Here are the four first pages for September that Tamra Tuller critiqued:
I Want a Dog Picture Book by Lauren Shapiro
There’s one rule that’s posted all over my building. It’s in the lobby, it’s in the laundry room, and it’s even the elevator, so you can’t say you didn’t see it. That rule is “No Dogs Allowed.” That rule just frosts me all over, because I want a dog.
We were just about to get a dog, back down south, but then we found out we had to move up north for my mom’s job. We had to wait, to move all our stuff, and get used to it up here before we could get a dog. It was bad enough leaving all my friends, and coming up north and freezing so bad I thought I’d become a snowman, but I thought at least I’d finally have a dog – and now it turns out you’re not allowed to have a dog in this building. I never heard of such stuff.
I went to the basement, to find the building superintendent to ask him to take the signs down.
He said, “I already have enough problems without dogs. Kids ride scooters into the mailroom and knock over packages. Kids bike ride across the lawn and ruin the grass. Kids play on the stairs and drop candy wrappers. Kids skate down the hallway and it sounds like the subway is in the building and everyone complains to me about all the noise as it is. The last thing I need is kids running around the building with dogs.”
Now I most certainly wasn’t going to be doing anything like that. I just want a dog to walk to school with me, and then take it to the park and run around and play ball with me.
Here is Tamra:
I WANT A DOG:
This is certainly a cute idea for a picture book. Wanting a dog is a universal topic that so many children can relate to, and one that children will always relate to. So in that sense, there is a timeless quality to a manuscript like this, which leads to a book that will not go out of style.
However, choosing a universal topic can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it doesn’t fall prey to fickle trends in the marketplace. On the other hand, you run the risk of being generic if you’re not careful enough to make your story different from the rest. This is a concern for me here. I’d love to know what makes this particular story stand out from the pack, and why I should choose this story over the other stories about wanting a dog. I’m not sure that is coming through here.
Another concern for me here is voice. I’m finding that this voice isn’t ringing 100% true. Phrases like “that just frosts me” don’t feel authentic to a kid’s voice to me. Also, as I am sure you are aware, the number of words in picture books these days is very low. To me, this reads a bit more like an early reader than a picture book. If you want this to truly be a picture book, I would try to seriously reduce the word count. Think about how the illustrations might factor, and what story they can tell that your words don’t need to. Make sure you’re leaving room for the illustrator to tell half the story.
FIGAROACH – FIRST CRUSH Connie Travisano Colón – early MG/CB
The dapper cockroach strutted across the lunchbox that now served as his stage. “Again, children — with greater exuberance this time.” He unbuttoned his vest. “Sing from down here.” Figaroach pointed to his thorax. To the scale of Do Re Me, he sang: “Mommy made me mash my M&Ms, I’m mad.” He gestured with one of his legs at his human students. “Your turn.”
This time, when siblings Sebastian and Charmaine Song belted out the vocal exercise, Figaroach was able to feel the vibrations from the speakers. The children sang it three more times and then plopped down on the old green couch in the center of their loft music studio.
“This is sooo booooring,” said Sebastian. “Change it up, little dude.”
Figaroach was staring out the window so intently that he didn’t reply.
“Earth to Figgy,” said Charmaine. She walked closer to their tiny vocal coach and looked in the direction of the window. “What’s so fascinating out on the roof?”
Figaroach shook his head. “Quite sorry. Was heavily in thought, was all.”
“You know, you don’t have to worry about that creepy entomologist who was on the news blabbing about talking bugs,” said Sebastian. “We won’t let him find you or dissect you.”
Figaroach waved one leg. “Oh pish posh on Dr. Stomp! Everyone in the scientific community thinks he’s a nut case for his undocumented theories about highly evolved insects. He doesn’t know the first thing about the truth. He’s become a laughing stock. It wouldn’t surprise me if they totally cut his research funding at Bug University.”
“So then, what’s bothering you? You haven’t stopped fiddling with your ascot,” said Charmaine.
“Oh, nothing,” said Figaroach. “Let’s switch it up and try a Broadway tune. We’ll sing Tonight from West Side Story.” He loosened the red silk ascot around his neck and sighed. His antennae formed a heart over his head. He began singing: “Tonight, tonight, It all began tonight,
Here is Tamra:
There is a lot of humor here. I think a music-teaching cockroach is a funny idea. Kids love bugs, and I think many will find this really amusing, particularly if you write this as a chapter book with illustrations.
I think you do need to pick a format, though. There’s a difference between a MG novel and a chapter book. Based on the subject matter, which feels quite young to me, I would think this would make a better chapter book than MG novel. So make sure you do some research into the difference between the two and be sure you’re writing it like a chapter book.
By the time I get to the bottom of this page, I am left with many questions. Maybe too many. Are Sebastian and Charmaine the only two students in the room? Or is it a whole class? I’m also having a hard time visualizing what’s going on. Is he standing near the window? Is that where the lunchbox is? I’d like to have a better sense of what is going on in this first page. I do appreciate, however, that you have set up the conflict already, assuming that the conflict is the Dr. Stomp? If not, think about whether or not you need Dr. Stomp on this page.
One thing to beware of is how you use dialogue in your manuscript. It’s important to remember not to use dialogue as an info dump. You’re using dialogue here to let the reader know about the danger of Dr. Stomp, but since this is most likely assumed or shared knowledge between the characters, they’re likely not going to speak about it in this very explicit way. You can use your narrative to give the backstory. You may want to avoid doing that in dialogue.
