If you work in publishing in any capacity whatsoever, then you likely have a deep affection for Little, Brown. And not just because they are riding so high these days. Sure, they the publishers of a kind-of-sort-of-somewhat-successful series you may have heard of, but they also have one of the sharpest, most insistently singular lists around. Not just the thrill-a-minute money machines of James Patterson, but also cheerily commercial fare such as Vampirates, literary bestsellers that smart kids love such as The Mysterious Benedict Society, compelling and complex teen fiction about dark stuff in life such as The Hate List and North of Beautiful, and more more more. It’s just a great house with great books, and the people who edit there are pretty fabulous, too.
But this isn’t a love letter to Little, Brown—honest, it’s not. (My love is much too fickle and unpleasant to be captured in a mere blog post.) Instead, it’s a reproduction of a useful handout their editors distribute at conferences and which every writer should tack to his or her wall.The list of eminent attributes below may not all be required of a good book, but I’d wager most are true of the best books. How do these strike all of you? As things that need not be said? As constraints? Or as the distilled wisdom of the soldiers in the trenches of children’s books publishing?
Without further ado:
LIST OF ATTRIBUTES THAT MAKE A GOOD CHILDREN’S BOOK (in our opinion)
- Child or child surrogate (animal) is the hero/heroine.
- Author uses engaging, lively language with distinctive dialogue.
- Author is not condescending or cloying, and is careful about using stereotypes.
- Characters seem real, complex, dimensional, and show growth.
- Author/Artist creates a completely believable and interesting world for the story’s characters to inhabit.
- Possesses an economy of language and a coherent structure
- Includes details that appeal to a child’s sensibilities
- Story has clever twists and/or connections that make the reader say, “A-ha!”
- Isn’t overly predictable (although for some picture books, predictability can work)
- Makes a point without being overly didactic or preachy
- Illustrations (if applicable) expand in some way on the words of the story
- Story/art is compelling and makes reader want to turn the page to see what happens
- Has a clear climax, point of tension that is resolved in a satisfying way
- Author takes reader on a journey; opens up new world and ideas to the reader
- Story moves and/or entertains; makes reader laugh, cry, and/or think. This satisfying feeling should linger with the reader after the book is over.
- On repeated readings the book offers fresh revelations or details that may not have been caught the first time through
- Story gives enjoyment to the child and the inner child.
- Author is not afraid to be daring and takes risks—such as being willing to portray unlikeable characters or fantastical situations, take on controversial subjects, etc.
- Author has a clear, fresh, and interesting point of view on his/her subject.
- Be particularly careful about following any current trends; ideally the story should have some lasting value beyond mere trends.