Grade novel should top out, and 80,000 should be the maximum for the average Young Adult novel. Aside from clear storytelling, there are practical budgetary concerns: The longer a novel runs, the more expensive it will be for a publisher to produce.

 

There are, of course, always exceptions; these rules are not graven in stone. The “Harry Potter” effect has resulted in some hefty Middle Grade tomes, particularly when it comes to the world-building of High Fantasy epics. But it’s worth giving your manuscript a good, hard look if you’re running way over these general guidelines. We’re not all Tolstoy. We’re not even J.K. Rowling. Far from it.

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REALLY lengthy middle grade fiction

Since I have two middle grade readers in my house, and two teetering on the brink, I was intrigued by this article from an editor at The Booklist Reader suggesting that middle grade novels have gotten longer over the last 40 years, and not just longer, but 173% longer (!), in large part because of Harry Potter. It’s pretty cool research.

I have a 5th grader who is pretty obsessed with Harry Potter, having read the entire series three times over. Not to mention we all just finished reading the beautiful illustrated edition of Book 1 that released last year. So, I get it. Sort of. Harry Potter changed the book world, for the better without question (having just seen Hamilton, I feel like that show changes the theater world the way Potter changed books, but I digress. Just go see it. It really is that good). The thing is that culturally we’ve gone in the complete opposite direction. We have shorter attention spans, want immediate gratification, and live on tidbits and snippets of news and entertainment (i.e. twitter, as one good example!). So, it seems a bit of an oxymoron that books are getting longer.

I see the challenges in my own kids. My oldest, the Potterhead, is ok with longer books although she certainly doesn’t seek them out. And honestly, while she does tons of reading for school, it’s been hard to find a book or series that has excited her the way Potter did. We’ve tried all the usual suspects and nothing has captivated her imagination in the same way.

My middle daughter who’s in third grade is more of a grazer when it comes to reading. She doesn’t like fantasy and prefers more contemporary books, often with humor. She’s very visual and likes books that have illustrations so she likes series like Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Personally I feel like there is a great deal of diversity in middle grade fiction now and from what I’m seeing on the selling side, much more to come over the next few years. The books that are selling are full of a broad range of characters, plots and, yes, lengths. The fantasies tend to be longer and run through more than one book, usually a trilogy to start. And the realistic stories tend to be shorter and can be contained in one book. I suspect the majority of books will continue to be published this way.

I’d also like to see the industry shift more to even shorter form fiction. Short stories and novellas for kids who like to read but might feel overwhelmed or intimidated by a book as long as Harry Potter. Something for everyone.

What do you think of this change in the middle grade category? Yay, nay, want to see more or less? Shorter or longer?

Books I wish I’d sold

New Year equals New Books. I generally start the new year feeling a bit overwhelmed at all there is to catch up on, but also excited and motivated with renewed enthusiasm for fresh starts and what’s to come. So many books, so little time to sell them all.

In addition to bestseller lists and book reviews, I like to read Publisher’s Marketplace and look over the recent deals. I am often amazed at how good so many of the books sound, so instead of making a general “wish list” of what kinds of books I’d like to see in my in-box, I thought it might be more useful to see a few examples of books that were recently published or recently sold that resonated with me for one reason or another.

This book that was written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist explores the story of a set of adopted identical twins (anything having to do with identical twins as the parent of a set is of interest to me), one of whom transitions their gender identity. It sounds fascinating and wonderfully researched and written over the course of four years, and it looks into a very important subject that is still underexplored.

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

Media personality and leading voice in brain health Max Lugavere’s COGNITION NUTRITION, a roadmap to optimal brain health and performance using what the latest science has discovered about food and diet recently sold and taps into two areas of interest – science and the brain. It’s an area that’s well covered (including my own upcoming title THE DISTRACTED MIND by neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry Rosen), but a new angle is always of interest.

Author of The ADHD EXPLOSION and THE TRIPLE BIND, Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley Stephen Hinshaw’s STIGMA: A Father and Son’s Journey Through the Mark of Mental Illness, which explores the burden of living in a family “loaded” with mental illness, with all the potential for insight and creativity as well as despair and isolation that entails, and in which he reveals his father’s (the distinguished philosopher Virgil Hinshaw, Jr.) and his own lifelong struggles with mental illness, the associated shame and stigma, and his evolving understanding of the social and public health dilemmas involved in the exploding mental illness crisis in America today. I’ve also had a strong interest in mental health issues and have books on my list which include PERFECT CHAOS, by Linea and Cinda Johnson, a powerful story about a daughter and her mom dealing with the daughter’s bipolar breakdown.

Finally, I’m having a love affair with children’s books at the moment. Both books I’m selling and books I’m reading with my girls. Sibling writing duo Heidi Lang and Kati Bartkowski’s debut LAILU LOGANBERRY’S MYSTIC COOKING, following the youngest master chef in 300 years in her efforts to open a restaurant where anyone, not only the wealthy, can feast on her fantastic cuisine including everything from kraken calamari to dragon steak; all the while she must help her absentee mentor pay back a vicious loan shark and avoid the notorious Elven mafia before the escalating conflict costs her the restaurant and possibly her life. Sounds unique and mixes my love of food and kids!

I could go on and on, but I’m hoping this gives you an idea of my interests and hoping I’ll see some project submissions from you in the near future. Feel free to reference this post if you contact me so I know you’ve been reading our blog!

