Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Just the Facts, Kid. Just the Facts!

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My precocious, lovable daughter, A, is seven going on seventeen. If you think I'm verbose, you haven't yet met her. She talks a mile a minute, barely taking a breath, and I'm forever hiring a United Nations interpreter to translate her words into plain English. She is a lot like I was as a kid, but she's sociable and I was shy. I, however, also talked my mother's ear off, and came in every morning to tell her in great detail what my dreams were all about the night before. The difference between my daughter and I is that I think she makes up the dream descriptions as she goes along!

In any case, she, too, is very detail oriented. And aside from it being most evident in her conversations, it's very evident in her writing, as well.

Remember when you were in school, Jewish day school or otherwise, and you went back after summer vacation or spring vacation, and had to write the expected piece: "What I Did On My Holiday" -- she does it, too. She did it after summer break, did it after Chanukah break, did it after mid-winter break and now had to write what she did on her two-week Pesach vacation. She has a journal in her English studies, and after school breaks or after school trips, or around Jewish holidays, she is supposed to write in her journal and accompany her entry with drawings.

Yesterday I asked A if I could look at what she'd written in her journal about her Pesach holidays. She gave me permission, and before I began to read the particular assigned entry, I looked back at a couple of earlier entries. I was pleased when the teacher commented on one: "Are you going to be a writer like your mom?"

I then turned to read the Pesach entry. It was pretty much a play-by-play listing of the first days of the chag and who was at the seders we attended and hosted, and who she played with and what she played (Trivial Pursuit for Kids -- I recommend it highly. It's meant for age eight and up, but even my five-year-old can get answers right. It is multiple-choice answers)when it wasn't the seders. And which cousins and friends got to sleep over. And her closing sentence for the entry was: "And on Monday at 2:00 a.m. I barfed."

The hysterical laughter just erupted from me. She definitely had ended her piece on an "upbeat" note, in her matter-of-fact way. Yup, yup, yup, that's my daughter, folks. Giving her all to tell a story, and as Walter Cronkite would have said, "And that's the way it was!"

Dance Me a Dance...Please

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So, you wish to read on in the children's book saga, do you? Here's my "story":

Back in June 2001, en route home from work, while driving, (just clarifying so you won't think I was on public transit) I was singing "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," the all-time classic from Fiddler on the Roof. I was singing some of the original lyrics and then making up others, ie. "find me a find, make a make, bake me a cake, DANCE ME A DANCE..." That last bit stuck in my head, and I recalled when I was young and going to a couple of weddings or bar mitzvahs with my family, where the dancing was mixed and acceptable by us (we were Conservadox). I loved watching my parents dance together and then joining in between them to make the waltz a threesome. So that image, together with "DANCE ME A DANCE" stuck in my brain, and swirled around relentlessly. I quickly pulled out paper and pen, and at the red lights, wrote down some thoughts, and within twenty minutes, I had written the basic manuscript for a children's picture book. Of course, I went home and immediately polished the writing, smoothing out any rough edges. But basically, here I had a short manuscript, written in twenty minutes.

I decided to forward it with a cover letter to Canadian children's book publisher #1. Several weeks later I received the rejection form letter. On to Canadian publisher #2; again a rejection form letter. And then I showed it to someone at work, who'd interned at a Montreal-based publisher, and she suggested I send it there...and gave me a name of an editor.

After checking out the publisher's Web site (Lobster Press, a nice name for a Kashrut-observing person to send her manuscript to!), I forwarded a very nice letter to that particular editor and asked if I could forward the manuscript, which I'd described to her. I got a green light, and said manuscript was out of my hands.

This was at the start of September 2001, and she gave me such complimentary feedback about her first impressions of the manuscript:

Hello Pearl

Yes, I received your file and read it. Quickly, my first impression was that Dance Me a Dance Please is quite artful, capturing many of the elements that are necessary for a good children's story. The tone is also very good.

There are some problems on a minor level, easily changed during the editing process if this story were to be published, for example, one of the transition points contains an inconsistency, where the child feels like moving, but then her mother moves instead. Also, I don't think it's necessary, neither instructive nor poetic, to include the place in each beginning line (the living room, the garden), as the place will be evident in the illustration.

As for illustrations, this story lends itself beautifully to them.

So I'll see if we have a place for it. The chance is a slim one for a few reasons: until the Canadian publishing industry pulls out of the current crisis, we can only publish a few picture books per year; other editors may have other mss. they feel are excellent and want to fight for; our marketing people may not think the age you're targeting is a good one at the moment; and possible other reasons I can't think of at the moment.

But I'll let you know. Please give me some time, like several weeks.

And then October 16 came, along with this message:

Hi Pearl

Has more than several weeks passed? I've lost track of time.

