Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 26, 2013

Free Fall Friday – The Results

April illustration Elena Caravelaforkathybunnydance

Elena Caravela’s Dancing bunnies helps us celebrate the results for April’s First Page Critique winners.

Elena is the illustrator of The Birds of the Harbor,  A Night of Tamales and Roses, and author/illustrator of Portrait of a Girl and Her Art.  You can see her process on Illustrator Saturday and find her work at

Here are the winning first page entries for April. Meredith said, “Hope these are helpful to the authors–all four of these first pages were very strong. I enjoyed them all!”

Half-Truths by Carol Baldwin – Young Adult Historical Fiction

Chapter 1: Lillie

Lillie hated the Dinsmore’s front door.

Standing on the sidewalk, she glared at the imposing entrance flanked by six white pillars. Even though she’d visited Big Momma at work a million times, she’d never once pushed the brass doorbell button, heard the musical chimes, or watched the elegant door swing open for her.

Not once.

No matter that she matched the color of the ivory pillars flanking that door, Lillie still couldn’t walk through it.

Thunder boomed and the gray clouds that had threatened all day opened up.  She raced around the house and came in the back door.  “Hey, Big Momma! How you doing?” she hugged her grandmother, who was taking cookies off a baking sheet.

“Girl, you gave me a fright!” Her grandmother shook her off. “You’re sopping wet! Go dry yourself and don’t you dare track no mud into this kitchen! I got me enough work without having to clean up after you now too!”

Lillie slipped a biology book out from under her jacket and laid it on the table. Good, it was still dry.

Big Momma eyed it and shook her head. “You know you is wasting your time studying that book. Ain’t no colored girl on earth ever gonna be a doctor.”

Lillie ignored Big Momma’s comment. In her grandmother’s mind, colored women were put into this world to serve white folks.

“When’s the company coming?”  Lillie put her tennis shoes by the backdoor and sniffed. The cinnamon smell of snicker doodles filled the kitchen.

Meredith Mundy’s Critique – Half-Truths

The author has managed to squeeze a great many important details into this first page—it’s easy to imagine the imposing front entrance of this grand house, and the feelings it might conjure in a young woman who is not allowed to enter except through the back door.

I’m interested in the fact that this book is labeled “Historical Fiction Young Adult.” Simply going by the first page, I would definitely have assumed that this character was much younger—perhaps belonging in a middle grade novel. The fact that she “hates” a front door and visits her grandmother immediately after school for hugs and snickerdoodles makes her seem quite young. If she is an older teen, we’ll need more immediate clues to help us see her more clearly. Her voice should be coming through right here on the first page.

Based on the title of the first chapter (“Lillie”), I am assuming—but I could be wrong—that the book’s narrative will switch off between different characters’ perspectives, and that each chapter title will let us know who is picking up the story. All the more reason to establish who Lillie is immediately so that the reader has a firm foundation for her before moving on to the next voice.

I like it that the conflict is established right away—Lillie is a young person who dreams of being a doctor at a time when that seems completely impossible—but I think the author will face quite a challenge in avoiding the predictability trap. I hope the character suffers some highly believable set-backs so that her road to success is not too smooth and easy to follow.

Also, there’s a somewhat fine line between authenticity and caricature, so the author has definitely set up a challenge for herself by giving Big Momma such a broad, Southern dialect. I’m no expert on dialect, but I think it would be well worth the author’s time to see how other authors have handled it. Does it need to be toned down? Fine-tuned?

In any case, I would definitely keep reading!


“Kyte’s Revenge,” a YA novel by Connie Goldsmith

I feel it first on the back of my neck – that prickly, squirmy feeling you get when someone’s watching and you don’t know it. Sort of like insects crawling under your skin.

I turn off my iPod and look around. Pull out the earbuds and listen. No one.

Off in the distance, live oaks strung with Spanish moss punctuate the landscape. The air smells of flowers and the herbs that I’ve tugged from the earth.

I scan the trees. Still no one. Must be my imagination.

Thunder booms and rain clouds threaten to let loose, just like every summer afternoon in this part of Florida. The electricity in the air stirs my hair, sends it flying around my face. Time to go. Time to get back to Baba’s house and start dinner.

I brush the dirt from my hands and grab the basket of herbs I’ve gathered. Baba needs them for the tambor tonight: sweet herbs to attract good luck and love; bitter ones to ward off evil. At the last minute, I spot the curly leaves of the wild lettuce my turtle likes best and add a handful of them to the basket.

The world changes in an instant. Footsteps thud behind me, twigs snap beneath a heavy stride.

