Posted by: Kathy Temean | December 23, 2011

Free Fall Friday – Editor Heather Alexander

The above illustration was done by Lorraine Dey. Lorraine has illustrated several books for Rockport Publishers, Rodale Press, and Simon & Schuster. Her work can also be seen on various home decor, kitchen accessories, giftware, greeting cards, apparel, magazines, and package designs. Her designs appear in stores such as Wal-Mart, Big-Lots!, K-Mart, JC Penney, and more. You cansee more by visiting her website at  or Thanks Lorraine for all your wonderful artwork.

There were many good first pages that were sent in, but many did not follow the first page prompt and could not be sent into Heather.  Below are the three pages that Editor Heather Alexander from Dial Books for Young Reader critiqued for us.

The Other Miracle on 34th Street

(Young Adult)

Ten o’clock had come and gone, and Ryan still wasn’t home. This first line gets the tension building, but it also makes it sounds like 10pm. Why is Carolyn at her bf’s house without him, and how long has he been gone? It sounds as though she’s been up and waiting for him for several hours, or days. Carolyn stood before the drafty picture window in her boyfriend’s family home, listening to his mother sing Christmas songs in the kitchen. Mrs. Callahan could definitely give Santa a run for his money in the round and jolly department. She whistled as she made her famous stuffing, and the smell of onions and celery wafted through the house. Ryan’s mom always made her feel like part of the family. He and his four brothers all had silly nicknames, and Mrs. Callahan had bestowed one to on Carolyn the very first time they met.

“Would you like some mulled, apple cider, Chickie?” Ryan’s mother shouted over the radio.

“No, thanks, Mrs. C…the tea from earlier is still holding me over.” Sounds awkward.  Mrs. Callahan came out from the kitchen, drying her hands on the front of her candy-cane-striped apron. Her white curls – How old is she?  Makes her sound like an elderly woman who doesn’t dye her hair.  Think about making her a more modern woman. were pushed back by a brown headband with antlers, and her eyes sparkled with warmth. “How are you holding up, Chickie? You look so sad. I know this must be hard for you.” It was true. [The holidays would always be more difficult now, after the unexpected loss of her parents last spring. She didn’t know how she would have survived their accident if it weren’t for Ryan and his family.]  Is there a way to weave this information into the story more, so it’s shown, not told? But something was different lately. Ryan had been acting distant, almost nervous and quiet with her, and she was worried.

Mrs. Callahan took her hand and said, “What you need is a distraction, honey. How about we watch the Macy’s parade together, and see if any balloons get away?” Carolyn smiled, and they sat down in front of the TV. It didn’t take long before Mrs. C was shouting, “Oh, look, Chickie! Those five clowns are up to something!” At first, Carolyn wasn’t sure what all the ruckus was about, but then, the clowns rushed up to the camera, and the tall one with the fluffy red curls pulled off his wig, held a phone to his ear and knelt down in front of the camera, as the other four unrolled a banner that read, “CAROLYN SPRIGGS, BE MY MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, MARRY ME!” and then her phone rang. This is sweet, although I’m not sure it’s very believable.  Would Ryan not have gotten Carolyn to come to the parade in person?  Why did he have to be there, and not with her?  Was the parade something he couldn’t get out of? I’m not sure the conflict is set up enough to get to this resolution so quickly.  We don’t know anything about Carolyn’s relationship with Ryan. The main character’s actions and choices need to be the driving force in any story, and I’m not seeing that yet with Carolyn.  She is extremely passive in this page.  Can you find a way to put her in the driver’s seat?


I am so tired of living in this quiet, boring tiny town where nothing exciting ever happens.  My mom says it is safe here.  I say it is dreary and dull.[HA1]  

[HA1]It’s hard to get on board with a character coming from this point of view. Consider putting a more positive spin on the same idea, or just cut this paragraph.

My Great-grandpa was lucky to grow up in a lively bustling city, hearing taxis HONK, feeling the subway RUMBLE, smelling the aroma of hot yeasty pretzels.  He explored the nooks and crannies of every skyscraper from sidewalk to rooftop.  Then one gusty day, WHOOSH!  [HA2] [HA2]Nice sound effects!  He was blown to this grassy green suburb where he met Great-grandma. 

“Please tell me a city story!” I often begged Great-grandpa, “The one about the magical parade?” 

“It was a cold, dry day,” he begins, “Huge crowds of people jammed the streets and music blared from shiny trumpets and tubas[HA3] .”  [HA3]Would a pigeon know what this is?

“What about the balloons?”

“Yes, Henry, the skies were filled with giant colorful balloons. They were no ordinary balloons, but peculiar blimped creatures.  They were shaped like enormous dogs, cartoon superheroes[HA4] [HA4]How would a pigeon know about cartoon superheroes? , and unusual yellow birds.  People marched through the streets, clutching strong tethers that kept the bobbing, straining airborne icons from sailing up to the clouds.”