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Tis the Season

 

What a very charming story Parnassus Bookstore in Nashville shared on their blog this week: A bibliophile in Arizona turned to Parnassus to make long-distance recommendations when his local independent bookstore closed. It’s become a tradition that the booksellers look forward to, and no doubt his family as well!

Of course I always have a lot of books on my holiday shopping list every year, from cookbooks to biographies to novels. And this year I’ve started a new little holiday book tradition. When I was little, I remember getting very excited when my mom started hauling all the Christmas decorations out every year, because the Christmas storybooks were stored with our lights and ornaments – in particular I remember one that was actually in the shape of a snowman that enthralled me year after year. Now that I have a little baby nephew, I want to make sure he builds a collection of holiday stories to look forward to each December! So a couple weeks ago I sent him a package of holiday board books, and was delighted to receive pictures of him happily gnawing on them – no luck finding a snowman-shaped board book yet, but I have a whole year to work on it.

What are your favorite bookish holiday traditions? What are some must-haves for little ones’ holiday book collections? 

 

 

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Children’s best-of picture books

I know this time of year everyone is compiling best-of-the-year lists. And I take it all with a grain of salt because there are so many great books published every year that it’s hard to pick just a sampling. Although I do love when I see my own titles on there, like Christie Matheson’s beautiful and thoughtful TOUCH THE BRIGHTEST STAR on this best-of list from B&N. I especially love that it’s listed under Books That Are a Feast for the Eyes.

I also saw this great list compiled by a Huffington Post editor, some of which I knew and others I was happy to learn about. All of which look interesting and beautiful. I appreciate the list because it’s incredibly diverse and comprehensive, and she gives the honorable mention books in addition to the winners. There is something about the timeless beauty of a good picture book that warms my heard and makes me happy to have it in my collection.

What were your favorite children’s books this year? And what would you like to see more of next year? I’m working on a few new projects that I think and hope will entertain, educate, and enlighten both kids AND their parents.

Touch the Brightest Star

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You’re reading WHAT?!?!

We’ve been going through a bit of a weird reading time lately in the Rudolph household. For the past few weeks, my four-year-old son George has insisted onHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for his bedtime reading, no doubt inspired by his older brother Henry, to whom I’ve been reading all seven books in sequence for about a year now. While I’d like to believe that George is brilliant, precocious, and absorbing every word, the truth is that he consistently falls asleep after 5 pages or so–and since he falls asleep so easily, we aren’t going to discourage the routine!

Meanwhile, seven-year-old Henry wants to know about war–specifically, World War II. And since Dad can’t seem to explain WWII coherently without getting into a lot of evil stuff, he asked if we have any books on it instead, or if he could get some from the library. So it seems we’ve reached that fateful Parenting Moment where we need to think about what kinds of books are appropriate for our kids.

Now, like most of my publishing colleagues, I abhor censorship. One of my proudest projects from my early days at S&S was working with Judy Blume on Places I Never Meant to Be, an anthology that supported the National Coalition Against Censorship. But when it comes to Henry and George, is it right to feel concerned about what they read? Or am I being a total hypocrite if I tell Henry to wait on the war books until he’s older?

Fortunately, Roger Sutton of The Horn Book (and an outspoken anti-censorship advocate) pointed me to this little piece on Book Riot, where the author advocates letting kids discover books without restriction. And after reading it, I realized that I benefited from a laissez-faire book policy when I was a kid, too–discovering Lou Reed’s music in ninth grade led me to William Burroughs, and while I distinctly remember my Mom wasn’t thrilled when I took my copy of Junky on the plane to visit my grandparents in Florida, to her credit she didn’t stop me.

So while I might try to get age-appropriate book from the library on WWII, when Henry starts digging through our own shelves and comes across Ellie Wiesel and Primo Levi, I’m not planning on stopping him. And if George keeps up with Harry Potter through the somewhat disturbing ending, I won’t be the one to stop him either (even if manages to stay awake).

But maybe I’m being unrealistic and/or dogmatic here–how do you handle reading material for your kids? Do you keep an eye on them or give them free reign on your shelves? Where do you draw the line?   

The long and winding path to great writing advice

I think Forbes.com is a wonderful resource for so many things. A couple of years ago I discovered my remarkable client, Amy Morin, who’d written an article called 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do that went viral after it was picked up by Forbes.com. It went on to become one of their most viewed articles in history and I later sold the book version of the piece which has done very well.

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Through that connection, I also met another client. A dynamic author and career success coach named Kathy Caprino who followed her passion to find a career she loves and helps others to do the same. She is also a contributor for Forbes.com and writes about women, work, female empowerment and all of those great topics we love.

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When I spoke with Kathy recently about her column, I mentioned yet another client, a very talented and prolific author named Cecilia Galante whose first adult novel, THE INVISIBLES, had just been released. I knew from speaking with Cecilia and hosting a book club at my house with her where she inspired everyone in the room that she would be someone who might be of interest to Kathy and her column so I introduced the two of them and this compelling interview on Forbes.com is the result.

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There is a lot to digest here, and much of it is advice we’ve heard before because it works. But Cecilia has such a way with words that it feels fresh and important. Some of it I’ve even talked about here on the DGLM blog before. But not quite in this way: “I’d tell other writers that if they want to write, they need to sit in the damn chair every day and write.” Same goes for the realities of making a living as a writer: “Betting on a lucrative career as an author is like waiting for lightening to strike.”

What’s your favorite bit of advice from Cecilia? Anything else to add to her pearls of wisdom? She’s definitely doing something right because while the lightning bolt might not have hit just yet, she’s under contract for another adult novel and two more middle grades!