Here is Erin Black, our Guest Critiquer for November with the first page critiques for November.
Erin is an assistant editor at Scholastic Press. She’s looking for YA and middle grade novels with voices and characters with staying power, excellent world-building, and which ask interesting questions.
Here are the four first page winners for November critiques with Erin’s comments:
Lindsay Bonilla’s Young Adult Work-in-Progress;
Carlos and the Corral of Forgotten Ones
Nadie me quiere. No one wants me. Nadie me quiere. No one loves me. Nadie. No one. – Carlos
Carlos snatched his sister’s wrist. No words left his mouth, but his eyes spoke for him. “You can’t leave me here! You can’t do this to me!”
“It’s only temporary,” Elena hissed, “until I can get adjusted.”
Carlos tightened his grip. It had been only two weeks since his mother had died, and the thought of being dropped off like a piece of excess baggage was too much to bear. Elena winced, and Carlos clamped down harder on her wrist.
“Déjame ir!” she snarled. “Let me go NOW!”
She pried away his fingers with her polished nails then strode through the gate and into the street without looking back. Carlos did not chase after her or call her name. Instead, he stood frozen. The backs of his eyes began to burn, tears begging for release, but he refused to give in to the sensation. He had cried for his mother; but he would not cry for Elena.
Until I can get adjusted. Until I can get adjusted. What about him? Was she the only one who needed to adjust? He’d lost his parents too – one right after the other. He’d seen what he loved most in the world shrivel up and die. Didn’t he have the right to mourn in his own home – the four walls they had shared? Didn’t he have the right to lie under his mother’s sheets taking in her scent one last time?
HERE IS ERIN with her notes for Carlos and the Corral of Forgotten Ones
This starts well in immediately pulling readers into the story with questions– we learn right away that Carlos and Elena’s mother has died, and that Carlos is being left somewhere, and so we want to know what has happened: what’s led Elena to decide to leave her younger brother behind; whether she’ll come back for him as she says; and how Carlos will adjust to his new situation, either temporarily or permanently. I think that with a little more information at the beginning, it would be easy to want to keep reading.
But there’s certainly a need for a bit more. Writers are often advised to (write as much backstory into a few early chapters as they need to, then cut those and) start right in the middle of the action, moving forward from there. That seems to be what happened here, but to me it feels a little like starting in the middle of the first chapter rather than on the first page. Elena sounds angry – she hisses at Carlos and then snarls – but the narration tells us that Carlos is grieving, and we’re not sure what might have happened to make them react so differently to their current situation. There’s also a little bit of a mismatch between the way Carlos reacts to things and the fact that the story is YA – the fact that Carlos is more of a burden than a help to his sister, and the way he clings to Elena, not speaking and with tears threatening to fall, would lead me to conclude that Carlos is younger, maybe ten or eleven, not a teenager.
Some more background would also be helpful. As things are, there’s a gate that Carlos is standing behind and a street that Elena walks down, but nothing else in their physical space. Are they in a city? A smaller town? What country? What time?
Finally, I was interested in the fact that Carlos doesn’t speak. If he can’t or doesn’t, then I think there’s a lot that can be done with that. I liked that his eyes spoke for him and that the narration tells what he can’t or won’t say. If he does speak normally though, and it’s not a feature that’s explored in the story, then I think it’s important that he does engage in dialog with his sister from the beginning, so that readers aren’t caught off guard later in the story or chapter.
Carrie Pearson CHASING HOME, MG historical
The first thing that hit me was the smell.
I thought the orphanage would smell like wet winter boots or graham crackers—typical kid stink. But, when the sheriff pushes me through the doorway, I smell cigarette smoke and someplace old, like an attic that’s been shut up a long time. And forgotten.
He yanks the door closed behind us, and cuts off the outside light. My eyes are used to the afternoon sun, and for a second, darkness is all I see. Like a reflex, my feet travel toward the door and the light behind it.
The sheriff grabs my arm.
Jeez. It’s not like I have anywhere to run.
Slowly, my eyes adjust.
A tall priest strides toward us; his footsteps echo, echo down the hall. His long black robe billows around his shoes with each step. When he comes closer, I notice a snow-white collar and shiny silver cross around his neck.
He reaches us, and stops—his lips set in a red line stretched thin as a circus tightrope.
The sheriff says, “Father Timothy, here’s the kid I told you about, Daniel Robert Rose.”
