Monday, March 30, 2009

Judging a book by its beginning

(cross-posted belatedly from Blue Rose Girls. Read original post and comments here.)

I read the Printz medal-winning book Jellicoe Road a few weeks ago. We don't review books on this blog, but my experience reading this book make me think twice about the way I review manuscripts, so I thought it was worth discussing. First of all, let me say that I absolutely loved the book. I thought it was profound, moving, intricately crafted, and layered. It made me sob, and those of you who know me, know that I'm a sucker for books that make me cry.

BUT, I spent the first 100 pages confused. I found it extremely hard to follow, with too many characters to keep track of. For some reason, I kept thinking it was a dystopian fantasy. It took me a while to realize that it was set in contemporary Australia! And then I spent the next 50-100 pages irritated by the main character. I know, right? Not exactly a glowing review. And yet I loved this book! The writing was beautiful, and I stuck with it, and I'm so glad that I did, because the second half was so fantastic, I forgave the issues I had with the beginning. And, in fact, I understood better the reason why the beginning was set up the way it was.

But I realized that if this had been submitted to me, I would have probably declined it, because when I review novels, I generally make up my mind in the first 30-50 pages. If I'm pretty sure it's a pass, I will skip to the end to see if it ends on a really powerful note, but it's hard to say in this case if skipping to the end would have changed my mind. In my first year or so as an editorial assistant, I actually read through every submission all the way through. Sure, I may have skimmed, but I had the time and interest to get to the end. But I came to realize that I rarely if ever changed my mind about a book after making up my mind in the beginning. I also started getting more novel submissions and was unable to read the entire manuscript and still keep up with the reading pile. (I should say that if I'm liking a book, I'll read the whole thing.)

So, what made me stick with the book in this case? The fact that it was a Printz winner was a reason--I knew that it must end powerfully for it to have won over a committee of librarians. Knowing that the author was well-respected played a role, too. Plus the fact that I was reading it for a book group and started it early enough to have time to finish it, of course!

I was talking about my experience with this book with an agent last week, telling her that because of the nature of the business, I might have a passed on a book that I ultimately loved, and she thought for a moment and said, "Well, I suppose that's where a good agent comes in." The agent can advise the editor to stick with a book, and if the editor trusts the agent, she will. It's true. There are certain agents I trust, and know that they would never send something unworthy. I give the submissions they send me a little more attention and patience than others sent by agents I don't know, don't know well, or know but don't generally trust their taste. Other readers at the book group said they stuck with it because colleagues had told them how amazing the book was, and they trusted their advice.

But I must say, ultimately, I think Jellicoe Road is the exception to the rule. There's a reason why so many conferences have first-page critiques--because it's so crucial to hook your reader from the very beginning. I won't be drastically changing the way I review submissions, but then again, I may be a little more patient with certain novels under very special circumstances.

*****

Just a reminder that tomorrow night I will be on a panel at the New School on getting published, along with Ben Tomek, marketing associate, Reader’s Digest Children’s Publishing; and Anna Olswanger, literary agent, Liza Dawson Associates. It's only $5 (free for students, faculty, and alumni), so if you're in the NY area, come on out! More info here.

*****

And finally, the winning name for my segments on the books I edit is...

Beyond the Book!

I wrote everyone's name who voted on a scrap of paper and drew one winner, and that lucky person is...Lindsey, who was the 5th commenter on this post. Congratulations! Email me at bluerosegirls@gmail.com and let me know which Little, Brown book you would like.

Thanks everyone for voting, and tune in next Monday for...
Beyond the Book: The Curious Garden.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Tidbits and Will Power

This was cross-posted from Blue Rose Girls from this morning, so I've since gotten many more than two votes. Hurray!



First of all, I've only gotten two votes so far for my three name choices for my posts about the books I edit. Please help me out and vote for one of the following:

1. Beyond the Book
2. An Editor's Story
3. Every Book a Star

If you vote, I'll enter you into a drawing for a Little, Brown Book for Young Readers of your choice! Voting will end at 5 pm EST next Sunday, March 29th.

***

Next Tuesday, March 31st, I will be on a panel at the New School on getting published, along with Ben Tomek, marketing associate, Reader’s Digest Children’s Publishing; and Anna Olswanger, literary agent, Liza Dawson Associates. It's only $5 (free for students, faculty, and alumni), so if you're in the NY area, come on out! More info here.


***

A few weeks ago I listened to a Radio Lab podcast about will power. It described an experiment done in the 1960s where Dr. Walter Mischel tested the will power and ability to delay gratification of hundreds of preschoolers, offering them a marshmallow now, or two if they waited 15 minutes. Listen to it here.

There had been highlights of an adorable Oreo cookie version on the blog, but it seems to have disappeared, and I'm unable to find it online--if anyone can find it, please let me know! It was cute, although short. There are several reenactments online, here are a few of the better ones:



This one is good, although the video of the experiment is sandwiched between a preacher's sermon:



I wonder how I would have fared when I was four...

