TOUGH LOVE: An Open Letter to Kids' Book Publishers
by Diantha McBride

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Tough Love: An Open Letter to Kids' Book Publishers
by Diantha McBride

Dear Publishers:
I'm a school librarian. During the past 30 years, I've worked with children and young adults from ages 3 to 18 (not to mention teachers, families, administrators, lecturers, and visiting authors), and I've read a lot of books. Because there are so many kids' books being published these days, I'm not expecting total perfection. Still, there are many things I wish publishers would do differently, things that could make your books much better. Here are my top 10 suggestions.

1. Bulk up those bindings.
Ohmigosh, where to start? First, the good news: I have books in my library that have held up just fine for more than 20 years. On the other hand, I've seen new titles self-destruct the second our cataloger opened them! I know it's unrealistic to expect every volume to circulate 100 times before its binding crashes. But are 10 readings too much to hope for? And, please, don't bring up library bindings. There's not a single library on Earth that has only library bindings in its collection. Bottom line? Nobody should be offered a book that falls apart on the first reading—and what's with those irregularly cut pages?

2. Better editing.
It's time to tighten up those stories. Unless you're publishing Madame Bovary or The Brothers Karamazov, 200 pages is plenty. And, yes, I know all about “Harry Potter” and “Redwall,” two series that successfully exceed that limit. But they're not the norm. And if a hefty book isn't super popular, its length can easily overwhelm many young readers. Plus, long novels often smack of assigned reading—even for middle school and high school students. Still not convinced that less is more? Consider these relatively thin titles: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (167 pages), Charlotte's Web (184 pages), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (155 pages), The Adventures of Captain Underpants (128 pages), Casino Royale (181 pages), Of Mice and Men (118 pages), and A Separate Peace (196 pages). I rest my case.

3. Give that cover a makeover.
I'm sorry if this hurts your feelings, but far too many book jackets (I won't name names) are just plain ugly. That's the only word for it. I'd suggest that you recruit some real live fourth graders to review your mock-up covers before you make any final art decisions. Even adults judge a book by its cover. So you can't expect kids to pick up one that looks dull, dull, dull. What kind of covers appeal to students? The kids that I talked to like jackets with animals (puppies are popular). But covers with enigmatic images (you know, the ones that no one can figure out what they're a picture of) or dreamy, mysterious images (read: snoozer) are a tough sell. If kids are turned off by a cover, they're bound to reject the title no matter how great my book talk is. And while we're talking about covers…. Please, no more stupid titles like Fair Has Nothing to Do With It (Farrar, 2007), How Could You Do It, Diane? (Clarion, 1989), and Does My Head Look Big in This? (Orchard, 2007). Really now.

4. Where's the art information?
Every year I buy 400 to 600 picture books for our library. Here's what I'd like to see in each one of them: information that describes the medium used by the illustrator. I recently took a truckful of books that were waiting to be shelved and went through about 100 of them at random. Guess what? Only 20 included that type of information. And when I looked at a stack of Caldecott winners (which I use with our second graders), it was even worse: only one in 20 included art information. Since I'm always teaching students about how illustrators work, it would be nice to be able to open any picture book—whether we're studying frogs, dinosaurs, dragons, or holidays—and find out what the artists used to create their images. Oh, and one more thing. Please, no more picture books with characters named Arthur—and no more mice.

5. More boy books.
I'm afraid this won't be popular, but I need more books for boys—as do most librarians who work with young people. I've noticed that lots of books with female characters aren't really about being female. In fact, in many cases, the main characters could just as easily have been males—and that would make my job a lot easier. Our young guys love Anthony Horowitz's “Alex Rider” series (Philomel), Dav Pilkey's stuff, and Jonathan London and Frank Remkiewicz's “Froggy” books (Viking). But a novel like Ann Halam's Siberia (Random House, 2005) could have included a male protagonist. (Sorry, Ann, but it's true.) And Gloria Whelan's The Impossible Journey (HarperCollins, 2003) could have featured an older brother and a younger sister—instead of 13-year-old Marya and her younger brother, Georgi. Am I being silly? Probably, but some of our boys have never read a complete book in their lives. It's important to offer them good, appealing stories, and, sad to say, that means stories with prominent male characters.

6. Thanks, but no tanks.
I'm almost sorry to make this next suggestion (but not quite!): put a moratorium on children's and young adult novels about World War II, please! My library already has 162 war novels. No other period of history comes close, not even the Middle Ages, another hugely popular period (with novelists anyway). We own dozens of books on the Holocaust and death camps, Japanese internment, battles and bombs, hiding and starving. Enough, I say… at least for awhile. Do I hear some publishers whispering that since I buy our library's books, I should simply select something else? I would, if there was anything else to buy. And are you suggesting that authors like to write about WWII? Well, calling all authors: pick a new historical period for a change. There's plenty of relatively unexplored territory. Our library, for example, has only one novel about the Byzantine Empire (it's Tracy Barrett's Anna of Byzantium [Delacorte, 1999], and I love it). And Caroline Lawrence's series of Roman mysteries (Roaring Brook) is incredibly popular with our kids. (OK, she did visit our school, but that's not the only reason her books are such a hit.) Let's have more novels about ancient Greece or India or China or Thailand, more stories about medieval times in areas other than Europe.

7. Indexes are essential.
If you're publishing a nonfiction book for young readers, be sure to include an index. Even in books for younger children, they're a huge help. Children's Press's “New True” books (for students in grades one to three) each include an index, a table of contents, a glossary, and a well-designed title page—no wonder they're so marvelous for teaching lots of things besides just the subject. When my third graders were doing their reports on other countries, a girl asked me if there was any information about artists in Mexico, the People (Crabtree, 2002). So I immediately turned to its index. No, it did not, but the index was there, so I could sneak in a handy little lesson.

8. Cite, cite, cite.
One more thing I'd love to see you add: citations. Lots of Web sites have them, and my students are getting used to seeing them. Did you say kids need to learn to write citations without that crutch? Well, maybe. But we encourage our kids to use EasyBib and Citation Machine to learn how to write proper citations, and I'd hate to think books aren't setting a good example.

9. Stop changing the title in different countries.
I don't care, I just don't care, what reason you say makes you do this: stop it. No Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's—oops, the Philosopher's Stone. No Golden Compass. Nope, please stick with Northern Lights, the book's original title when it was published in the United Kingdom. And what about Flame by Hilari Bell? It's now called Fall of a Kingdom, but that change came after I'd bought the first book in the series (and, by the way, Flame was a darned good title). Maybe you think everyone stays exclusively in their own country. Nope. Many of us move around. I work in a school in Spain where there's a 30 percent annual turnover among my students and 50 nationalities. I buy books from three countries and in several languages. Leave those names alone, folks! And while we're on that subject…

10. Out of order.
I just finished reading Elizabeth Wein's wonderful novel The Lion Hunter (Viking, 2007), Book 1 of the “Mark of Solomon” series. I enjoyed it immensely, but somehow I had a hunch it wasn't the first book in the series—it felt like a sequel. When I searched online, I discovered there was a book that came before it! It's The Sunbird (Viking, 2004), Book 3 of the Arthurian-Aksumite cycle. In fact, I've discovered there are five books in Wein's saga, but there's no simple way to figure out the order in which the books should be read. Thank goodness for the Kent District Library's “What's Next? Books in Series,” an online tool that lists the chronological order in which series should be read. Otherwise, we might never find which comes first.

A lot of this confusion could be avoided, of course, if you put numbers on the spines of series books. Big numbers, so librarians can tell which book we have and which ones we need to order. Brian Jacques's “Redwall” titles, for instance, don't have any numbers. Believe me, kids want to know. Or at the very least, add a list of each volume near the front with all of the series' titles in chronological order. Trust me, this matters.

Thanks for listening. I really do love publishers. After all, where would I be without you guys?

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Diantha McBride (click here to e-mail) is lower school librarian at the American School of Madrid in Spain.

Posted with permission from the author, Diantha McBride, July 2009

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