The priest doesn’t say a word, just stares at me. I realize what he sees: scraggly red hair, a crooked nose, thin wool pants, and soggy shoes. My face turns hot. To him, I’m nothing but a worn out horse on an auction block, and he’s deciding whether to bid.
It’s not my fault I look like this. I didn’t choose to get left on my own, sleep on couches and floors, not have enough money to wash my stuff.
I raise my chin, stand up straight, and jiggle my head to get the hair out of my eyes. Mom wouldn’t have liked how long it is.
HERE IS Erin with her notes for Chasing Home
The first line here is well done – it pulls readers right in by engaging one of their senses, and not one that’s often put to use in novels! The pacing is good, too, from the sudden dark, to the tiny scuffle with the sheriff, to the slightly sinister priest in black robes approaching – it moves the story forward quickly enough that readers trust that all their questions are going to be answered if they keep reading. There are so many directions that the story could move in from this opening.
The thing that I paused over was the fact that this was noted as being a historical middle grade, and over the first page I didn’t notice many details that anchor the reader and the characters in a particular setting. The fact that our yet-to-be-named narrator is in an orphanage rules out a contemporary setting, and the details in mentioning a horse, his “thin wool pants” and the priest’s lips being “thin as a circus tightrope” certainly read as historical. But then the language that the narrator uses, like calling his mother “Mom” and phrases like “wash my stuff” and “Jeez” feel more contemporary, and the combination makes it hard to place the story in time.
I’d also be careful about the age of the character. There are a few places that stand out as being a little older or very conscious of his situation in a greater context – as when he thinks that the sheriff should relax because the narrator has nowhere to run beyond the orphanage, or when he describes the smell he would have expected as “typical kid stink”. This last is the thought of a character who’s old enough (which it doesn’t sound like our narrator is) that the smell of graham crackers would be distant enough to notice. The fact that it comes right at the beginning of the first page might push readers out of the story for a moment, or set their expectations about the narrator incorrectly. But for the most part, the narrator feels just right for middle grade, from the posturing to look strong in front of the priest and the sheriff to the pang of regret he feels for growing his hair past the length his mother would have deemed appropriate – which is well done.
Catch Me (Middle Grade Novel) by Brianna Graves
Emma was concentrating on only one thing that hot July day—the Kinsie Avenue River Bridge just ahead of her, its narrow railing high above the river, the railing she bragged to CJ she could walk.
“You’re such a show off!” CJ yelled. “You’ll fall into the river and drown! Grow up!”
“Can’t hear you!” Emma yelled back at her cousin and kept running toward the bridge. But the truth of it was she didn’t feel as brave as she had just a few minutes ago. The water under the bridge wasn’t swift and it wasn’t deep, but it was a good thirty feet from the bridge railing to the muddy brown water of the Root River. Falling meant . . . well, she didn’t want to think what it meant.
Her dog Lucky, loped beside her, and her younger cousin Teddy ran just behind, trying to keep up.
When they reached the bridge, Teddy tugged on her sleeve. “Don’t . . . listen . . . to that dumb old CJ,” he said, trying to catch his breath. “Do it. I know you can.”
“Of course I can.” She put on her “I-can-do-this” face for her nine-year-old cousin. “And I will,” she said, climbing up on the railing. The river looked a long way below her now and smelled like rotting catfish, as it often did on hot summer days. The smell alone gave her reason not to fall. Other kids had fallen into the river trying to walk the railing. One had even drowned.
The hot cement railing prickled the soles of her bare feet. Now was her chance. She could do it. She would do it! Emma took one hand off the lamppost and slowly found her balance on the narrow railing. Then she let go.
HERE IS ERIN with her notes for Catch Me
I like this sort of a beginning for middle grade. We have our cast of characters, the stakes of walking the bridge railing, and our heroine’s wavering between needing to show off and fear for what will happen if she falls. Having Emma walking the railing to prove herself to her cousins is a fun detail – there tends to be much more in the way of siblings and friends (and frenemies) in middle grade, and readers will be interested in knowing what Emma’s family is like and why she’d get to be so close to her cousins. There are also enough questions that still have to be answered (like how Emma came to be walking the railing, and what will happen if she succeeds).
The setting details are well done here. The author hasn’t called much attention to the details, which have been worked into the story subtly, and it’s easy for readers to picture the muddy brown, slow-moving river, the high narrow railing, and the hot, slightly pungent day, feel the roughness of the cement on bare toes, and hear the echoes of the characters’ shouts.
