Category Archives: children’s books

The inside scoop on writing for kids

All you aspiring writers out there – don’t you sometimes wish you could sit down with an experienced editor and ask a book’s worth of questions about children’s book publishing? Well, your wish has been granted in the form of a new book written by children’s book editor and author Cheryl B. Klein.

Her site alone is full of good information for aspiring authors but it’s her new book, THE MAGIC WORDS: WRITING GREAT BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND  YOUNG ADULTS that is really going to give you the inside track.

In case you don’t know, the publisher she works for as the Executive Editor, Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, published a little series called Harry Potter. Arthur Levine is the genius editor who recognized its market potential and bought it for the U.S. market. Their list is incredible and it’s a very small team that acquires and edits all of their books. She’s worked on a range of books, from picture books to YA, and she even worked on the last two books in the Harry Potter series.

THE MAGIC WORDS  itself has been generating good response and positive reviews. Booklist, a trade publication, gave it a starred review.  They describe it like this:  “For anyone wishing to write for young readers, Klein’s remarkable new book will be a sine qua non, an indispensable, authoritative guide to the act, art, and craft of creation. An editor for 15 years, Klein clearly knows her apples about the writing—and publishing—process and demonstrates an extraordinary gift for analyzing it, breaking it into its constituent parts, and reducing those parts to other parts until an essential kernel of truth is uncovered.”

Seems to me it’s more than a worthwhile investment (of under $20!) to learn about the unique craft of writing fiction for children from one of the best and brightest in the business. How she had time to write this book is beyond me, but I’m very glad she did so I can share it with all of you!

Potter mania!

I know I’m not the only one talking about Harry Potter these days. The new “book”, which is really the published version of the play currently running in London (oh, how I wish I could go!) went on sale this week and the frenzy is out of control.

Publisher’s Weekly reports here that sales have already topped 2 million copies, in North America alone. I admit I’m one of those who preordered the book as soon as I heard it was becoming available. I actually realized that I did it twice so now have 2 copies on their way! Midnight parties across the country attracted kids and adults of all ages.

I just love how a fictional character has caused such a stir in popular culture. It’s such a positive reminder of the lasting impact books can have in a time when there is so much negativity being put out into the media. It’s incredible and practically unfathomable to me that a published play could achieve this level of success. I love theater so it’s heartening to me to know that this medium can generate big numbers, as evidenced by this new Harry Potter as well as the huge success of Hamilton (my other current obsession, more exciting news to come on that in a later post).

We’ve had our own version of Potter fever around here lately. While my oldest daughter is away at sleepaway camp, her younger sister dressed up as Harry for Halloween in July at camp (photo below). I was impressed with how she put the costume together with adult glasses and the scar drawn on a piece of scotch tape, and it helped we still have our wands from our amazing visit to Potter World at Universal in Florida last November.

Have you ordered your copy of Cursed Child yet? If you have and you’ve read it, please let us know what you think. Michiko Kakutani’s review in the New York Times was very positive and she’s one tough critic. She actually refers to it as “a compelling, stay-up-all-night read.” I’m so excited to dive back into the wonderful world of Harry Potter and read it with all the girls when Sam’s back from camp. Will let you know how it goes!

ps- my first copy arrived while I was writing this post, and it’s a beautiful book:

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Animals & Reading

My heart was recently broken this week by this HuffPost article that announced that Browser, the resident library cat of White Settlement Public Library in Texas was being evicted by the city council. He’s lived in the library for over five years (first brought in to help with a mouse problem). Although Browser doesn’t serve an educational purpose, he’s clearly become a fixture in the community—a petition had over 600 signatures to keep Browser in the library—and it got me thinking about the ways that animals can be involved in our reading experiences. Whether it’s your cat obstinately sitting across your book or a dog draped across your feet as you read, many of us have had the company of our pets as we peruse a book. I was pleasantly surprised to find that animals are involved with reading all over the place, with positive benefits for all parties involved.

LOOK AT THAT FACE. And his BOWTIE.

