Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Strong Right Hook

I've had requests for Speak, Hattie Big Sky, Fancy Nancy, Clementine, Donuthead, and Dairy Queen.

As mentioned, when this book was published Laurie Halse Anderson was not a name and so that was not a hook for this book. It got published because it's convincingly and sensitively written. Editors want to publish anything that's simply well-written, and given half a chance to get it past acquisitions, we will. But the hook that took this book from maybe-too-issue-y-for-mainstream to a grassroots hit that middle school girls passed from hand to hand to hand was the way it dealt with a danger that girls know threatens them, did it realistically, but did it in a way that didn't wring the reader for every bit of pathos in her. I appreciate this myself; I hate books that not only tell the story of someone experiencing something awful but try to make sure you experience it too. Plus the sensitivity with which it dealt with rape made it easier for parents to let their 13 and 14-year-olds get on with reading it.

Hattie Big Sky
Certainly there are some people crazy enough about historical fiction to buy anything because it's historical fiction, but there aren't a lot of them. Historical fiction is a genre, not a hook. This is a case of just plain awesome writing. As I said above, that's all you need to get an editor to want to publish your book. But editors know that awesome writing may or may not get the book the attention we feel it deserves. Which is why we thank our lucky stars when such a book gets an medal to stick on it. Medals are hooks, at least for a while. Of course, all you have to do is look at the Newbery list to see that some of the winners are now mostly forgotten.

Fancy Nancy
I know an author who thinks the reason people are buying this book in scads is because it has glitter on the cover. Christ, if it were that easy, publishers would be putting glitter on everything. (And while it may sometimes seem like in fact we are, no, we're not.) Fancy Nancy is flying off the shelves because just about everyone knows a little girl like this. Have you noticed America having a rather extended and intense princess phase? Yeah. Little girls have always liked to dress up and feel special, but there seems to be a bit more of it going around right now. Ugh. Children like Fancy Nancy too, but I think a significant part of its extreme popularity, like Olivia's, is attributable to the character coinciding with many adults' perception of little girls.

From the first page, you can tell this book has voice and humor. It's funny and it makes a great read-aloud. Clementine's character is charming. And have you searched the shelves for this reading level? There are some great books, but there aren't nearly as many choices as there are when you move up just a little in reading level. We need more fun books for these kids. We could especially use some more for boys. And don't talk to me about Junie B. I can't forgive her for her mother.

Sue Stauffacher doesn't get read enough. Period. She has an utterly winning way of talking about hard situations without a trace of self-pity and a healthy dose of humor. Just like real kids, her characters don't think too hard about what their lives should be—their lives are too big and too close to them for kids to see far around them. They just get on with living the life in front of them... lives that are not simple or easy, but that are worth it. Kids get this. Reviewers and librarians often get this. Parents may or may not. Fortunately, by this age kids are often helping with their own book selection.
And also: what kid isn't going to pick up a book called Donuthead?

Dairy Queen
I miss the cover with the cow and the tiara.
Hook 1: a girl who lives on a dairy farm decides she wants to play football, but there's no girl's team in rural, small-town America. So she goes out for the boy's team. Anyone with a shred of tomboy in them already wants to see this work; wants to see her plow through a line of football players. Hook 2: Again, good writing. 1st person can be really hard; but the main character's voice is compellingly fresh: it doesn't falter as the character cycles through ironic, self-deprecating, funny, angry, reflective, confused. She's easy to connect with, and root for.
It's also nice that the story deals with some serious issues—there's meat there—but doesn't make a bigger deal of them than the main character would, and makes only as much progress as the main character, being who she is, can. But it's enough.

Any other requests? Or do you want to play a different game?


Anonymous said...

EA thank you for these posts. I'm a little confused though. When talking about hooks aren't we talking about the one or two sentence "thing" that will get an agent, editor or reader to read the ms or book? When you talk about a book being wonderful, or written well, or having a great story, you aren't talking about the hook, are you? Because, those are the things you know about the book after you've read it, whereas the hook is the thing that gets you to read it.

