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The Purple Crayon Blog October 2006
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National Book Award Nominees (Children's Literature)
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The National Book Award nominees in "young people's literature" were announced on October 11. They are mostly YA. The links in the list below take you to Amazon, where you can find more information, including reviews. Be sure to read Nancy Werlin's comments on writing thrillers rather than mysteries; you'll find them on her book's page at Amazon. And the nominees are:
M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party (Candlewick Press): YA, starred review in Booklist, 368 pages
Martine Leavitt, Keturah and Lord Death (Front Street Books/Boyds Mills Press): "all ages" (MG and up?), starred review in Booklist, 176 pages
Patricia McCormick, Sold (Hyperion Books for Children): YA, 272 pages
Nancy Werlin, The Rules of Survival (Dial/Penguin): YA, SLJ starred review, 272 pages
Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese (First Second/Holtzbrinck): YA graphic novel, SLJ starred review, 240 pages
(Check the National Book Award section of my Young Adult Book Awards page to see the eventual 2006 winner, and winners from previous years.)
The Library Nonfiction Market
First, thank you for your website. I've been a fan of it for several years now :)
I am trying to work my way into the NF children's book market for grades K-5. I hope to write for a publisher that produces series for libraries and schools (regular books, not classroom materials or lessons). I graduated from ICL's course and have had a children's NF article published, and I currently write a health column for a magazine. (My children's writing was put on hold for quite some time after my first sale) I have been trying to study the NF library book market for this age group, but am having a hard time finding the answer to one somewhat detailed question:
A publisher I am interested in does not accept unsolicited manuscripts or proposals. They ask writers to send in a cover letter, resume and up to 3 writing samples. If they like what you send, they may assign you a title when one is available. Two of the samples I am sending are unpublished book MS's, written in a style similar to two different series the publisher currently prints – one for pre-K to 1st grade, and the other for 2nd-3rd grade. (a writing acquaintance sent a sample like that and was given a couple titles because of it). The problem I have here is that most traditional NF advice says to make your writing interesting and fun, have a great hook, etc. That's all fine and dandy for a book headed to the book store, or a stand-alone, but in these series for younger kids (newer readers), most all sentences start with the same words, and each book in the series has a very simple, somewhat bland format they follow. The repetition and bland style is great for beginning readers, though – my daughter is one, and the simplicity of the structure has made reading (and comprehension) much easier to learn. And I know the photos/illustrations help a lot with comprehension as well.
My question, then, would be: is there any way to make such a MS/sample stand out? Or my writing abilities stand out? I'm trying to show that I can blend in with a series' style, not stand out from it, but that feels so backwards from all I've been taught! I am also sending them a copy of the children's NF article I had published that has a much punchier, more fun style to it, so hopefully they'll see that I can adapt to different requirements as needed – is that helpful?
Publishers like this really DO want to see that you can write "to spec." Sending another writing sample in a different style seems to me to be a good idea, but the thing you need to do is show that you can write to their specifications. This can be quite hard to do, and if you can manage to be interesting at the same time, all the better.
I think the series you are trying to write for is not typical library NF. The series nonfiction you describe could be considered nonfiction for the educational market. It is designed for the beginning reader and is a relatively new phenomenon, I think, driven by No Child Left Behind and testing. Educational publishers are putting nonfiction in their reading programs, even in first grade. These series target the same market. (Such books may have been around before, but not to the same extent.)
The only book I know of that helps much with nonfiction is James Giblin's, now in a new edition, but its focus is more on trade books and on books for older readers(still, you might browse it at the library).
I know your schedule is crazy, and that you probably get a million emails from writers asking questions, and I appreciate any help you can offer. This has information has been hard for me to find. The NF writing advice out there is geared toward more creativity and hooks as I said above, but this market is different, and has me a little off kilter. Could you maybe address this market in your blog, or maybe with an interview?
I have some experience in this area, so I could write up a piece, but there's not much more to add. Writing to spec is the big thing. Knowing what schools are looking for, and having a background in reading, or at least knowing about the trends and something about state reading standards, may also be helpful.
Again, thank you so much for your website and time, you're a writer's dream come true!
P.S. -- I did come across one interview with Frank Sloan on your site that had a lot of good little nuggets in there -- but still doesn't quite answer my question all the way. Below is a clip from it:
OLSWANGER: How do you know when a nonfiction book is good?
SLOAN: What makes a nonfiction book good is if it is responsible and engages the interest of the reader. I don't mean to put the writing next because I think the writing is important. Certainly if it does the first two things, engages the reader and deals with the topic responsibly, but isn't well-written, I don't want to think about it.
How do you explain "well-written" for this age group? Again, I come back to the fact that the series are written so simply and repetitively. Some may have 8-10 words per page, for a total of 80-90 words the whole book, there's not a lot of room for creativity there! Except maybe to include several interesting facts that pique curiosity or get a 'wow' factor out of the kids. Am I headed in the right direction?
Yes, you are. And if you choose a particular structure (a repeated first word to a sentence or an organizing framework such as problem/solution), develop it consistently. I've seen considerable variation in quality in books like the ones you describe, so it's possible to shine. (Frank is talking about a quite different kind of NF series, actually, of the kind I discussed earlier.)
Anyway, good luck, and do feel free to come back to me with questions.
Publishers and New Authors
Where can I get a list of publishers who will take a chance on a new author?
Virtually every children's publisher I know of will take a chance on a new author--browse through their catalogs and you are sure to find one or more new authors popping up in each one.
What you are looking for, I think, are the publishers most likely to publish new authors. To find them, look for the smaller, lesser-known publishers. Use resources like Children's Writers and Illustrator's Market (their listings include the number of books by first-time authors that a publisher publishes, if the publisher furnishes that information).
You also might glean some information from the member's list available at the Children's Book Council's web site. Join the SCBWI and use their resources too. You will, I have to say, have to compile your own list, based on what you are writing, and on the contacts you make. That will take some work, but it will be a useful and ever-growing list, far more useful than a simple list from a book or a web site.
Hope that helps, and good luck!
This installment is based on selected emails I sent in May, June, and July in response to questions received at The Purple Crayon.
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Copyright 2006 by Harold Underdown. All rights reserved.
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