Here are the results of the February First Page Critiques brought to you by Adrienne Szpyrka from Sky Pony Press:
A Day with the Panye by Tami Charles – Picture Book
A Day with the Panye (pun-yay)
On the streets of Port au Prince, the air burns like wildfire.
Cotton-candy clouds sit high in the sky.
Today is a special day.
Gramere is going to market and she’s taking me with her!
Outside, Gastòn and Jaque play futbòl kicking up dust and sand.
Back and forth the ball goes,
up and down unpaved roads.
“Vin jway, Fallon!” my brothers call out,
begging me to play.
“Not a chance,” I say, “I’m going to market, and
maybe Gramere will let me carry the panye!”
“Jajaja!” they laugh,“That’s no job for a little girl!”
Inside, Gramere wraps her hair in a moushwa.
Silk so fine, with blues and greens,
brighter than the Caribbean seas.
She grabs the panye and places it on her head.
Even more than all the silk in our village,
I want to carry the basket, like Gramere.
“May I try?” I ask.
Gramere places it on my head. I’m so excited,
I dash for the door. BOOM! The panye falls and crashes to the floor.
A Day with the Panye by Tami Charles
I think introducing kids to different countries and cultures is so important, so I love finding books set outside of the United States, and I love that this story takes place in Haiti. All of the details here really help to set the scene, and I can picture the kids playing futbòl on the dusty unpaved roads, and I love its contrast with Gramere’s moushwa, “silk so fine, with blues and greens, brighter than the Caribbean seas.” I also like the mix of foreign words worked in to the story (although I would recommend including a glossary at the back of the book, with pronunciations, in case kids are curious, and to make reading aloud easier).
One concern I have is that I’m not entirely sure what the audience age is for this book. To me, the writing reads a little bit older than I expect from a picture book. The first line, “On the streets of Port au Prince, the air burns like wildfire,” is so poetic, but I worry that it may be too adult. Will kids know what “the air burns like wildfire” means, or will they take it literally? Starting the script with “Today is a special day” might be a more accessible opening line.
While I read, I also find myself wondering how old the narrator is. When she says “Not a chance,” she sounds older to me, but then the boys call her a “little girl” and when she drops the basket, she seems young, so I wasn’t sure. I think focusing the age/maturity of the narrator and of the audience could help to make this more marketable overall.
I love the end of the story—the excitement and then tension capture what it feels like to be a kid, in the best possible way. While I do think the writing is a little bit older than most picture books, it’s also beautiful and the rhythm is lovely, and I think there is a market for something like this that’s a little more literary. With the right illustrations, I can imagine this being a really beautiful book.
THE SNAKE-HANDLER’S DAUGHTER by Lisa Fowler
Rex was the first-born; the one Daddy said was perfect to take over the family business, so Daddy took his time and taught my brother everything there was to know about snakes. Everything that is but one.
Snakes will kill you.
And I’m here to tell you that if you don’t stop the poison, you’ll be standing before your Maker faster than the sun can lick up the night sky.
My daddy don’t believe in medicine though; says anything we need the Lord will tend to. So when Rex got bit, all Daddy would do was pray. But praying didn’t help, and now I’ve only got one brother left. His name is Martin. Martin’s older than me – five years to be exact but you wouldn’t know it. He’s… he’s… well, folks round these parts just say “he ain’t right in the head – bless his heart,” and that’s the end of that.
Daddy says no way he can teach a boy like Martin the ways of the snake handling preachers so he’s made up his mind that it’s up to me to follow in his footsteps. Daddy says we’ll be famous one day – him and me. Me, for being the first woman snake-handling preacher Paint Fork, Tennessee’s ever had, and him, for… well I suppose I’m not rightly sure why him, but maybe he knows something I don’t.
“Willa-Jean, get on out to those cages and feed the snakes,” Daddy hollers. “I’ll try and tend to your Mama.”
