Thursday, April 1, 2010

Twelve Things Every Children's Writer Should Do - #8 Do Your Homework

Unlike this poor boy who looks like he's having to do ancient Chinese or Hebrew, your homework won't be as difficult, but it is is as important.

When it comes to sending your work out, it is important to understand their needs. Publishing houses' needs are quite different from magazines. And educational houses needs are different from trade houses. And so on. Research several places to see where you want to send your work. Then, go to their website, see what their requirements are. What do they want - one page summary? The first two chapters? A chapter and a summary? Does the house say it wants modern fantasy and you've written a historical novel? Then move on and find the house that loves historical novels. Is your historical novel about 16th century France a little too close to a house's historical novel about 16th century France? Then perhaps that's not the perfect fit either. Move on and see who is looking for historical novels, but has nothing about 16th century France. Nothing will make a greater impact than following their instructions.

Want to get a little extra credit? Do a little more research and find out what books or stories the particular editor may have worked on, or profuses to love. It may not necessarily get you published, but it may lead to a hand-written note from the editor instead of a form rejection, and may make the editor more open to accepting more of your work.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Twelve Things Every Children's Book Writers Should Do - #9 Don't be in a Rush to be Published

I am going to be completely honest with you here. I am completely guilty of this sin. Yes, gentle readers, we have all been guilty of certain sins, and this one is mine.

Over five years ago, I completed my first novel. Now, this wasn't really the first novel I had ever written, but this was the first novel that I actually thought was good enough for publishing. I worked on it day after day, writing furiously, and then printing it out and editing it. I then even gave it to a friend and she edited it with me. We discussed certain parts of the novel, and I changed a few parts based on these discussions. In my mind, I was ready.

Boy was I wrong!!!!

Satisfied with the novel, I decided to send it out. I purchased a book on how to submit to agents and publishing houses, and sent, sent, sent. If I even got a reply, I was lucky. Most of the time, I got form rejections. Only once I got a written rejection. It said, "This didn't do it for me." It was really tough and the rejections sent me into some soul searching. What was I doing wrong? Why didn't they love my novel as much as I did? Did I really have what it took to be a writer?

Well now that I have the luxury of hindsight, I can see my sin. I was in a rush to get published. I had written, edited, and "critiqued" my novel in one year. Perhaps if I were a more experienced writer, then yes, this could have been feasible. But I was a young novice (still am). I hadn't really taken the time needed to develop myself and my skills as a writer.

Also, perhaps my friend wasn't the best person to critique and edit my novel. She was a good friend and I appreciate her help, but what I needed was a group of people who specialized in this sort of thing. Several skilled eyes help catch things that one set of eyes do not.

So what have I done since then? I took a couple of writing classes, have had the novel critiqued several times, and have even re-written the novel. Three times. It took me four years since I wrote the first novel to the point of the third revision of the novel. It has been critiqued, polished, and edited. And for now, it has been put away.

Why? I still don't feel it is ready. After polishing it, I put it away and began a new novel. I am now at complete peace of mind. As I embark on the new novel, I do not feel the rush I once felt. I will keep working and working and working on the new novel until I feel it is truly ready. And knowing that I will work on it to my best has actually helped me gain more insight on the writing process and makes me feel more confident in my abilities. I feel far more secure that this time, when I am ready, I will receive more favorable responses.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Twelve Things Every Children's Book Writers Should Do - #10 Be Professional

You have your manuscript ready to send to a publisher. That's fantastic! But now what do you do? Whenever you are prepared to send your manuscript, you must prepare for it as you would for a job interview.

When you are looking for a job, you don't apply to just anything? Of course not. You look for companies that interest you, openings that match your skills, and so on. This is the same when you send out your manuscript. Look at the company. What kinds of books do they publish? How about the editor? What does look for? What past books has he published. This takes some research, but the payoff is worth it.

Okay, you've found what you think is a good match. Now, take a look at that particular editor's or publishing house's submission guidelines. What do they want? A chapter and novel synopsis? How do they want it - by email? By mail? Follow the instructions carefully.

Remember, presentation is everything. You don't have the opportunity to put on your best suit and present yourself in person, so you have to let everything you send do the talking for you. You wouldn't send in your resume on pink paper, so now isn't the time for that either (yes, I had this happen quite often). Plain white paper and typed (please!) is best.

