Category Archives: children’s books

1

Outlaw Pete

With the Labor Day weekend nearly upon us, I feel like the only books people are thinking about are which ones to take to the beach. But I did see this bit of book news on the Times site, and of course it made me sit up and take notice. Yes, the Boss, Bruce Springsteen, is diving into the picture book game, joining the ranks of many of his fellow dinosaur rockers. (Hey, that sounds like a picture book, too!)  Of course, “diving in” may be stretching it, since it sounds like Bruce pretty much just handed the lyrics to an illustrator, which is how these things usually go—though I do have dreams of Bruce waking up one morning and saying, ‘Gee I’d love to go to ALA this summer and pitch my book to all the teachers and librarians…”

What’s really weird about this one, though, and why it probably hasn’t been bigger news, is that the book is going to be published by the adult division. Which makes sense once you give the lyrics a read—yes, it begins with a cute image of a baby outlaw, but from there we get into guns, blood, death, knives, and a 25-year-old main character meditating on mortality and redemption. I’m not sure even Maurice Sendak could get away with all that!

So I’ll be curious to see how it plays out, but early signs aren’t encouraging. The cover image makes it look like a typical picture book, playing up the cute baby outlaw for kids who love cowboys, which seems like a bait-and-switch. Now, maybe it will be a wonderful book that will appeal to both adults and kids, and I’ll certainly reserve full judgment until it comes out. But on first glance, it does seem like the most cynical kind of celebrity/children’s publishing—let’s hope The Boss takes charge and gets it to that place where we really want it to go. And then we’ll walk in the sun…

 

1

Defining children’s categories

I often get asked what the differences are between a middle grade and young adult novel. I think with the success of the children’s category in general over the last decade or so, those answers have changed. There is a lot more overlap now between upper middle grade and younger young adult, and with older young adult to adult crossover. The books that work best in both categories are the ones that become widely read by boys and girls, children and adults. Think blockbuster series like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Divergent and our own Maze Runner.

I found this article from my favorite source, writersdigest.com, about defining middle grade and ya fiction. While there is some really good basic beginner advice here, I do think that some rules were made to be broken. Don’t get caught up in word count to stick to category norms. Then again, don’t submit a manuscript that’s 150,000 words either. But straying 10k in either direction is totally fine.

Another important point to consider is that the majority of middle grade is third person, and the majority of young adult is first. You might think of this as children’s books 101 but I’ve had authors try to do third person YA and then find switching to first works a whole lot better for the book and the category.

I think that children’s books are opening up in many directions and kids today are able to digest a lot more than ever before. I see it with my own girls, two of whom are reading and two are about to be as they enter Kindergarten. Their minds are so open to the many adventures that await them in both middle grade and young adult novels. I can’t wait to share it with them! Please let us know about your favorite MG and YA novels, and if they follow the guidelines set forth by Writer’s Digest.

7

MG vs YA

Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference in Seattle. At the opening Agent’s Panel, I gave my usual spiel of what I’m looking for–Adult nonfiction, a smattering of offbeat adult fiction, and the broad range of children’s projects–YA, Middle Grade, and picture books. After that, I settled into my seat in the ballroom for a long stretch of power pitching, where the writers line up for 4-minute pitch meetings one after the other in the hopes of getting a request to see a full MS.

As exhausting as power pitching can be, it does serve to give an agent a good idea of what writers are generally working on these days. Although we often recommend that writers NOT write for the market, it’s natural for writers to turn to what seems to be popular. And hence, I heard a ton of MG pitches, which makes sense, since a ton of editors seem to be focusing on it these days.

But what surprised me about these MG pitches is that a solid majority of them featured a main character who was 13 years old. Which, if you go by the traditional demarcations of MG as ages 8-12 and YA as 12 up, means that they’re really writing YA. At the same time, the stories seemed to be solidly MG–heavy on fantasy and school stories, light on teen issues and racy content.

So what gives? Do these writers not know the basic guidelines? Are they just trying to age down their YA novels for the market? Or has MG become more elastic and less constricted by age distinctions than in the past?

