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This past Saturday I hosted a Children’s Literary Salon at the main branch of NYPL that discussed the topic of middle grade science fiction for children, its history and future. Consisting of a panel of editor Andrew Harwell, author Jason Fry (of the “Jupiter Pirates” series), and librarian Stephanie Whelan (who gave a fantastic encapsulation of how sci-fi for children has changed over the decades) there came a moment when I was able to ask Harwell about acquiring the Jupiter Pirates books for a large publisher like Harper Collins. I walked in with the assumption that he would have had difficulty convincing HC’s acquisitions team that a work of space adventures would sell. As it happens, I was off the mark. Harwell said that in his experience it was harder to publish a science fiction work that further glutted the market (yet another dystopian YA novel, say) than something original like Fry’s series.
However, all this got me to thinking about editors who take risks. Even if Harwell didn’t encounter resistance to the books within his workplace, you could say he took a bit of a risk publishing something that doesn’t fall within the given norms. Over the years I’ve seen editors put their hearts and souls into children’s books that they knew would strike some as esoteric and others as downright weird. Consider, if you will, that an editor’s very livelihood depends on producing as many successful books as possible. Passion projects take on a very different light too when you see those editors let go from their publishing houses. I’ve seen it happen over the years. The threat is real.
And yet they still continue to bring out books that are of high literary quality and yet aren’t what you might call an easy sell. Looking at 2014, it’s easy to identify the books that bypass the norm.
First and foremost amongst editors with a bent for the original and remarkable is Neal Porter. The other day I was sitting down with an old friend who lamented to me that Neal just wasn’t taking enough risks with his books these days. I had to raise an objection to this notion. In 2014, Porter published a book so out there that its very author had assumed that it would never see the light of day. I am referring, of course, to The Iridescence of Birds. Even author Patricia MacLachlan was surprised that Neal took an interest. Here we have a book written in a single sentence that is sortakinda a biography-ish picture book about Matisse. It may be no surprise that it came out the same year as another sortakinda(notreally) bio, Viva, Frida by Yuyi Morales. These books don’t slot into a catalog record neatly at all. Where the HECK do you even put them on your shelves? Yet they’re beautiful and well-written and everything a picture book should be. Just a little unusual.
Of course Mr. Porter has been an editor for quite some time, so maybe he’s worked up enough cred to try something different from time to time. At a different Children’s Literary Salon Neal was one of my guests and the moderator posed the supposition that no one makes quiet books anymore. Yet Neal actually wins Caldecotts with his (see: A Sick Day for Amos McGee).
Another book that came out in 2014 that I’d call risky won a very different kind of award. I couldn’t have been the only person shocked that Aviary Wonders, Inc. by Kate Samworth beat out books like El Deafo and Joey Pigza to take home a whopping $50,000 prize. That the book was even published was amazing in and of itself. If you see it, it’s more catalog than story. Not quite fiction, not quite picture book.
Then there are the publishers that take risks by translating books that could be seen to be “too foreign” to American audiences. In 2014 we saw Enchanted Lion Books present us with some remarkable titles that certainly apply. Pomelo’s Big Adventure could never be mistaken for a work of American fiction. Yet as a picture book it really works well. Then there was the middle grade novel Nine Open Arms by by Benny Lindelauf which dared to be funny and strange and unlike anything else on the market. It may have suffered for its book jacket, but the story inside was grand.
On the nonfiction side, I always feel pleased when folks go beyond the usual school report subjects and highlight individuals and tales outside the norm. How precisely did Barbara Kerley convince Scholastic that six-year-olds would comprehend a story about Ralph Waldo Emerson? We all love Ashley Bryan but was a book about his homemade puppets a guaranteed sale? And then there’s the idea of doing a biography of Sun Ra. For kids. Seriously, Chris Raschka? Yet it works. They don’t all work, I should note. That’s the nature of risks, but at least folks were taking a chance on trying something new.
What were your favorite risky children’s titles of 2014?
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Today’s confident on the hip high five comes from Edward Stratemeyer.
My guess is you have no idea who this is. Eddie is the brainchild behind Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and boatload of other popular series that have been a mainstay on the entertainment. My favorite will always be the Bobbsey Twins. He wrote about 1300 books for kids. Yes, that is a lot of books.
Perhaps something is stewing in you is going to spring up an entire industry in the children’s book field. Think about being a risk taker as you move forward with your goal. Those who play it safe rarely get what they want. Go ahead, take a leap to day. See where it leads you.
Keep working. Today’s coffee is practically a double of shot of energy.
A quote to consider:
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order to things. - Niccolo Machiavelli
We play games on Friday afternoons. My library has a Wii and a Playstation 2, which we set up in our community room. Teens and tweens are welcome, and many come back week after week to play Rock Band, Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart, Wii Sports, Dance Dance Revolution and whatever other games that teens or I have brought in that week. They take turns based on whoever wants to play. Some enjoy just hanging out and watching. It’s a relaxed environment that promotes socializing, conversation, and cooperation.
In the spirit of my relaxed gaming programs, I will share a few things that I love about connecting with teens over video games.
The social aspect of cooperative games. Because we offer a lot of four player games, there are opportunities for teens to play together. It’s an obvious benefit for friends, but it also invites teens who don’t know each other to play together. Someone will hold up a wiimote and ask, “who else wants to play?” And that someone is not always me, the teens invite each other to play and seem to bond quickly over the exchanges of the game. If they all know the game well, they compare strategy, if one does not know the game so well, others teach. I enjoy watching the instruction as one teen shows another how to hold the Rock Band guitar and which buttons to press on the fretboard, or an older teen shows a younger one how to position the character in Wii Bowling and swing the wiimote to bowl a strike.
