Friday, March 5, 2010

Et Tu, Ricky Gervais?

Why should I be surprised to find children's books written by Ricky Gervais? It seems every celebrity or quasi-celebrity on the planet is trying their hand at writing children's books. Some are complete flops (Madonna), while some are quite good and successful (Jamie Lee Curtis, John Lithgow). Where does Ricky Gervais fall on the spectrum? I don't know at this point. I guess I will have to find more copies of his "Flanimals" book series to read and review.

For those of you who have been under a rock and are unfamiliar with Ricky Gervias, he is a British actor/comedian; the creator of The Office; star of Ghost Town and The Invention of Lying; and best selling author of "Flanimals." To clarify, that is the UK best sellers list. Most people in the US don't even know he published a children's book - but they will. A new pop-up version is set to be released this month and Illumination Entertainment is working on a 3-D feature film adaptation.

So why am I surprised? Let's just say Gervais isn't known for his children's humor. His offbeat, satirical bent on the human condition is layered with dark, adult humor and social commentary. The Invention of Lying for instance, while occassionally funny was more often a cynically, depressing commentary on religion as a lie created to make people feel a little better about the human condition. This type of humor and commentary may be good for scholarly debates and comparative religion classes, but it does not generally translate well to children's literature. Hence my surprise and slightly jaded ideas of his book, "Flanimals Pop-Up" (suggested for children 5 and up.)

"Flanimals" is a book about grotesque animals. They are ridiculously, pointlessly, ugly - so much so they actually creep back to being considered cute. At least that's the idea here. Gervais created several whimiscally, crazy creatures like the Bletchling, the Grundit or the Splunge - useless creatures who appear to be created just for fun. Now that is something children will be able to connect with and enjoy.

The pop-up illustrations are fun and well-crafted with pull-tabs to encourage interaction and play. Not sure how you feel about your children helping a Hemel Sprot get devoured and swallowed by a Sprot Guzzler, but it seems like fun. And the Flanimal evolution page, which spoofs Michelangelo's Creation of Adam appears to be all in good fun as well. There really isn't as much to offend readers as one might expect from the creator of The Office. However,  I am reserving my rating and/or reccomendation until I have had time to read the "Flanimals" a little more closely. In the meantime let me know what you think.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

John Grisham: Children's Book Author?

It came out last week that best selling author John Grisham wants to write a series of children's books. That's right, John Grisham of adult, legal-thrillers, "The Firm," "The Client," "Pelican Brief," The Street Lawyer," and many others (more than 20) is venturing away from his adult-minded novels occassionaly and writing for preteens 8 - 12 years old.

To say that Grisham wants to write for children is slightly inaccurate. He is writing for children, with the first installment, "Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer," of the planned series due to hit stores in the US in May and June in the UK. So as we can see from the title Grisham hasn't ventured far from his comfort zone and that is not a problem. Afterall, the first rule in writing is, Write What You Know.

The lead character, Theodore, is a 13-year-old boy, whose parents are both lawyers in a samll Southern town. He unintentionaly becomes involved in a murder trial. Whoops. It's already beginning to sound a great deal like many of his novels for adults. Maybe this isn't a bad thing. Afterall, Grisham is an excellent writer with great a handle on vocabulary and plot twists. No doubt Grisham's books will be better written than many in the children's book industry. Although it feels like a "Nancy Drew" mystery, those who have seen the book say it is vinatge Grisham, albeit toned down for children I hope, with thrilling adventure, character development, mystery and fun.

Penguin is set to publish the series, which leads me to think paperback series, but the May 25th release is slotted to be hardcover. Maybe we could end up with something more akin to Blue Balliett's, "Chasing Vermeeer," or "The Calder Game." The publisher thinks it will be an "interesting" competitor in the children's genre. I'm not sure if that endoresment sells me on "Theodore Boone," but it could be a nice diversion from all the magical, vampire, fantasy, paranormal, mumbo-jumbo in the marketplace right now.

I, for one, feel Grisham has earned the benefit of the doubt based on his vast library of successful novels for adults. So I will read "Theodore Boone" and let you know what I think at that time. For those of you who are worried about his novels for adults, don't. His next is scheduled for release in 2011.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

When I Grow Up

The Olympics are over. That, however does not mean inspiration is gone. Spring is approaching and bookstore shelves will soon be loaded with stories about Easter, new birth, graduation, and spring fun. Colors will pop off the shelves and everybody will walk around with smiles on their faces singing, "Oh What A Beautiful Morning." What? Too much? You get the idea, hope springs eternal and all that. The winter doldrums are wafting away and spring is approaching with joyful exuberance.

