Bethany Strout is an Associate Editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. You can follow her on Twitter at @BethanyStrout
Bethany will be attending the NJSCBWI Conference in June.
She is always looking for novels where the setting is its own character, romances that feel messy and real, fully realized fantasy worlds, and a middle grade puzzle novel in the vein of The Westing Game! She is drawn to picture books that tell true or imagined stories with emotional resonance. Prior to joining LBYR in 2010, Bethany worked her way through the book business with stops at her local library, The University of Chicago Press, and the literary agency Writers House.
What she likes: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Picture Books, and Young Adult Books, also Rhyme/Edgy/Mystery/Books in verse/Science Fiction and High-Fantasy.
Follow her on Twitter at @BethanyStrout
HERE ARE THE FOUR FIRST PAGES WHO WON in MAY and WHAT BETHANY HAD TO SAY:
Debra Getts – THE ODD PRETTY – Middle Grade
Ariel was helpless and waiting for Brynn to die. She stroked him from nose to forehead with a light touch. He shifted to his side and extended his four white cat paws toward her.
Silky black fur rose and fell in short bursts. A sucking sound marked each breath.
“It’s normal,” the veterinarian had said earlier this morning.
There was nothing normal about Brynn’s breathing, or doctors not noticing a baseball sized lump in a cat’s belly.
She looked into his large eyes. Despite his worsening condition, they were still as green and pure as the meadow at her grandparents’ house. Impressions of his feelings and thoughts seeped into her mind—sadness and slight relief from the pain because of the slow rhythm of her touch.
She removed her black thick-framed glasses and pressed her forehead gently to his. Her bobbed hair swept forward to create a hideaway for their faces. Her black hair would match his fur if not for the purple streak she’d added by her ear. “It’ll be okay. You’ll be okay soon.”
At least that’s what her mom kept saying. Hopefully, she was right. Hopefully, her boy would soon be healthy again… somewhere… with lots of fields to play in and butterflies to watch while easing into a nap.
Her mom cracked open her bedroom door and peeked in. “How’s it going in here?”
How’s it going? She pulled her head away from Brynn’s to glare at her mother. Now—when it was too late… on the worst day of her life—her mother wants to listen? She turned back to Brynn and pressed her forehead to his again.
The door clicked shut.
“You’re my family, Brynn. This is your home. I love you.”
Silky black fur rose and fell in four more short bursts then stopped.
The Odd Pretty
While the grief was palpable—well done!—this scene felt too intense to open a middle grade book. I actually thought it was YA until I saw it had been qualified as middle grade. The description of death, the way Ariel articulates things, the potency of her connection to the cat, and her relationship with her mother all came across as older than MG.
Carol MacAllister – EVENING STAR – YA
“Hey. Whatcha doin’ down there?” James’ confident stance matched his cocky voice. It’d taken on deeper tones now that he was nearly fifteen. He stood atop the rag shop’s stoop. A young scallywag gaped up at him. James glared back. “Whatcha problem?”
“Yeah? You don’t say.” James glanced out to the dirt street. Carriages and drays bumped through muddy ruts. Humph. Modern 1850s? He tipped back the peak of his Apple Cap. I thought things was lookin’ up. He pursed his lips. Suppose not. Living homeless on New York City’s streets had hardened him. His clothes look new. Face half-clean. He smirked at the waif. Suppose he’s like me, back then.
Once, James had lived inside – until that particular morning. Pa had walked him down their tenement hallway. Just seven-years-old, his spindly arms clutched his pitiful bundle of clothes. Pa knocked at the Doyle’s door. When it groaned opened, Mother Doyle motioned James into her kitchen. Liam MacAvoy gave his son’s thin shoulder a soft squeeze. As James tottered into the Doyles’ flat, his father eased back and staggered out of James’ life. Eight months passed. Everyone had expected Liam’s return. But no one had inquired of James’ well-being.
Now, his soured thoughts snickered. The city’s swallowed another grunt. James shrugged. Well, he ain’t the first and he sure ain’t the last.
He sauntered down the wooden steps. “By yourself?”