Frankly, I’m not exactly sure, so I was very interested to read this article from PW Children’s Bookshelf, which looks at how bookstores are struggling with how to shelve MG and YA. And from their survey, it seems that stores are making up their own rules–some are keeping YA and MG totally separate, some create overlapping sections of 8-12, 10-14, and 14 up, while others lump them all together. Different strokes for different customer bases, perhaps, but for me it seems like there’s just confusion all round about where books belong on the shelf.

So, what’s a writer to do? Well, like a lot of category distinctions in publishing, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there’s a clear answer. My personal feeling is that despite the shifting winds, a writer seeking representation is still better off adhering to the old guidelines–if your character is 12 or under, it’s MG, 13 and up, YA. Not that I’m trying to take the easy way out here, but the last thing I want to hear from an editor is that they love the book but aren’t sure where it would live on the shelf–that’s a classic rejection line.  So I’d much prefer an author adhere to what’s been done in the past when starting out and go genre-busting on book 2.

That said, others may have different ideas of what marks MG versus YA these days, so I’d love to know what you’ve been hearing. Are 8-12 and 12 up still recommended? If not, what are folks suggesting as new guidelines?

 

2

Love is an open door

Does the title of this post sound familiar? If you’re a parent of young kids, I’m sure it does–your kids have probably been singing it ad nauseum for months now…

Yep, I’m talking about Frozen. Actually, we’ve been talking about Frozen quite a bit here at DGLM over the past couple of weeks, trying to wrap our head around why it’s such a cultural phenomenon and whether there’s a book in it. Of course, anything that involves The Mouse would be hard to get an insider’s POV, but I’d love to know more about how the story evolved and how they thought about their audience.

Because while Frozen is clearly, even transparently, targeted at girls, boys love it too–just ask the New York Times!  I can personally attest to it as well, with daily requests from my two sons (ages 5 and 3) to “play Frozen music” and an Elsa doll taking her place of honor next to the Star Wars figures and Matchbox cars. And as much as Dad keeps hoping they will “let it go” and start singing something else, I don’t see this obsession ending anytime soon…

Okay, what does this have to do with books? Well, it’s long been a truism in children’s book marketing that girls will read books with boy main characters, but boys will only read about boys. And so while books with boy main characters tend to be marketed with less regard for gender (Harry Potter pops to mind immediately), books with girl mains are often pitched much more directly to girl readers, especially “girly” ones like Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious, Eloise, etc.

But with that, are the children’s marketeers giving our boys short shrift? My sons love Eloise, Ladybug Girl, and Olivia, who has gotten progressively “girlier” over the years. Granted, I already had these books on the shelf from my editor days, but we’ve also taken Fancy Nancy out of the library at their request. And when I talk to parents of boys in my oldest’s class or check out their bookshelves on play dates, I usually see some evidence of books that aren’t “meant” for their boys.

Now, of course my anecdotal evidence is flimsy at best, but I’m curious, dear readers: if you’re a parent of young boys, do they like books with girl main characters? Do they ever get Frozen-level obsessed? And if so, how do the books get into their hands? It’s a question for me as an agent, too, in terms of how I pitch certain projects–it’d be great to be able to say a girl main character will appeal to boys if there’s a way to back it up. So, please, lemme know!

 

0

Tiny readers

As the absurdly proud aunt of exceptionally wonderful nephews—who we’ll call Fidge and Gus, because that is what I call them—I’ve actively made it my mission to get them to associate me with books.  Fidge once told his “Aunt” Gabby that “Aunts read books” and made her read him bedtime stories.  A few weeks after that, he unceremoniously announced his desire to go to bed by walking up to me and saying “You always read to me.”  Why yes, Fidge, yes I do.  Gus is a bit of a tougher sell—he’s rambunctious and not so fond of sitting still.  But if he can interact with a book or laugh hysterically while “At” Lauren makes faces or yells or roars, he’s game.  His biggest obsession is with Bill Cotter’s Don’t Push the Button, in which illicit button pushes lead to a whole host of multi-colored monsters named Larry.  He now “reads” that one to himself, turning each page to intone “Don’t push a button!” and then…pushing that button anyway.

