I’d like to share with you a little something I’m going to call “the sidle-up effect.” Here’s how it happens.
I’m outside having a picnic with my family, including two rambunctious little boys, E and O. Editor that I am, I’m excited to give them a “haven’t seen you guys in a while” present. It’s a book.
Now, this book happens to be a particular new favorite of mine: THE OBSTINATE PEN by Frank Dormer. However, it’s a beautiful day, we’re in the park, and I’m up against some formidable opponents: scooters, sticks, dirt, and peanut butter & jelly. As you can imagine, despite two extremely polite thank you’s, this gift does not receive the desired effect of elation and awe.
Well, fine. I should have anticipated this. But I still want to show this story a little love. So I sit down and begin to read the book aloud to myself. “Uncle Flood unwrapped his new pen and laid it on the desk…”
Barely perceptibly at first, the effect starts to take effect. First comes the quiet patter of sticks dropping to the ground. Then the faint squeak of scooter wheels coming to a halt. Next, two small figures edge into my peripheral vision. And then, all of the sudden, as I approach the part where the pen sticks to the wheel of Mrs. Norkham Pigeon-Smythe’s automobile, O is in my lap, and E is draped uncomfortably over my shoulders.
We proceed to read the book four more times.
I love enthusiastic young readers as much as the next editor/agent/writer/illustrator/reader/person (and for their mother’s sake, I should add that E and O are among that group—I just caught them on an afternoon ripe with distractions). But if a book promises to both captivate the eager crowd and achieve the sidle-up effect among the more stick-and-dirt-inclined, that book is an automatic winner to me.
THE OBSTINATE PEN is the perfect example of such a winner because it has something for everyone. It’s wildly creative and uproariously funny. It features dimwitted adults and a shrewd, worldly young hero. And it’s totally unique: it makes me think, “Now how in the world did he come up with that?”
The books that wow editors are the books that bring something new to the table—that wriggle their way into your head so you can’t stop thinking about them for days. You might grab my attention with a real and endearing character; striking, lyrical language; a hilariously honest voice.
Maybe it’s a creative, fiery little girl who brings the spark to a classic tale of friendship, like Kelly DiPucchio’s CRAFTY CHLOE. Or a text so simple, beautiful and poetic that it leaves room for a whole new world to unfold in the illustrations, like Mary Lyn Ray’s STARS (illustrated by Marla Frazee). Or a soft song about eggs filled with so much personality (“I do not like the way you slide, / I do not like your soft inside, / I do not like you lots of ways, / And I could do for many days / Without eggs”) that it sticks with you straight through from childhood to adulthood, like Russell Hoban’s BREAD AND JAM FOR FRANCES. Ok, maybe that last example is a little specific, but you get the gist (it’s one of my all-time favorites).
And maybe it’s because I work in children’s publishing, but in my opinion, there’s nothing in the world that sticks with you like a picture book. Think about your favorite book when you were little. Why do you still remember it? The most special of special characters, voices, stories—they all contribute to this warm little nugget of childhood that you’ll carry around with you forever. You can’t create that by hitching a ride on the big, flashy, commercial, book-selling train of the moment. You create that by pulling your inspiration directly from that spot, by reigniting that spark from your childhood and writing from your heart.
As an editor, I’m looking for a picture book that I want to sidle up to. One that, if you caught me playing with sticks in the park, would have me—well, maybe not in your lap, but at least draped uncomfortably over your shoulders.
Achieve that, and I promise you, those sticks won’t stand a chance.
Emma Ledbetter is an editorial assistant at Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. She sidles up to picture books, chapter books, and middle grade novels with fresh, sincere voices, humor and heart. Upcoming projects she has edited include THE BACKWARDS BIRTHDAY PARTY, a picture book by John Forster and legendary singer/songwriter Tom Chapin, and the fantastically wacky middle grade novel THE CONTAGIOUS COLORS OF MUMPLEY MIDDLE SCHOOL by Fowler DeWitt. Follow her on Twitter @brdnjamforemma.
Emma will be donating a picture book critique to a lucky PiBoIdMo participant who completes the 30-ideas-in-30-days challenge. A winner will be randomly selected in early December.