Every SCBWI first-page session I’ve attended has had one thing in common: picture book manuscripts about new babies in the family. At least two or three are submitted each time. Editors and agents respond by warning new writers: “The market is saturated with mom-is-having-a-baby books. If you’re going to write about a new sibling, the idea must be unique to stand out.”

I remember a harsh moment. After reading the first page of a new baby tale, an editor said, “This isn’t special enough to continue.”

Daunting, isn’t it? Makes you want to toss your baby—erm, your manuscript—out the window!

So when they say the idea has to be unique, what do they mean?

ottoIn a perfect world, they’d whip out Michael Sussman’s Otto Grows Down. Illustrated by Scott Magoon, it’s a tale of a boy who wishes his baby sister Anna was never born. “Be careful what you wish for” might be a cliché, but trust me, Otto Grows Down is an uncommon cautionary tale.

Otto makes his Anna-be-gone wish on his 6th birthday as he blows out the candles. Immediately, life begins to travel in reverse. Otto wraps up his gifts and hands them back to his friends. The second hand on his new watch ticks backward.

The next day at school, they start with mess-up time. Otto can’t get used to sliding UP the slide, and he’s so tired at the end of the day, he just wants to eat breakfast and get to bed. And going to the bathroom? Nasty business. (Nasty, hysterical business to my kids.)

Otto’s parents soon return Anna to the hospital and she disappears. Otto rejoices. But strangely, time doesn’t move forward again, it just keeps unraveling. Otto celebrates his fifth birthday, his fourth, his third…and he realizes that he may disappear, too! He’s slowly losing the words he needs to make his new wish come true: OTTO BIG!

Call it a dark comedy for kids. Scott Magoon’s film noir feel strikes the right balance between humor and horror. Dark shadows and warm colors mimic Otto’s flip-flopping emotions. (And hey, did you notice all the character names are palindromes? Another cool touch, huh?)

I won’t tell you where it ends—or where it begins—but let me just say: every editor who sent Mr. Sussman a rejection probably wishes they could make time go in reverse, too.

otto1Otto Grows Down
Story by Michael Sussman
Illustrated by Scott Magoon
Sterling, February 2009
Want it? Get it!

P.S. Author Heather Ayris Burnell interviewed Michael Sussman on her blog–plus she’s giving away a copy of the book!