Here are the four winning first pages critiqued by Sr. Editor Jenne Abramowitz from Scholastic:
Raise and Release (contemporary fiction – coming-of-age) by Betty Vanderwielen
“Dad! A raccoon!”
The shoulder belt bit into Lance’s chest as his dad slammed on the brakes. Lance barely registered the car’s swerve, the final jerky stop, his dad’s arm thrust out toward him. His eyes stayed on the grayish-brown creature launched to the side of the road. And something spiraling off into the underbrush, something it had been carrying in its mouth.
Lance held his breath as the raccoon landed and lay still. He watched it push itself upright, stagger, fall, force itself up again, stumble into the woods.
“Are you all right?” his dad’s voice broke through.
“She’s hurt,” Lance said, pulling the seat belt release with one hand, reaching for the door handle with the other.
His dad pulled him back into the seat. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“She’s not dead. But she’s hurt. We have to help her!”
“Don’t be stupid, Lance. You never approach an injured animal. That raccoon would claw your eyes out if you tried to touch it.”
“But, Dad, it’s our fault.”
“My fault!” His dad released Lance’s arm. “It’s not like I tried to hit it. The thing had no business on the road. Put your seat belt back on.”
“She had something in her mouth. A baby I think. It got thrown over there, in that brushy section.” Lance pointed, but his dad’s head was turned the opposite direction looking for oncoming traffic. “Let me go see, Dad. A baby can’t survive without its mother.”
“It’s not a baby. Probably just something it caught for food,” his father answered without turning around. “A deer mouse maybe.”
“But what if it’s a baby raccoon? On Animal Channel they showed a mother raccoon carrying a baby in her mouth like that.”
Jenne’s Response to: Raise and Release by Betty Vanderwielen
Immediately, I can sense the tension between Lance and his father. It’s clear they have very different values when it comes to animal welfare, and I’m guessing this is going to be a cause for major conflict over the course of this manuscript. And it’s also clear that Lance’s father is more deeply engaged with his own inner thoughts than he is with his son’s beliefs or feelings. When Lance wants to take responsibility for this accident, his father immediately reacts in a defensive, aggressive manner. I suspect this book will explore this relationship and how it affects Lance’s choices, which could make for a really interesting emotional narrative.
I do wonder, though, about where this first page initially drops the reader. It can always be exciting to begin a story in the center of the action. But sometimes this doesn’t allow readers to get to know characters well enough before asking them to care about what’s important to them. In this first page, we immediately meet Lance who wants to help the raccoon and her baby and his father who just wants to get out of the situation, and they’re depicted in fairly black and white terms. Lance is on the side of good and right, and his father, who goes as far as calling his son stupid is clearly not. I would have liked to see a bit of non-raccoon-related interaction between Lance and his father before the accident to help show how the dynamics between them are oriented in general rather than just on the topic of animals, and to give the reader a more nuanced sense of each of them so that we are introduced to them as layered three-dimensional characters rather than simpler archetypes.
Additionally, at times the characters narrate action which might be more naturally conveyed to the reader through description. For example, when Lance explains that he thought he saw a baby raccoon thrown into the brush, he’s overly explaining an event that his father may have seen. If the reader were shown Lance observing this instead, the information would be conveyed in a more believable way.
The Art of Being Remmy
(An illustrated, middle grade novel of about 40,000 words)
By Mary Zisk
Miss Krasner, the art teacher, stood so close to my desk, I could smell her lily-of-the-valley perfume mixed with a whiff of cigarette smoke. While she shuffled through my drawings, I watched the red nails on her fingers dance and I bit my lip.
All the eyes of my third grade class were on me, except for my best friend, Debbie, who was busy drawing hearts on a pink piece of paper with a magenta crayon.
Miss Krasner crossed her arms, narrowed her dark Cleopatra-lined eyes, and puckered her lips.
“My, my,” she said and broke into a wide smile. “You’re a regular little Rembrandt, aren’t you?”
Rembrandt? A famous artist?
My pal, Billy, grinned and winked at me.
With a pat on my shoulder, Miss Krasner leaned down and whispered, “I think you have a special spark, Rosella. Don’t lose it.”
A spark. I had a spark.
Miss Krasner didn’t know then that her declaration would lead to my nickname, Remmy. The important thing was that she had stamped me with her seal of approval. I was an Artist with a capital A. It was my dream and then I knew it was also my destiny. Nothing could stop me.
Until last year.
Jenne’s Response to: The Art of Being Remmy by Mary Zisk
There are so many wonderful details in this first page. With her lily and cigarette smell and her dancing red nails, we definitely get a visual image of what the kind of woman Miss Krasner the art teacher is. I do wonder though about the voice of this character. The compliment she pays Rosella has a bit of arch humor to it, and comes off a bit sarcastically to me. Which both made me question what I’d previously thought of this character and also of how I’m supposed to interpret Rosella’s artistic ability. Is she actually talented? Or is she so bad in art class that she’s given an ironic nickname? Details like the smile and the pat on the back the teacher gives Rosella answer these questions, but I’m still left with a conflicted picture of this character. And since she’s being used to set-up reader expectations for how Rosella sees herself, I wonder if it might make more sense to be clearer about all of the details that show us who she is.
I quite like the tone of the writing in this first page. It’s intimate and personal, a bit wistful and full of hints about what’s to come. The last few lines on this page are a great set-up for the drama to come as Rosella aka Remmy’s story unfolds. But the timeline of this piece does confuse me a bit. This initial scene takes place when the character is in third grade and quickly jumps to an allusion to what’s happened later in seventh grade, from the point of view of after events have transpired, all of this transpiring in the past. Which is a lot to sort out. I wonder if it might be clearer to simply begin with the events of seventh grade in 1963 to streamline the reader’s understanding of the setting.
