The following excerpts are from an email I sent to an editing client who had requested I read her manuscript for a relatively short children’s chapter book and give her my overall thoughts as an editor. Although the manuscript definitely needed “polishing,” I really enjoyed reading it because it had so many of the aspects that combine to make a wonderful children’s book. I thought I’d share some of my responses (with certain details removed for privacy purposes), to provide writers with an idea of some of the aspects an editor looks for in children’s book manuscripts–and indeed in all story-telling, whatever the audience and format!
I finally got the chance to sit down and thoughtfully read your children’s book manuscript. I really enjoyed it!
True, there are spelling, punctuation, tense, and other grammatical issues (I have attached a list of them from the first couple chapters to give you an idea of the kinds of things that you need to watch out for), but overall, I think your story has great potential for publication.
One thing I really like about it is that the characters sound so real. The descriptions and the dialogue are natural, and their “voices” are the voices of real people; I can actually “hear” them when they speak. Of course, this is at least partly because you are writing from experience with something you truly know and have experienced deeply–your family. Some stories have characters that sound more like TV characters than real people. Whereas, in this story, the characters are so clearly real and believeable.
I also love the way you weave the cultural background and traditions into the story. The use of actual words and names from the two non-English languages are woven into the story very naturally, with just enough explanation placed into the context of the story that people who don’t know any language other than English will still be easily able to understand the words–and children will be delighted to learn a few words in these languages. You might want to place a glossary at the end of the book with phonetic pronunciations of these words (and definitions) so that the children can practice saying the words. I am delighted to see how you have been able to skilfully weave the language and traditions into the context of the story’s events and dialogue, and when necessary, provide simple explanations that sound natural and not stilted.
In this children’s tale, your culture’s oral storytelling tradition and your own storytelling talent really shine. The story is told so beautifully; I can hear the storyteller’s voice–and heart–all through the words. While I know you are also trying to write full-length novels, it seems to me that here, in story-telling, is where your real talent and understanding lies. I think it would be wonderful if you could put together a collection (or anthology) of traditional stories from your people’s traditions. I also recommend you try to weave some story-telling into your novels. In your _____ novel manuscript, when you have the lead characters telling the North American students about their homeland, it would add so much to the novel if the lead characters tell traditional stories, rather than simply “describe” or “tell about” the culture–then their listeners could “see” and actually “feel” the land and its peoples, rather than just being told about it. Children do love “tales” — as is evident in their enjoyment of fairy tales and myths — but adults do too! You do that a little bit in the story of being chased by the lion who turns into a goat, but you could really use your story-telling tradition/knowledge/understanding to great effect to develop the emotion of your
You have also used your story-telling tradition/knowledge/understanding to great effect to develop the emotion of your children’s manuscript and to draw your readers deep into the story. Wonderful!
I also want to say that the illustrations you have created for your children’s book are absolutely wonderful! They are so colorful and evocative, and they really demonstrate your cultural background–as well as your multi-hued creative talents in story-telling, theatre, art, and writing.
In chapter __, you show the differences between the stark continent depicted so often by charity organizations versus the beautiful continent that brings joy to the hearts of those who live there. I think this is a wonderful way to introduce your homeland to children, through the family discussions of the children and parents.
I love the chapter where the children travel to their people’s homeland from their new home in North America. You do a good job of showing their feelings about their father being far away for a long time as he shares his medical skills with the people in a war-torn homeland. I think it would be good to give a bit more detail about what kinds of things he does as a doctor, and why he feels it is so important that it is worth it to be apart from the family for a period of time. Perhaps including some of his feelings about the separation from the family would be good, as well as the children’s feelings.
The descriptions of the vegetation, lake, the food, etc., are well done, and the pictures really add to them. It really does give the reader (and children listening to the story read aloud) a sense of how beautiful the land is, and why the hearts of its people are so deeply attached to it.
