Category Archives: children’s books

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Reaching A Younger Generation of Readers

This past spring, a few English majors from my college (including me) got the opportunity to have lunch with M. NourbeSe Philip, a Canadian poet and writer of all genres, and she asked the small group around her, “Do children still read books?” By books, she meant hard copy books, not digital versions. As some diehard English majors are wont to do, the table exploded in reassurances that yes, hard copy books were still very much present and who reads off Kindles/Nooks/iPads anyway? From there, we embarked on a cultural and social discussion about the importance of children holding a book in their hands, why hard copy books will probably always exist., etc.

Four months later, I started babysitting for a charming family who moved to NYC from Hong Kong with two gems of boys. (I’ve honestly never seen better behaved children in my life and they do homework when asked to without much griping. A dream!) My main reason for being there—other than giving their mom a break—is to get them to try and read more. Their mom mentioned with a wry grin that they prefer using the iPad or computer to picking up a book, and do you think you could install a love of reading in them, please?

ipad-ereaders

As a kid who didn’t have access to digital reading, I’m a hard copy book reader myself. But I’ve found myself reading manuscripts on my iPad because those are digital and it’s a matter of convenience. The majority of people I know who are big readers have some kind of digital reading device. And last summer, I had a conversation with an agent at another literary agency about audiobooks and how to reach a wider, more digitally driven audience. “Certain demographics,” he said, “aren’t going to pick up a book. They’re going to be plugged in. How do we reach them?”

I think I’m going to bring my small charges to the Strand and turn them loose. I’m hoping that being surrounded by books will get them excited to choose a book to bring home. (So yeah, it’s a little bit of bribery, but you know. Babysitting is half bribery, to be honest.) Fingers crossed that somehow in my time with them, they start being enchanted by books they can hold and smell and turn pages in.

So that being said: any suggestions for books for active boys around ages 5 and 7 who love soccer, Legos, and have lived in two countries already?

Any predictions on how kids will be reading in ten, fifteen, twenty years?

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Do you need kids to write for kids?

When I was a children’s book editor—even before I was married—people often asked if I had any children. After all, how could I understand what books kids might like to read if I didn’t have kids of my own?

It always struck me as an odd question–does a pediatrician or a teacher need to have kids to know how do her job? So I was very heartened to read Maile Meloy’s essay in the Times last weekend, and how she answered the question. In fact, her answer is so good that I have to print it in full:

“I write fiction, so I’ve written about many things I haven’t actually done. The novels would be very boring otherwise. But the thing I did do, for longer than anything else, was be a kid. Having had a childhood, I think my qualifications are pretty good.”

Amen! I only wish I was that pithy back when I was a childless editor–mostly I just fumbled out an answer or used the pediatrician/teacher analogy and got labeled as snarky…

To her credit, Meloy does allow that a parental perspective can be useful for a children’s book writer, particularly when it comes to parent characters (duh). And as a parent now myself, I appreciate how some writers (like Meloy’s brother) can write books for their own children that end up appealing to the general reading audience.

But I strongly agree with Meloy that tapping into one’s own childhood is most valuable for writing for children (that and reading widely in the field, of course). And I’d add that for writers who happen to be parents, keeping one’s own childhood in mind is a better strategy than observing your kids or, worse, using them as sounding boards. Kids are programmed from birth to tell parents what they want to hear, but if you can draw out the essence of your own childhood, you just might find the truth–and isn’t that what all writers strive to show?

Good as gold

Getting a mention of one’s book on network television is kind of a Holy Grail for authors these days. It’s right up there with being interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s  Fresh Air.  Network attention was exactly what my client Chris Grabenstein got a couple of weeks ago, in the most serendipitous way. Chris’s Middle Grade adventure Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is beloved by kids all over the country, who are eagerly awaiting the sequel, Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, in January. But Chris had no idea that it would turn out to be part of a major gag on Seth Meyers’s late-night show. On the pretext of forming a new family, Meyers and his brother interviewed a series of kids on camera. They asked one little girl the question, “What’s your favorite book?”  And she immediately answered, “Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.” That led to a prolonged improvised comic riff on the title between the brothers Meyers. Licensing restrictions prohibit me from embedding that clip into this post, but suffice it to say that Chris’s phone started ringing off the hook. He also got a nice Amazon ratings bump.