Monday, March 16, 2009

Thoughts on Beauty

Thanks everyone for your great name ideas. I haven't been able to decide on one yet, but I've narrowed it down to three. Two I came up with myself, but one was submitted by a commenter. I'm going to put them up to a vote, but regardless of the outcome, Charlotte wins a free L,B book of her choice!

The final three are:
1. Beyond the Book
2. An Editor's Story
3. Every Book a Star (Charlotte, you may have just been joking about this, but I like it, because it's true!)

Please vote for your favorite name! And as Charlotte wins a book regardless, don't let that affect how you vote.

Okay, so here's my post about North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley, as promised.


On Friday night I went with a girlfriend to see the movie
He's Just Not That Into You--not the greatest movie ever made, of course, but with my realistic (low) expectations, it was a fun time, and afterwards there was plenty to discuss regarding dating and men and how we view ourselves.

We discovered that we were both incredibly awkward teens, and considered ourselves fairly unattractive. That's nothing new--I'd guess that at least 90% of the population considered themselves ugly and awkward as a preteen and teen. But we were both shocked that the other was not of the special 10%, and marveled at how far we've come. When I reflect on it more, though, I realized that there was a point while I was still in my awkward stage when I started to consider myself pretty--I just never thought that anyone else (aside from my parents) truly found me attractive. Even in college when I started to date somewhat successfully, I thought that only after someone of the opposite sex got to know me well would they be able to find me physically attractive--hence, my whole "friends first" approach to dating, which is how my first three relationships developed. My theory was confirmed when my second boyfriend, after we had dated for a few months said, quite honestly over dinner one night, "I just realized that you're really pretty!" Umm...thanks?

This all leads back to North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley. This novel is narrated by Terra--tall, blonde, kick-a*s body, but no matter how much she works on herself, no matter how much make-up she wears, she never sees herself as beautiful because of the port-wine birthmark that covers half of her face. We've all been there, right? Especially as a teen. "If only my teeth were straight, I'd be beautiful. If only my skin cleared up, I'd be pretty. If only my nose were smaller. If only I lost 20 pounds. If only XX"

Over the course of the novel, Terra learns to adjust her definition of beauty, and Justina hopes that the same will happen with the readers. In one guest blog during her blog tour, Justina talks about the influence of Maya Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman" on her novel, saying:

I’d rather be The Most Phenomenal Me I can be than The Most Beautiful Girl in the room. One will sustain me forever, the other will fade and leave me yearning for my glory days. I don’t want to live in memories of my past prime when I have the beauty of now.

Agreed.

Now to choose a question from the many great suggestions. These two were related, so I'll address them both:

I loved North of Beautiful--did the book come in pretty much perfect like this, or did you get to work with Justina to weave all those themes together so beautifully?

and

I always love to hear about process. It would be interesting to hear about a problem or course change from your perspective and from the perspective of the author/artist.

Justina's previous two novels,
Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) and Girl Overboard came to me in very good shape and almost complete. North of Beautiful, on the other hand, I first read as a proposal--I think about three chapters and rough synopsis. And to be perfectly honest, I was a little concerned. First of all, the main character was a Chinese adoptee with a port-wine birthmark. Her father was not just verbally abusive, but physically abusive as well. Oh, and her mother was a borderline alcoholic. Sounds like a lot, huh? Frankly, it felt almost depressingly oppressive. I had complete faith in Justina's ability as a writer, but I had to recommend that she make some significant changes and see if we were on the same page.

Justina really is a dream author for an editor to work with. She's not only a smart and skilled writer, but she's also very open and listens to and carefully considers feedback. I don't expect authors to agree with every comment I make, but it makes a world of difference when an author really listens to my questions and edits and addresses them in a seamless and believable way. In this case, she dealt with many of my comments by taking the original Terra, and transfering some of her issues over to the wonderful character of Jacob. She toned down Terra's parents as well. And it all worked.

I absolutely love what Justina has accomplished with this novel. It's beautifully written, compelling, moving, rich, and layered. And it introduces the reader to fascinating things such as geocaching, cartography, travel, adoption, and collaging. I also love the relationship between Terra and her mother. And as to the question about whether I played a role in weaving the themes into the novel, that was all Justina. She is a genius! Truly. And don't just take it from me, take it from the glowing reviews all around the blogosphere--and did I mention it's received three starred reviews?

