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?":