I think it is good when you introduce the idea of both indigenous people and settlers and show it is possible for a place to be, as you write, “different races but one nationality.” You are teaching children to be open-hearted to others who are different, and you do it in such a natural way. You “show” it through the dialogue, rather than “telling” it (which would sound more like being preachy about it).
I also like how you weave the spirituality into the story. The references to spiritual matters are given naturally, as part of the story, through dialogue and actions, rather than being given as the author expressing her opinions. Your personal feelings and understanding about spirituality are certainly there, but by expressing it through the characters, the reader absorbs it and understands it–and even believes it! This is so much better than “telling” the reader.
The part of the story where you introduce the characters with their traditional names is absolutely beautiful. In our western society, names don’t often mean much, but you have introduced in an amazing way this beautiful aspect of your traditional society, the value of names. You have also shown the amazing love between this couple, through the use of them calling each other’s names all day. To me, this is possibly the most evocative part of the book, and really draws the reader into your own heart. You say how their names sound like a song…and the way you write this section, it sounds like music, truly.
Throughout the book, there are quite a lot of grammatical errors, as I mentioned previously, so it would be good to have a thorough proofread done by an editor to correct them before you publish the book. At the same time, you should caution your proofreader to not “fix” things so much that it wipes away the natural “voice,” especially in the dialogue parts.
The story of the child saving the frog from the snake was well done! Children will really enjoy reading or hearing it and will relate to it, because the dialogue and action is natural, just what one would expect from children, with their different individual responses to the situation.
I thought the part about the animal gift was very interesting, as it really showed the difference in ways of thinking about the animal–as a beloved friend and pet and almost human, versus seeing it as a food source. What a great way to help children to open their minds to think about these kinds of issues, rather than just accept what someone tells them. Again–natural, not “preachy.”
I like the way you develop the personalities of the different children, such as ____ with her lecturing, ___ with his love for animals, and so on. This makes the story so rich. This is again something to examine, yourself, as you prepare to do more writing, both of children’s stories and of novels. Read this story again and examine it to understand what you have done that makes your characters so rich and deep. Even though the story is much shorter than a novel, you have managed to present really distinct and “real” characters, more so than in many full-length novels people write. Think about what you did in this story, how you developed your characters, and then use that in your future writing.
I know that in this story it was perhaps easier for you because the characters in the story are based on real people you know deeply–but in future, if you write characters that are truly “fictional” to you, try to dig deep into them in your mind and heart before you write. Think of them as real; have conversations with them in your mind; imagine different kinds of scenarios and think of how each character would act and speak; live with them in your mind. Do this over and over until you feel like each character is really “coming alive” to you. Then when you do write, your characters will be more “real” and have more personality and depth in your writing, just as with the characters in this manuscript.
Also, a great thing in this story is how your characters develop and change, even though the story itself isn’t very long. For example,___ stops being so logical and starts talking to the animal and learns to allow herself to be more emotional.
There is so much action in the chapter about the snake. Action is good! Maybe, though, it is a bit confusing, especially for young listeners, as the part about the snake suddenly turns into the part about the gift animal, and then back to the snake at the end. Also, in that chapter, unlike the rest of the book, even with all the action, you have a couple times given in to the temptation to do a little bit of kind of preachy “telling,” even though you do it through dialogue–so it sounds a bit contrived. But mostly it is a really exciting chapter, and really does develop the personalities of some of the characters, which is good.
In the last chapter, you turn to some “telling” after a book of “showing.” But you do it gently and beautifully, and in this case, “telling” is a good way to sum up what you have shown clearly throughout the book. It does not come across as “preachy” at all, because by doing all that “showing” first, the reader already has absorbed those feelings about your homeland, and about humanity, and so it comes across as a lovely summation of the book’s messages, and the reader’s heart is already understanding, and so accepts it.
All in all, I enjoyed reading your manuscript very much indeed, Again, I think this is truly an area of talent you have, to write these kinds of stories, and to use your understanding of traditional story-telling. Thank you! I have learned much from reading your story, and look forward to reading it to my grandchildren.