The boy nodded then whisked away tears with his grimy fingertips.
“You need a coin to buy sumpin’ to eat.” He fingered the five he’d just collected for selling off his rags to old man Stanky.
The boy held up one open palm.
I love historical fiction, so was immediately invested in the subject matter, but this is a classic example of frontloading exposition. Readers are told the year, setting, the main character’s age, and pretty much his entire backstory all in the first page—and it doesn’t feel natural. Instead, let us discover these things organically as the story unfolds.
Saving Scrooge by Susan E. Harris Middle Grade/Fantasy
You know what would be an awesome holiday tradition? Watching Thor. I’m just saying this ‘cause at my house we watch A Christmas Carol. Every year. All 6500 versions, in three nights, starting on the Winter Solstice. Okay, Dad doesn’t really have 6500 copies. But he does own every one ever made in the ‘nine realms’. But now a gift—the DVD player was spitting out the discs! It must’ve been sick of the movie too.
I caught another DVD right before my terrier did. “Sorry Fannie,” I said and stroked her head.
“This is so odd, Nicholas. All our other movies work except for A Christmas Carol,” said Dad. Then he jumped up. “I know, why don’t we read it? Like when you were little.”
“How about we skip it?” I said. “Mom’s not even—“
“No, no! This story is very important,” said Dad. “You know how I feel about it.”
“Yeah. That everyone should watch A Christmas Carol, at least once a year,” I recited, “and then the world would be a better place.”
“That’s right, Nicholas!” Dad fumbled through the presents under the tree. “I was saving this for Christmas, but here.” With a huge grin, he handed me what was obviously a book.
Yes! It had to be the one I’d asked for: By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers & Samurai. I ripped off the paper and held a crumbling copy of…A Christmas Carol.
“Oh, thanks Dad.” I ducked my head. That’s when my fingers started to tingle. Bizarre. I held the book up. I knew it was ancient. Was there mold on it? Would that make my fingers itch?
Dad kept talking. “My father gave me this very book when I was your age!”
“Yeah, it’s um, really great.” Just what every twelve-year-old wants. My hands continued to tingle, then grew warm. Heat traveled up my arms. Then the book pulsed. I couldn’t let go fast enough. It landed, open, on my lap. The smell of smoke drifted up. Fannie growled at the book.
I like the way this page opens. It immediately sets up the character’s voice and the attitude of the book. I would love to see that reinforced more even this early on. That deadpan humor is fun, and even though you’re setting up the plot here, there’s room to push the voice and humor to feel really sharp and contemporary.
Wendy Greenley LITA’S LEMURS 324-word Picture Book
[Art Note: show wide variety of diurnal and nocturnal lemurs. Lita’s bedroom filled with wild animal posters/stuffed toys etc.]
Lita never missed an episode of The Wild Update.
TV reporter: “Lemurs have no place to live. People are crowding them out.”
Lita’s top bunk was empty.
She sent an invitation. [Art: a line of taxis stretched down the road]
The next day, Lita’s bunks overflowed.
Perhaps she should have warned her parents . . .
but . . .
it was time for soccer practice.
Sleepy lemurs piled into Lita’s wagon.
The others leaped, shuffled and danced alongside.
Luckily, no one else wanted to sit on the side with the sun in their eyes.
[Art: lemurs sunbathing-one or two sneak over to peek in purses etc.]
People gawked and took photos.
Soccer had to wait. Lita herded her group home.
“Time for dinner!” Mom called.
Lasagne was Lita’s favorite.
But not the lemurs’.
Lemurs are adorable, and I like that this isn’t overwritten. There aren’t excess details or transitions. That said, there was almost a little too much missing—particularly with regards to Lita as a character. I want to know more about her. What is her motivation for trying to save lemurs? Simply that she likes animals, per the art? How can that relate to other aspects of her personality? (Is she adventurous? Does she frequently get in over her head?) Right now she feels a little general—I know that she likes soccer, lasagna, and lemurs, but that doesn’t add up to a larger picture.
Thank you Bethany for taking your valuable time to help the writers out their to hone their writing skills.