This rambling post isn’t about what you think.
My kids and I have a ritual of me reading while they eat breakfast. It started because my son had read Castle in the Attic for school in third grade and wanted to share with his little sister, so, with his own money and without telling me, he bought it, along with its sequel, at his school’s book fair. Let’s just pause a moment over how awesome that is.
Yeah. Books are awesome. Kids who buy books, super-awesome.
Anyway, when he asked me to read the books aloud to both of them, it started an amazing practice of read-aloud at breakfast. She liked Castle in the Attic a lot, even though it was clearly a boy-targeted book (the only female characters are an overly busy mother and an old British caretaker who sits and sews and encourages the boy to think and act for himself). The book, however is a fun adventure story. Not perfect, but charming. We couldn’t wait to read the next part.
None of us enjoyed the sequel as much – it felt rushed and irrelevant, my daughter hated the excessive violence, my son was frustrated by the unmotivated villain (Why was there a big rat? Who made him? How did he control the other rats?) and I hated the irrelevant fake-swearing (What 12 yr old says “blast” and why put swearing in at all if the kid is only going to fake-swear? ) But ok. I figured this two-book series was a double book sale, where the new author won awards with a book she’d slaved over for a decade, and had to get the second one out within a year. The book ended and we wanted to move on to something else right away.
So I needed another book.
Last year at BEA—after seeing my badge and assuring himself I had kids—an author thrust a chapter book into my hands. “Your daughter needs this book,” he said. I remember wanting to throw it immediately into the nearest circular file, just based on his arrogance.
But it had a pretty cover, which was not pink or sparkly. The title intrigued me, and the summary implied the book would help girls learn about environmentalism.
Let’s start with the above, and talk about self-publishing.
- · This guy has written a (let’s presume) good book.
- · He wants to market it to girls only.
- · He does not want it to be turned into a “pink, cursive” book. (You don’t think the publishing industry does this? Have a look at this.)
So, he decides to self-publish.
Awesome, say I. We need more books for girls that don’t force a societal “you will be pink and cursive” style on them.
Ah – but.
Now comes the next step of our saga.
Cue this morning, when we finished the highly-unsatisfying sequel to a book we had all liked, and needed something new. Immediately.
I pulled this old BEA freebie-book off my shelf. My son was willing to give it a whirl because the girl wearing a long dress in the forest on the cover was not in pink and had no tiara. Yes, the book’s subtitle mentioned a princess, but after all, fairy tales have great plots. The illustrations promised some pretty vicious bad guys, so okay.
I read the introduction. It was a scene from nature: a butterfly’s flight. My son stopped me when the chapter ended. “What was that?” he said, bewildered, “Some kind of symbolism?” I told him to give the book a chance. (Meanwhile, I was stumbling over the plethora of adverbs. The insect didn’t just fly: it flitted happily, fluttered gaily, flew hurriedly…and at the end, darted off deeply saddened.) This author wasn't writing a book, he was narrating a screenplay for a blind person who was also a little bit...slow.
The second chapter, also called “introduction,” began with a detailed description of the castle. When I say detailed, I mean: the ornate grand piano handcrafted of rosewood was actually described as a “highly ornate and handcrafted grand piano made of imperial rosewood and other exotic materials. These materials are only known to be owned and imported by those elite enough to do so. The craftsmanship on the piano is the highest level known and the attention to detail is painstakingly meticulous.”
I can forgive a bit of excessive detail. I kept reading. My kids squirmed.
A few paragraphs down, the kitchen whisk was called a “wisp” which I corrected as I read aloud. Two pages into the description of the castle, my son pushed back from his breakfast with a loud sigh and an eye-roll, “Ok! Ok! We get it! It’s the nicest, fanciest castle in the whole world!”
And that’s when I realized what excellent readers children are. Because of television and the accessibility of movies, our kids have grown up on narrative. They have been raised on action in the first moment, they have been raised with characters that have great backstory, clear motivations, and concise descriptions. They ask pertinent questions (why are all those lights flashing when he only pressed one button? Why did the bad guy not just shoot them, why talk to them first?) and they remember things that adults have long forgotten (I thought the girl had put the button into her vest pocket. When did it get into her jeans pocket?). They might be our best editors. Certainly they are the harshest critics: This book is boring. Let’s read something else.
After his sister goes to bed, I’ve been reading Jules Verne aloud to the ten year old: he is fascinated by every archaic word. The descriptions all matter – things you are assumed to know are not described, unfamiliar things are. Every character’s motivation is obvious and many chapters end with huge surprises.
Had this princess book been better edited, I have no doubt it would have been an excellent read. As is, even my daughter was squirming after the first ten pages. I’m purposefully leaving the title and author out of this post, because I hate to discourage any writer – the lesson in this post is merely: edit with a kid’s eye. They are quick to grasp and have vivid imaginations - they will fill in all your details without even trying.
And they read every single word, so they notice unintentional typos lightning-quick. My son is reading Matilda for class and he has already caught two typos (c'mon Scholastic!) and nothing pulls him out of the narrative faster.
But this isn’t a blog for children’s book authors. Here’s my question to you – given that self-publishing allowed this guy full creative control over his cover and presumably also allowed for the rambling over-detailed writing that made at least two kids not want to finish his book…what do you think? Should he have held-out for a publisher? Should he have hired a high-end professional editor? What should authors do in this day and age to ensure they have the best editing possible, hire kids?