The good news is that AF, Lobster's publisher, wants to publish your story, Dance Me a Dance, Please. But she's not sure for when exactly, either Spring 2003 or Fall 2003. I'm hoping the lineups will be nailed down by the New Year, which will set everyone's mind at ease. Then contracts go out and away we go.

I would be the lucky editor to work with you (I like the story very much).

I was elated! Only had to send my book to three publishers and it was already accepted for publication, with a release date. I was in my 40th year and I felt I'd accomplished something BIG, something personal, with this milestone birthday. (husband, children, house, degree, family and friends aside)

And so the waiting game began... I work in publishing and understand many aspects of the industry but nothing of contracts, as I don't work in that area. So I contacted the publisher about seven weeks later when I hadn't heard back, after I'd sent on my contact information as requested. Here is part of the letter I received back from a manuscript coordinator:

It is certainly understandable that you would like to have an update on the status of your manuscript and obtain a definite confirmation as to our scheduling decision. Please be assured that we did not forget about you! What I can say for now, as J has mentioned as well, is that your manuscript has been placed on our Fall 2003 lineup. I would like to add, however, that we are obliged to wait before we contact the authors and illustrators because lineups often change for numerous reasons thus affecting contract and productions details too.

This is an ever-changing business, as I am sure you will agree. We are constantly trying to work out the best lineup so that we can align it with the best marketing strategies possible. From prior experience, we believe that the most efficient way to proceed would be to contact you immediately after a definite final decision has been made by our Publisher. I can then send you your contracts, give you additional details as to deadlines, and offer my help in any way possible.

We really do look forward to working with you, and sincerely regret this delay. I will contact you right after a final decision has been made, most likely in a few weeks.

Nothing more until late February 2002, when I was asked to resend an e-file of my picture book manuscript. In the meantime, people were asking me about my contract (I was asking MYSELF about a contract), when the book would be released, who my editor would be...and I truly had no answers. Impatience and frustration were eating away at me.

And then, in July 2002, I received this message:

Hello Pearl,

Our Publisher has asked me to contact you with regards to your manuscript, Dance me a dance. We must unfortunately advise you that we have had to cancel the production of this book due to a decision that was recently made to reduce the number of picture books. The reason being, is because they are so expensive to produce and they are very difficult to sell. We are focusing now on novels, chapters books, and non-fiction.

We understand how disappointing this must be for a writer, but hope you understand our position. This is not a reflection on your story, but a question of finance. Should you have any materials in the above categories, we would be happy to review them.

We wish you all the best of success in your future endeavors and wish to thank you for allowing us to review your work.

Can you imagine how I felt?! I could only liken it to a girl being so excited to be asked by a boy to the prom and then some time before the prom, the boy comes back and says, "I can't take you to the prom, after's not you, it's me...."

Accepted. Rejected. Dejected. Those three words well describe how deflated I felt. But when I wrote a final note to the editor (the rejection came from the company's manuscript coordinator), she had this to say:

First I've heard of this, and I'm very sorry. In my mind's eye I can see your book as clear as day (the illustrations, the flow) and it's a delight. I must write to G to find out what the reasons are. Sounds like Lobster isn't going to do picture books anymore. Wish they'd told me!

Good luck in the future. Keep submitting, again and again and again. And then some more. It's the only way.

It actually turned out that Lobster Press had run into some major (read: BANKRUPTCY) financial woes and came back with a restructure plan...which didn't include my book.

Yes, over the past couple years, I have sent it elsewhere in Canada and the U.S. for publishers to consider. Although many times I get very positive feedback, with a personal note saying that it's not what they're looking for, I also get more form rejection letters.

Writing is usually time-consuming. (even if it only took twenty minutes to write this particular book)Preparing the manuscript to "shop around" to publishers is most time-consuming, too. Waiting for positive or negative responses is VERY TIME-CONSUMING. I can wait five months to get a "No thank you" from a publisher, and at the same time, publishers don't appreciate simultaneous submissions, so honest little me sends the manuscript to one publisher at a time and waits to hear back before I send if off elsewhere.

I've taken a lengthy hiatus from sending out that manuscript, and other picture book manuscripts I've written. Yes, I've learned to live with the rejection, but it's just that nobody seems to want to "DANCE ME A DANCE...PLEASE."

Hey, Madonna/Esther, maybe you're reading Pearlies of Wisdom... Wanna help me out!? My manuscript could now stand to have a big-name celebrity behind it to push it to publishers. Sorry, no real Kabbalah references in my story, but it is lyrical and there is a symmetry to it, dealing with days of the week, thus a cycle in itself. How about it, Madonna?

Hey, Jerry Seinfeld -- are you out there? Jamie Lee Curtis...? Katie Couric...?

