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You’ve been waiting a long time…but here they finally are: the Mira Reisberg contest winners! I will contact those of you listed here with an exclusive email address to submit to Mira’s Hummmingbird Literary.


Donna Earnhardt
Mary Uhles
Vivian Kirkfield
Laura Renauld
Angie Karcher

There were SO MANY great marketing suggestions, I wanted to pick EVERYONE. You can imagine why it took me so long. Once again I want to thank the lovely and talented Mira Reisberg for sponsoring this contest, and best wishes to all the winners.


Next, the winner of Kristi Valiant’s PENGUIN CHA-CHA Prize Pack! It’s…

Pam Brunskill!

Be on the lookout for my email, Pam. And congrats!


And while I have your attention, NJ-SCBWI just opened registration for a flurry of inspiring and entertaining fall events. I’ll be hosting a PiBoIdMo Kick-Off on October 1st in Manville, plus there’s two other PiBo and NaNoWriMo parties. I’ll also be teaching a picture book workshop at the Fall Craft Weekend on November 10th.

Check it all out at and click “follow blog” so you don’t miss any future event announcements!

Happy writing to everyone! And stay tuned…some PiBoIdMo announcements are coming soon!

‘Twas the night before Conference and all through the hotel,
Authors were dreaming of merchandise deals with Mattel.

The manuscripts were printed with name and website,
In the hopes that an agent would find love at first sight.

The editors were snoring tucked into their rooms,
Knowing before them a day of pitching looms.

And while I am too warm, and Corey Rosen Schwartz too cold,
We share a king bed because the queen rooms are all sold.

Out in the hallway, there arose such a noise,
Wouldn’t you know it, it’s the conference’s only two boys.

The place is packed with slinky stiletto-heel wearers,
‘Cause style in books means style in fashion is fairer.

A kidlit conference is full of women who are hot,
Who sell tons of stories while you just want one shot.

But we authors are friendly, we certainly don’t bite,
We’re not filled with envy, we’re not filled with spite.

We will welcome you to our world that’s so crazy,
So will editors and film agents who’ve worked with Scorcese.

Get out there and network! Polish your pitch to a shine!
Relax in the lounge with a smooth glass of wine.

A kidlit conference is the place to make a friend,
It’s where deals happen ’cause deal-makers attend!

But don’t drone for hours about your book’s premise,
Talk about your life, your hobbies. Do you play tennis?

And don’t just stand there, go mix and go mingle.
Don’t stare at the editors like they’re all Kris Kringle.

Be yourself and you’ll find that you’ll be an attraction,
Don’t croon like Jagger about not gettin’ no satisfaction.

Be happy, be cheerful, take crits with salt if need be,
Remember we’re here to help you succeed, see?

(Excuse the bad meter, I’m not really a poet.
Ask Corey the rhyme genius, she really does know it.)

And with that I bid you a hearty good luck.
Break a leg, do your best, get that writer’s block unstuck.

Enjoy yourself for three days and two nights.
Happy Conference to all, and to all a good write!

pagepenChildren’s book writers were treated to another fun and informative first page session this week in Princeton, hosted by the NJ-SCBWI. Editors Michelle Burke and Allison Wortche of Knopf & Crown Books For Young Readers listened to 30 first pages read aloud as they followed along with each manuscript page. Then they gave their immediate first impressions of the work.

If you’ve never attended a first page critique, it’s a quick way to get a handle on what your peers are writing. A first page session shows you what it’s like for an editor to spend two hours in the slush pile. Common themes emerge. Mistakes reveal themselves. If you listen carefully, you’ll learn how to avoid first page problems and encourage an editor to read on.

So what did the editors say? I encourage you to read on…

Picture Books:

Use varying imagery in picture books. One manuscript conveyed a lot of emotion and the editors didn’t see where the illustrator would take inspiration for art. The same scene through several page turns may lose a child’s attention.

Dialogue needs to match the age of your character. A picture book character shouldn’t sound older than a five- or six-year-old child. Their actions should also match their age.

Cut excess detail in picture books. The first page of the manuscript should reveal a clear story arc. If the manuscript is bogged down with details, it slows the story down. For example, writing that a mother is carrying a napkin to the table and setting it down next to the plate is unecessary (unless that specific action is crucial to the story, and even so, it could probably be illustrated).

Premise and conflict should be apparent on the first page of a picture book manuscript. For example, dialogue between two characters should reveal a story, not just serve as adorable banter.

Every line in a picture book should move the story forward. There’s no room for chatting or extraneous stuff.

Picture books should have a linear approach. Moving back and forth in time can confuse a young child.

With holiday stories, you automatically have to work harder. Stories about specific times of year are a tough sell. There’s a lot of competition and a small sales window.

Some picture book stories are told better without rhyme. If the phrasing is unnatural in rhyme–things you wouldn’t ordinarily say–it can be jarring to the story. One bad line can ruin the manuscript’s chances.

Middle Grade/YA:

The narrator/main character should be the highlight of the first page. One manuscript began by describing a minor character as a way to compare/contrast the narrator. However, when that minor character disappeared from the rest of the page, the editors were confused. Was that comparison necessary to introduce the narrator?

Historial fiction should tell a story. The reader should get a sense of the main character first–how he/she is affected by historial details. Too much fact will bog the story down and lose the character.

Don’t be too reptitive in a novel–get on with the story. If a main character reveals the same thing over and over again on the first page, it feels overdone. Introduce a concept and then move on with the story; don’t circle back paragraph after paragraph.

A first person narrative should have more narrative than dialogue on the first page to take advantage of this device. Plus, the narrative voice and the dialogue voice should match (unless the disconnect is for a specific purpose).

