Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 28, 2014

Free Fall Friday – Allison Moore Critiques

febgiraffeillo

This giraffe fashionista was sent in by Katia Bulbenko. Katia is an artist, illustrator and art teacher living and working near New York City, on the Jersey side of the Hudson. A member of the SCBWI, her work was recently selected for the New Jersey Library Association’s Books for Kids poster. Congratulations! Katia!

Big Red and Wolfie (PB) by Bev Baird Langill

“Look at those nice juicy pigs. Won’t granny be happy.”

Turning around, Red screeched when she saw Wolfie glaring at her.

“Why are you spying on me?”

“I’m not! I caught you spying on our new neighbours.”

“Just checking them out.”

“Not for a meal, I hope?”

“Of course not!”

Red left quickly and  ran home, arriving there, huffing and puffing.

“Granny, we’ve got new neighbours – three plump, juicy pigs.”

“Wonderful. What I wouldn’t give for a nice roast of pork.”

“Yum!”

“We need to meet them. I want you to take over some nice treats. That will fatten them up even

more.”

“What a great idea Granny. I’ll go over now.”

Granny packed a basket with cakes and cookies, while Red put on her cloak. She had a bit of

trouble doing it up around her neck.

Here is what Allison had to say:

BIG RED AND WOLFIE by Bev Baird Langill

The idea of combining the “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Three Little Pigs tales here was interesting. That said, given the storyline wasn’t straightforward, I thought it could use a few more lines to set the scene, before jumping into the dialogue.  At times it wasn’t immediately clear who was talking, so I might also suggest using attribution, if even just selectively.  Or, if the story is meant to communicate some of its humor visually, I would suggest including art notes.  In some ways, this felt like the middle of a story.  I could make assumptions about Granny, Wolfie, and Red based on what they said, but I wasn’t feeling as invested as I could be.

There are a number of fairy tale-inspired picture books out in the market, so for us to consider one, it needs to be spot-on  — and stand out from the crowd in a really dynamic, specific way.  In this case, unfortunately, I would probably choose not to move forward.

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Rule Breaker  – a Middle Grade Novella By Angela Larson and Zander Mowat

The book made this sound a lot easier. I’m in the hall that leads to the cafeteria, leaning on a bent knee and peering around the corner with a mirror in my hand.  This is surveillance, Chapter One of Detective Derk’s Spy Manual for the Disgruntled. I’ve been on surveillance all week. It’s Friday. My hand is going numb while I wait. I’m debating if it’s worth skipping lunch again, when my target, my jerk brother Roger Adams, turns the corner.

He strolls down the hall in his ‘too important to walk any faster’ mode and pulls a coin from his pocket.   By the time he gets to the vending machine my arm starts to shake. I’m concentrating hard to keep the mirror focused on him.

He puts a quarter in the machine, presses a button and I hear the candy fall to the door. This is crazy – I know he doesn’t have any money.  Then I see the trick.  I blink.  Is this for real?

He pulls a string – its tied to the quarter!

A second later, he’s pulled the quarter up and out, has the stolen snack in his hand, and he is about to walk away.

My body jolts to fast-forward as I turn the corner and launch at him. “That’s not very cool – Stealing from the school!”  Not waiting for an answer, I snatch the coin on the string out of his hand.

“Dude, take a chill pill, before your head explodes,” says Roger as he rolls his eyes.  This is part of Roger’s classic cosmic-cool act.  He goes around saying all these…

Here is what Allison had to say:

RULE BREAKER by Angela Larson and Zander Mowat

I thought this was a great first line.  It grabbed me immediately, and told me a lot about the situation and character in just a few words.  I didn’t mind jumping into the middle of a scene because each line told me something interesting and important – how the character looks, how he fits into his environment, and what his goal is.  I wanted to know why he was following “the target,” and what made him look to a book for advice.  I might even suggest extending his watch, and not revealing who the target is just yet, to maintain suspense for a few more paragraphs.  In any case, I would definitely keep reading.