Nobody can take credit for a break like this one—it was just luck of the draw that this little girl happened to be such a big fan of the book.

Actually, Meyers has turned out to be a great friend to the reading public.  He regularly features novelists as guests on his show—something few late-night network talk show hosts are doing these days.   Recently, not only big names like Stephen King and George R. R. Martin have been guests, but newer, younger writers like Marlon James, Joshua Ferris, and Hanya Yanagihara have all been on Meyers’s show to promote their new books.

Meyers’s interest in contemporary fiction is certainly a boon to both authors and the public. But he shouldn’t be a minority of one. There’s no reason Fallon, Kimmel, Corden, Colbert, or the yet-untested Trevor Noah shouldn’t hop on board. As many of us know, writers can be articulate, entertaining, and very funny people. They are often highly sought-after as party guests. What better qualifications for being on a talk show?

Children’s Nonfiction

One of the more interesting and unexpected developments in the children’s book industry over the past year or two has been the rise of nonfiction. Publishers Weekly recently ran an article that surveys the landscape, and how publishers are having success with the kind of MG and YA nonfiction that, until recently, was thought to be going the way of the dodo. Who would have foreseen that in 2015, guidebooks for a video game would be bestsellers?

(Then again, if anyone can explain the appeal of Minecraft in the first place, please do!)

But while video game tie-ins are all well and good, obviously those are licensed products, and for the average children’s book writer, writing for a licensor is a hard gig to land. So how can writers take advantage of this NF “moment” and capitalize on the momentum?

Well, from my seat at the agent’s desk, books like BOMB and RAD AMERICAN WOMEN are the way to go–titles that can fit with Core Curriculum standards while having the kind of adult-market trade appeal that will catch parents’ eyes in the bookstore. Biographies are also attractive, particularly those of living figures (for instance, Hillary Clinton) recently deceased figures (Steve Jobs) or historical figures that are back in the zeitgeist (Alexander Hamilton). And if you’re a published adult writer whose book can be reworked for MG or YA, that’s a great way to further your reach, too.

I’ll also add that on the picture book end, nonfiction is in demand as well. Of course, the topics naturally skew younger than MG or YA–lots of animal stories and bios that can sidestep most controversy. Multicultural topics are also a plus at this level, as they can often be paired with the kind of highly imaginative artwork that editors love.

And here’s another plus on children’s NF–submission guidelines tend to be somewhat squishy. So while picture books submissions do require full text, often you can write longer than the 500-1,000 word limits that frustrate a lot of PB writers. And for MG and YA, my experience is that most editors will review a proposal in lieu of a full manuscript, and a fairly brief proposal at that.

So, for any children’s book writer who’s contemplating NF, this is the time to do it–and when you’ve got your MS or proposal together, send it to me!

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Learning about Middle Grade fiction

I have been agenting for a long time, and I’ve met a lot of interesting and wonderful writers and learned a great deal about different categories of fiction and nonfiction, what sells and what doesn’t.  But, I am always eager to learn new things.

Over the last several years we have all heard a great deal about Young Adult books and what seems to work and what doesn’t.  And we at DGLM represent a bunch of bestsellers in this category.  One of the interesting things in this category is the crossover market that has developed with books like THE HUNGER GAMES series and titles authored by John Green and James Dashner.  And I have been fortunate to represent a number of significant new YA authors.

When we were looking to choose a category for our next book club meeting, Jim McCarthy wisely came up with the concept of all of us reading a recently published Middle Grade book and I loved this idea as this is a category I am just now dipping my toe into.  The potential market is huge since the Harry Potter series put the genre on the map and obviously crossed over into an adult market.

RATSCALIBURTo prepare, I have studied the category a bit.  I know that the age range of readers is between 8 and 12 and the average length of books is 100 pages or less.  Here is a piece I found that clearly describes this category and its traditional market.

Middle Grade classics include the previously mentioned Harry Potter titles, Charlotte’s Web, Matilda and our own Chris Grabenstein’s Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and The Island of Dr. Libris.