All-in-all, I’d definitely keep reading this manuscript.
MAG-NIF-I-CENT by Betty H. Matthews
It was sunrise in the garden. Willie the caterpillar munched, and crunched and slurped his way across a
crisp hibiscus leaf. He looked up and found himself surrounded by a crowd of BIG eyes. Then he heard a crowd of BIG voices.
They ooh-ed and aah-ed, “It’s outstanding…exquisite in every way.”
The loudest BIG voice gasped, “It is truly magnificent!”
Willie peeked up. It was an orange hibiscus blossom. Must be nice to be mag-ni-fi-cent…whatever that means,thought Willie.
His friend, Pete, wiggled over.
“Pete, do you know what mag-nif-i-cent means?”
“I don’t have a flea’s idea,” said Pete. “Ask Mrs. Quail. She knows lots of words.”
Willie wiggled down to the tomato plants. “Mrs. Quail, I need your help to figure out what mag-nif-i-cent means.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Quail, “it has to do with art. Look up. Do you see all of the colors in the morning sky?”
“Yep, I sure do,” said Willie.
“It’s a masterpiece,” said Mrs. Quail. “It’s magnificent. That’s the perfect word.”
“But I can’t paint a picture like that. What can I do to be mag-nif-i-cent?”
“Might ask Sylvia Hen. Too-da-loo!”
Willie wiggled to the hen house. “Good morning, Mrs. Hen.”
“Hi, little feller. Whatcha need?”
“I’m looking for MY mag-nif-i-cent. Do you know where to look?
Mrs. Hen looked down at her nest. “I ‘jest’ might be able to help you.”
He heard a little cracking sound and then a whole little chick stepped right out of that shell.
Sylvia Hen clucked and cooed, “My, oh my! Hal-le-lu-jah! If this ain’t magnificent, I don’t know what is.”
Jenne’s Response to: MAG-NIF-I-CENT by Betty H. Matthews
The genre of this first page wasn’t labeled, but based on the young tone, lovely restraint in description, and the well-balanced structure, I’m going to assume this is a picture book manuscript. One of my favorite things about this page is the occasional specificity of language (“Too-da-loo!”) in dialogue that really brings the characters to life. Sylvia Hen’s southern mothering is an especially nice touch. I do find myself wishing Willie’s voice had that same specificity of language. He’s a bit less fleshed out than many of the other characters we meet here.
I find the premise of this manuscript both sweet and a bit confusing. On the one hand, Willie is going to collect lots of examples of things that can be considered magnificent, and I can already see in Mrs. Quail’s description of art and Sylvia Hen’s brand-new chickadees, that these examples will be charmingly varied in their depictions of big, bold conceptual ideas and small, personal moments. On the other hand, the premise is nestled in Willie’s exploration of what the word “magnificent” means, when it seems clear he already at least knows it’s something wonderful. He doesn’t question what “exquisite” or “outstanding” mean, he recognizes oohs and ahs, and concedes that it must be nice to be magnificent. Which tells me this book is really more about him finding the magnificent in the world around him and in himself than it is an exploration of unfamiliar vocabulary. I think the premise would be more effectively set up if that were clearer for the reader.
Words Can Hurt by Janice Milusich - middle grade
The house was dark, but from her room Talia could see the glow of the kitchen light, when she looked down the hallway. Her stomach knotted. Dad would be home soon.
Mom shuffled a deck of cards. They slapped the kitchen table as she dealt them: king, queen, jack, ten—solitaire. Mom played it every night while she waited.
Dog-earing the page of the book she’d been reading, Talia tucked The Secret Garden under her pillow, and clicked off her light. Closing her eyes, she pictured a garden full of sweet roses, honeysuckle… Raising her snub freckled nose, she could almost smell their sweetness.
BAM! The front door shuddered. Talia snatched at her covers. She shoved her arms to her side and straightened her legs.
Mom turned on the light and crossed the hall. Talia’s eyes followed her, until she couldn’t see her anymore.
“Why was it locked?” asked Dad.
Mom trailed him across the living room. “Why’re you so late?” She sounded tired.
“Late—? Late for what? ” Dad was ready for a fight. He stopped in the hallway.
Through her lashes Talia saw his back was turned. Tall, his body all squares and
rectangles, he towered over Mom. He turned toward Talia’s room. Her leg twitched—that was all it took.
“Talia Maria Keens, come out to the kitchen.”
The only time Dad said all three of her names together was when she’d done something wrong, or he thought she had.
“Talia, I said come out here.”
Jenne’s Response to: Words Can Hurt by Janice Milusich
The tone of this first page is dark and ominous and does a really effective job of drawing the reader in. There are so many fabulous descriptions, from the cards “slapping” the table to the front door “shuddering,” that all fit together to create this really tense scene. I’m wondering what the history of this family is, and what is going on with Talia’s father to make her and her mother both anticipate his anger so severely. And I’m also wondering what specific incident is driving the confrontation that brewing here. Because of the details chosen to introduce us to Talia (her observant, thoughtful voice and the fact that’s she’s reading a classic novel), she comes across as a quiet, well-behaved girl. So the possibility of wrong-doing, even if only in her father’s eyes, really piques my interest and makes me want to find out more.
The one element that’s not quite working for me here is the way the author’s tried to convey physical descriptions of Talia. The mentions of her “snub freckled nose” and the way she looks up through her lashes feel a bit forced into the scene to help show the reader what she looks like. But I’m not sure these details are necessary in this first moment, and might be better served by introducing them at a more natural point in the story that focuses on self-reflection rather than anxiety directed outward at her family.
I want to thank Jenne for sharing her expertise with us. It is greatly appreciated. Remember you have a chance to meet Jenne at the New Jersey SCBWI Conference in June.