This fun illustration was sent in from illustrator Sharon Lane Holm. Sharon is an illustrator/author who has over 20 years of experience in children’s book publishing. She has also written and illustrated 2 apps. available on Itunes, “Kids Counting Kitties 1-10, and Kids Counting Kitties 10-1”; available in English and Spanish.
Carolyn Chambers Clark, SECRETS, YA Coming of Age
Logan Spenser roars his convertible across the school parking lot and idles alongside my half-open window. His black leather jacket shines in the morning sun, setting off his chiseled jaw and the beauty of his mocha skin. I’ve seen him in the halls without the reflective sunglasses he’s wearing now. Something buried deep in his eyes tells me he’s been through some rough stuff himself.
He points his finger at me. “Raz Rinaldi! Thief.”
Chelsea gawks at me from the driver’s seat as if to say answer him, Her yellow sunglasses make her pale face look even more like vanilla pudding, while her blonde hair lies in perfect order against the shoulders of her expensive sweater.
“Thief? You’re calling me a thief?” My words tumble out and I want to duck my head, but force myself to pull back my shoulders and glare at him.
He doesn’t answer me, just laughs and zooms off.
My face gets hotter while I tick through my actions of the last week and find the worst thing I’ve done is “forget” to do the dishes my stepmother left in the sink. “What’s he talking about?”
Chelsea, AKA Speed Demon of Ash City High, and the closest thing I have to a friend, shrugs and laughs. “It’s destiny. The hottest guy in school knows your name.”
I love Chelsea, but she gets everything wrong. “I’m not looking for a hot guy. I have to keep my grades up. You know that.”
Chelsea laughs. “You are one boring chick. I can’t think of one reason why I like you.”
Carolyn Chambers Clark, SECRETS:
A clear strength to the writing here is the dialogue, which feels realistic and not forced. We don’t yet know these characters, but I felt like I had a good sense of who they are on the page. However, I felt the writing was expository at times. For instance, “Something buried deep in his eyes tells me he’s been through some rough stuff himself” felt like leading the reader in a very specific direction. I’d much rather get to know Logan as the story progressed before I saw the narrator jump to this conclusion. Similarly, the description of Logan in the first paragraph didn’t feel authentic to a teen voice, which surprised me given the way the teens actually speak in dialogue. Shining leather jackets, chiseled jaw, and roaring convertibles gave the impression of the 1950s and, to me, the adjectives used in this paragraph felt dated, or at least from an older perspective, as well. I appreciated how quickly the love interest – and possible conflict – was introduced right on page 1, and I’m interested in Raz’s friendship with Chelsea. Though, when Logan calls Raz a “thief” I expected more context. Is this a joke they share? Why is Chelsea so shocked he knows Raz’s name if they seem to have a natural banter with each other? We move on to Chelsea and Raz driving away before we get a chance to learn more about Logan, even though the novel opens with him.
MARK OF THE SIFTER by Laura Rueckert – YA Contemporary Fantasy
Deep in my chest, I could feel it: the girl was asleep. The itch to jump into her dream almost overpowered me, but I lingered in the arched entrance hall of Rainthorpe Manor, the mansion we’d used as home base on Earth the last twenty years. A new recruit had died this morning, and Beatrice would bring her by any moment to meet me. Not even the peaceful glisten of snow through the leaded windows could curb my urge to depart, and I leaned around the corner to check the grandfather clock again.
Beatrice and an older woman with brown, wind-toughened skin materialized in front of me. I nodded to both of them.
“This is the Head Sifter, Seth,” Bee said, gesturing in my direction.
The new Sifter’s eyes flicked to Bee and back to me.
“Welcome.” I didn’t ask her name. The details of her former life had been included in her contract.
Her voice wavered as she asked, “Are you the one shielding it?”
I gave a short nod, and her hard face looked like it might crack. “Thank you. It was horrible.”
Bee caught my eye and raised a finger to show she understood my impatience. “I’ll introduce you to your partner,” she said, drawing the woman from the hall. “And we’ll go over some of your duties.”
“Thank you!” the woman called over her shoulder, but I was already fading out, diving into the dream world of the destroyer.
It was time to find the problem. Stealing, cheating, taunting—despite our normal methods, none under my command were having any luck with the girl who was supposed to annihilate my team of Sifters.
Laura Rueckert, MARK OF THE SIFTER
I really liked the voice here. It’s calm without being passive, and I feel like Seth is a narrator I can trust. I wondered, though, about the genre, which is labeled as “contemporary fantasy.” To me this read much more like sci-fi, in both tone and in what was being said. The mention of “home base on Earth” and being part of a mysterious group of “recruits” that jump into dreams have an Inception-like science fiction concept. The idea of dream-jumping is an interesting premise, and I like how this opens with Seth’s desire to jump into this sleeping girl’s mind. It tells me a lot about him as a character with very few details. Though, overall, I was left with more questions about this concept than intrigue. Who is the sleeping girl and why is she not mentioned when Beatrice enters the scene? Is Seth no longer with her at that point? I also wanted the phrase “dream world of the destroyer” explained a bit more. Is “the destroyer” a person? A threat? Why is Seth involved? Without context, it’s hard to get immersed in the world, and in sci-fi – and fantasy – that is the key element in attracting a reader on the first page. I needed to know what a Sifter was in order to know who our main character was, and also know enough about his world to want to learn more.