One thing to be careful about is keeping the story balanced between narration and action. This first page seems very visual, calling the readers’ attention to Emma and the bridge, her cousin CJ who she’s running away from, and back to the bridge. Then out of nowhere there’s a mention of Emma’s dog and another cousin, who catches up to her at the bridge to encourage her to walk the railing. I’d move up the mention of Lucky and Teddy to give the reader a fuller picture of the very start of the scene. We also seem to have lost CJ – it’s unclear whether he (or she) was running with Emma, Teddy, and Lucky, and CJ has faded from the scene by the time Emma climbs up on the railing and starts to balance. It’s not necessarily something to worry about with the first draft, but in revisions it can make sense to block out scenes so that it’s clear where all the characters are in relation to one another and to make sure none of them vanish from a scene and or only appear when they have a bit of dialog.
CRIMSON SKY (MG historical fiction) by Teddi Ahrens
Just a few days earlier, her heart could have stopped, and she wouldn’t have cared, but it pounded now as if she were running alongside the train, instead of sitting inside it. Beyond the window, clouds covered the sky with a woolly, gray blanket, and open prairie became cluttered with roads and villages. Then a second and third set of tracks appeared. Kate took a deep breath.
“Promise me you’ll go to Frankie in Chicago,” Mama had whispered.
She touched the locket hanging from her neck, and her finger traced the delicate lines of the letter etched there. K for Kitty. She recalled the smile on her mother’s face and the locket in her hand, passing on the keepsake for Kate’s fourteenth birthday. Less than a year ago. Before they knew about tuberculosis and before her brother sent tickets for this trip. Except her mother wasn’t in the seat beside her as they had planned, but in the baggage car—in a casket.
She would keep her promise and see her long-lost brother, but then what? Her future seemed as blurred as the fields passing by.
The gloom deepened as if a shroud had fallen over the land. Now the train whistled and
shrieked as it penetrated neighborhoods, heading toward the heart of the city. She watched its
progress along backstreets, much like the shabby areas of Brooklyn she’d left behind. Petticoats and shirts and long johns dangled from tenement clotheslines, and kids chased each other in and
out of alleyways. Soon, beyond the tracks and sheds outside her window, buildings rose up four
and five stories high. Within a few minutes, the train rumbled into the station.
On the platform below her, pushcarts were huddled here and there, and people dashed about, soldiers in uniform, ladies with bustled skirts, and wide-eyed children clinging to parents. She hauled her satchel from under the seat and followed other passengers out the door. She took a few steps, expecting to be swept into the whirl of people. Where was her brother? Did her telegram get lost? Would they even recognize each other after six years?
HERE IS Erin with her notes for Crimson Sky
Right away, the historic details in this story pull readers into the world that’s being built – mentioning Kate’s satchel, bustled skirts, tenements, etc, all help ground the reader in the past. The locket is a great detail, one that works nicely for providing an opening for Kate to think of her mother and her last birthday and a little backstory for readers.
One question I had was regarding the age of Kate. The story is noted as a middle grade, but Kate’s nearly fifteen, which can be a little old for that level. It’s difficult to get a sense of how old the character feels, as most of this first page is description – of the tracks across the prairie, the back streets of Chicago, and the train station – and the narrator doesn’t offer much about what Kate’s thinking or feeling beyond her memories of her mother and wondering whether she and her brother will find each other in the rush of people.
I also keep coming back to the first line (which might be more effective split into two sentences). There’s a sense of grief overcome if Kate wouldn’t have cared about her heart stopping a couple days ago – what’s happened to change that feeling? I like the idea of her heart pounding as if she were running next to the train instead of being seated inside, but there’s no indication of anything that would cause that sort of reaction. The train seems calm, the sky is gray, and the next thing to happen to Kate is for her to remember her mother and when they’d originally planned the trip to Chicago. If she’s not angry or actively upset about something that she’s reacting to in her present moment, why the racing pulse?
Readers might want either a little more at the beginning, in order to draw out the scene (are there people talking on the train? Has anyone said anything to Kate? Does Kate not want to go to her brother?) and establish Kate’s character, or a little less description of sitting and scenery so that the reader and Kate are thrust into Chicago and need to start moving right away.
Thank you Erin for taking the time out of your busy schedule to help all of us improve our writing skills. Your thought have been very helpful and it is much appreciated.