Talking about games. Games we love, games we hate, we talk about it all. Preferences create common ground. I always enjoy references to old school Nintendo titles and characters like Mario and Link or anything Final Fantasy related. It’s interesting how much these older games or long running series games have held up over the years. As Teens critique the graphics and gameplay, preferences lead to further conversation. I am beginning to buy games to circulate and I took my cues for specific games to buy and which consoles to focus on from these conversations.
Gaming creates safe opportunities for risk. There are few video game related scenes that warm my heart so much as watching boys sing in Rock Band. Maybe this is because most of my gaming teens are boys and I haven’t yet seen too many girls take on the challenge of being the singer. Maybe this is because teenage boys can be awkward, but the ways in which they embrace it or triumph over it are heartening. Rock Band is a mock performance. The only consequence of failure in game is that you can fail a song and have to start over. Socially the consequence of failure is that maybe someone doesn’t like your singing, or maybe you sing the wrong words, or maybe you feel embarrassed. In a larger or more critical group this could be a deterrent, and even in this relaxed environment it is for some. But I know a few boys who just get up and do it. Sometimes they don’t know the song, so they just hum along. Sometimes they can’t carry a tune, but sing out anyway and earn the amusement of the other gamers. Sometimes they know the song perfectly and impress everyone in the room. They risk and succeed, which is a good experience to build on. Maybe someday they’ll play in a real rock band, or have to get up and talk in front of a group of people and the ex
We've heard so often the complaint that publishers never take risks, that agents never take risks, and of course there are some who will say those are the reasons we're seeing the "downfall of publishing" today. I don't necessarily believe that. I think given how many new authors are published each year and how many of those succeed as well as how many fail shows that publishers take risks every day. Every book is a risk, whether it's a debut or not. No matter how much experience we all have we're never quite sure what's going to grab the attention of the reader.
That being said, recently when I heard that lament it made me think back to a publisher I once worked for, and by publisher I mean the individual, not the company. This particular publisher was a dreamer and a believer in all the good ways. The publisher loved the business and was enthusiastic about all the things about it, especially the books. One of the things this publisher charged was that each editor was allowed to buy one "book of the heart" each year. What that meant was that even if everyone in-house had doubts about whether the book would sell or could sell, the editor was given the ability to make a modest go of it, meaning the editor couldn't spend a million dollars for a book no one thought the house could do justice, but the editor could take a chance on something everyone else felt a little on the fence about.
For a young editor like me this was a really exciting opportunity, and while I never was able to buy my "book of the heart" before the publisher went another way, I held that feeling of excitement and carry it with me as an agent today.
I can't begin to tell you how often I've offered representation to an author for a book that I honestly thought would be a challenge to sell, but one I was excited about. And before all of my clients get worried, upon making the offer I've always been up front with the author about my belief that the book might be a long shot, but one that I thought was worth the risk. Some have sold, others have not, but either way I've never regretted taking the chance.
One caveat to all of this is that, as a writer, if you have an agent or publisher taking a chance on your book you still want to make sure it's a place that has some knowledge of where they're taking the chance to. In other words, you probably don't want me to take a chance on your illustrated children's book since that's so outside of my knowledge base that it just wouldn't be a smart move. I wouldn't even begin to know where to sell it to. You probably wouldn't want a business publisher taking a chance on your romance novel. Again, do they have the sales force available to even talk to the right buyers?
Dropped Dead Stitch
Publisher: Berkley Prime Crime
Pub date: June 2009
Agent: Jessica Faust
(Click to Buy)
Author Web/Blog links: www.maggiesefton.com, www.cozychicksblog.com, LinkedIn
Taking risks is a gamble, especially with your career. There’s no guarantee you’ll succeed. Some people will work at a job they hate for years rather than “risk” trying a new endeavor, something they don’t know how to do. So, they stay stuck—and unhappy.
I know how that feels. I was published in 1995 in Historical Romance by Berkley Jove with a western romance. It was fun to write, and it became my first published novel. Writing the western was a change for me. Up until then I’d been writing big historical novels set in the 1600s, 1800s, and medieval times. However, those novels weren’t selling. I was stuck. So, I took the risk of doing something different. I wrote the western, and it sold quickly.
That’s a lesson I’ve had to remind myself of several times over my 25+ year writing career. A few years after the western, I decided to take the risk of writing something different once again. This time I started listening to the contemporary mystery characters that were waiting in my “story queue.” They wanted onstage. Once I let them loose, they stormed the stage, chased the historical characters into the bushes, and took over. Later mysteries went on to become a nationally bestselling series—the Kelly Flynn Knitting Mysteries with Berkley Prime Crime.
As writers, we should never stop taking risks. Whether it be through story ideas, characterization, or our craft. We need to stay open to new ideas and different writing styles. That’s how we stay fresh. And every now and then, we need to take risks.
I took a risk with my new release, the 7th in the Kelly Flynn Knitting Mysteries, DROPPED DEAD STITCH, out June 2nd. Amidst all the good times with Kelly and the gang and warm and fuzzies in the knitting shop, something bad happens. A murder, right? Well, yes, someone is murdered, and Kelly has to solve it. But something else occurs before that. Something bad happens to one of Kelly’s close friends.
It’s a sensitive subject, and I did my best to handle it with respect and sensitivity. Why take the risk and include the subject at all? Because I had to. My characters bring the stories, and they expect me to pay attention.
Risky? You bet. I had no idea how it would be received. I’m extremely gratified that reviewers have responded so favorably. DROPPED DEAD STITCH’s cover was even featured in the May 4th Publishers Weekly article on Traditional Mysteries.
All of that is wonderful. But I didn’t take the risk for the reviews. I took it for my characters, because the whole point of what happens is not the trauma, but the transformation that follows. For me—it’s all about the characters. Always has been.