Sunday, June 14, 2009

Death By a Thousand Alphabet Books

There are editors of adult books in my publishing company. Sometimes they refer manuscripts to us that they think are "for kids". I'm sure they're very good at their jobs, so this is meant in the most respectful way possible: They're morons.

Because this week, "for kids" applies to an illustrated alphabet book of B-list 1970s sitcom actors. Because it's an alphabet book.

I've been the recipient of scores--perhaps hundreds--of utterly unmarketable alphabet book submissions, and I think it's time to address this problem.

There is a particularly pernicious myth in the common psyche that the most basic, fundamental book for children is an alphabet book. That might have been true once upon a time... a hundred years ago. When there were essentially no children's books.

"But children still need to learn the alphabet, don't they?" say the people at conferences who are trying to make me have an embolism. For them, two diagrams:

Of course some --even many-- published alphabet books are not about teaching the alphabet. The alphabet is simply used as a structure for conveying other information. (A structure so overused as to be a publishing cliche.)

And some alphabet books do this well. But most alphabet book submissions are not alphabet books out of clever new ideas, but out of laziness.

Want to be published more than you want to do work? Know a bunch of words that start with the various letters of the alphabet? You're all set! Rant over. Thank you for listening.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Years ago I found Shel Siverstein's ABC book in the children's section. And, as you probably know. It's not a children's book.

Cheryl Pitt said...

ROFLOL The first book I ever wrote, and never submitted thank the heavens above, fit every one of your categories. I need a tissue; I'm laughing so hard I'm crying. I was in high school and thought I was so clever:

"Abbey always acts as if Aunt Ada is an ape."

It just goes downhill from there LOL. Great Post!

Megan I said...

Editorial Anonymous's Alphabet Book

A is for Annoying questions already answered in previous posts or in any half-baked book on publishing.

B is for Boring--not the emotion you want to inspire in editors or agents.

C is for Candid, one of EA's more overt qualities.

D is for Dreams--the kind you have at night and make a poor topic for your novel (unless you are Stephenie Meyer, and even then you should probably not admit that you dream about glittering teenage boys)

E is for Editorial Anonymous, of course.

F is for Famous, which is not generally the fate of people who write children's and young adult books.

G is for Glamorous, another popular misconception about authorial existence.

H is for Harry Potter. Too damn bad someone else already wrote it (and thus proved the exception to the rule about F and G).

I is for Insolvent (since we aren't Meyers or Rowling).

J is for Jargon, something EA helps us wade though.

K is not for Kute. Real authors know how to spell and don't think that tortured phonetics make a good hook.

L is for Literature, what is what a manuscript should be before it is submitted--especially if it is aimed at young readers.

M is for Manuscripts or Misery (things you will likely produce as an aspireing writer . . . but not for Money).

N is for Nutcases, many of whom apparently have far too easy access to a typewriter . . . just ask EA.

O is for Out of Print, which is what will happen to your great book even if you do manage to get it published. Damn.

P is for Persnickety, another of EA's fine characteristics.

Q is for Questions. Yes, you can send EA some as long as they don't fall under A (see above).

R is for Rewrite and Reject and Rewrite and Reject and Rewrite and Reject . . . i.e. the story of our lives.

S is for Submit--either your manuscript or in defeat. You pick.

T is for Trilogy, which is nice if you can pull it off, but it is generally best to aim for one solid tale that stands on its own.

U is for Useless, which is what books two and three of your trilogy will be if you don't do a really stupendous job on the first one.

V is for Verbose--EA doesn't like this tendency in an author or a query letter.

W is for Work, which is what writing is. This fact is not immediately clear to all the people who think they could write a kid's book too.

X is for Xylophone, sometimes tradition is a good thing.

Y is for You the writer (I'm running out of steam).

Z is for Zip drive (where you should store your manuscript so that the one really good chapter you've written in a long time doesn't disappear into the great void after you spill your coffee/wine/diet coke on your computer).