“Hey, Kyte! I been looking for you, babe.”

The boy’s voice cuts through the sticky afternoon air and slices into my spine. I spin around to face him. When I see who it is, the basket slips from my fingers and spills to the ground. Herbs and wild lettuce scatter at my feet.

It’s Cole. He wears a Confederate bandanna tied around his forehead to keep his long blond hair off his face. Like always. “What . . . what are you doing here?”

“Like I said, I’m looking for you.”

Meredith Mundy’s first page Critique for – Kyte’s Revenge

This first page is extremely descriptive, loaded with natural imagery and tangible details. The author has done a great job of establishing information about the main character and her setting by showing rather than telling. (Much harder than it looks!) The iPod clues us in that this is a contemporary story; we know it takes place in Florida in the summer; someone close to the main character practices some kind of magic; and Cole, who is set up as the antagonist, is very likely one scary dude.

Kyte is already an intriguing character on the page—smart, intuitive, observant, able to spot the specific type of plant her turtle likes to eat with a quick side glance. Already we can see that she will be a resourceful and generous character, but clearly all is not well in her world. The title sets us up for something dramatic and dark, as does her tense interaction with Cole. The contrast between Cole’s casual tone and Kyte’s frightened reaction is striking. He feels free to call her “babe,” but clearly she is far from comfortable with him and therefore his loose, jocular tone is jarring. There’s no way to tell at this point what the tension between these two is all about, but by introducing Kyte’s obvious fear of him so early in the story, an unsettling dynamic is nicely established. I’m curious to know how old the characters are. Kyte hears a “boy’s voice,” but Cole feels older, more threatening than a young boy. Especially since his voice is capable of “slicing” through Kyte’s spine!

I wonder if the line “The world changes in an instant” might be too dramatic. Clearly Kyte is startled, but has the world really changed?

And I would take another look at the first lines. I like the ominous tone that is established from the outset, but the “insects crawling under your skin” verges on cliché. The idea is great in these first lines, but it would be an interesting exercise to rewrite them twenty different ways and see what starts to emerge. An even stronger, sharper ignition point may strike the author.


LEFT OUT LOUIE by Patricia Newman                                            610 words / picture book

I love my zoo. Not to brag or anything, but my black-footed penguin pool rocks. I’m the tall good-looking one.                                     [Louie is a South African black-footed penguin.]

Every day, I race underwater with my buddies. Visitors listen to us sing and watch us dance. At night when we’re alone, we tell scary orca stories.

One day the wire crate comes out. My buddies and I cower in the corner. The penguin that leaves in that crate never returns.

Today that penguin is me. My buddies sing a sad song as I leave them.

At my new zoo, I hear a lion roar and a monkey chatter. My new pool has rocks, clean water, and a window for us to people-watch. It’s not home, but I like it.

I stick out my flipper. “I’m  Louie.”

My new pool-mates cross their flippers and stare at me. “This is Tux, Waddles, Tutu, Poppi, and Fatso. I’m Oreo,” Oreo says. “And you, new guy, are in our way.”

Fatso’s feet slap across the rocks to breakfast. Tux and Waddles stampede over me in their rush to beat Fatso. Oreo flaps his wings as if he expects to take off. (Earth to Oreo: Penguins don’t fly.) Tutu and Poppi squawk out a love song. (For each other, not me.)

No worries. I’ve played tough colonies before. I dust off my feathers and throw back my wings. I can do this.

I try a sincere compliment. “Waddles, your feathers are so shiny I need sunglasses.”

“Eew, you’re molting,” she says.  “Go away.”

I swallow hard. Molting?

My scruffy reflection mocks me. I slap my wing over a bald spot, but refuse to give up.

I try a friendly greeting. “Poppi my man, slap me some flipper!”

He shoves me. There’s no talking to some penguins before their morning fish heads.

Meredith Mundy’s First Page Critique – Left Out Louie

This penguin has class, style, and strong self esteem—characteristics that come through splendidly in his clear, certain voice. I found it refreshing that this was not another story about a character fearfully dreading a move away from home and adjusting poorly to his new environment. Louie takes life as it comes and is not afraid of meeting new penguins. He sets a great example for readers by not giving up, even after being repeatedly rebuffed. His confidence makes him very likable indeed. I’m also pleased to see that this is not another typical story about bullying—Louie is a character who will stand up for himself, and surely will not be “left out” for long.

