Posted by: Kathy Temean | December 29, 2017

December Featured Editor: Rachael Stein – First Page Results

Rachael Stein  is an acquiring Assistant Editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She works on books for kids of all ages, including picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and young adult and both fiction and nonfiction.

She is a voracious reader and children’s books fanatic. Some of the amazing authors she works with are Linda Sue Park, Gary D. Schmidt, Kate Milford, Ronald L. Smith, and Sarah Beth Durst. Before joining the Clarion team in 2016, Rachael worked at Scholastic, Lee & Low Books, Macmillan, and the Fox Literary Agency. You can follow her on Twitter: @rachaeljstein.

HERE’S RACHAEL WITH HER THOUGHTS ON THE FOUR FIRST PAGES:

Hyde and Seek by Charlotte Bennardo  – MG

September 18, 1863

Another day of failure. Why am I so cursed? I cannot give up.

Chapter 1

The bell rang and it’s the usual mad crush to the door. I took my time, happy to be last. That way, Lucas Marshall and his gang should have slithered to their next class.

Only four and a half more years of beat ups and I’ll be out of school and free of Lucas.

If he doesn’t kill me.

Move it,” Lucas growled, “eighth graders coming through!” He elbowed me in the gut, forcing all the breath from my lungs. My books dropped as I struggled to inhale.

“Loser!” Matt Rhodes’ laugh ripped into my nerves. Hard to believe we used to be best friends.

I was mad enough to forget school rules and body slam Lucas into the lockers. If only I could breathe. Or move.

“Someday,” I choked.

Matt laughed again. “Someday, what? You’ll grow an inch? What will you do then?”

“Maybe we should be scared, just in case,” Lucas sneered.

Without even thinking about it, my hands fisted. Detention, suspension, whatever consequence, I didn’t care, this was the day I finally stood up to Lucas. My punch flew, catching him on the shoulder.

I think I broke some fingers.

“Mr. Hyde! Principal’s office, NOW!

HERE’S RACHAEL:

I like that this first page quickly introduces us to very middle school drama and tension, but I am most intrigued by the diary entry from 1863. How is this moment in the past connected to this boy in the present day? The title and young Mr. Hyde’s internal struggle with violence suggest a Jekyll and Hyde element. That certainly piques my curiosity!

Unfortunately, I was also distracted by some smaller details in this scene. Lucas’s comment, “eighth graders coming through,” makes it seem like he’s an older bully, but if the main character has four and a half years of school left, shouldn’t he also be in eighth grade? Why would an eighth grader make that comment to another eighth grader? Also, I assumed from the first sentence that kids were leaving at the end of class, which would place the main character still in a classroom, but several sentences later, he body slams Lucas into some lockers. Did they move outside or into a hallway? Or were they not in a classroom to start? Confusing details like these, especially so early in a story, can make it hard to get invested.

I was also curious as to why we haven’t gotten young Mr. Hyde’s first name yet. Naming him will help ground his character and make him more accessible to middle grade-age readers.

Overall, I think this is an interesting concept, and I would recommend cleaning up confusing details and keeping the verb tense consistent to make the beginning of this story even more appealing.


 

TROUBLE DOG by Carol Foote – Picture Book

Pepin loved to play. Romping chasing grabbing…Digging chewing crashing…

He never meant to be trouble, but…

Got it!

“No, Pepin!”

Yay!

“Stop, Pepin!”

Ambush! 

“Enough!” Pepin’s owner put him in the car — Park? Beach?—and drove Pepin to the animal shelter where she had adopted him. “I’m sorry, we just can’t keep such a wild dog,” she told the attendant. “He’s trouble. I hope you can find him a new home.”

“This isn’t the first time he’s been returned,” the attendant said.

Pepin smelled other dogs and heard barking. Play? But the man locked Pepin in a cage.

When people came to adopt a dog, the attendant waved them past Pepin. “You don’t want this dog,” he said. “He’s trouble.”

Everyone moved on.

Until Megan. Megan was looking for a special dog.

She held out a ball.

Play!

Megan hid the ball behind her back.

Mine!

Megan bounced the ball.

Throw! [illo: Pepin gets wilder and wilder, trying to get the ball]

“Maybe he’s the right kind of trouble,” Megan said. “I’ll take him.”

HERE’S RACHAEL:

I love dogs, and I love reading stories about dogs. I was drawn in by Pepin’s larger-than-life personality, and I think his antics will really appeal to kids, too. That said, there are a few challenges to overcome in making Pepin the star of his own picture book.

First, it would be helpful to clarify Pepin’s main goal or tension. Does he just want to play? Does he want to be adopted? Does he want to be accepted for who he is? Or does he learn that there’s more to life than playing? Does he realize he needs to grow and change?

It would also be helpful to clarify some plot details. It’s not clear from the writing exactly what Pepin is doing that gets him in trouble. Is he tracking mud through the house? Did he break something? The text doesn’t need to spell everything out, but it would be nice to get more background on the difference in perspective between Pepin and his original owner—what Pepin thinks is fun, his owner thinks is a nuisance.

Lastly, it’s very important to make sure everything in the story is kid-friendly for the picture book audience. Unfortunately, I don’t think Pepin is an ideal name for a dog, as kids may not be able to pronounce his name. I would also suggest making Megan a kid, if she isn’t already (I couldn’t tell, especially as the previous owner is likely an adult)—the kid-and-dog relationship will be more accessible to kids and adult-and-dog.

Overall, I think this is a great start with potential for a charming story and a lot of fun illustrations.


 

JUSTIN WISELY AND THE GUARDIAN OF LIGHT, by Robert Carey – MG 

CHAPTER 1

By the time Justin Wisely discovered his troubles were caused by magic, it was too late.

