Posted by: Kathy Temean | December 30, 2016

Free Fall Friday: First Page Results


Kelly Delaney is an Associate Editor at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, where she acquires and edits picture books and middle grade and young adult novels. She has a master’s degree in Publishing: Digital and Print Media from NYU and has been at Random House Children’s Books for six years. In that time she has been fortunate enough to work with many esteemed authors including R.J. Palacio, Markus Zusak, Anita Lobel, Eileen Spinelli, Kevin Hawkes, and Norton Juster, among many others. She is always on the lookout for quirky humor, bright characters, and writers that don’t underestimate their readers. You can follow her on Twitter at @kellyunderwater.


Horsefeathers, by Johanna Bilbo Staton   —  MG Novel

If the stellar ark Genesis had been falling toward the blue and white swirls of the nearest planet, they could have hoped for at least the cushioning of a watery landing. The hard dark rocks of the moon beneath them would not be so forgiving.

            Inside the tumbling stellark, the artificial-gravity system had gone haywire. Mithie creatures and their Companions were tossed midair into each other, then slammed against bulkheads. Wings tangled with horns, arms grasped at tails, beaks snapped helplessly at legs that had kicked them accidentally.

            Yet there was some order in the chaos. Instinct and training herded most of them into the cavernous launch bay at the aft of the ship. Before the Genesis made a new crater on the lunar surface, it had spit out a bellyful of gleaming shuttles.                    


“What is that?

We burst from the woods at a gallop, into the light of a nearly full moon. Tumbling toward it, throwing off sparks, is the strangest falling star I’ve ever seen.

My grey mare has no mind for stargazing, skidding to a stop at the edge of a ravine that shouldn’t be there. My tutor, Kyle, pulls up short beside me, staring also at the star skidding across the sky. His bay gelding snorts with alarm as gravel tumbles and echoes below us.

And then whatever has crossed the sky disappears behind the edge of the moon, leaving behind its trail of sparks. Kyle seems to be willing whatever flew behind to come out again. After a moment, he sighs and looks down at the sharp drop in front of us. “Oh, for a horse with wings,” he says. “You’ve picked the wrong road, Ian MacLeith.”

Across the ravine we see the road to my father’s castle and to refuge from the cutthroats we’ve been dodging since late afternoon.

Kelly Delaney – First Page Review:


I love that you drop us right in the middle of the action! The italic paragraphs are a lot to take in, though—there’s a lot of information presented right up front that doesn’t mean anything to us yet, which makes it hard to picture. It’s also pretty heavy on genre jargon that might alienate someone who’s not used to sci-fi and fantasy, and I think it would be a mistake to send them away since the rest of the page doesn’t read this way. I’d recommend cutting those first paragraphs out and starting after the space break, with “What is that?”

The page from that point down is much more relatable (especially if we start there, since we won’t know anything that the narrator doesn’t). It’s well-written and quick, so it’s easy to get right into the swing of things. It also introduces us to a lot of information in a really organic way; we meet two characters (four if you count their horses), and get a sense of their world by learning almost as much about the horses as we do about the humans.

I also like how the sight of the falling star frames their current situation—we learn at the end of the page that they were already in the middle of what seems to be an exciting and dangerous adventure, but the star is the real problem now. There is a lot for the reader to feel invested in, even though the book just started!


Max Meets Hanukkah / Picture Book / Jennifer Reinharz

Dear Santa,

I’ve always wanted to meet you, but every time I try the lines are too long. Would you like to come to my house for Hanukkah? There will be jelly donuts, potato pancakes, games and lots of light.  I know December’s your busy season. Hanukkah lasts eight days, so you can choose when to come. It would really mean a lot to me.

Love, Joe

Max tucked his ears under his hat, hopped off the delivery truck and breathed in the holiday air. “Mmm. This must be the place.”

He tapped on Joe’s kitchen window. “Santa loved your letter, but he couldn’t get away. I’m Max, the hungriest helper in the North Pole. Where’s the party and when do we eat?”

Joe ran over. “That makes you an elf, right?”