To Write...Perchance To Dream

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What does Madonna -- oops, sorry, I mean Esther -- have that I don't have? What about Jerry Seinfeld? Judge Judy? Carl Reiner? Jamie Lee Curtis? Katie Couric?

Okay, besides money, and an executive parking spot or two?

Give up? These celebrities have written children's books that have been published and heavily publicized. This blogger has written children's picture book manuscripts that have not been published or heavily publicized. This blogger is somewhat envious -- not jealous; there is a difference -- of these celebrities solely for that reason.

I will introduce this topic with an article I read and feel strongly about. My next post will deal with a personal children's book manuscript story of my own.

Read this:

Critics, authors chafe as more celebrities join ranks of children's authors

By Karen MacPherson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jamie Lee Curtis wrote her first children's book in 1993, "When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old's Memoir of Her Youth." Her latest, "It's Hard to Be Five," is No. 4 on The New York Times children's picture book best-seller list.

Ed Koch has held many jobs during his storied career: lawyer, television commentator, college professor, restaurant reviewer, congressman and mayor of New York City.

None of that prepared him for his latest title: children's book writer. With the recent release of his picture book, "Eddie: Harold's Little Brother" (Grosset & Dunlap, $16.99), the 79-year-old Koch joins the likes of Lynne Cheney, Julie Andrews, John Lithgow and Jerry Seinfeld in writing tomes for tots.

They're not the only ones. The list of celebrities writing children's books is long and growing ever more diverse, as publishers seek to fill a lucrative new niche in the children's book market. These days, all kinds of celebrities -- from movie stars to politicians to TV anchors to sports stars -- are finding new fame and fortune in children's books.

This season's list of celebrity children's books, for example, includes offerings by actress Jamie Lee Curtis, football-playing siblings Tiki and Ronde Barber, Democratic political whiz James Carville, TV personality Katie Couric and soccer star Mia Hamm.

There's even word that mobster John A. Gotti has written a children's book, "The Children of Shaolin Forest." The New York Times recently reported that lawyers had attempted for Gotti to be released on bail by informing the judge in his case that he "now prefers writing children's books to extortion and racketeering.''

If his book is published, Gotti will join a list that, over the past 20 years, has come to include comedians Bill Cosby and Jay Leno; former President Jimmy Carter; TV anchor Deborah Norville; California first lady Maria Shriver; advice maven Dr. Laura Schlessinger; Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York; director Spike Lee; movie stars Jane Seymour and John Travolta; and even Madonna.

Critical of celebrity books

There's no doubt the celebrity volumes sell well to parents and other adults dazzled by celebrity. But book critics and librarians generally disdain celebrity books as preachy and poorly written.

"Celebrity-written children's books are the worst kind of disconnect between a parent -- who is attached to a book written by a celebrity they like -- and a child, for whom that celebrity is totally meaningless," contends Anita Silvey, a noted children's book expert and author of "The 100 Best Books for Children."

Trev Jones, book review editor for School Library Journal, agrees that "most of these books are pretty bad, although it's hard to pan them all. Some of these people can write, but many can't. And there is seemingly no connection between whether they can write and whether they will get published."

Indeed, there's every sign that the celebrity children's book boom will just keep growing. There are even new, related boomlets -- children's books written by best-selling adult novelists such as Jan Karon and Michael Chabon, as well as picture books whose texts consist of songs written by people such as Judy Collins, Jerry Garcia and even Bob Dylan.

Football player brothers Tiki and Ronde Barber have penned "By My Brother's Side."

There's no mystery about why celebrities write children's books. They get to play to a new audience, earn money and media attention and perhaps revitalize a career. In addition, celebrity children's book authors often "cross-promote." In plugging her new children's book, "It's Hard to Be Five," for example, Curtis also mentioned her soon-to-be-released movie, "Christmas With the Kranks."

Many celebrities also genuinely like the idea of doing something for children. "I really enjoy the idea that a picture book is intended to be read to a child by an adult," says Curtis, a mother of two.

In her typical fashion, Madonna ignited a storm of controversy last year when she explained her reasons for becoming an author.

"I'm starting to read to my son," said the Material Girl, once famed for her sexual escapades and pointy bras. "But I couldn't believe how vapid and vacant and empty all the stories were. There's, like, no lessons. ... There's, like, no books about anything."

For Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park, such a statement just exposes Madonna's "shameful ignorance of the world of children's books."

More importantly, Madonna's remarks "insult not only those of us who dedicate our lives to writing for young people, but also those young readers who have discovered good books and funny books that they love, and then hear [her] on television saying there aren't any," added Park, who won U.S. children's literature's top award in 2002 for her novel "A Single Shard."