Just as you must always send a cover letter with your resume, you must always send a letter with your manuscript (or summary, or whatever the house or editor has asked for). This letter should always try to establish some of the following:

  • Establish the book's setting
  • Give a plot summary
  • Convey a sense of the characters and why the editor should care about them
  • Demonstrate your writing ability
  • Explain how the book differs from all the other books in its genre (this should be done in summary)
  • Show an understanding of the house and editor

These basic points should always be covered in your letter. In addition, you must always be sure that:

  • It is typed 12 pt double-spaced
  • It is no longer than one page
  • You have a good, clear letterhead with several means on contact
  • You are formal and polite in the letter
  • You formally close thanking the editor for her time and consideration
  • You have read and edited the letter making sure there are no errors

This is your chance to be seen and heard, so be as professional as possible.

There are many good websites that give a lot of information on how to write a good query letter. The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) offers a lot of help on formatting manuscripts and how to write a good query letter. However, it also helps to look at what NOT to do.

With that in mind, I offer two fantastic sites. The first offered by Cheryl Klein, a wonderful editor at Arthur A. Levine whom I have had the pleasure to meet, presents a humorous look at the Annotated Query Letter from Hell. I've read it several times and still enjoy reading it over (and yes, we have all been guilty of one sin or the other, so don't worry if you recognize something you've done. As she says, acknowledge the sin and then sin no more.) Next is a wonderful website dedicated to YA query letters called Query Shark. Every week, the shark (a literary agent) sinks her teeth into query letters explaining what works and doesn't work with them. You can even submit your own query letter and let the bloodletting begin!

Although you should be professional, also remember to be yourself, and have fun.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Twelve Things Children's Book Writers Should Do - #11 Work on Getting Published

This is rather like the old adage - to get a job, you have to have experience, but to have experience, you must have a job. Writing is kind of the same, too. If getting your novel published is the equivalent of having a job, then getting published is the equivalent of having experience.

Sound confusing?

It really isn't. Don't forget, while having a book to your name is wonderful, there are other smaller venues - and they count too! While you are shopping around your novel, or still in the middle of writing it, you can submit to other places. Consider journals, magazines, small newsletters, or even on-line websites.

Having said that, do not think just because the length is small that the standards at most places are not. My writing group and I have tried ( to get published in Highlights. We all have submitted to date at least two stories or short histories to the magazine, only to be turned down. But we do not give up. Right now, I am mostly published on these blog pages (with the exception of the odd piece I write for work).

But I don't give up.Think how much better it would look when I submit my query letter to an editor to list the various places I have been published than to have nothing at all. A list of stories published would be the experience I need to land my job.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Twelve Things Children's Book Writers Should Do - #12 Be Patient

Okay, okay, we all know that it's a virtue, but it's so darn hard!

The first time I had finished my story, I squirmed with impatience. I wanted it published and I wanted it NOW.

Many children's book editors tell me that they get unsolicited manuscripts with letters asking for the book to be published in a month or for Christmas or for their birthday. The editors have a good laugh at these letters.

The truth that no one wants to really admit is that writing (and then becoming published) takes a lot of time. If you are serious, you know then the time and effort it takes to first finish the story, edit it, and edit it some more. This in itself can take years. Then it can take longer sending it off, being diligent and persistent, and perhaps taking another look at your manuscript when your results don't yeild quite what you hoped for. Good writing is a challenge. Most people give up because it honestly isn't as easy or fast as people hope. Good writing isn't a burst of inspiration, writing it down, and instantly getting published to fame and accolades (as much as we all wish it were).

When I used to teach English in Connecticut, I used to pass by a poster of Winston Churchill. The caption underneath said, "Never, never, never give up." I liked it, but never really gave it much thought until a student wrote about it in her essay. She was an older student, coming back to school after having a family and a job. She was worried about keeping up with the work and her duties at home and school. But she wrote in her essay that when she passed that poster of Churchill, it inspired her to persevere. Not only did she finish the course, but she was one of my top students in the class.

That poster of Churchill took on a completely new light to me. Just as that student didn't give up, neither should I. Her struggle was going back to class after a long time. My struggle is to become a published author. But Churchill didn't quit, neither did my student, and neither should I.