The library door thumped open and he looked up from an article on quantum physics, a bit of light reading before the last bell rang. He peered through the small slot between bookshelves, the hint of ink and paper tickling his nose. Earl “the giant” Jones, the biggest jock at Misty View Junior High School trudged past the large glowing globe, carrying a fistful of crumpled homework. The flame Mom had said was nothing but his imagination danced deep within his chest. Justin slapped the magazine shut. A cold tingle raced through the hair on his arms. He won’t give up.

Earl looked around the room and then strode towards the bookshelves as if he had a sixth sense or internal GPS guiding him. Justin rubbed the back of his neck. Of all the students in school, Earl had picked him as an easy target. Mrs. Edmonds, the librarian, glared at Earl as she eased a cart of books from behind a counter decorated with orange paper pumpkins and a witch holding a broom.

Justin crept down the aisle, keeping his eyes locked on Earl. The librarian hadn’t liked Earl’s noisy entrance. Maybe she could divert him with a little encouragement. Justin touched the spines of several books. He pulled out a thin one with a slick cover and knelt, his mind whirling to calculate the right velocity and angle. He hated sacrificing a book for his safety, but he didn’t want a bashing right in the middle of the library. When Earl raised his foot, Justin flicked the book underneath the shelf. It slid like a hockey puck across the floor. Earl stepped on the book and skidded, his arms flailing. “Whoa.”

He jerked to a stop, hitting the end of Mrs. Edmonds cart. Several books spilled onto the floor. Her head whirled and her glasses dropped to the end of her nose, her eyebrows rising a fraction, and her face reddening.

HERE’S RACHAEL:

This is a fun first page that I think successfully does a lot to draw in the reader: it introduces an interesting character with a distinct voice, balances middle school drama with a hint of magic, and has some suspense and action. It’s exciting to read along as Justin tries to figure out what to do about Earl, and I’m intrigued by the possibility that Justin might be tapping into a magical ability with his actions.

Aside from the first sentence, though, the hint at magic is very subtle—it’s really only the mention that Justin feels a flame in his chest. When Justin throws a book in Earl’s path to make Earl collide with Mrs. Edmonds’s cart, is that because of magic? Justin does this so easily that I’m inclined to think magic is, in fact, at work. If that’s the case, it would help to make that clearer. If not, finding another way to amp up the suggestion of magic would help make the beginning of this story even more engaging.

I would also recommend taking another look at word choice. There are a lot of great descriptive details in this first page, but some of them feel redundant or superfluous. For example, Earl walks around the library as if guided by a “sixth sense or internal GPS”—are both comparisons necessary? Similarly, Earl walks around with crumpled homework in his hand—is this an important detail? Is it vital to his character or the plot? Tightening the writing will help the story read more smoothly and quickly.

Overall, this is a strong first page and one that makes me curious to read more!


 

The Bike Gods and Gucci by G.A. Cimino – YA

A dead guy lies at my feet. Blood drips from my arm on to his pale face, staring up at me with dark, vacant eyes. The adrenaline rush I craved just thirty minutes ago is gone, though my heart won’t quit pounding. And no matter how many breaths I take, I can’t get enough air. My eyes dart left and right. I feel like running. But I can’t hide from the memory of the last time I stared into lifeless eyes. Or maybe it’s the red flash of a patrol car that splits the darkness on the highway and stops ten feet in front of me. Headlights glare in my eyes.

A policeman steps out of the car and catches me in his searchlight. With a rigid stance, he scrutinizes me through narrowed eyes. “I’m Officer Miller.”

Another cop snaps on latex gloves to examine the body. “Did you call this in?”

I run scraped fingers through my sweat-drenched hair, so dark, it doesn’t look blonde anymore. “Yes, I, um…” I sound younger than seventeen, like some squeaky fourth-grader. I clench and unclench my hands.

“He’s dead, sir,” the officer calls. “Missing wallet—no identification. Same as the others.”

Officer Miller’s eyebrow twitches. “You got ID?”

I lay my cracked helmet on the gravel, root through my bike jersey, and hand him my license.

“Juliana Holt?” His gaze jumps from my license to my face. “You the major’s daughter?”

I swallow hard. He knows Dad. That’s not always a good thing.

Officer Miller nods. “The Major’s tough. You’d better call him. You’re going to be a

HERE’S RACHAEL:
 

This first page does a fantastic job of drawing in the reader and setting up the story. The dead body in the first sentence immediately caught my attention, and the rest of the first paragraph introduces an intriguing mystery: Who is this dead person, and how is Juliana connected to him?

I really like the ambiguity in this opening scene. We know that Juliana and a dead man are on this street—but we don’t know why. Does Juliana’s bleeding arm and cracked helmet have anything to do with the dead person? Or is she in the wrong place at the wrong time? What does this dead man remind Juliana of from her past? This scene prompts a lot of questions, which can be disorienting at the beginning of the story, but this gives the reader just enough to track what’s happening in the plot.

One thing I think is worth taking a closer look at is the conversation between Juliana and the police officers. Juliana’s arm is bleeding, and she’s lit by the headlights of the police car and one of the officer’s flashlights—wouldn’t he notice the blood and ask if she’s okay? Would the other officer really make an observation that the state of this body is like “the others” in front of a civilian, particularly a minor? It’s possible Juliana may have had a previous conversation when she called in the dead body that explains and contextualizes these details, but without that in the text, I’m not sure the dialogue feels completely believable.

Overall, I found this first page gripping and, especially as a fan of mysteries and thrillers, would definitely read more. I also really like the title The Bike Gods and Gucci!

Thank you Rachael for sharing your time and expertise with us. It is really appreciated.

Remember: You can four weeks with Rachael at the Children’s Book Academy’s interactive Middle Grade and Chapter Book Mastery Course starting January 15th.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


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