Jane Yolen, a prize-winning children's book author, contends that "celebrity children's books eat up all the available oxygen ... I have over 250 books out, have won a great number of awards within the field, have been given four honorary doctorates for my body of work, but have never been on 'Oprah' or spoken to Katie Couric or gotten a $100,000 advance for my work.

"I am not complaining. I do very well by the ordinary parameters of the field. But I have been thinking about getting out my pointy bra and brushing up on my singing and dancing because there's no good pop music out there. And because -- you know -- if it's celebrity they want ...''

What particularly bothers many non-celebrity authors is the notion that "anyone can write a children's book."

"The assumption is ... that it's easy. It isn't," says children's book author/illustrator Katie Davis, whose books include "Who Hops?" and "I Hate to Go to Bed!" "It takes years of hard work. It takes dedication and passion."

Davis adds that she has "very mixed feelings about books by celebrities. On the one hand, if it gets more kids reading, I'm all for it. That said, I have never met a child whose favorite book was written by a celebrity."

Publishers reap revenue

Publishers, meanwhile, defend their decisions to publish celebrity books, saying they pick only the best and that the additional revenue generated by celebrity children's books can allow publishers to do more with non-celebrity books.

"I don't like to publish a book because it's written by a celebrity," says David Gale, editorial director of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. "I do like to publish good books, and if they're written by a celebrity, it's all the better because we can get publicity that we could otherwise not get."

Gale acknowledges that celebrities often get higher advances and bigger marketing campaigns than non-celebrity children's book authors. "But that's charged against the book; it's not stopping something else from getting published or getting publicized," he says.

There's no doubt that celebrity children's books are a good financial bet for publishers. Madonna, for example, has sold more than 1 million copies of her three children's books. A fourth book, to be published next month, is expected to add to her sales.

But publishers insist that celebrity books aren't automatic moneymakers.

"A first-time book by a celebrity gets more attention than a comparable book by a first-time author, and that helps the book sell into stores," Gale says. "However, if it's not a good book, it won't sell to the customers."

To many book critics, librarians and other professionals, however, it's galling to see celebrity children's books make any money. These critics say that the greatest flaw of celebrity books is that they usually construct their stories around a message.

This runs directly counter to the best children's books, in which the "message" -- if there is one -- takes a backseat to the story.

"Because the message in celebrity books weighs more heavily than the story, even the best of them is good only for two or three readings before a child will become bored with the message," says Maria Salvadore, a Washington, D.C.-based children's literature expert.

Historical perspective

While the big wave of children's books written by celebrities has hit the bookshelves over the past five years or so, there's actually a lengthy history of such books.

Child star Shirley Temple published a series of storybooks in the 1930s, and in 1946, teenage Elizabeth Taylor wrote "Nibbles and Me," a memoir of her adventures with a pet squirrel.

Over the years, various celebrities, from Frank Sinatra to Roy Rogers, have published books for children. But these were just a tiny part of the children's book market of the time, and few -- if any -- are still in print.

Julie Andrews launched the modern era of celebrity children's books when she published "Mandy," a children's novel in 1971. Seven years later, Andrews published a second children's novel, "The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles." Both books have won kudos from critics and children and are still in print.

In 1991, Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson published a book about a heroic helicopter named "Budgie." Although the book was widely -- and deservedly -- panned, it also showed there was a market for celebrity children's books.

But most critics credit Curtis with making it fashionable -- and profitable -- to write for children. During a lull in her acting career, Curtis wrote her first children's book, "When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old's Memoir of Her Youth," inspired by a remark by her then-4-year-old daughter.

Featuring cheerful, energetic illustrations by Laura Cornell, the picture book was published in 1993. Curtis so enjoyed her new status as a children's book author that she decided to write a second book, "Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born." Published in 1996, the book, also illustrated by Cornell, has become a classic in the adoption community.

Since then, Curtis and Cornell have published four more picture books, each of which has become a best seller. Their latest effort, "It's Hard to Be Five," is No. 4 on The New York Times children's picture book best-seller list.

Unlike most celebrity books, Curtis' books are praised by many critics, although others contend that her books are mediocre efforts that wouldn't be published if they weren't written by a star.

While these celebrity books are obviously popular with parents, Silvey, the children's book expert, wishes they weren't.

"There's nothing to be gained with reading any of them," says Silvey, a former editor of The Horn Book magazine, the bible of children's literature. Instead, Silvey counsels parents to buy books by the real "celebrities" of children's literature, such as Robert McCloskey ("Make Way for Ducklings") or Maurice Sendak ("Where the Wild Things Are").

Park, the Newbery Medalist, meanwhile, makes a "heartfelt plea" to publishers. "Every single time a child reads a poorly written book, that's time lost forever to the possibility of reading a good book," she says.

"Please, if you are going to publish celebrity books, try to see beyond the sales figures to the individual child reading that book, who depends on you to give them good books."