“Right as the twinkle in my toes,” said Max.

“Then come on in and follow me. Everything happens after we light the menorah.”

The candelabrum grinned at Max. Max smiled back. “How do we turn it on?”

“First, we fill the cups with oil,” Joe said.

“How come?” asked the elf.

“Oil reminds us of olden days. A long time ago, the great Temple was captured and destroyed. When the heroes won it back, they lit a special menorah. There was a problem. They only had enough oil to keep the flame burning for one day.”


“The light wasn’t supposed to go out. Ever. But the oil lasted eight days. The heroes had time to find more.”

Kelly Delaney – First Page Review:


This is a fun concept! I think it’s great to have picture book options for families that celebrate more than one holiday. Some good comp titles for you are DADDY CHRISTMAS AND HANUKKAH MAMA by Selina Alko and DEAR SANTA, LOVE RACHEL ROSENSTEIN by Amanda Peet (you might take a look at the latter to make sure it’s not too similar to your book).

I like that you open with the letter—it’s a good use of space and tells us a lot without having to go into too much detail. I think you could infuse a little more personality and humor to Max and Joe’s interaction, though. Max is all business when he introduces himself, and Joe doesn’t seem all that surprised to see him! Is he surprised that his letter was answered in person? How does he feel about seeing an elf instead of Santa? Make sure these are two fully-formed characters. On this page, all I know about Max is that he’s hungry and all I know about Joe is that he wants to teach people about Hanukkah. Think about these characters and their motives and desires to flesh them out a bit right from the start.

This concept presents a great opportunity for you to teach kids about Hanukkah in a fun, creative way. I wonder if you can push this a bit in Joe’s descriptions so that it doesn’t sound like he’s just parroting what he’s learned, but really telling a story that he understands (from a child’s POV) and loves to tell.

Lastly, and this is a small note, but assuming Joe is picture book aged (five or six), would he be allowed to light a menorah by himself? Maybe this is something Max can help with!


BALANCE OF POWER – YA steampunk – Teresa Robeson

The sun, not yet visible, tinted the sky along the eastern horizon a pale yellow by the time I finished braiding my hair. I was not used to dressing in the pre-dawn darkness, but Uncle was adamant that I show up early at his mechanical rickshaw shop today. He’d been secretive and agitated of late but seemed on the verge of letting me into his confidence, so I did not want to be late for whatever urgent matter that needed tending to. It may even have something to do with rumors of an opium war with the foreign devils.

I silently buttoned up my cotton work robe, but the silk mien-nap I pulled on to ward off the coolness of the spring morning rustled like whispers. My sister sighed in her sleep as she rolled over in the adjoining bed. I hurried out so as not to wake her. Dai Lik, my favorite rickshaw, was waiting in the courtyard to take me to Uncle’s shop.

Ahn-See said it was strange to have a favorite rickshaw. “It is like saying you have a favorite ink dish,” she had scoffed. But my sister never worked with clockwork creatures as I had for most of my sixteen years. She did not understand that they had personalities as distinct as any human’s.

A faint tinkling sounded from behind as I reached the house entrance. I’d forgotten to bring Cricket. My first creation, he had imprinted on me like a chick to a mother hen, and was not afraid to voice his displeasure with the tiny bell I had installed in him.

I held out a hand for him to leap onto. With the eyes of a real cricket, he could see far better than I in the dimness. His landing was as weightless as a leaf. But as soon as he alighted, he clicked his wings in annoyance.

“Shhh,” I hushed him.

Kelly Delaney – First Page Review: 


I love the way you ease us into the idea that this world is not quite like ours by calling the rickshaws “clockwork creatures” with personalities and introduce us to Cricket (an allusion to Jiminy?). This immediately feels like a world that I haven’t seen before, and in a way that is intriguing, not alienating.