I'm wondering what would be the thing in a cover letter for Speak, or Hattie Big Sky,(before they became what they became) or any other title that would prompt you to read the first three chapters?

Isn't that what we're talking about when we talk about hooks -- how to pitch one's work so that the hopefully great writing will get read?

Anonymous said...

I blame Disney for the princess thing. Every single thing you pick up is purple and pink and covered in princesses, from bicycles to diapers.

Anonymous said...

Excellent call on Hattie Big Sky. I've never been a historical fiction fan but she had me from page 2... that book is amazing.

Anonymous said...

Ann, I think you're right about the main denotation of the word "hook," but I was blasted on a previous thread for not distinguishing between hooking agents and editors and hooking readers. I maintain that if you say the word "hook" to a group of writers, they're going to think "pitch" or "query letter," just possibly "blurb." That is a hook the writer must be able to formulate and can control. What hooks the reader is so much more nebulous, e.g., winning a major award will hook many readers, but who can control that? Genre does hook readers, as those who devour romances, historicals (Dear America, etc., was HUGE), fantasy or mystery will attest, especially when the cycle turns and "your" genre is hot, but genre may repel others. Word-of-mouth hooks readers. Reviews, bestseller lists -- but who can control that? Author appearances hook readers, although usually only locally. Non-stop plot and message hook some readers (The LEFT BEHIND kids series sold hugely, but the writing REEKS). To know what will hook readers en masse, a new writer has to know what "the masses" will be caught up in six years from now (assuming two years to write a novel, two years to sell it, and two years for it to come out). An impossible task. It's no accident that a lot of successful writers say they write for themselves, or don't keep a market or an age group in mind but let the publisher handle that stuff. They need to write what they're passionate about, hook the agent or editor, and let the publisher decide how to present the package that will hook the reader.

Anonymous said...

Anon -- thanks for your post. Right, there are a lotta hooks in these here waters. I've got an agent, I've sold my book and now I've got to figure out how to "pitch" it, when people ask, "What's your book about?" I want my answer to be the shiniest, prettiest, wiggliest shimmering worm-like thing the person has ever seen or heard. I want them to reach for it with that mesmerized look in their eyes, and "me want" gurgling from their mouths.

Okay, now you all think I'm demented. Even I do. I had food poisoning the night before last -- that's my excuse.

Don't mean to keep the hook discussion alive if others aren't interested.

Kidlitjunkie said...

When I used to work at a children’s bookstore, I’d sell people on Clementine by persuading them to read the first page. I would pull the book off the shelf, open it to the first page, and hand it to them. They would read it. And then they would buy it. Sometimes they would buy two.

It didn’t hurt when I told them that Clementine was Junie B Jones without the awful grammatical mistakes-on-purpose. Authentic kid voice without the stupids.

Anonymous said...

Kidlitjunkie -- now that's a hook -- junie b without the stupid!


Anonymous said...

I agree with all the comments about Junie B. Jones. It makes me wonder why Barbara Parks continues to write the series with the grammar mistakes and why her editor doesn't suggest a compromise or the concept of growth to better the series. Or does one get free rein when they are popular?

Anonymous said...

EA, ditto Ann's question in first comment. Can you explain?

david elzey said...

You know, I work retail in a children's book store and easily 50% of the time someone comes in and says they're looking for a picture book for a "girly girl, and it has to be pink." One look at Fancy Nancy and they're sold. The other 50% already own it.

But it's sequel, Fancy Nancy and the Posh Puppy, those same girls aren't buying it. The cover is purple, not pink. It may not be about glitter but look at all the princess books and you'll see more pink that you can shake a pig at.

Flip said...

Thanks for the suggestions. We loved Clementine and now we have some more books to look for when we go to the store. :)

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