Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pitfalls to Avoid Discovered in The Horn Book Reviews

Wednesday, April 18, 2012: Pitfalls to Avoid Discovered in The Horn Book Reviews

Today we’re going to look at what made 14% of books reviewed in The Horn Book Guide, Spring 2012 edition, receive ratings on 5 or 6. But first, let me repeat something I said on Monday. Even though The Horn Book and The Horn Book Guide are well-respected and every author hopes for a great review from them, their review is only one review out of the many a book might receive. Remember also that while authors, agents, and publishers love good reviews, they also love great sales. Just because a book receives a lack-luster or low review, does not mean that book won’t be popular with readers and won’t sell many copies.

I in no way want to disparage the books that received ratings of 5 or 6, or their authors or illustrators. But I do want to see if there are any lessons to be learned from these reviews. One of the best ways I’ve discovered to notice trends in reviews is to list out the significant negative comments and to look for similarities, common language, links, and so on. Below is the list of what I discovered when looking at comments about the picture books receiving ratings of 5 or 6:

r The text is too didactic
r The book is a summary with little dialogue and no attempt to evocative language
r The book is too long to hold most readers’ attention in one setting
r Nothing works here from the kids’ preposterously quick change of heart to the wall-to-wall cliché writing
r Humdrum plot with a didactic lesson
r Little character development, no depth
r The story line is one note
r The rhyme seems labored
r Un-kid-friendly perspective
r Singsong-y rhymes
r Younger readers may have difficulty with some of the vocabulary
r Preachy text
r Forced vocabulary choices make for a distracting reading experience
r The story is facile and the its ending is too quick and easy
r The story doesn’t quite come together
r Few children will care about the text
r Jerky and confusing, readers may think they skipped a few pages by mistake
r Rhyming text that frequently doesn’t scan
r Ponderous prose
r The story, though imaginative, is all over the place
r The wistful text will prove head-scratching to kids
r Agonizingly awkward rhyme and meter
r Tired story line
r Awkward vocabulary, weird sentence fragments, and convoluted sentence structure bog down the text
r Nonsensical plot, clunky writing
r Deadly dull
r Barely passes as a story
r Not-very-urgent plot
r The characters talk as if reading a script
r The text is repetitive, some onomatopoeias help allay boredom
r The didactic text exists only to hammer home a message
r The story abruptly ends without a single satisfying explanation
r The rhyming text is tedious
r There’s a tiny bit of tension in this story . . . but it’s mostly a lot of set-up for a mediocre resolution
r The text jerkily stops and starts
r Singsong-y text
r Clunky rhyme, heavy-handed messages
r A too-pat turn in the story
r Unfortunately, clumsy rhyme mars the well-intentioned verse
r Stilted writing
r Preposterous plot
r Heavy-handed rhyming verse
r The sentimental offering has little child appeal
r Plot, prose, and copyediting—in each case the quality is remarkably poor
r The text rhymes stumble

Here’s a quick exercise. Print out the comments above. Then use highlighters to divide the statements into categories. Okay, if that’s too much work for you, let me tell you what I discovered. The big, over-arching issues that surfaced again and again in these reviews were:

1.      Underdeveloped plot
2.      Poorly develop characters
3.      Language/word-choice issues
4.      Weak rhyme and meter
5.      Didactic, preachy, teachy text

Interestingly, the top three things on the list above were also things I discovered (and blogged about last week) when I recently served as a judge for a short-story contest. Plot, character, and language choices are the hallmarks of good writing, no matter the genre. You can’t fake these things—you have to make it your work to get them right in your writing.

Weak rhyme and meter has been discussed at every picture book conference I’ve ever attended. It’s not that editors poo-poo rhyme. They poo-poo all the bad rhyme they find in their submissions piles. Unless you are a natural at rhyme or study it seriously, don’t attempt it.

Another thing we hear in training all the time is to not be preachy in a picture book. The story with a lesson or moral went out of vogue a long time ago. As a teacher, I have to consciously work to not be didactic in my writing. The purpose of a picture book is not to teach a lesson, but to tell a story. (That doesn’t mean a child doesn’t learn something from a book, but that we don’t shove that something down the child’s throat.)

Use the comments above as a measuring rod to put alongside your own writing. Judge for yourself how you’re doing. Edit out what isn’t needed. Strengthen what is weak. You are the ultimate authority when it comes to making your picture books as good as they can possibly be.

Coming Friday . . . a look at the cream of the crop—picture books rated 1 or 2 in the recent edition of The Horn Book Guide.


Miranda Paul said...

Thanks for compiling these, Rob. I may contact you about sharing them over at Rate Your Story. Cheers, Miranda

Christie Wright Wild said...

Great list! Thanks for the breakdown!

Julie Falatko said...

This is so helpful! Thanks for doing all the work for us!

Penny Parker Klostermann said...

Thanks Bob! Your posts state things in a clear and concise manner that is very helpful to me in my writing. I appreciate your time and effort!

Leslie Gorin said...

Great stuff this week, Rob! Looking forward to Friday--especially to balance out the painful list from the worst of the crop!

Julie Hedlund said...

What a great exercise. Thank you for sharing your results with us. Quite telling indeed!

Rob Sanders said...

Thanks, everyone! Glad to know the info is helpful.

Notes from a Virtual Easel said...

Thanks so much! I'm sharing this with my writers' group.