I do think you could set up this introduction in a slightly more successful way. With high fantasy, it’s easy to slip into a writing style that favors form over function, and the first paragraph feels that way a bit. You tell us in three different ways that it’s just before dawn, and then introduce us to a major plot point (I assume!) that we don’t have enough context to fully grasp yet. I wonder if this moment might be more effective if you remove this mention of the narrator’s uncle and focus solely on her and Cricket sneaking around in the dark—we can learn their reason for doing so once we feel a tad more at home in this setting. With a different first paragraph, I think this is a great first page and as a reader, I’d be eager to read more.


Angela Larson      The Edge            MG Novel

Sixth-grader Felix Vallejas pumped air into the pressure chamber of his potato cannon. His was no ordinary potato cannon; Felix engineered it with wires borrowed from an old toaster that would spark high-burn, high-octane gas. It was a potato bazooka. One table away, the judges fired questions at a nervous student. Felix’s skin tingled. Glory would be his in less than five minutes.

He scanned the science nerds spread across the gym. This was a day to shine, to showcase their extraordinary work at the Great Achievements Junior Academy annual science fair. This old industrial town of Estrella, Pennsylvania was proud of their achievers. Today, in four minutes and counting, they all would witness his triumph.

Felix’s eye followed a quick movement of turquoise. The Caribbean Sea! That was it–she had dyed her hair the color of the Caribbean Sea­ to complemented her sea mammal communications display. What a totally Holly move. Holly James was a fellow student at the Academy and a master chemist who had given Felix a few chemistry notes to increase the jet fuel’s burn rate. The genius of his design was how the fuel combined with air pressure to create precision propulsion.

Her head turned, their eyes met, and she smiled. Did the smile mean, “Good luck–hope you do well,” or, “Good luck–hope you don’t screw it all up again”? He kept pumping air. Three minutes and counting.

His heart palpitated as if it were the potato holding back the rising pressure. The recycled gutter piping better hold. There were no instructions for his handmade project and that was the way he preferred it. The three judges turned his way. Two minutes or less until takeoff.

Kelly Delaney – First Page Review: 

THE EDGE critique

You’ve done a great job of building dramatic tension in just one page! I like the way you make us feel Felix’s anticipation, and his confidence. Based on how confident he is, I’ll assume that he’s in for a bit of a surprise at the judge’s actual reaction to his project!

There are a few things you can clarify and streamline to make this even stronger. First of all, details like “sixth-grader” before Felix’s name and “this industrial town of Estrella” can probably be removed and provided more organically through context later—their inclusion here reads more like a synopsis than the first page of a novel. There are also some descriptions that are a little confusing to me. Felix observes the “science nerds” around him, but based on the scientific details he gives of his project, he sounds like a “nerd” himself. I assume the word “nerd” is used to show that he views himself as different (and better, it seems) than his classmates—can you show this more clearly?

I’m also not sure what his feelings towards Holly are. Initially, he seems to be making fun of her, but it’s clear he trusts her to help him, and then later seems like he values her opinion. Maybe you can send a more cohesive message about their relationship so it doesn’t distract from the central action. That central action of the science fair and his combined confidence and nerves makes for a really intriguing start!


Thank you Kelly for sharing your time and expertise with us. It is really appreciated. Hope you have a wonderful online workshop with Mira.

Below is the information for anyone interested in improving their writing skills.


Still time to sign up to work with Kelly during the 5 week, time-flexible e-course, she is co-teaching with Mira Reisberg at the Children’s Book Academy, click here for the information about this course that features tons of individual attention, bonuses, and submission opportunities with agents and editors. This course has a proven track record of now published and award winning students, plus a money back guarantee. The first live training start January 9th!

Again – Thank you Kelly for sharing your expertise with us. Happy New Year!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I always enjoy these critiques and am happy to see 3 people I know among them! Good luck to all moving forward.


  2. Thanks so much for including my first page in this set of critiques, Kathy, and also thanks to Kelly for the helpful comments! I’m on the 4th rewrite of this first chapter and am still trying to get it right so I really appreciate the feedback on what’s working and what’s not.

    A very happy New Year to you both!


  3. I too love these critiques and am happy to see 2 people I know have been included. Yay Teresa and Jennifer! Write on, one and all!


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