JUST GO AHEAD by Valerie McCammon, Picture Book
My annoying big brother, Patrick Robert, doesn’t think I can do anything right.
I’ll show him.
I tell him I’m going to swing as high as the sun.
“You just go ahead and do that, Nick.”
I pump and I push, flying higher and higher. I’m Astronaut Nick zooming across the Milky Way.
“Fire the rocket boosters.”
I gain speed as I dodge whizzing asteroids.
Clunk! One hits me in the head. [Illo note: acorn falls]
Patrick laughs and walks away.
I tell him I am going to sail across the ocean to rescue the tribal princess.
“You just go ahead and do that.”
I ready my ship. I hoist anchor, and Captain Nick shoves off.
“To the Skeleton Coast.”
The sail billows in the wind as I shout orders to the crew. [Illo note: Swab that deck, sailor. Batten down the hatches, mates. Report to the brig, cadet.]
Uh-oh. Pirates are boarding. [Illo note: dogs jump in]
As the hull fills with water, one last command: “Abandon ship.”
I lunge for shore as Patrick moors the sinking vessel. He sighs as he also rescues the crew.
I remain confident. I tell Patrick I am sure I can find hidden treasure.
“You just go ahead and do that.”
I don my pith helmet and claw through the attic jungle. Patrick trails me from a safe distance.
Hiss! An anaconda, poised to strike. [Illo note: coiled up garden hose]
Valerie McCammon, JUST GO AHEAD
As a picture book concept, I thought this was really fun. I love the idea of a younger brother trying to get the attention of his older brother, and the escalations of each attempt. Though, the illustrator notes left little interpretation for the scene. It’s important to use descriptive language in picture books, but the illustrator should be able to add to that vision with their own. Another thing I liked about this book was that Nick’s first attempt at “swinging as high as the sun” was a realistic thing he’d be doing at a playground, and that in his mind it went to a completely fantastical place. But, the next declaration is to “sale across the ocean to rescue the tribal princess.” This, to me, was the fantastical thing in his head, but didn’t fit the pattern you set up of “real thing vs. imagination.” What also confused me a little bit was the opening line, “… doesn’t think I can do anything right.” None of the scenes that follow really demonstrated him trying to do anything “right” so much as trying to prove he can do something amazing. The phrasing there didn’t really set up what the story was going to be about. That said, I think this is a strong concept overall and can be very fun with a few tweaks for consistency.
The Outlands, a middle grade novel by Julie Artz
The first rule the village elders teach us in Graz? Curiosity kills. It’s the first lesson, the last lesson, and just about every lesson in between from what I can tell. They only let up for a sprinkling of history and a dash of survival. I should know. I’m in year seven of this, the final year before apprenticeships start.
So I’m not surprised to see Curiosity Kills written in tidy script on the whiteboard when I walk into class. I slide my bag under my desk and power on the tablet that’s bolted to the desktop. My fingers trace the graffiti on the wooden surface before swiping at the screen and picking up where yesterday’s notes left off.
Paper is scarce so we type everything. It’s a good thing, too, because my chicken-scratches wouldn’t pass muster with my teacher, Ms. Imma. She’s standing at the front of the class now in a dress as neat and precise as her handwriting on the board. The wooden shutters of our tiny schoolroom are opened wide, hoping to capture enough breeze to keep us from roasting. Or falling asleep.
I tap some of her words with a few added “blah, blah, blahs” into my tablet and glance over at Lisbeth, who types like a bird skimming the surface of the creek at a mayfly hatch. Zip. Zip. Zip. She notes every single word, and probably studies them every night before her bedtime prayers. It makes sense, really, because Ms. Imma is her mother.
Lisbeth is the only one of the year sevens who seems happy with the plan the elders have for her. My best friend, Nico, fidgeting at the desk in front of mine, will dig wells with his father, Aitor. Pablo will tend goats. Both jobs involve hard work and a strict master. Lisbeth will become a teacher. She’ll be perfect after years of practice nagging the three of us.
Then there’s me. Unlike the others, I can’t follow in my father’s footsteps. He’s already got an apprentice. My brother Rim. I feel my ears getting hot just picturing the glee on Rim’s face.
Julie Artz, THE OUTLANDS
I loved the opening line of this, and the opening paragraph overall is strong as well. It sets up an interesting premise and I was curious to read further to find out just why curiosity kills and what, exactly, this apprenticeship was all about. I liked the voice, but did have a few concerns about word choice. For example, “chicken scratch” felt like an old-fashioned phrase that a MG-aged character wouldn’t refer to himself. I also didn’t know whether a “bird skimming the surface of the creek at a mayfly hatch” was supposed to mean very quick or very carefully. This, of course, might be regional, but the phrasing of it also felt like the voice of someone much older. I couldn’t picture a young person speaking that way, particularly with the use of simile and metaphor. It didn’t feel true to the voice we opened with. I also wasn’t sure if this was a futuristic world. Paper is scarce, but they don’t seem to be typing on anything that doesn’t already exist. The jobs that are described for the other Year Sevens feel very rural, but without any futuristic advancements that may exist. It made me wonder if it isn’t futuristic, why is paper scarce and why does curiosity kill? I think the world could be better developed here. I also didn’t see the narrator very much after that opening paragraph. I was curious why the story itself begins here and where the plot of the novel is set into motion.
Thank you Sarah for sharing your time and expertise with us. We can all learn a lot from reading and first page and hearing what an editor or agent thinks.