Thursday, 31 January 2019

The attitude of "Oh, that'll do because KIDS BOOK" should be nipped in the bud - a ReadItTorial

We're just on the cusp of waving bye-bye to January 2019, and in our first month of book blogging for a new calendar year, polishing off a whopping 113 picture books for our January / February / March schedules, and 45 Chapter Books there's a worrying trend that seems to be emerging.

It seems to be happening particularly in picture books but also seems to be creeping into a few chapter books we've looked at recently too.

To try and frame this, imagine you're watching your favourite action superhero alien zombie Jane Austen mash-up movie "Tilly Trotter and the art of piloting a Heavy Weapons Mecha" and the plot moves from the idyllic English countryside to a war-torn alien planet, with nary an explanation. Perhaps some lazy McGuffin thrown in later on in the film to 'magic away' the jump in scene and setting, but you don't really care because you're only watching popcorn for the eyeballs anyway, right?

A few times now we've read picture books (and as we said, more than a few newer chapter books) where similar plot jumps happen, or there's a jarring rush to resolve the book's core issue right at the end in the last page or two - or worse still no explanation whatsoever, because - hah - you're reading a children's book, what did you expect? Dostoevsky?

The thing is - and I'm pretty much 100% sure of this - We're not the only folk who notice stuff like that. As C gets older, she has an increasing lack of patience when it comes to books that skirt over plot points or do a 'lazy pass' on getting from A to Z completely missing out all the other letters in the alphabet as they do.

Children's writing is a craft, and it requires a unique set of skills that should definitely not be underestimated.

To begin with, you need to be able to hook a child's attention in a picture book within the first couple of pages. Then you need to sustain that over the 'humps' of the book's definining plot twists and turns. Finally you need to deliver a pay-off that either feels incredibly satisfying to the reader, or perhaps leads the reader back into their own imaginations to picture what might have happened next in the story if the writer decides to leave 'em hanging.

There's no official name for this pattern, and as much (as a writer) I hate the idea that there are rules and formulas, structures and patterns that picture books should ideally have, if any of the above elements are missing - or if a picture book feels like someone hit the 'fast forward' button part-way through just to speed to the resolution, it's horribly noticeable.

Sadly we have indeed seen this a lot in celebrity-penned books, where I could well imagine there's more than a bit of pampering and ego-massaging going on by an editor or a publisher willing to let some discrepancies pass in order to put a book by a well known / well-loved name through because the pound signs are flashing in their eyes, and at the point the book begins to come together they're already imagining that cheesy POS material flooding every book shop, or the round of media interviews said author will undertake in their whirlwind promotional tour for the title.

What jars the most is that with the most recent examples we've seen, we know full well that any debut or emerging author would have had that piece of work torn to shreds at the agent / editorial / commissioning stage, and that's where the sting comes in.

Fair enough - we've encountered many book reading (and movie-loving) kids who probably don't pay much attention to the finer points of character development or story plotting. But there must be an equal (or hopefully greater) number who do not like having the wool pulled over their eyes, or are unsatisfied with "The Wizard Did It" as some universal get-out clause to apply when something in a story doesn't quite add up. C is now at the age where the side-eye or eye-roll is perfected to the nth degree whenever we read books like these for review, to the point where we are now having to drop titles from our review schedule because A) we're extremely honest when it comes to our reviews and B) we really don't want to write horrid things about a book (sure we'll be constructively critical if a book does have one or two saving graces about it but we won't enter into an utter bitch-fest about something, what would be the point, what interest would we have in putting someone off buying a book - even a poor one - if it means a kid will end up reading?)

We stress again - writing for children is hard. Good grief is it ever hard! If you don't believe us, sit down with the rule set in front of you, give yourself a 500-600 word limit, come up with a topic and try and write a 12-spread children's picture book text yourself that doesn't fall into the endless traps of bowing to cliches, or going over well-trodden ground, or - shudder - being an absolute bore-fest of a read.

We know how tough it is from personal experience, we've talked about it many, many times on the blog - and editing / proofreading / stress-testing children's books must be equally hard (and again it's worth pointing out that the majority of agents, editors and publishers REALLY DO want to find a successful story in your manuscript that's going to work as a book).

But succumbing to the lure of just applying the old 'that'll do' band-aid to something that really needs a thorough restructure really isn't any kind of an answer.

We have seen so much of it in self-published books (which, ironically, do seem to be getting better and better as self-published authors begin to realise what they're competing against in the commercial market) so let's hope this is just a temporary thing, and perhaps 2019 will actually pick up and dazzle us with the sheer quality of picture book and middle grade texts once again.