Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Children's Books, Continued

Various people have questioned some of the things I said in my previous post as being accurate. While I do stand by my assumption that the asker's 65k fantasy novel is YA just based on its size unless it was specifically written for a younger crowd, I am not an expert on children's literature.

While I have dealt with children's literature in the publishing field to a small extent, most of my knowledge of what grades are reading what comes from a course I'm taking on children's literature in graduate school, by a professor who's written many children's books and runs various children's poetry and children's literature festivals in New York City. There were many things I honestly didn't know before taking this course.

I admit that the line between middle school, young adult, and adult literature gets kinda hazy in age range, and that a lot of it has to do with the school and culture you grew up in. An ESL student is obviously probably going to be a step behind in literature. As I mentioned, I was the first person in my class to read an "adult" book, which was not available in my school library and I had to get at the public library in town. This was mainly because it was Jurassic Park and the movie was coming out sooon, so I got the book, and I'll readily admit that I did not understand half of it. (Also, the first half of it doesn't make a lot of sense) The following month I read The Andromeda Strain and also didn't understand a word, except that a disease was eating a plane or something. It wasn't until I hit Sphere that I started "getting it," and breezed through The Great Train Robbery, which was easier because it was historical fiction instead of science-based fiction. Obviously, one of the reasons I've ended up in publishing is because I love to read. I read 1-3 books a week.

I distinctly remember that we stopped reading YA and started reading "literature" in eight grade, when I switched to a private school that had already been doing it for two grades. Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, and Philip Roth.

I'm sure this varies from school to school, so I wouldn't doubt that there are 15-year-olds out there who are reading YA. There are adults who've realized there is some terrific literature being put out in YA and are eating it up.

Anyway, the point is: I don't know everything.

Children's Books

I am querying agents and I would like to make an effort to target
agents that will represent my type of book. The problem is, I'm not
sure what to call it.

What's the difference between children's, middle-grades, and young

I've been describing my book as young adult, but I believe that it
will more likely appeal to readers in the 9-12 range? It's 65,000
words and is kind of similar to City of Ember.

Am I worrying about nothing or is a correct genre description

65,000 words is definitely going to be in the JA range unless you've specifically written it to younger children, which is a bad idea. The spectrum of children's literature is very well-defined by publishers based on age and mental maturity. 2-4-year-old books are largely picture books with extremely basic plots. 4-6 you can start getting into more complex ideas like morality, lessons, mythology, and you have more text to the pictures. This is also the age that kids might be reading instead of being read-to by the parent, so you have to be strict on content. This is also the age when "special topics" books begin (like books discussing gay parents, divorce, death, illness, and even abuse and incest. The only topic completely off-limits is abortion, which is not allowed until YA). By middle school, the pictures are cut down to minimum and the children are assumed to be reading on their own, but certain topics are still off-limits except if handled in a very gentle manner, hiding behind imagery. The word count is still relatively short because of attention span, but much larger than picture books. (Kids do read ultra-long Harry Potter books in middle school but this is a special case). YA applies generally to kids in 4-6th grades and is when the topics open up to things teenagers deal with, like sexuality, death, self-image, suicide, anger, etc. It really ends at around age 12-14, when kids generally move into adult books. I remember reading Jurassic Park in sixth grade, which was my first "adult" book, and I was the only one reading that kind of book in my class. By the end of 7th, everyone was reading adult books. (Actually, they were mainly reading magazines and listening to music)

It seems like you have a standard YA fantasy. Anything below YA (Young Adult) should be written with a lot of research into what are the acceptable limts to the content and you should specify the grade range.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Plot Summaries in Queries

Dear Rejecter,

I'm nearing completion on a memoir-in-blog-form, which, with a little work, could easily be reworked into a book manuscript. I've contacted one agency so far; I'm waiting to hear from them before I approach others.

The submission guidelines for the agency I've already approached request just a short paragraph summarizing the subject of the proposed book. However, I've been looking at sample queries, and I've noticed that many of them provide a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the plot, beginning to end.

For future reference, do you suggest a brief overview, or a detailed plot description? The memoir I've been working on is very much a story, rather than a "this-is-what's-happened-in-my-life-so-far" kind of thing, and I could easily provide the entire plot, but it strikes me that that's overkill in an initial query letter.

What are your thoughts? Does it simply depend on who you're querying?

I don't know what sample queries you were looking at, but in general, a blow-by-blow account of the plot is a terrible thing to do in a query. The object of the summation of the book is to entice the agent the same way a book jacket summary would entice the reader - and book jacket summaries don't summarize the plot. They just make it sound like something you would want to read.

The best thing to focus on in that 1-3 paragraph summation is the conflict of the book (known as the "hook"), because it's conflict that makes books interesting, in fiction anyway. An example of this would be: "A factory worker wakes up one morning to discover he has transformed into a bug." I don't know how to go on summarizing that because it's been a while since I read Kafka, and I'm pretty sure he dies at the end, but the point is - guy turns into bug. Okay. That's interesting. You don't see that every day. Now tell me where you're going to go with it - in terms of making the book interesting.