Let’s all brew a cup of tea and join the characters having tea in this illustration by Denise Holmes. Seems like a great way to enjoy reading the critiques done by Agent Rachel Brooks for September’s first page winners.
Denise Holmes created the above illustration for a collective called The Happy Happy Art Collective. She is represented by Nicole Tugeau over at T2 Illustrators. Her first picture book was released in June 2014 – If I Wrote A Book About You by Stephany Aulenback! Here is Denise’s website: www.niseemade.com
Agent Rachel Brooks from the L Perkins Agency critiqued the following first page winners. Hope you take the time to read. You can learn a lot from listening to what the experts have to say about a first page, even if it is written by someone else.
CODENAME FOX by Donna Maloy
PROLOGUE. London. September, 1800.
I was all of seven years old, but Noreen’s iron shovel looked to me as big as a Scots battle axe. It clanged on the stone floor, not an arm’s length from my head.
“Oh, please don’t hit her!” my brother cried, yanking on her skirts.
But the scullery maid was determined. Her shovel banged down again, this time against the hearth behind me. A piece of stone whizzed past my whiskers.
“Get out o’ me way,” she told Graham. “Nasty, dirty thing that is. Tracking flour all over me clean floor.”
With a yell like a savage pirate, four-year-old Graham chomped down on her arm. The shovel flew out of her hands, clattering to a stop—right in front of Papa’s black, spit-polished boots. He’d come to see what all the noise was about. Now I was in a different sort of trouble.
With a sob, Graham pulled at Papa’s leg. “Make Noreen stop trying to kill Celia!”
Papa’s head jerked up and he looked toward the corner where I crouched.
I couldn’t see any point in lying. Shaking with fear, I looked up and nodded.
He stared at me. Of course I didn’t look much like an Ashleigh right then. I looked like a small, flour-speckled mouse.
“Come here,” he said, much too calmly. I could almost feel a spanking on the way.
“Miss Ce-Celia?” Noreen frowned. “But that’s only a dirty little mousie, idn’t it? What’s wrong with killin’ it?” She backed up against the chopping table, eyeing my father and me as if she didn’t know which of us worried her more.
“Get out,” Papa said quietly, speaking to the girl but never taking his eyes from me. Oh, I was in for it now. That was the voice Papa used with stable boys who played dice.
HERE IS RACHEL:
CODENAME FOX by Donna Maloy
This title is intriguing! Sounds like a story filled with fun adventure, although it doesn’t give me a 1800s London vibe, more sci-fi or spy.
I think this opening line could be stronger. It tells us the character’s age, rather than showing us how old the character is through how he talks, the story, etc. Also, the diction of this character doesn’t feel like a seven year old, but a much older character looking back and retelling the tale? If that’s the case, then the diction fits, but if he is in fact seven, the language needs reworked.
When the “stone whizzed past my whiskers” I thought it was a cat (or even fox as the title suggests) but it is actually a mouse. Maybe you can weave in some more clues that this is a mouse talking rather than telling us “I looked like a small, flour-speckled mouse” later down the page.
There’s quite a bit of repetition in this one page about the mouse/person being in trouble, being “in for it”, having a spanking on the way, etc. I don’t think we need to be told so much, since the shovel and yelling definitely tell us this isn’t going well.
Without knowing when chapter one starts in time and events, it’s hard to recommend whether you need this prologue or not. But the prologue camp is usually pretty divided on whether you should have one or cut it. It’s something for you to consider—do readers need this info for the rest of the story to make sense or is it setup that could be woven in throughout? If the answers is yes, readers do need it, then it’s good you have lots of action.
A SPARROW IN THEHAND MG by Darlene Beck Jacobson
Helen hurried down the dirt road, clutching her lunch sack in one hand. She reached for her sister Fran’s arm with her freehand, trying to get her to move faster.
Fran pulled away from Helen’s reach and continued to plod along. They were going to be late; why couldn’t Fran see that?
The sun poked out its head between two grey clouds just as they reached the schoolyard and the bell rang. Miss Thomson stood in the doorway of the one room building glaring at the sisters.
“I don’t tolerate tardiness.”
Helen stopped at the door, gasping. Her heart dropped like heavy stone as she struggled to steady her breathing. “I’m…sorry…Miss Thomson.” She took a deep breath, feeling calmer. “Ma needed our help this morning. It won’t happen again.”
Miss Thomson stared at Helen, lips pinched closed by an invisible clothespin. “See that it doesn’t, Miss Wasekowski.” She looked at Fran. “That goes for you too.”
“Yes, Miss Thomson,” Fran said, her plump cheeks flushed from hurrying.
Helen’s breathing finally settled as she smoothed her shoulder length hair from her face. Her eyes darted around the room, searching for her friend Mary. Why wasn’t she here?
Miss Thomson marched to the front of the room. Her stiff, proper skirt stood at attention. Helen bet her laced up shoes pinched her toes as tightly as the bun in her hair pulled at the corners of her cold, dark, eyes. She was nothing like Miss Norton, the teacher who left last year to get married. Miss Norton was like a willow tree, bending and flexible when the situation called for it. Helen doubted Miss Thomson liked teaching or children for that matter.
It was Miss Norton who had given Helen a thirst for learning that never seemed to be satisfied. She’d also ignited an ember that Helen kept buried deep in her soul. That ember was dormant. Waiting. It held Helen’s hope, dream, wish, to become a teacher one day.
No one – except her best friend Mary – knew of Helen’s deepest desire. Mary also held a secret desire of her own. To become a nurse. Both girls knew their dreams were like the wings of a bird – fragile and easily broken.
A SPARROW IN THE HAND by Darlene Beck Jacobson
The description of Miss Thomson is great with her pinched bun and skirt standing at attention. I can picture her for sure! But I’d like to see what Miss Thomson looks like sooner, while she glares out the doorway, rather than waiting until the kids are seated in class to describe her. It might make their tardiness feel more threatening.