[HA5]  [HA5]With this setup of the storytelling, I want to hear how the parade was magical, or why Henry thinks so at least. We huddled in the “O” of the neon Shop-Rite sign where the warmth eased Great-grandpa’s ancient, achy legs and wings.  [HA6]  [HA6]First place it’s clear that these are birds. Show something earlier of their unique perspective? “Great-grandpa, will you take me to the city?” I asked one day, “I really want to see those giant balloons!” 

He sighed, “That’s a long trip for an old bird like me, Henry.  I don’t know.” 

“I can help!” I said, “I’ll fly in front and ease the wind for you.  You just need to point me in the right direction. C’mon, we can do it!” 

“We’ll see, Henry, we’ll see,” said Great-grandpa.  That’s when I knew he really meant NO, and I started planning my own adventure.[HA7] [HA7]There is a lot of build up if this is a picture book. A chapter book or middle grade book starring pigeons will be a tricky sell for the age group. Consider starting this with a shorter setup, and getting right to the parade.

 I’m intrigued to see what Henry’s adventure on his own would be. This begins in a place of planning, and you might consider starting somewhere more active. Perhaps Henry is on his way, thinking about the stories that his grandfather told him, wondering if he’d made a mistake trying to go on his own? 

I’m not entirely clear on what the conflict is, or what’s at stake for Henry. Starting in a different place would help to establish both of these things more firmly, more quickly. 


“Here they come.”  [HA1]  [HA1]This could be the first line to almost anything. Is there a more engaging way to begin?

I whispered the words so only I heard.  Then I opened my eyes as wide as they would go and told myself not to blink.  [HA2] [HA2]Readers need to be more grounded in time and place. What is going on? If this inManhattan at the Macy’s parade, it’s going to be loud, crowded, smelly, claustrophobic, early. Let these details in so we know what’s going on. Is this a boy or girl? How old?I shoved my earmuffs back off my ears and pushed up onto my tip-toes.      

There.  I was sure I wouldn’t miss a thing.  I couldn’t.  I’d promised. 

We said we’d come together.  We had a plan.  But now it’s just me with my mom and dad.  Just me.[HA3]   [HA3]This feels intentionally vague, which can be frustrating. Who is “we” and what is the significance of it? Breakup? Death? Family? Friend?

The fingers on my left hand kept twitching, opening and closing inside my mitten.  The hand she should be holding.  My mom must have noticed, because she grabbed hold of my hand and held on.  And for a minute, I let her.  [HA4] [HA4]This is very nice!


As soon as my mom said my name, I let go of her hand.  I couldn’t help it.       

When I stretched my neck and peered around the fat lady next to me, I saw it.  The first balloon [HA5] [HA5]Floats are the things people ride on, right? of the parade.  Snoopy.  I let out a puff of air.  That wasn’t right.  [HA6]  [HA6]This sounds like she was expecting a different balloon first.Snoopy flying overhead grinning like everything was okay.  It wasn’t.

Then came Big Bird.  [HA7] [HA7] The balloons don’t come one right after each other, right? Show the passage of time. Keep realistic details in mind, like that you can see the next balloon from half a mile away. We’d been standing there so long my cheeks were frozen, so at first it hurt to smile.  Big Bird was always her favorite.  Not Elmo.  And never Cookie Monster.  It had to be Big Bird.  She always slept with the stuffed one I gave her when we were in first grade. 

That was a long time ago.  I was in sixth grade now.  Just me.    [HA8] [HA9] [HA8]Sounds like whoever Abby’s talking about has been gone since first grade. Make the timing clearer?

[HA9]Readers are left to infer a lot in this piece, which can stop some readers from continuing. There is room for a lot more interiority and emotion, since this seems to be about loss, and the feelings that loss brings up at a particular time of year. Being vague can have a certain impact, but here, I think it would work better to let some of those emotions play out so readers have something to connect with.

Thank you Heather for sharing your expertise with us.  I hope everyone gets through the stress of the next few days with ease.  Remember family functions offer a lot of material for books.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Cute! Cute! Cute! Cute! Cute! 😀


  2. I’m so excited to see my work critiqued by Heather Alexander! Woo hoo! Thank you so much!!

    I’m always looking for ways to improve my writing, and this advice is priceless to me.

    Also, I just have to say that I LOVE the snowflakes falling on this page!!! Absolutely adorable~

    Thanks again, and happy holidays to all!


  3. I had posted to this before the critiques were up! I only commented on the adorable illustration by Lorraine Dey 🙂

    Anyway, I REALLY enjoyed the premises of the three stories here and found myself agreeing with everything Heather said, as a reader. I wonder how many of the same comments might have been made to me if I’d written one! This was really enjoyable from both perspectives! Thanks, writers, Heather and Kathy 🙂


  4. Many thanks to Heather for her insightful, spot-on comments for Pigeon Parade! She tackled exactly the issues that were niggling in my mind as I wrote, and re-wrote, the first page. I will keep your critique in mind as I learn to refine and improve that all-important first page of my future drafts. I am so grateful for your input!

    Thank you, also, to Kathy for sponsoring this challenge each month. It has been enormously helpful to read each editor’s commentary and get a sense of how other writers respond to the prompt!

    Happy Holidays!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: