Thursday, February 25, 2010

What Makes a Good Book (Part 3) by Marilyn Courtot

The following is the third part in a six part series written by CLCD President Marilyn Courtot. Aimed at reviewers and writers, we will be running a new part every month.

Types of Books


Most children are curious about their world. To help satisfy that curiosity parents, teachers and caregivers should provide books that teach and explain concepts and provide factual information. Concept books teach counting, the alphabet, colors, opposites, and the like.

Counting is a concept usually introduced to children very early in their lives. Most parents play games counting fingers and toes. Kids pick up the sounds and pattern and frequently memorize the sequence of numbers, although the actual concept of what the numbers represent comes later. The intended audience for a counting book is children ages three and up. Since these are young children, a really successful counting book should be small enough for kids to handle, and also sturdy and of good quality paper.

Good counting books clearly display the numeral and the appropriate number of objects in a clear and uncluttered illustration. The numeral should be placed in reasonable proximity to the objects, so that the association can be made between it and the number of objects. Therefore, a double page spread may not be as effective as single pages. You may want to stick to a single page format until the child is about six years old. Counting books are also most effective when they use familiar objects, particularly with very young children.

A rhymed text—or at least one that has either rhythm, onomatopoeia, or repetition—will entertain and help kids remember. The text should use language appropriate to the age group. A few good examples are: One Boy by Laura Vaccaro Seeger; 1, 2, Buckle My Shoe by Anna Grossnickle Hines, and Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox.

Marilyn Courtot
Publisher and Editor

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Brief Guide to Population Control by Steve Watkins

Steve Watkins is a professor of English at the University of Mary Washington. His novel Down Sand Mountain was awarded the 2008 Golden Kite Award for Young Adult Fiction by The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Recently, Steve presented writing tips to a captive audience at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI Fall Conference.

A Brief Guide to Population Control:
1. Give your characters resonant names. In Down Sand Mountain I have a naïve, twelve-year-old protagonist named Dewey, a little sister named Tink, a drunk doctor named Rexroat, a clueless police officer named O.O. Odom, a best friend named Boopie, a Vietnam vet named Wratchford. All names have resonance, of course, but some have greater resonant than others.

2. And sometimes you just want a good old-fashioned Everyman or Everywoman character. His name is Charlie. Her name is Annie.

3. Don’t isolate your protagonist. We need to see them engaged with other characters. That’s principally how you’ll move your plot forward, develop your central characters, and explore your themes. If you find your protagonist all alone, sitting and thinking, ruminating, remembering, then you’ve probably found a scene you should rewrite. With other characters in it, too.

4. Don’t introduce too many characters at once. You’re probably already lost trying to remember all the characters I just introduced in that name explosion above in #1. Remember the Rule of Three: That’s the number for the most individual characters you generally want to introduce in any given scene.

5. Don’t give your characters names that are too similar. Cathy and Angie and Allie are all the same girl. Billy and John and Dan are the same boy.

6. Describe your crowds first—think about that establishing shot in films—THEN zoom in on someone in the crowd. Let us get to know that character before you introduce any others. Remember the Rule of Three (see #4 above).

7. The idea of characters being either Flat or Round can be helpful. Some are barely present; others are central to your story. But ALL your characters should matter. When your Flat characters are real—even those making the tiniest cameos—they help breathe life into your Round characters, and add greater spice to your story. To put it another way, if your protagonist interacts with undeveloped characters or stereotypes, you lose tension and authenticity because we already know what our reaction to those characters should be (boos and hisses for the bad guys, tears for the innocent), and we likely know the outcome of the interaction before we even read it.

8. Love your villains. Create characters that your readers want to spend time with—even if it’s to hate them, despise them, condemn them, and see them get their just desserts. The Joker is much more interesting than Batman in “The Dark Knight.” Satan gets all the best lines in “Paradise Lost.”

9. In part this is also because heroes are boring if they’re too good. Reluctant heroes, with flaws, foibles, feet of clay—that’s who we want to spend our time with. Think Jo in “Little Women.” Angelic Beth: not so much.