So I chose as my book club title (with Jim’s help) Ratscalibur by Josh Lieb.  And my thought is that I will read this and then give it to my seven-year-old granddaughter, Elena, who is a terrific reader, to see what she thinks.  Stay tuned for our thoughts.

I’d also love to know what your experiences are with Middle Grade and what you (and your children) have enjoyed reading in the category.

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Transfiguration

The Lambda Literary Awards were held the Monday after BEA, and, although the ceremony stretched over the course of nearly three hours, the feeling was festive. This year there was something new in the air.

For many years, LGBTQ literature has seemed the poor stepchild of the publishing industry. What had once been a boom back in the 80s and 90s had, by the new millennium, been relegated to a “niche” category that wasn’t showing profits.  LGBTQ individuals were, fortunately, becoming less marginalized, and many no longer felt the same drive to seek the solace of literature. Why did you need to pore through the Gay and Lesbian section at Barnes and Noble, or haunt A Different Light, when you could turn on a rerun of Will and Grace any night of the week?  The nation’s LGBTQ book shops shuttered one by one, and the major publishers became reluctant to acquire queer fiction.

But the sector that has always remained open to such books is just the one where it is most needed: YA and Middle Grade. Gay characters have been thriving in the pages of YA and Middle Grade novels—Seth Rudetsky’s upcoming The Rise and Fall of a Theater Geek, Stephen Chbosky’s  The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Tim Federle’s Better Nate Than Ever are just a few of the books where sexual orientation is basically taken for granted–it is not even the major issue. Times have changed, very much for the better.

Now, transgender is a hot topic among young readers. Along with the growing acceptance of transgender people in society, we are seeing a rising tide of books about kids who are navigating their own gender issues. Alex Gino’s George, slated to be published in August by  Scholastic, was one of the most touted Middle Grade books at BEA. Memoirs like Rethinking Normal by Katie Rain Hill and Some Assembly Required by Arin Andrews are making an impact. And my colleague Jim McCarthy just closed a deal with HarperCollins for Rory Harrison’s Looking for Group, in which a transgender teen will figure prominently. These titles are just the tip of the iceberg.

Will transgender novels reach a tipping point, just as vampires did? Perhaps, but for now, they will help a lot of kids who are going to be very grateful. Adolescence is difficult enough to navigate on its own. It must be a lot tougher when you feel you’re stuck in the wrong body.

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Nephews Read Books

This past weekend, I went to visit my nephews (and their parents, of course, but frankly they’re not as cute).  Now as I’ve previously reported, my nephews know me pretty well by now as a person who reads books.  The older of the two, who we’ll call Fidge, has been known to declare to visitors that “Aunts read books.”  And on the whiteboard on which they count down sleeps until major events, they art directed a sketch of me with a soccer ball in one hand and a book in the other.

At LaurnenSo consider me thrilled to report that my younger nephew, who we’ll call Gus, has started reading memorized bits of his books unprompted, and his big brother Fidge can full on read now, sounding out words he doesn’t recognize and automatically trying to read every word he sees, whether on a book or a street sign or a building.  For the first time ever, he read to me a book he hasn’t memorized.  I love picture books, but I’ve been eagerly awaiting this stage, when we can start advancing to more complicated stories.

So now I need to advance my book acquisitions beyond picture books.  I’m going to stock up on some Amelia Bedelias and Pippi Longstockings.  And they need to hear the news that Miss Nelson Is Missing.  I’ve been holding a set of Roald Dahl books for at least 3 years waiting for them to be old enough.  I’m pretty sure Fidge will be all about the Magic School Bus.  Plus it’s probably time to continue the family Laura Ingalls Wilder tradition.

Do you have any favorite post-picture book gems that my nephews and I should dive into?

6

Book Shower

I have a long and well-blogged history of buying books for the littles in my life – and that task is about to be even more exciting. I am getting my very own nephew, the first little one to come into our family! I am so excited to shower the little mister with books throughout his life, so when I planned last weekend’s trip to Michigan for his shower, I knew I would be bringing a stack of books as his gift.