Chris Eldin said...

I should probably take a break from the computer before writing what I'm about to write, but here goes...
Children should not learn the alphabet from any book or print medium. It's passive learning.
Plastic letters which are tactile (and if you dip them in sugar then you utilize a third sense--taste) are much more effective.

I taught my own children the alphabet when they were 18 months and 14 months old, respectively. And I held playgroups where I taught other toddlers to read.

I know little else beyond the food category. But I do know a bit about this. Plus, nobody really gets the Q and X without torturing the reader.

Debbie Diesen said...

Absolutely love these graphs!

Jan Jones said...

Great post - and a truly great comment, Megan!

Janet Reid said...

No no, Y is for YAHOO, which You don't want to be!

wv: winedism (the science of being wined and dined by editors!)

ae said...

I've seen some gorgeous alphabet books particularly by Charlesbridge. And I've bought some (one I remember about various types of airplanes which my son LOVED at about five or six...he already knew the alphabet) and one by an artist I know about different types of houses/living spaces). Now while I don't think these teach the alphabet per se...they really don't..and they are for older kids, they are worth the purchase because of the way they are done. I think the alphabet here is just a way of presentation. People buy gorgeous alphabet books and many ARE aimed at kids. Sometimes older kids. But they are not to teach the alphabet, they are a structure to present other educational ideas.

I agree with learn the alphabet by USING it... not looking at it. Someone should make an alphabet book where they USE it somehow as in participatory...Chris???

Nonetheless, this thread cracked me up; and Megan you are spot on. SPOT ON. Very funny and true.

Caning??? LOL

And the word verification is culate. C is for Culate: To slice and dice. Culate.

BonnieA said...

The best alphabet books, in my opinion, are showcases for illustrators, and should be viewed as little galleries, not as vehicles for teaching children their letters.

Kirstin Cronn-Mills said...

What a great alphabet list, Megan (X made me laugh out loud). I have never tried an ABC book, and will never, thanks to this post. And don't you love Graph Jam?

Stroppy Author said...

I saw a fantastic ABC book in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris - the General Petard Abecedaire from 1944: every letter is something to do with the Nazi occupation general. Reprint it someone, please! (Excuse lack of accents, not familiar with them on this computer!)

RA said...

I think we should have a national moratorium on alphabet books, multicultural Cinderella stories, and books about bodily functions. We could go for a year or two without any new ones, and we'd all be the richer for it.

Yat-Yee said...

But what about alphabet books to teach swahili?

Susan G said...

I have children of alphabet learning age. Alphabet books are boring - that the job of the school!!

I love a good rant though....

Christine Tripp said...

I agree with Bonnie, Alphabet books are just a showcase for the illustration. They are probably useless for teaching (Sesame Street covers all the bases before a child can even read) but.... educators still think they are needed and they buy the ed books. The best paying job I ever had was an Alphabet book with Scholastic, so I won't complain:)
One of the most beautifully illustrated Alpha books (IMO) is by Wallace Edwards "Alphabeasts" put out by KidsCan Press (Canada)

Leanne Franson said...

THE best alphabet book is The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. The best from my childhood is PD Eastman's The Cat in the Hat Beginner Book Dictionary... which is just an expanded sort of alphabet book. We loved it.

My pet peeve of alphabet books is translated ones. In Chinese, airplane is fei ji. Even with the Cat in the Hat, having a huge A and putting a fei ji is just stupidity inprintated.

I am writing because I loved the graphs. Absolutely loved the graphs. But then I am an illustrator. I would. Caning. hah! I would add "the alphabet song" and "signing time dvds" in to the 2009 learning pie. My son IS at that learning age right now...

joelle said...

I just saw this...someone who beat the odds on the alphabet book genre.

Looks fun!

Anonymous said...

That was hilarious. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I love the graphs but what is this "pencil and paper"? Surely it should say "Sesame Street."

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