That said, a few things in the following paragraphs struck me as outdated, in a way, and I found that a little distracting.  Are any vending machines still only a quarter?  Do kids still say “take a chill pill”?  These wouldn’t have stopped me from reading, because I was taken by the plot, but they took me out of the story momentarily, so I might suggest rethinking them.  On a similar note, the specific phrasing coming from the main character – especially his exclamation about stealing from the school (and the fact that that line rhymes, almost like a slogan), made him seem less like a cool spy and more like an annoying little brother.  And if he is, so be it!  But if that’s not one of his main traits as a character, I might similarly rework that line.

Overall, minor quibbles aside, I would be interested in seeing where this story was going.

(Side note – I wasn’t familiar with the category of “middle grade novella.”  There is certainly a range, from chapter books up to more complex MG, but I haven’t heard of something in MG being described as a novella, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.)

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Sarah Phillips Pellet – THE KITCHEN TROLL – Middle Grade 

            Stephen didn’t brush his teeth in the morning. It was about all he could do to get out of bed, pull on his jeans and sweatshirt, eat breakfast, grab his backpack, and walk to school. Who had time to brush their teeth?

The problem was though, Stephen didn’t find the time to do other little things he should’ve been doing, too. Things like weeding the garden, taking out the trash, and sorting the recyclables, they got in the way of the time he liked to spend playing basketball with his friends or drawing in the garden shed where nobody would disturb him. Or find out that he liked to draw.

Stephen didn’t give these things too much thought in the morning. He didn’t think much of anything apart from moving his spoon to his mouth to take a bite of cereal. Th-wap! His father slammed his sketch pad onto the kitchen table. Little bits of dirt scuttled out from its pages and flew across the table as if they knew was what coming next and wanted to get out of the way. The pencil slid out of its spiral cage and rolled onto the floor. Two giant hands came crashing down onto the table with such force that Stephen’s spoon jumped out of his cereal bowl and catapulted soggy Cheerios onto his lap.

“What is this?” his father demanded, his lip curled in a snarl.

Stephen blinked several times. “I dunno,” he lied.

“Oh really?” said his father, flipping the sketch pad over to reveal a sign Stephen had penned which read, “NO TRESPASSING! Property of Stephen Dennison!!!” with each exclamation point drawn in 3-D:  one with diagonal stripes, another with polka dots, and the last one with lightning bolts.

Here is what Allison had to say:

THE KITCHEN TROLL

I liked this opening – it tells you what kind of kid Stephen is, and that this isn’t a one-off situation.  That said, my first question was, why does Stephen eat cereal, instead of an even quicker breakfast?  Sitting at the table and pouring cereal and milk sounds like it takes more effort than, say, eating a granola bar on the way out the door.  Just something to consider.

I enjoyed the imagery of the third paragraph, especially the line “Little bits of dirt scuttled out from its pages and flew across the table as if they knew was what coming next and wanted to get out of the way.”  Since this is a clever line, I might suggest simplifying the other sentences in that paragraph – otherwise, it’s easy to get a bit caught on up things like “spiral cage” and “catapulted soggy Cheerios,” and lose track of the story.

The “No Trespassing” sign seemed to make the sketchpad more noticeable than if Stephen had written something misleading like “Biology Homework” on it, so I wondered what his thought process was there.  I also found that his father’s anger about the artwork felt familiar – it’s a storyline I’ve read before.  I wanted to know more about why, in Stephen’s particular situation, it would be bad if people knew he liked to draw – and how deep his passion for drawing is.  I might suggest having his dad discover a very particular piece of artwork that conveys more of the story (is this where the kitchen troll from the title comes in?).  There also seems to be a disconnect between this scene and the opening describing Stephen, so I would want to know how he caused this situation to happen (did he accidentally leave the sketchbook out?).

Overall, I would probably read a few more pages to find out if the questions above were answered, but would need another hook to keep me interested past that.

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OUT ON A LIMB Susan Detwiler, picture book

James Johnson Junior was out on a limb

It seems that his father was looking for him.

Rotten luck followed James right out of bed

First he stubbed his big toe, and then bumped his head

James spilled juice on the rug, stepped on the cat

When practicing swings, broke a plant with his bat.