Then the stakes got raised: The invitation asked that everyone bring a book to the baby shower instead of a card. Flying in from NYC as a representative of the publishing industry – to say nothing of being a former kids’ bookseller – I felt a lot of pressure. I couldn’t trot in there with the most obvious favorites, the same books everyone else will think to bring – Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, and god forbid The Giving Tree! So I carefully chose my books and settled on a good mix of beloved classics and newer favorites.



0002974_ds-go-dog-go_300 GoDogGo2

This was one of my first favorite books, the one I was most eager to learn to read on my own. I remember thinking “This is my favorite book. It’s so funny.”

The Little Enging that Could

 

Everyone knows its famous mantra that sticks with me to this day I think I can I think I can I think I can, but did you realize the real message of this book? Take the time to help others and you’ll accomplish more than you expect!

I am a bunny

Everyone loves Richard Scarry, and this beautiful story doesn’t get as much recognition as the delightful Busy Town gang.

Giraffes

 A discovery from my B&N days – the art is poppin’, the rhymes are rockin’, and – most importantly – it’s never too soon to teach the little guy that he shouldn’t be limited by the expectations of others!!!

On the day of the shower, I was pleasantly surprised to find that no guest brought the same book – impressive considering that there were nearly fifty ladies there eager to set up with enough onesies, binkies, and booties to fill a Babies R Us.

Help me make my next baby book shopping list! What books absolutely MUST go on my nephew’s bookshelf?

 

 

 

Girl power!

Having four daughters and working in book publishing presents both opportunities and challenges as far as finding appropriate books for the girls to read. They are all at different levels, and they all have different interests so it’s not as simple as passing on a sweater or pair of pants from one to the next. What I find happens is that if a kid isn’t interested in the book that’s up for discussion, it sits on a shelf or next to the bed or worse!

I recently came up on this really great website, amightygirl.com, that aims to empower girls by offering a range of resources that relate to books for girls. Its tagline is “The world’s largest collection of books, toys and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls”. It’s fun to play around and see what they’ve come up with, like a list of best female book characters, which includes the likes of Madeline, Hermione Granger, Nancy Drew and Ladybug Girl (impressive to find a way to fit all of those lovely girls into one sentence). I was also pleased to see a book listed on the same subject as an upcoming book on my own list about the inspiring Irena Sendler who saved 2,500 Jewish children in Poland during WWII, which means they must have great taste!

I wonder if any of you have thoughts on wonderful book ideas for girls? There was this book I read over and over as a kid that so resonated with me called Somebody Else’s Kids by Torey L. Hayden, a psychologist who writes nonfiction accounts of her work with children. It’s about four kids of varying ages with serious and very different issues and how their remarkable teacher goes to great lengths to help them. I suppose my love of narrative nonfiction started when I was young. I just ordered it for my oldest to read and look forward to finding many more books with strong, female protagonists that will empower my girls and help them reach their highest potential.

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From book to stage, and beyond

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned here before that in addition to books, I also love the theater (along with my colleague, Jim McCarthy, with whom I share stories of good and bad plays for sport). I think there’s something so magical about a good theatrical experience. I’m proud to say that I saw the original production of Rent off Broadway at The New York Theater Workshop in 1994. It was a profound experience that the few of us lucky enough to see the show with the original cast in that tiny space will never forget.

Rentpostera.jpg

It got me to thinking about books as plays. We often talk about books as films, but plays are so expensive to produce and so often don’t work that the number of shows from books is a lot more limited. What translates to the page doesn’t always translate to the stage. I’ve always loved Les Mis, although I’ve not yet seen the new production, and I recently saw and really enjoyed Matilda, both based on books.

Matilda

A lot of other Broadway shows I’m thinking of are based on films, like Rocky (couldn’t live up to the source material), Kinky Boots (loved the show, didn’t see the movie), and Billy Elliot (saw at a regional theater in Maine this summer). This is a lot more obvious a transition because it’s already a visual medium.

Image result for kinky boots

What books would you like to see adapted for the big stage? Would you turn your favorites into a musical or a dramatic adaptation? Gone Girl, the Musical! So many fun ideas to consider, I don’t even know where to begin!