As Gus’s birthd9780062247759_p0_v1_s260x420ay is coming up, I headed out of town last weekend to celebrate it with the family.  Naturally, I dragged Sharon to the bookstore with me last week to find some future favorites for him and settled on Press Here by Herve Tullet, I Am Otter by Sam Garton, and his autobiography The Boss Baby by Marla Frazee (which is really more for his parents).  I read the books to both boys separately, and Gus especially loved Press Here, which was no surprise since it’s very similar to Don’t Push the Button.  He’s also a fan of counting, so it suits him.  He did seem to think The Boss Baby was pretty funny, but now I’m worried it might’ve given him ideas.  And I Am Otter was definitely my favorite of the three.

But my favorite reading moment of the weekend was this one: in a crowded house full of family, with Gus trying to go to sleep in the bedroom, Fidge was clearly ready to wind down.  Fortunately, aunts know what to do when you need a moment away from all the bustle.  So I gathered up Gus’s new books and some old favorites and hunkered down in a Super Secret Hiding Spot under the dining room table with Fidge.  We read through the above three plus Madeline and Wild About Books, one of his absolute favorites, since it’s got books AND animals AND ample opportunities for counting and guessing and finding hidden frogs.  Not only did we get quiet time (where, according to Fidge at least, no one even knew where we were!), we also got to revisit old friends and make new ones.

I kind of miss Otter and Teddy, actually.

7

Bernadette’s Busy Morning

One of my favorite picture books from my childhood vanished years ago, and I’ve never been able to find it since. I’ve scoured every corner of the internet, from Amazon to Powells, only to find no mention of it. I’ve raided the kids’ section at every used bookstore or library sale in my path hoping to see its familiar cover. I’ve interrogated children’s librarians and booksellers – none of them have ever even heard of this amazing story.

Bernadette’s Busy Morning is about a delightful circus bear who wanders away from her trainer’s trailer one day and has a bunch of adventures in the city. I loved Bernadette and read her story over and over and over, poring over every detail of every picture. And I’ve never stopped hoping that one day she would turn up – perhaps on a dollar cart at The Strand, or tucked on a bottom shelf at HousingWorks Bookstore. I’ve even considered blogging about Bernadette before this, in hopes that maybe, just maybe, one of you might hold a clue that brings my search.

So you can imagine my utter shrieking elation a few weeks ago when I opened a birthday present from my brother. THERE WAS BERNADETTE.

 

bernadetteC

 

There may have been some jumping up and down and screaming, maybe even a tear or two shed. I called him right away – “I can’t believe you found it!” She plays in the fountain! She marvels at the loud and constant traffic! She tries to make friends, but everyone just runs away screaming! (If this is a metaphor for NYC life, I don’t know what is.) Finally, tired and lonely, she’s reunited with her trainer and returned to her safe and happy home in the circus.

 My brother still won’t tell me how or where he tracked it down. I suspect a genie might have been involved.

Are there any long-lost books from your childhood that you wish you could find again?

Any success stories of tracking down a particularly rare book that you just had to have?

I wish I grew up reading…

It wasn’t too long ago that I became Uncle Mike. My cousin gave birth to a little baby girl, Eleanor. (I know that technically makes me her second cousin, but Second Cousin Mike doesn’t really roll off the tongue.)

It also wasn’t too long ago that a roommate told me he wished he read more growing up. He can’t remember the last time he read a book cover to cover and attributes this shortcoming to the lack of pages he turned as a kid.

Now I’m not a scientist, but it seems to me that if you develop a love of reading when you’re a child, you’ll be more likely to pick up a book in adulthood. And let’s face it, wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone read more? Numerous studies show positive correlations between reading and intelligence, empathy and emotional health. This is just one of many.

So I’d like little Eleanor to grow up reading. And when she actually is able to read, I’d like to give her a basket full of books similar to the one in my childhood room at my parent’s place—only with fewer books about aliens, wizards, knights, and trains. But until then, I’m in the market for some good board books that her parents can read to her.

So please help! What do you read to your children?