Avoid the stereotypical whiny, displaced, unhappy middle-grade voice. More than one middle-grade manuscript began with a character learning that he/she had to move. The result was a whiny narrator who wasn’t necessarily likeable. Editors warned that they see a lot of the parents-uprooting-child theme, so to rise above the slush, consider a different approach.

Be cautious in stories with several important characters. It’s difficult to write a story with multiple characters because introducing them can sound like a laundry list. Reveal their personalities in a way that’s organic to the story. It also asks a lot of the reader, to keep track of several characters.

Watch tense. The switch from dialogue to narrative in one story felt very abrupt because the dialogue was in past tense and the narrative was in present.

The difference between MG and YA is edgy, gritty. If the main character’s personality feels innocent, the genre might be middle grade, not young adult.

Balance description and dialogue. Dialogue moves a story along fast. Description slows it down. Long stretches of each create a choppy storytelling rhythm.

Make descriptions specific, not generic. One story began with vague details that could be applied to almost any story setting. It wasn’t until further down on the page that the reader learned the unique time and place, something that attracted attention. The editors suggested moving that info higher up.

YA characters should be teenagers. College YA characters and those over the age of 19 can be a tricky sell. That moves the story into adult territory. YA readers need to relate to the characters, and 20+ seems like a lifetime away to a 15 year-old.

Finally, stories should be kid-friendly, not sprinkled with adult sensibilities. One of the editors warned, “this feels like it’s about kids rather than for them.” Don’t let a parental point of view creep into your writing–kids find that creepy.

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!

Random comments on the children’s book industry from editors and agents attending the NJ-SCBWI mentoring workshop on February 22:


“Things are getting tighter with budgets. As hard as it was to get published, it’s even harder now.”

“Bookstores are cutting down on their inventory. We can’t get as many books in, so we’re not buying as many books.”

“This is not just a correction of the marketplace, it’s a correction of the mind.”

“We’re going to be seeing far fewer advances for mediocre books.”

“But if you’re a new author, you don’t have a poor track record to hurt you.”

“We may see a return to house authors. Authors and publishers will enter a partnership. They’ll help nuture one another and careers will have a steady progression. If you find a house that loves you, they will love you long time!”


“Learn how to market your books. Do school visits. Use social networking tools. Talk to other writers about your book. Talk to everyone about your book.”

“Get to know your publicist and marketing director. They are your friends. But don’t overwhelm them with 17 email messages a day. Let them know you’re their partner.”

“Realize that the books you see up front in the stores are paid for by the publishers through co-op marketing. If they have a talking slip? Paid for. If they’re on an end-cap? Paid for.”

“Become friends with your local librarian and your local bookstores. But always keep your publicist informed about what you’re doing. Don’t go over their head. Don’t go over your editor’s head, either. That’s bad business for everyone involved.”

“Don’t waste people’s time. Don’t send chocolate to all the Borders buyers in the country.”

“With school visits, you’re a celebrity to those kids. Get yourself out there. Build word-of-mouth.”

“Temper your expectations. If you wrote a teen non-fiction book, the big retailers aren’t going to carry it. That’s not their market.”

“Don’t follow today’s trends. Writing for the market in general is a terrible idea.”

“If you’re a picture book writer, don’t start writing a YA about vampires just because it’s popular.”


“Editors are always in the market for a well-written book. But I can’t define for you what that is. I know it when I see it.”

“Know what your editor likes. Know who you’re submitting to. I don’t like gross stories.”

“But I do! Send them to me!”

“We like authors who are agented because the work comes in polished.”

Who doesn’t love first page sessions? Where else can you get two non-stop hours of professional, editorial feedback? They pack quite a picture book pow. (And a middle grade wallop. And a YA smack.)

But how do you get the most out of these sessions? Take care in what you submit and how you submit it. Let the editors focus on your story rather than procedure.

These suggestions are based upon the November 19 NJ-SCBWI first page session with Kendra Levin of Viking and Lauren Hodge of Little, Brown.

1. Format properly. Some submissions didn’t use standard paragraph breaks and indents. While the editors understood that these writers were eager to submit as much story as possible, the manuscripts were confusing to read.  Everything ran together. Format your first page just as you would a professional submission. Honestly, you will get more out of less.

2. Use Times New Roman font. A serif font reads well. Courier, the traditional typewriter font, is a monospaced font, meaning each letter is the same width. This wastes space. If you submit with Courier, you’ll have 50% less story on your first page.

3. Research your genre. Some manuscripts felt inappropriate for the genre the author indicated. The topic, word choice and level of sophistication need to match your audience’s age. If you submit with the correct genre, the editors will spend more time assessing your writing than genre counseling.

4. Don’t limit yourself to one gender. One manuscript indicated it was for girls. If you write this on a submission, an editor will immediately think your work doesn’t have broad appeal. Let the editor decide if both boys and girls will love your story.

5. Skip the prologue. Go right to the story. Submit page one of the first chapter, not the backstory.

6. Don’t include an explanation. One picture book began with an intro about why the author had written the story, based upon an experience with her children. And here is where editor Kendra Levin was gracious and tactful. She thought the children in this author’s life were incredibly lucky to have such a playful, creative parent. But stating how children you know enjoy your work doesn’t help sell it. The story does. The intro only left room for five lines of the tale, so the editors could not comment fully. They also emphasized that if the story is written well enough, an explanation becomes unneccesary.

7. Take notes. Don’t just wait for what the editors/agents have to say about your manuscript. Listen to the comments about every page. There’s something to learn from everyone’s manuscript.

There’s more to come from this dynamic first page session. Watch for another post this weekend. And please add your own first page tips!

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