JUST VISITING by Debbie Barsotti – Middle Grade
The last Frisbee he owned was now in no man’s land – or no woman’s land, as it was. A gust took it off course, beyond the gnarled hedgerow and onto the crabby grass of the neighborhood crab. Aldusa Stoddard, whose age was guessed to be 103, had more than one of Joseph’s balls, airplanes, and other high-sailing belongings. Why she occupied the only house on the municipal park of Manchester was always a question, a complaint, really, from the kids who played there. Joseph waved his friends on to the 18th hole of the disc golf course. “I’m going to get it,” he yelled into the wind.
“Dare you!” Mickey shouted back with a wicked-witch-kind-of-laugh.
Joseph shuffled to the splintered front gate, chiding himself for his slow steps. Big, bad eighth grader still afraid of little old lady? Get over it. The gate opened easily and he was at the front door before he could change his mind. Just knock. Be polite. She won’t bite….
“Zow! Ow! Ow!” Loud breaths carried the sounds through the thick curtains.
Joseph’s impulse to run did not translate to his feet.
“Go on. Don’t stop. It hurts, but get it done!”
Scrambled noises escaped as the door opened. A little boy’s face appeared. “Ay! Oh, no!”
“Qué pasará?” A small girl pushed forward and both kids froze. “What do you want?”
And then a taller girl, Joseph’s height, breezed past the door with a basket. She back-tracked and handed the basket to the small boy. “Go inside.” Her black eyes focused on Joseph and he was sure his face was as red as his hair. “What do you want? Ms. Stoddard is busy.”
“You, ah, live here?” Joseph was puzzled about the presence of kids in this dilapidated house.
“Live here?” The girl hesitated.
“What’s wrong with Ms. Stoddard?” Antiseptic and bleach smells tainted the summer air.
“Elena! Hurry. I think she’s muerta!”
I think this is off to a really interesting start. By the end of the page I have enough information so that I understand exactly what is going on and most likely where this is going, but not too much information that I’m not left without some questions, something to keep me turning the page. And I do want to turn the page at the bottom of this one, so kudos on that.
I also think that the type of story I believe you’re telling has many classic elements. The creepy neighbor in the creepy house, who all the kids fear. Kids who are new to town, new friendships to form. You also seem to have a multicultural cast of characters, which is great, particularly considering the outcry for more diversity in children’s books.
I do feel the first paragraph could be a bit more clearly written and a bit more engaging. There is a level of detachment to this first paragraph. You might want to use more active language as opposed to passive. For example, you could begin with, “Joseph’s only Frisbee was now in no-man’s land…” It’s more direct and clear and to the point. You could then follow that with, “A gust of wind took it off course, onto the crabby grass of the old neighborhood crab, Aldusa Stoddard. Aldusa was at least 103 years old…” And then I might follow it up with some descriptors, ie: she was four feet ten inches with a hunched back and gray straw-like hair. Or something like that. I think it would make for a more compelling, clear, and engaging first paragraph to open up an otherwise engaging first page.
SPIDERSCRAMBLE by Amalia Hoffman Picture Book 438 words
Spider brothers went cycling on their super bike.
Just then, a noisy cricket clan started a horrible racket. Chirp, chiirp, chiiiiiiiiiirp.
All the commotion got the poor spiders utterly confused.
Big brother let go of the handlebars, second brother stirred to the right, third brother stirred to the left and little brother slammed on the brakes.
Down the hill they tumbled. Down, down, down…
They toppled one on top of another.
“We can’t get up,” wailed the brothers. “Our legs are tangled.”
Papa Spider wiped his forehead with one leg.
“What shall we do? “He asked.
“Call Dr. Spiderpill,” answered Mama Spider.
Dr. Spiderpill arrived at the scene. “Hmmm,” he mumbled. “Four spiders, eight legs each, equals thirty two legs.” He scribbled in his pad, Acute Spidescramble.
Papa Spider wiped his forehead with two legs.
“Please help my boys!” he begged.
Dr. Spiderpill gave a teaspoon of red syrup to first brother, green to the second, yellow to the third and blue to the fourth.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “When the boys’ legs turn the color of their syrup, I’ll diagnose which legs belong to what brother.”
The brothers swallowed the syrup even though it tasted yucky but all their legs remained black.
Papa Spider wiped his forehead with three legs.
“What else could you do? “He asked.
I think there is a fun concept here, playing with the idea of spiders getting tangled up in their many legs. I think this is something kids may find quite humorous.
As you may know, most picture books fall into one of two categories: concept book or storybook. What I’m not sure yet, and I think I should be sure by now, especially considering how short picture books are these days, is whether this is a storybook about spider brothers getting tangled, or if this is a concept book, teaching counting using spider legs as the vehicle. Or maybe even a concept book about colors. With picture books, you need to be so economical with your words, and I’d love to know by the bottom of this page what type of book you intend this to be.
The first few lines feel a bit clunky to me. Perhaps a smoother way to begin would be, “The Spider brothers were cycling (maybe say where—around the neighborhood/forest/or some kind of descriptor) when a noisy cricket clan started a horrible racket.” You don’t need to mention the “super bike” as this will be clear in the illustrations. Also, mama and papa seem to appear out of nowhere. They may need an introduction. This may be easier once you have set the scene a little better in the opening lines.
Think about how the illustrations will work with the text. In the best picture books, the illustrations are telling half the story and adding a whole other dimension. Are you leaving room for this or are you doing the work of the illustrator? Is there room to cut the text and let the illustrations do some of the work? You want to avoid redundancies between the text and the art. This requires a certain amount of faith in the illustrator, but he or she needs a lot of creative input. At 438 words, you do have some room to cut.
Thank you Tamra for sharing your expertise with all of us.