The specific details included in this first page are terrific: the penguins don’t just tell scary stories at night; they tell scary orca stories! The window in Louie’s new enclosure is for people-watching, of course! I also admire the sly and unobtrusive way that numerous facts about penguins have been woven into the text. In a very small space we have learned what a penguin’s natural enemy is, their favorite food, the fact that they are flightless, etc.

This first page definitely makes me want to keep reading—I’m curious to know what the specific conflict will be and how Louie resolves it. Since his musical talents are mentioned at the beginning, surely he will be bringing some song and dance to this tougher new home of his.

I would definitely suggest that the author create a rough turning dummy for the whole text to make sure the pacing feels right. Is there too much here at the beginning, leaving not enough room for the rest of the story to spin out comfortably in 32 pages? Hard to tell from what’s here, but it’s a very promising beginning.


Tercules by Marcy Pusey, picture-book

The egg bounced. It boinged; it rolled; it rocked; it swayed; it swiveled; it tilted and tumbled. The nest beneath it crushed and crumbled as the little turkey chick freed himself.

“Too wild!” squealed the other baby turkeys.

“Too wild?” repeated the newly hatched baby.

“Just right,” beamed Momma Gobbler.

“He’s so big and strangely strong, I’ll call him Tercules,” Momma Gobbler said lovingly.

On his first flight, Tercules sent wind-storms of trees tumbling. Not to mention his brothers and sisters.

“Too windy!” whined Gobbeldy.

“Too windy?” asked Tercules.

“Just right,” flapped Momma Gobbler, spiraling through the air.

Perched on a branch beneath his momma’s wings, Tercules felt an itch.  The branch bounced low as he strained to relieve the tickle. Scratch, creak, scratch, crack. Suddenly, split, splat! Tercules and his family were in a heap on the ground.

“Too bouncy!” cried Poultrina.

“Too dangerous!” wailed Frank.

“Too bouncy? Too dangerous?” worried Tercules.

“Just right,” shushed Momma Gobbler from beneath her poultry pile.

Meredith Mundy’s First Page Critique – Tercules

I’m tickled by the fresh premise here—I’ve definitely never seen a tall tale about a Herculean turkey!

The first few lines nicely set up for the reader the exaggerated action to come, and I like the energetic language here, though there are perhaps a few too many alliterative pairs. Consider removing one or two so that the story can get going a bit more swiftly. (I’d vote to toss the first pair: “boinged” is the weakest of the examples here and sounds like a made-up word.) Also watch the wording in the third line—it’s not the nest that’s doing the crushing; it’s the egg.

The refrain that ends with Momma Gobbler’s sweet affirmation that her youngest child is “just right” works nicely—readers will recognize the rhythm from “Goldilocks” and appreciate the twist. Interesting to see how much is revealed about Tercules just by having him repeat his siblings’ criticisms: we see that he’s a bit insecure, not wanting to offend, and nothing like the braggart he could be based on his superior strength. It lends him a sweet uncertainty, and we like him immediately.

This story’s beginning sets up for the reader what Tercules is capable of—he crushes a nest just by escaping his shell; he causes a windstorm just by flapping his wings; he knocks his family out of the tree just by scratching an itch. After this series of three examples, I’m assuming that the story really gets going and a plot emerges. I’d like to see that happen a tad sooner, which could be accomplished by letting more of what is described in the text here be shown in the art. The first page definitely made this reader want to find out what happens next.

I worry that the second and third examples of Tercules’s strength are perhaps too similar—I imagine the art for both showing the turkey family’s tree swaying and shaking; feathers everywhere; turkey chicks off balance and tossed every which way. Is there another example—maybe something even more extraordinary—that would add variety in action and setting but still demonstrate his unusual strength? If the author keeps the current examples, I’d suggest saving the flying episode for last—it seems too abrupt to have Tercules born and already in flight within two pages.

I’d be curious to know if other readers tripped over the title. Once I got the joke, I thought it was very funny, but the spelling threw me off. Would “Turkules” create a more immediate connection in a reader’s brain between “turkey” and “Hercules”? Will the picture book audience know who Hercules is? Momma might have to—swiftly—clue her other babies into why she chose that name, thereby clarifying for readers, too. Or perhaps we just need a clever subtitle to seal the deal.

Thank you Meredith for sharing all your time and expertise to help authors to improve their writing skills. It is much appreciated and very helpful. If you are attending the NJSCBWI June conference, you will get to meet Meredith and I promise you will love her. Remember deadline to sign up is April 30th.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Thanks, Meredith, for your insightful comments. And thanks Kathy for offering this first-page critique service. Now, it’s back to work!


  2. ANd I forgot to say…I love Elena’s bunny rabbits too!


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