"With every carefully chosen word, well-crafted sentence, and fully developed character, Headley maps out a wholly satisfying reading experience that takes readers from terra nullis to terra firma."--Booklist (starred review)

"This emotionally satisfying novel is replete with themes about the true meaning of beauty, the destructive power of verbal abuse and the restorative ability of art. Mapping and cartography terms are expertly woven throughout the text, adding yet another level to an already complex and deeply felt read. Look out, Sarah Dessen. You may have met your match in Headley."
--Kirkus (starred review)

"Laced with metaphors about maps and treasure, Headley’s (Girl Overboard) finely crafted novel traces a teen’s uncharted quest to find beauty....All of her characters hold secrets; finding them out will be as rewarding as Terra’s discoveries of caches."--Publisher's Weekly (starred review)

Justina always tries to give back in some way with each book, and for
North of Beautiful she is sponsoring a Video Challenge where she'll be donating $10 for every video uploaded (up to $1,000) to Global Medical Surgeries, which helps kids with cleft lips in third world countries.

I neglected to read the guidelines before creating my video, so it's a bit longer than it's supposed to be, but oh well. Here's my video! Make one of your own!




Read the full rules of the Find Beauty Video Challenge here.

Charlotte, Martha, and the Anonymous who submitted the second question, please email me at bluerosegirls@gmail.com with your book choice (check the website for options) and mailing address. Thanks, and congrats!

Monday, March 09, 2009

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Child friendly?

cross-posted from the Blue Rose Girls.

I've been thinking more lately about what "child friendly" means in terms of children's books, and if it's a valid assessment to evaluate a book. This comes partially out of that old Newbery discussion, and partially because I've found myself using that criticism regarding some books (that will remain nameless). "I liked the book" I've said, "But I just couldn't see kids getting into it." But of course, when that same criticism is made about a book I've edited, I bristle. Who are they to say that a book isn't child friendly? They're underestimating children. A book that some kids hate, others will love. I know this! We all know this! There is a very wide range of work that can be child friendly.

So, shame on me.

I'm fairly out of touch with what kids think of the books I edit, especially picture books. I do give books to kids I know and watch them interact with them, but these occasions are few and far between. I'm mainly drawing on my memory of the types of books I loved as a kid, the ones I read over and over again, and hope that there are kids today that have the same type of sensibility I had/have. (For novels, in terms of feedback, teens will write reviews and post them on blogs. We also get feedback from our hip scouts. Six-year-olds don't generally have blogs.)

One specific example of a book whose child friendliness is in question is Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein and Ed Young. Perhaps you've heard of it? (I write about it enough, don't I?) I know that there are people who find this to be a book more for adults, or older kids, but from the moment I read an early draft of the manuscript, I had faith that younger kids would love this story about a cat trying to find out the meaning of her name, and that kids would also respond to the gorgeous collage illustrations. Not every kid, of course, but many of them. And now that the book has been out about six months, the only evidence I have to go on is from what people tell me and from the reviews I read. Some of the reviews on Amazon vary from:

My favorite seven-year-old girl bookworm (and cat lover) begged me to stop reading it at about page three. And my favorite nine-year-old boy bookworm and ravenous reader wanted nothing to do with it.

to:

My four-year old grandson enjoyed the story as did his nine-year old sister.

and:

What a wonderful way to expose a young audience to meaningful simplicity. One reviewer said this wasn't a children's book but I guess it depends on the child. Curled up in bed with his dog and his cat my son pays rapt attention to this story.

One of my favorite reviews was one I read recently online. Here is the bit regarding its child appeal:

This is not your ordinary children’s book. But nevertheless, my almost 3-year old was completely absorbed as I read haiku after haiku. Sometimes I mistakenly believe that complex thoughts and art are beyond my toddler. But really I think if we as adults could appreciate art and words like a toddler must, we might have an unanticipated deep understanding of truth. That is, in one sense, the beauty of wabi sabi.

One thing I've been thinking about lately is how we in publishing will categorize books as "institutional" versus "commercial"--which maybe is another way of saying: "will sell mainly in libraries" versus "will sell mainly in bookstores" and also: "the type of books teachers and librarians need to introduce to a kid in order for him or her to like it" versus "truly kid friendly." I always hope that the books I edit will be successful in both ways, but generally, when I'm acquiring a book I do believe that it will be more successful in one over the other. And in the case of Wabi Sabi, I'm sure my publisher thought it would have more institutional appeal. But now, as it reaches its tenth week on the NYTimes Bestseller list, we've realized that it has become a true commercial hit (not that it hasn't been a success institutionally, too!).

Anyway, I suppose when people say "child friendly" they mean, "will be liked by most children." A good example would be the four "butt" books that Alison Morris highlighted on her PW blog recently (my personal favorite is the last one, Chicken Butt by Erica Perl, illustrated by Henry Cole).

It would be an interesting study to see how many kids, when forced to choose between Chicken Butt and Wabi Sabi, would choose the latter. If any of you lovely blog readers want to do a test study, I'd love to hear the results!

A question: have you ever been surprised by a book, either one that you thought would be a no-brainer in terms of kids liking it, but they turned out to not be interested, or vice versa--a book you were pretty sure they would hate, that it turned out that they loved?