The dog chewed his shoe, ran off with his sock

Their chase through the kitchen made furniture rock —

Knocked over sugar and spilled all the tea!

James escaped from the house to hide in a tree…

He scrambled up fast which made his foot slip

He looked down and saw that his pants had a rip.

What would he do? Dad must surely be mad!

The messes and mayhem made James seem so bad.

Would Dad be angry and make a loud roar?

Banish James to his room and then lock the door?

Here is what Allison had to say:

OUT ON A LIMB

Rhyming text in picture books is interesting – in the best cases, it can enhance the lyrical quality of the book, making it an incredibly fun read-aloud.  But in other cases, it can feel a little forced.  Unfortunately, the second one happens much more often when I’m reading submissions, so I always approach rhyming stories with a bit of apprehension.   Add to that the difficulty of translating text that rhymes, and you can see how we might have especially high standards when we consider acquiring this type of book!

In this case, I thought the rhyme was fun, but a few of the lines felt like a bit of a stretch – like they were rearranged to support the end rhyme, rather than the plot.  I also wondered in the emphasis was on the right words – in following the story (and picturing it illustrated), I wanted to highlight certain words or beats that were the most visual or meaningful – and those didn’t always match with the natural beat of the end rhyme.

I also found the plot to be a little bit quiet.  The story of a klutzy child – or one who can’t please his dad – isn’t new, so I was looking for other ways this story would stand out.  I found that I was remembering the sing-song quality more than certain aspects of the story, so wondered if this would be better served written without the rhyme.  I would need to read the rest to see if this could turn into a stand-out story, but I predict it might be a pass.

Thank you Allison for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share your expertise with us. If you sign up for the NJSCBWI Conference at the end of June you will get to meet Allison in person. Please leave a little note for Allison if you enjoyed the post and her comments. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. Great learning tool, this. I’m making plenty of notes … 8~)

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  2. Thanks to the brave souls who put their work here so the rest of us can learn. Thanks to Allison for her thoughtful comments.

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  3. Thank you, Allison and Kathy for this valuable opportunity! I learned from each critique; your insights are very helpful.

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  4. Hoping to meet you in June, Allison! Thanks for giving us a glimpse of your editorial tastes and style. And kudos to all the contributors. 🙂

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  5. Reading these critiques is very helpful and can serve to improve my own writing. Thanks to those who contributed and also to Allison and Kathy for making this available to us.

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  6. Thank you so much for this critique. I appreciate the honesty and suggestions. I will definitely work on these. It was very valuable to read your comments about all the stories.

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  7. Congratulations to you all for submitting. I enjoyed reading them all. I’ve learned more as well. And I love the “fashionista giraffe”. 🙂

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  8. Thank you so much for an awesome “lesson” – found the critiques very helpful! Thanks also to all those who bravely submitted their manuscripts!

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  9. Allison and Kathy, Wow! & Thank you so much for sharing your time and expertise with us! So thrilled to have the critique, and already making changes!

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  10. Congratulations to everyone who had their work reviewed. And thank you, Kathy and Allison. I always learn so much reading the critiques.

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  11. Interesting comments. Always fun to see how an expert critiques a piece. I can’t believe I forgot to attach my submission as a Word document. Guess I’ve learned my lesson and will submit in March.

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  12. Allison, thanks for the critiques. I’m attempting a fractured fairy tale so it was especially helpful to hear your thoughts on Big Red and Wolfie.
    Kathy, thanks for this series, it’s valuable to receive a leading editor’s insights to our manuscripts…not mine per say but equally beneficial 🙂

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  13. Thank you, your time and input is greatly appreciated. Your insights keep light at the end of my tunnel. Without these detailed critiques it is difficult to impossible to know where improvement is needed. Thanks again, hope to sub soon.

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  14. Thank you for your insightful critique Allison. It was an affirmation that I’m headed in the right direction. I appreciate you taking the time to review my piece. And Kathy, thank you for your commitment to providing this valuable resource and forum!

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