Some of the language choices don’t feel MG-aged to me. For middle grade, I’m thinking Helen and Fran are somewhere between 10 to 14 ish? For example, I’m not sure “ignited an ember” or “a thirst for learning” are phrases that a kid of that age would use in that way. The author voice rather than the character’s voice is coming through here.
I’m also a bit confused about why the dreams of becoming a nurse and teacher are so fragile? These don’t seem like farfetched ambitions on the surface. I think I’m missing something here as far as setting that would reveal why these dreams are so fragile. It’s great to know their dreams early on, so the seeds are there, and just need a little nudge to get us to connect with why they’re at risk of being shattered.
Michelle Kogan Early Chapter Book Through a Sunflower
Rhea wanted to grow a sunflower house more than anything in the world. But even more then that, she wanted to grow it all on her own. She was going to enter it in the Petalpath 10th anniversary magazine contest and try to win $100.00. Ever since her dad lost his job everyone in the family was helping out. Rhea wanted to show she was big enough to help too!
“Come on sunflower, stand up!” Rhea said. “I’ve replanted you three times, ‘cause the squirrels ate the seeds.”
“Can I help?” called her mom.
“No, I want to do it myself!” said Rhea, “I’m growing my own sunflowers this year! I’ve been helping you for the last three years. This year you even said, I know enough to grow them all by myself!”
“You know sunflowers, you haven’t given me an easy time. This is the third time I’ve replanted your seeds, cause the squirrels kept on eating them. Now stop wiggling around so I can get you propped up!”
As Rhea wrangled with her sunflowers she noticed a caterpillar that was staring right at her. She slooowly moved closer bringing her eye-to-eye with the caterpillar, and stared right back. The next minute the caterpillar cocked it’s head and starred up, then back at Rhea, and then up again.
“Hey caterpillar, what’s going on up there?”
A goldfinch swooped down barely missing Rhea. It nosed right into her back pocket and plucked out her sketchbook. Her prize sketchbook where she had been keeping all her notes and
THROUGH A SUNFLOWER by Michelle Kogan
The idea of Rhea wanting to help out her family financially is great. It shows us how much she loves her parents, while being selfless in giving up the prize money.
Is a “sunflower house” a greenhouse for sunflowers? A house for one single special sunflower? I’m having trouble picturing this.
It switches between singular and plural for how many sunflowers Rhea’s growing, so whichever it is, don’t forget to be consistent. We need to be able to picture if she’s growing a flower or a whole bunch of them!
The transition from staring at the caterpillar to the goldfinch is a bit awkward. Why is the caterpillar important if the real action is the sketchbook getting stolen? The sketchbook list could be integrated in some way sooner too, so we know what is going on with the sunflower/contest from the start.
Integrating sunflower into the title is smart, but I think it could be tweaked, since it doesn’t sound as fun and grabbing for kids as it could be. It’s all about this awesome sunflower contest, so bouncing off of that could be cool.
Alice Golin Normal – Young Adult Novel
The calendar on the wall stares at me. Stark diagonal lines drawn through bright blue numbers. Reaching under my pillow, I curl my fingers around the thick black crayon I use to mark each day. Each daty that Dad’s been missing. Twelve so far in September. Choking back tears, I put a slash through yesterday.
Leafing back through the months I come to the end of May. A red circle like an evil eye marks Memorial Day, the day we were told of Dad’s disappearance somewhere in Afghanistan. How? Why? We get no answers. Do they even know?
My phone rings. A real call. not a text. Ignoring it, I stare at the red circle desperately hoping for some message. some sign. But the numerals 31 tell me nothing. Unless choosing Memorial Day was some hidden code.
I shudder at the thought and let the pages slip through my fingers until I’m back to September. The box for today is fresh, unmarked.
“Please God,” I whisper, “let us hear today.” But unlike those early days, I have little hope.
My phone keeps ringing. Stops. Rings again. The caller has no mercy. Giving in, I grope around on the floor until I find the intruder.
“Get out of bed, Nikkia,” Micah says gently. And then, more sharply, because he knows I don’t want to listen, “Now!”
I want to shout, ‘No, I won’t. Not until we hear from Dad.’ But Micah’s gone and besides there’s no point. If I don’t get up, Mom will come for me. And she’s got enough to deal with.
My phone rings again. I grip it tightly, tempted to throw it across the room. It’s Gillian. She and Micah must have planned this.
NORMAL by Alice Golin
It’s clear that your protagonist is in a lot of pain over missing her dad, and it’s great you let us in on this emotional connection from the first page.
It’s not clear why she isn’t answering the phone. This call seems important, but then she ignores it. Confused a bit here, since isn’t she desperately wanting to hear from her dad or any news about him? Wouldn’t she pounce on any call to see if it was news?
Micah appears, but where did he come from? It feels like the transition is a bit awkward from the phone to being told to get out of bed. Is he a friend, sibling? Was the door open, or did Micah have to open it, in which case wouldn’t she hear him coming in? I think the author is seeing this scene more clearly than I am.
This first page overall feels slower and more repetitive than it could be. The core information of her dad disappearing and not wanting to get up are there, but then the pacing and interest-level get dragged down some by talking about the calendar then searching for the ringing phone at-length. I’d rework this to keep the core info, but relay it in a more concise, emotion-heavy way. This will help us immediately feel for her that she wants to hear from her dad but hasn’t in so long.
Shorter titles can be good, but I think this one could be more grabbing. Maybe tweak it, possibly keeping NORMAL in it, but ramping up the grab-me-factor. Then we’ll be sucked in!
Thank you Rachel for sharing your time and expertise with us. It is truly appreciated.