Take, for instance, the Reading with Rover program, sponsored by Animal Friends in Pittsburgh. Shy or struggling readers in grades one through three practice their reading skills by reading out loud to dogs. ARF! is another program sponsored by All for Animals, with a similar idea, for kids grades K-6. On the flip side, one Humane Society in Missouri has started the Shelter Buddies Reading Program, where kids 6-15 can sign up to read to shy or fearful dogs in the shelter and undergo a 10 hour training program. The program director says it helps give the dogs social interaction (which can help them get adopted faster), without pushing physical interaction upon them; young readers simply sit outside their kennel and read aloud. The New Hampshire SPCA also has a similar program.

If there had been something like this in my neighborhood as a kid, I totally would have volunteered. I think it’s a lovely measure that has advantages for everyone involved and one that’s hopefully instilling pleasant and positive memories in young readers who participate! I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter!

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I believe the children are our future

coverRegular readers of the DGLM blog will already know that I dote on my nephews, and that reading is one of our strongest bonds. The two little goons had their first day of summer vacation this week and asked their mom if they could spend it reading, which pleases me to no end.

Luckily I got to spend this past weekend with them, where I planned to work with them on making a “book.” They’re already fascinated with the fact that their aunt makes books happen—the older one, who I call Fidge, refuses to leave a bookstore without looking for my name in some books, even proudly showing it off to strangers in the same aisle, and the little one, who I call Gus, thinks that my job is International Secret Agent.  Imagine my delight when I arrived at my mother’s this weekend to see that they had already taken it upon themselves to make their own books, without my ever suggesting it.  Fidge wasn’t done with his yet, so I’ll have to wait till next time.

back coverBut Gus?  Gus not only finished his book, he read it to me, then turned it over with a flourish to read the title page that he tells me says “By At Lauren.”  (Having the title page on the back cover is a really bold move. He’s going to really change things up in publishing, I think.) While I don’t actually recommend that new authors sign over their copyright to publishing professionals just to curry favor, I can’t help but be touched.

interiorFor those of you who don’t read Gus-ese, the book is about a turtle who is lonely because he doesn’t have any friends. Then a shark swims by and tells him that he wants to be the turtle’s friend. And then they are friends forever.  I couldn’t be prouder to have “written” it. Picture book editors, shoot me an email if you’re interested.

 

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Books that spark joy!

As many of you might already know, I’m a bit of the office optimist. I love stories that inspire, delight, and enlighten. I also am a huge fan of Ann Patchett, both her writing and her overall persona. I love that she opened an independent bookstore in Nashville, and I also love that she periodically writes for their blog.

I was pleased to see this post she wrote about books that spark joy. The list describes books she personally finds joy in, and then she gives some suggestions from her staff so there are a lot of good suggestions.

Patchett  got the idea from another employee at the store who had written about books that make you cry. The reason we all read is ultimately for the emotional , spiritual or intellectual response elicited from a writer’s words. Depending on your place in life, the books that have meaning at that time can make a lasting impact.

As a child, Judy Blume did this for me, as well as Torey Hayden’s books about troubled kids. In college, it was fiction like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History that made me want to get into the world of books. I remember walking to campus in Boston reading while I walked because it was so good. This was long before distractions were digital!

When I started working in working in publishing, I worked for Polygram Filmed Entertainment  in development and read Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra overnight after faxing the ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT to LA. Then I found joy and solace in writers like Ann Patchett and Annie Proulx. I loved The Shipping News.

Today it’s more about narrative nonfiction like Brain on Fire and When Breath Becomes Air and psychological commercial women’s fiction from authors like Liane Moriarty and Gillian Flynn. And of course the children’s books I read with my kids. The Harry Potter series is an overall favorite, mostly because my eleven-year-old is obsessed with it, and two out of four are loving Wonder right now. They all loved my client Cecilia Galante’s upcoming touching and heartwarming The World from Up Here.

The idea of books that spark joy, and elicit that positive response that makes us feel good is such a coveted pleasure of reading that I love thinking about it in those terms.

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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?