Writing is very hard, but it is also a lot of fun. I now enjoy just the craft of writing and set far more realistic expectations about how long it will take.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

More UK vs. US Covers

I have been recently reading a wonderful series, The Chronicles of Chretomaci by Diana Wynne Jones, which I have highly recommended on my other blog, After Potter. While looking for an image to put on the blog, I discovered the British cover of the book, which I discovered to be very different from the American version I saw in the library. This is what led me to ponder why there are such differences between US and British covers as you read in last weeks blog.

This week, I wanted to specifically look at the four books from the Chrestomanci series. I am going to place the covers side by side. Can you guess which are the US covers and which are the UK covers?

Those familiar with have already probably guessed that the ones just underneath are the US editions while the ones on the top are the British editions.

So why the difference? I wish I knew. Quite honestly, I think the US editions are terrible. To me, their dull and muddied covers do not at all depict the story at all. I mean, first of all, if you look at these dull covers, you would think the stories are probably dull as well, which is far from the truth. Also, you might conclude that they are set in the medieval period. Again, this would be a very wrong conclusion. The British covers, on the other hand, really display the vivid and imaginative stories contained within. They have a bit of a Victorian Gothic look, which is closer to the truth (as most of the stories are set in a near Edwardian time with the exception of Witch Week). The UK Witch Week really conveys the forboding of the academy and urgency of the situation into which the Chrestomanci comes.

My favorite is The Lives of Christopher Chant. This one really shows the different worlds Christopher can travel to, and gives a nod to the goddess, who becomes his friend. The US edition seems to indicate that he can do a bit of magic, but that is a very small slice of the book (and honestly, the least important part - it is far more important that he can travel between worlds).

I love the lettering, the colors and the design of all the UK editions. The only one that confuses me a little is the one for The Magicians of Caprona. In this case, they should have depicted some of the characters. I don't recall an elephant being at all important in the story. But then again, the US edition betrays nothing of the story, so I still like the UK version better.

Of course, I purchased the Chronicles of Chrestomanci at a used bookstore. This is actually the cover I have. I quite like this version also, though it doesn't speak much to the story either, but it is still pretty to look at and doesn't embarrass me when I read it on an airplane. It reminds me of an older The Lives of Christopher Chant cover I saw on the site (on the right). The British version is cute, but in this case, I prefer the US one.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Speaking of Covers....

I lived in Japan and Singapore during the time when Harry Potter books four and five came out. My friends and I were excited to get the new books, and wanted to purchase some of the older books. When we did, we noticed that the covers were completely unfamiliar to us. This was when I realized that the same books in other countries had different covers.

For the record, authors have very little say in the covers of their own books. Covers are meticulously designed and crafted by the publishing companies themselves. Apparently, the publishers feel that different covers would appeal to their home audiences. Let's take a look at some of these covers.

First, we'll start with the US Harry Potter covers.

Personally, I was never really enamoured with these. I never really felt that they portrayed what was inside (in terms of style of writing, not so much story). The only one I really liked was for the fourth book The Goblet of Fire. I can't really say why other than I feel it portrays the mood of the story best. I especially dislike the cover for the seventh book, The Deathly Hallows. I always thought it made it look like Harry was standing in the Roman Colosseum at twilight. Was Harry about to become a magical Roman gladiator? Well now having read the story, I know this is just the Great Hall and it's enchanted ceiling. In this case, I didn't feel it portrayed the mood of the book adequately.

Now let's take a look at the UK covers of the same books.

As you can see, these are very different. I actually own 1 through five (though my five cover is different - it is apparently the adult cover from the same book). I get double-takes when I tote these versions around the US. Each cover, unlike the US versions, was illustrated by a different person. I personally like 1 through four. I think they make the story look exciting and even a bit mysterious. By five and six I think they just ran out of ideas. And in my personal opinion, seven is just the worst cover I've ever seen. Even this larger image doesn't do justice as to how ugly it is.

It does ask the question, though. Why are these covers not suitable for the US market? Personally, I can't fathom it. The look less "kiddish" than the US covers, which would probably attract more readers. Of course, I still can't understand why they had to change "Philosopher" to "Sorcerer". Do they think we wouldn't understand?

Now, how about this? Here are the Japanese covers for books one through five.