10. On a related note: consistency is definitely important to your characters, and in your narrator and his or her voice. But too much consistency kills tension and leads to boredom and is bad for sales. What you want is complexity. Remember the bouncer in the club scene in the Judd Apatow film “Knocked Up”? Let your characters surprise you sometimes. Let them surprise other characters. Let them surprise your readers.

11. You have an enormous arsenal of weapons at your disposal—I suppose we should go with the gentler term, narrative techniques—for developing your characters. Here they are, though obviously some only apply to your protagonist, as we don’t generally have access to the thoughts, memories, etc. of most of your other characters:

a. What the character looks like.
b. What the character says.
c. What the character does.
d. What the character thinks and feels.
e. What the character remembers.
f. What the character has done in the past.
g. What the character imagines, wants, needs.
h. What the character acts in relationships with others.
i. What the character DOESN’T say or do or think.
j. What others think or say about another character.

12. But keep in mind that ALL of this is or should be filtered through the observing consciousness—that is, the observations, thoughts, memories, experiences of your protagonist—so frequently can end up telling us as much about the protagonist as it does about the other characters being described. And, fortunately, sometimes your protagonist gets to be wrong.

To learn more about Steve please visit, and look for his new book from Candlewick Press out this spring, Goat Girl.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Janet Morgan Stoeke On Reading Reviews For Inspiration

Janet Morgan Stoeke is the award-winning author of the delightfully entertaining Minerva Louise books, Waiting for May, The Bus Stop and It's Library Day. Recently, she confessed that she likes to read book reviews (of books by other authors). She graciously shares some thoughts about reading well written reviews:

I don’t review books, but I love to read reviews for the pure inspiration they provide. If I am feeling unsure about what I want to do next, I’ll go to my stack of Horn Books and immerse myself in the language of book-praise. It is thrilling to read reviews that pin down just what it means to succeed with a picture book. And I scurry off to try, try again to make something that meets those high standards.

I love the way that reviewers write about books, their careful words about crafting a text and their artful descriptions of what a child will see in it, that’s what gets my juices flowing. It’s like reading college class descriptions; I always want to take those classes. (Well, not calculus, but anything artsy.) And this way, it’s free.

Doesn’t everybody do this? It is the reason I subscribe to The Horn Book. I pour over the reviews for little bits of insight that speak to me about bookmaking. Often this sparks a small flame of excitement that leads to something new in the way of creativity. I use it also as a way to keep abreast of what is being published, and the manner in which newer things are being received. Taking risks can be scary, but reading about 14 others who have taken risks and were found to be brilliant . . . well, it makes one a bit more willing to be daring.

To learn more about Janet and her publications please visit

If you would like to read reviews of Janet’s books; see the awards, honors, prizes and reading list entries for these and other titles, as well as reading measurement program data, lesson plans or teaching guides, please sign up for a free trial of the Children's Literature Comprehensive Database at

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Are You Ready for the Winter Olympics?

The Olympic Games are an international athletic competition that take place every two years, alternating between the Summer and Winter Olympics. This year the 21st Winter Olympic Games will be held in Vancouver, Canada from February 12th to the 28th.

The first Winter Olympics were held in France in 1924. The Olympic Charter defines winter sports as "sports which are practiced on snow or ice." The events have changed a lot since 1924 and now include sports such as Skeleton, Snowboarding, Luge, and Freestyle Skiing. Popular events such as Cross-Country Skiing, Figure Skating, Ice Hockey, and Ski Jumping have been around since the first Games.

Fewer countries participate in the Winter Games than in the Summer Olympics but the Vancouver 2010 Games will have around 100 nations participating in 15 different winter sports. The Olympic flame was lit on October 22, 2009 in Olympia, Greece and will travel approximately 45,000 kilometers over 106 days before making it to the Opening Ceremony on February 12th.

For a list of suggested book titles visit:

For more information on the Winter Olympics visit:

Emily Griffin