By Jerry Spinelli
Illustrated by Jimmy Liao
For Ages 3 - 10
"I Can Be Anything!" is a whimsical story, perfect for anyone who wants to get excited by the possibilities and believe there are no limits. You can be anything. Rated 4.5 (whimsy, energetic, vibrant, hopeful) 

Newberry award winning author Jerry Spinelli leaves the young adult and preteen novels behind to write a rousing picture book about dreams and inspiration. "I Can Be Anything!" takes a look at the common theme of growing up, but adds a little twist.

Our young hero is lazing in a spring meadow with his bunny when he begins to ponder all the things he will be when he grows up. Will he be a fireman, a policeman, an astronaught, or scientist? Not this fellow. He's more likely to be a "puddle stomper," a "silly-joke teller," or a "paper airplane folder." The whimsical career options are brought to life with short, rhyming text and an illustrative zest rivaled only by our narrator's excitement.

Liao uses both watercolor and acrylic to illuminate some of life's most fanciful jobs as the little boy, decked out in blue overalls, exchanges his attire for an elephant costume, a jester's bells, or even butterfly wings when the moment is right.

This is a great book for reading aloud during stoytime. A sticker on the front cover suggests, "I Can Be Anything!" is "perect for graduation." I will take it a step further and say its perfect for anyone who wants to get excited by the possibilities and believe there are no limits.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

3 Obstacles to Writing a Children's Book

Watching the Olympics each night, seeing the human interest stories about the athletes; hardships, training schedules, and hard work, has had the effect it was supposed to have. They have inspired me. Although I have been diligently reading and reviewing books, I have not really worked on my own children's books for quite awhile. It's time to pick up my pen and begin writing again. Now I just have to steel myself for the three things that can put a damper on anyone's writing: rejection, time, and money.

1. Rejection.
Theodor Seuss Geisel's first children's book, "And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street," was rejected 27 times before being published by Vanguard Press. When you see 100 Rejections groups forming at SCBWI conferences and on social media outlets, 27 rejections doesn't seem like many. However, it should be noted that Dr. Seuss was already an established and successful writer, regularly contributing to Life and Vanity Fair. He had also been a cartoonist for The Saturday Evening Post and animated US Army training films with director, Frank Capra. Even with his success he had to endure rejection as a children's book writer. Thankfully it didn't stop him. We can all learn a lesson from Dr. Seuss and all the Olympians who didn't give up on their dream. We can succeed. I, for one, am nowhere near 100 rejections. Heck, I havn't even reached 27... yet.

2. Time.
Writing a children's book takes time. Aside from the actual character development, outlining, and writing, there is rewriting (numerous times) and editing. Then more rewriting, second guessing, third guessing and... did I say rewriting?

Then take your manuscript to small group critiques and see what other writers have to constructively offer. At this point you may have to pull upon your ability to handle rejection. Then, of course, edit some more.

Now its time to research publishers and their catalogs until four or five (or more) appear to be a good fit for your story. I have a list of about 20. Write a letter and mail your maniscipt off to one at a time. Most publishers do not accept simultaneous submitions. Then wait. One month, two months, three months... sometimes six months for your first rejection letter. This could go on 100 times or more. Of course you could also get a little lucky and receive an acceptane letter. But don't hold your breath - it could take some time.

By the way, you're supposed to do all this time consuming writing, mailing and organizing during whatever free time you have from the work you do for a living. It is a time consuming dream, but well worth it.

3. Money.
Writing a book doesn't pay anything - publishing one does. First you must write a book though, and it takes time. Benjamin Franklin said, "Time is money," but without time you can't write a book and make money. Of course, you need money to allow yourself some free time to write a book. Then there are the expenses of purchasing the Writer's Guide, paper, ink, envelopes, stamps, conferences, etc.

The real costs arise if you decide to self-publish. You pay for your own printing, advertising, an illustrator, and if you are smart, an editor. You must also purchase an ISBN number or no book store will carry you. Then you have to spend a great deal of time going from book store to book store promoting your book. Head to schools for readings, purchase booth space at book conferences, festivals and events, and convince local bookstores and retailers to carry your book. Don't forget your lesson in rejection. Did I mention this all takes time. And what did Benjamin Franklin say?

Okay one thing at a time. I'll begin by sitting down to work on my stories and write something... anything. Maybe I'll even post an excerpt from one of my books next week and get some feedback. Until then, keep your head up and reach for your dreams.