It makes me wonder, are Japanese audiences that different that they would have such very different covers? With the exception of The Chamber of Secrets, which I think is probably the worst cover hands down out of all of them, I rather like them. The problem is, they strike me more of "this is Halloween Town" rather than Harry Potter. Yes, there are spooky elements to the books, but I don't think these quite capture the sense of fun and adventure of the stories - though I have to admit, The Prisoner of Azkaban cover is quite striking, isn't it? I wonder what The Goblet of Fire cover is supposed to convey - house elves at a table? Judges reading the names from the goblet of fire? I'm not too sure.

What do you think? Which covers do you like better? Do you think it makes a difference which ones they use?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Huzzah! Complaining Works!

I just caught this at Library Journal. It seems that the constant blogs, Tweets, and other forms of reader protest have paid off! In this case, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers has decided to change the covers of The Mysterious Benedict Society to better reflect the characters within. Morale of the story: we are heard. If there is something you don't like, complain. Your voice does get heard. In the meantime, for those with older covers, I suggest breaking out the crayons. That's what I plan to do.

Here is the article in full:

Little, Brown in Sticky Situation Over 'Whitewashed' Book Covers

By Rocco Staino -- School Library Journal, 1/26/2010

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers is changing the covers on Trenton Lee Stewart’s "Mysterious Benedict Society" series, following complaints that the character Sticky Washington, described as having light brown skin, appears on all three covers as white.

“We are adjusting the covers of all three titles immediately as they reprint in order to offer a more faithful rendering as soon as possible,” Melanie Chang, Little, Brown’s executive director of publicity and communications, told School Library Journal.

The novels—The Mysterious Benedict Society (2007), The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Perilous Journey (2008), and The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Prisoner’s Dilemma (2009)—are about four gifted children who come together to solve a series of challenging and creative tasks.

Librarian bloggers and those on Twitter have long discussed the misrepresentation of Sticky Washington in the books’ illustrations.

More recently, the irreverent Maine book blogger Leila Roy, of bookshelves of doom, rekindled the discussion with a post.

“Poor Sticky has been bleached on these book covers since 2007—clearly readers have not made it clear to Little, Brown that this is a problem,” she wrote.

Roy told SLJ that she remembered noticing the discrepancy when she read the second book, but “assumed that it was a mistake or a strange oversight.”

The move comes on the heels of Bloomsbury USA agreeing to change the cover of Jaclyn Dolamore's debut young adult novel Magic Under Glass (Bloomsbury, 2010), which features the cover photo of a Caucasian woman when the novel describes her as “dark and foreign.”

Bloomsbury was faced with a similar controversy last summer when it was forced to change the cover of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar (Bloomsbury, 2009), which used a photograph of a white model to show the protagonist, described as an “African-American tomboy.”

Unlike the Bloomsbury covers, the "Mysterious Benedict Society" controversy had been simmering for years. SLJ blogger Betsy Bird, a children's librarian with the New York Public Library’s Children's Center, was one of the first to spot the discrepancy in a December 11, 2007 review of the first book in the series.

“Sticky has dark skin in the book,” she writes. “Now look on the cover. It took me a while to figure out why I wasn’t seeing Sticky there. I was, but they’ve bleached him out. In short, they made Sticky white.”

At the time, says Bird, there was little response to her post and the illustrated covers on books two and three continued to show a white Sticky.

A few days ago, elementary school librarian Travis Jonker, who blogs at 100 Scope Notes, wrote: “No, it wasn’t enough to make him white, they made him albino with rosy cheeks. Seeing as how this has happened three times, I’m wondering why it has barely made a ripple.”

All three books—the first of which was illustrated by Carson Ellis and the second and third of which were illustrated by Diana Sudyka—describe Sticky as having “light brown skin.” He appears in inside illustrations with darker skin but as fair-skinned on all three covers.

“'The Mysterious Benedict Society' is a project I worked on over a year ago,” Sudyka told SLJ. “I don't recall any distinction being made between Sticky’s skin tone in cover art and interior illustrations.” Sudyka added that art directors are the ones who make the call on how final images look, not the illustrator.

“The recent feedback regarding the accuracy of Sticky Washington’s likeness on the covers of "The Mysterious Benedict Society" series is both appreciated and understood,” says Little, Brown’s Chang. “The character’s skin color is accurately reflected in the interior, black-and-white illustrations in all the books. While Sticky’s complexion is different relative to the other characters on the covers, the difference is subtle and therefore the jacket illustrations do indeed seem misleading.”

Tweets on the subject are calling the covers “whitewashed” and “puzzling.”