He says that like it means something, but it don’t. Daddy can’t stop Mama’s tears; if he could they’d have been gone months ago. He puts his arms around Mama all tender like and wipes her face with his handkerchief, but the water just keeps on coming
The Snake-Handler’s Daughter by Lisa Fowler
The title alone makes me want to read this book—I’m instantly intrigued and I would absolutely pick this up off the shelf. Right now the book is listed as middle grade fiction, which puts it up against books like The Executioner’s Daughter, but I have to admit that while I read, I thought that it could be a really fun young adult book instead (like The Madman’s Daughter—I’m a sucker for these books about daughters). The voice feels, after just this first page, like it could go either way. Not know more about the overall plot, I could be wrong, but there’s something about the danger and daring of handling snakes that I think could be fun to play with with older characters in the young adult genre.
In either case, I love how the story opens with conflict, and the voice is so strong. I have to admit that I did see some flawed logic with the idea that Rex died because he was never told that “snakes will kill you.” I imagine that that would be the number one rule for a snake handler, so I was a little skeptical about the beginning. Although I do love the drama of the storytelling. And I love the conflict and tension in the idea of her daddy not believing in medicine. I was also curious about the tie between snake handling and religion, which is suggested by the term “snake handling preachers.” I do think there’s a fascinating story here.
One red flag that caught my eye was the line about Martin, who “ain’t right in the head—bless his heart.” From what I can tell, this is historical fiction, so some of the language will be dated, but I think it’s important to be very careful dealing with a character with mental disability. We don’t want to simplify his character or condescend, and so if I were to continue reading, I would be paying careful attention to how his character is portrayed and how he develops throughout the story.
But overall, I like this, and I would be interested in seeing more!
Johanna Bilbo Staton: Horsefeathers, YA historical/speculative fiction
“You’ll live, Ian. Thanks be to the stars, or the Laird would have my head.”
The resonant voice is familiar—who? Till he calls me Ian, I’m not sure who I am.
White-hot agony blazes across the back of my skull. Only an axe buried in my head could hurt this much. Add to that a hundred aches, all over me. I think I’m tied on the rump of a horse—my nose is buried in rippling muscles and the smell of a stable.
“Can ye manage the extra weight, Pegs?” Ah, that’s Lyle. My thick-necked tutor, and jester to my father, the MacLeith. “Aye,” he says, as though he’d paused for an answer. “Lower and slower will do.”
We’d been chasing thieves. Or running from them, can’t remember which. I force my eyes open. The black hide beneath me is not my grey mare, Ashley. Nor Lyle’s bay gelding, Sirius. With a painful tip of my head, I see huge black feathers. A cape, most likely, thrown over us both. Odd—I don’t recall Lyle owning a feathered cape. My eyes shut. I should say something to Lyle, but can’t think what, or find my voice.
The horse breaks into a canter, then tips beneath me. Ropes lashed to the back of a saddle keep me from sliding off over his tail. I brace for a jump landing that never comes, and a gale-force wind lifts the cape. My eyes snap open—maybe I can tell if we’re near the manor. Beyond the cape’s edge is cloud-dimpled sky. Beneath the horse’s hooves . . . . Treetops?
One pine, towering above the others, flicks a cone in my face when a black hoof strikes its top a glancing blow. . . .
. . . . I wake in a cloud. No—I’m beneath the canopy to my own featherbed. If I’ve been dreaming, why does my forehead smart where the pinecone struck? Everything else throbs. I reach up and touch a bandage, wincing when I press on it.
Horsefeathers by Johanna Bilbo Staton
I found this opening page very confusing. I think readers need a little more guidance right from the start, so that we can follow along. Some historical context might be helpful too—trying to figure things out on my own, at first I thought there were Native American characters (I think the title and the horses and feathers threw me), but then was very confused by the mention of a tutor and jester! And who are the thieves? There’s a lot going on here (and so many different names dropped), and I think it would be great to slow things down and add in some more detail and context, so that readers aren’t struggling to catch up. It’s so important to establish a clear beginning for readers to build on. It’s fine if the story starts in the middle of action, but then each detail given needs to be carefully chosen so as not to overwhelm the reader with things they have no context to understand.