1

Long ago favorites

Inspired by this Buzzfeed post from earlier in the week, I thought back on my favorite illustrated books as a kid. They were mostly fairy tales (or close to), as are the illustrations in that post. I know the trends in children’s book illustrations change drastically from generation to generation—even year to year—so when I went hunting, it was no real surprise to me, that it took some more serious digging to find examples of the types of books—both in story and design—that I loved the most.

It wasn’t hard, however, to remember the titles of my top favorites, since they still hold a place on my bookshelf (albeit in my childhood home, but they did withstand all the teenage and college year purges).

I remember reading Melisande by E. Nesbit and illustrated by P.J. Lynch (Harcourt 1989) over and over and over as a girl, fascinated as I was by the artwork (and envious of her lustrous hair) and drawn in by the recognizable elements of both Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty in a story that was an original unto itself.

 

Another favorite about another plucky, independent girl was Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully (Puffin 1992). Mirette has a very French Toulouse-Lautrec poster advertisement look about it and I remember thinking that I would have given anything for her outfits, hair and bravery. Similarly, I loved the Madeleine books as well, but I don’t think I need to post a reference picture for those!

 

In addition to these and the usual Berenstein Bears and Mr. Men picture books that crowded our shelves, I realized I had an odd penchant for inherently sad stories as well. Some of my favorites (when I was in the mood—otherwise I would make my parents skip them when reading to me) were stories like The Velveteen Rabbit, Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant and original versions of Grimm’s fairy tales—most notably The Little Mermaid wherein the Mermaid must kill herself with a dagger in the end. I don’t know what attracted me to these books, but I loved them.

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Books as gifts

I’m always trying to think of clever ways to give a book as a gift. Sometimes it might seem too impersonal or like it needs a little extra something to go with it, depending on the occasion or the person on the receiving end. I find this particularly true when giving books as gifts to kids. For birthday parties, I’ll often give a book along with something else – a little toy or craft, or a painting set with Christie Matheson’s Tap the Magic Tree, or a box of crayons with a copy of The Day the Crayons Quit. And sometimes when I’m inspired I’ll buy multiple copies and give them away until they run out.

I was pleased with my latest book gift inspiration when I decided to give copies of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to all the kids attending my daughter’s upcoming 9th birthday party. Since we’ll be watching the movie (not sure which version yet) and doing a candy/dessert-themed party, I figured giving a copy of the book with some sort of confection was a good idea for a favor. And so I ordered 19 copies of this adorable illustrated paperback edition. When the box arrived, we all grabbed the books like they were filled with golden tickets (which they were since there is one inside each copy)!

 

It has been such a pleasure seeing my older girls enjoy the book, and I dipped into it again myself and fondly remember reading it when I was young. All these years later, and the book still entertains and delights. It really is a timeless treasure. And speaking of books as gifts, I think I’ll order the Roald Dahl boxed set for my daughter’s birthday so all my girls can enjoy them, even the ones who are not yet reading!

I’d love to hear how you give books as gifts. Do you wait for specific holidays or birthdays? Do you buy books you love? New ones or classics? What categories? Do you pair them up with anything else? There’s no right answer here. Just a fun thing to think about – giving books as gifts. It really is the gift that keeps on giving as they can be savored for so many years to come.

 

 

 

4

A few thoughts about writing YA

I’ve been working with a lot of authors the last few years on the adult side who are looking to publish on the children’s side. I know I’m not the only one, as the market has surged and become a destination for talented writers whose books can often cross over to the adult market. The obvious early megahits on the YA side like Twilight and The Hunger Games have made room for more recent realistic teen novels like The Fault in Our Stars and Wonder.

I thought it was worth sharing this advice column I found in Publisher’s Weekly from published author Seth Fishman. Now that I have a few young humans of my own, I love that he says: “You’re writing for young humans, people who are the most in need of answers, people who are the most curious.” And I like the way he positions his advice from a broad perspective. Rather than focusing on plot or characters, it’s about thinking and feeling and the emotion that is so critical for adults writing for teens to get right.

Take a look and see if you YA authors have anything else to add to his list. What do you do when you’re getting ready to channel your inner teen?