Chang went on to say, “In our over-80-year history, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers has published a multitude of acclaimed multicultural titles for children, and certainly no deception was intended in how this character’s skin color is represented. We are in the process of addressing the inaccuracies and look forward to offering readers a more faithful rendering of this character in our popular series in the near future.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

More on Race in Children's Literature

As I have been reading more into the issue of publishers whitewashing their covers, the more I've discovered how insidious the problem really is. From one site to another I have come across blog after excellent blog ruminating on the subject. I have collected these various articles and offer their links here.

Original Cover / Revised Cover

Check out Justine Larbalestier's comments on the situation of the cover of her own book here:

and her interview at

Apparently her book was not the first to feature someone of African origin (I do not say African-American since Larbalistier 's character is Australian). This is a common occurrence for characters of African origin.

Check out the conversation here:

And whitewashing doesn't stop there. Check out this interesting and insightful blog that brings up the problem with Asian characters and their representation on covers.

A few thoughts on native Americans and one particular cover:

And thoughts of the problem from an Indian-American author.

And finally, excellent ruminations on what to do about the problem of whitewashing, which asks the question: "Should I boycott the book or not?":

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Race in Middle-Grade Books

Despite the fact that we're told not to, we all judge a book by its cover. We pick up the book and if the cover is appealing, then take a closer look at the story inside. These covers are carefully picked over, edited, and designed to entice the reader. But do the covers always reflect what is in the book?

If you haven't heard, there was a terrible (and deserved) flap over the US cover for Justine Larbalestier's novel Liar. Although the main character is black, Bloomsbury saw it fit to use a white model on the cover. Protests ensued and people complained to Bloomsbury asking why they used a white model for a black character. Relenting to the pressure, Bloomsbury changed the cover.

Now Ms. Larbalestier's book was YA, which I do not tend to focus on, but this idea of whitewashing covers got me thinking. Is this a more common thing than we may even notice? Sadly, it is common, even in middle-grade, as in case of the next story.

The book-review blog Bookshelves of Doom brought to attention this puzzling and alarming problem that has affected a middle-grade book, specifically The Mysterious Benedict Society. I bring their observations to you here.

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Puzzling Change of Skin Color.

From page 21 of The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey:

To Reynie's surprise, Sticky looked exactly as he'd looked a year ago: a skinny boy with light brown skin, anxious eyes (though perhaps the anxiety came from not yet having recovered his breath), and a completely bald head.

On the inside of the book, the illustrations depict that description. This one is from page 17:

Benedict 2 cropped inside

But take a look at the front cover:

Benedict2 with arrow

Erm, WHAT? Let's look a little closer:

Benedict 2 close up

Um, yeah. Not so good. I mean, WHY? Did his SKIN TONE affect the COLOR SCHEME?

Book Three. Same deal.

From page 9 of The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma:

Sticky looked to have suffered even worse. His sweat-soaked clothes clung like a wet suit to his skinny frame; his light brown skin had gone a sickly shade of gray; and behind his wire-rimmed spectacles, which sat askew on his nose, his eyes seemed dazed and glassy.

Once again, the inside of the book looks right. From page 41:

Benedict 3 cropped inside

But, again -- close the book and look at the cover:

Benedict3 with arrow


Benedict 3 close up

As Travis over at 100 Scope Notes said, "it wasn’t enough to make him white, they made him albino with rosy cheeks". ___________________________________________________________________

Let Little, Brown Books for Young Readers how you feel about this. You can contact them at:

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publicity Department
237 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10017


So why on earth did Little, Brown and co. feel the need to whitewash the character? Ms. Larbierster offers eye-opening insight as to why the Powers That Be at Bloomsbury made their decision.

"Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?”
Ain’t That a Shame,

So is that the reasoning behind why Little, Brown should make their light brown skinned character so white on the cover? It makes very little sense, particularly on a cover that features several different characters - most of whom are white.

How common is this practice? Apparently, in YA, quite a lot

Jacket Whys looked at a totaly of 775 young adult novels, and found that:

80% of them had people on them. A full 25% of all book covers had white girls pictured on them, and 10% had white boys. Only 2% of the titles I looked at had African American boys or girls pictured on the covers – a sad state of affairs.”

Wow. How shameful.

The next time you pick up a book, take a look at the cover and see if it fits the characters inside. And if it doesn't, let your indignation get heard!