At the end of the first page, I’m also a little bit put off by the suggestion that everything that has happened so far could have been a dream. Whether or not it was just a dream, I think the dream cliché is overused, and I’m not sure it’s the strongest way to begin a book.
There is a lot of conflict here, and I think this could be an interesting book, but I do think it needs a beginning that’s a little less busy.
The Lake by Carla Green YA Contemporary
Some people believe the mysterious stranger was Cokie’s doing. They say he brought the stranger with his hoodooing. I don’t believe them though. I don’t believe them when they say he’s a witch doctor, a voodoo man, or practices the dark arts. They say he comes from a long line of voodoo, dating back to Africa from where his ancestors came.
I’ve known Cokie for as long as I can remember. Before I worked summers with him in his junk shop. Before the town descended into madness. I know the real reason they don’t like him. They don’t like him because he’s the only black man that ever lived north of Pine Bluff Rd. He’s tall, well built, hides his seventy years of age behind a youthful spirit. They didn’t like him because they feared him. Mayor Blackwell said Cokie wasn’t a man. ‘Cause he had no family, lived in a cabin in the woods off the lake. No matter Mayor Blackwell’s definition of a man. If Cokie was no man ‘cause he had no family, then my father was less of one cause he left his.
My father left in the middle of the night like a thief without a word. Stealing my mother’s words to curse and scream at him, to reveal to him what he really was – a coward. He left with her words ten years ago. I remember the morning after – breakfast smells wafted to my nose, tickling me awake. My eyes fluttered open to a blinding bright day. Sounds from the kitchen – clang, sizzle, music, – floated up the stairs. Unfamiliar sounds. My mother had never made breakfast. Something was wrong, something was terribly wrong. I crashed down the stairs and tumbled into the kitchen.
“Oh baby. Look what I made.” She brushed an auburn hair out of my face and smeared flour on my cheek. “It didn’t turn out too bad. You’ll like it.”
I felt on the verge of tears, welling inside my six year old body, tipping the scales. The world wasn’t right, I felt it in my heart. My mother barefoot, her back hunched, standing over a mixing bowl and wooden spoon, moisture pooling on her forehead.
The Lake by Carla Green
This first page had so much interesting conflict, and, despite some confusion, I wanted to keep reading. I was a little thrown by how the story introduces the mysterious stranger, then Cokie, then the father, then the mother, rushing one character to the next without finishing the previous character’s story. If this is intentional, it is kind of an interesting set up, but I think it needs to be done carefully so that readers don’t get frustrated right away. I’d recommend maybe circling back, mentioning the mysterious stranger again, perhaps, as a common thread, later in reference to the father or mother. We want to make sure readers know that the questions they have will be answered, so they’re willing to stick with the story.
I was also a little bit confused by some of the language. What does the narrator mean when he/she says that his/her father left, “stealing my mother’s words to curse and scream at him”? I wasn’t sure if this was miswritten or if I was just misunderstanding it, but I think it either needs to be elaborated on or clarified. Again, if we’re going to jump from one character to the next, their stories need to be introduced carefully so that readers don’t get frustrated.
One last note is that Cokie’s character raises some red flags for me. Because of the racial issues, I know I would be reading the rest of the manuscript very carefully, to make sure that he’s well developed as a character and not just a stereotype. Of course, that’s hard to tell from a very first page, but bringing in some more unique details about Cokie right away could help.
Thank you Adrienne for sharing your time and expertise with us. We all can learn from your comments. Thank you.
Adrienne Szpyrka is an assistant editor at Sky Pony Press, searching for new middle grade and young adult voices. She acquires mostly contemporary and historical fiction, but reads all genres in her spare time and has a weakness for a good princess story. She loves books that move her (bonus points if they make her laugh), and she’s always looking for stories that bring more diversity to the kids’ book world. She attended the University of Michigan as an undergrad and has a master’s in publishing from Emerson College.