Monday, May 23, 2011

How not to write about writing (book review)

Is it churlish to write a negative review of a twelve-year-old book?

I don't want to be mean about a book I didn't like; but I didn't like this one.

The book under review is The Children's Writer's Reference, by Berthe Amoss & Eric Suben, authors of Ten Steps to Publishing Children's Books.  "An At-a-Glance Guide to idea, characters, plots and settings; children's skills and interests; formats and word selections."  The authors are teachers of children's literature, editors, a former director of the Children's Book Council, and writers themselves.  In other words, their credentials for writing this guide are impeccable.

And yet the book is so bare-bones as to be almost useless.  It's made up mostly of lists and white space.

Are you writing a farm story?  Well, you need to know that on farms you might find horses, cows, barns, fields, tractors.  A sports story?  You might include elements like a school playground, pick-up games, trying out for a team, rivalry with teammate, rivalry with another school, a tough coach.  A story set in fairyland?  Include a hollow tree, ferns, bracken, cobwebs, flower beds...

And you probably don't want to know what's included in the list for "the age of rebellion."

Yes, that's most of the book.  How that's supposed to inspire you to write like the lists (included) of excellent picture books and novels, I'm not sure. Particularly because many of those excellent books break the rules.  If William Steig had followed the advice given here, we would never have had a picture book with the line "The secret formula must first permeate the dentine."

The book also contains at least a few inaccuracies, and even some questionable grammar advice.  Every grammar website I can find says that it is correct to say, " A number of books are on the table."  But according to this book, "A group is singular although it is made up of plural individuals," so we're told to write "A number of books is on the table."  According to the rules of "a number of/the number of", it would be correct to say "The number of books on the table is three," but not "A number of books is."  Even if it might be technically justified by some high-falutin' grammar book, it's pretentious.

Why would Homer Price be included in a list of "chapter books," meaning something slightly beyond early readers but still fairly short and simple, but Beverly Cleary's Ramona books be listed in a higher age/difficulty grouping?

I'm also curious as to why crocodiles are in the list of animals that have worked as protagonists in stories (along with donkeys, toads, gophers, and prairie dogs), but alligators are in the list of "animals that are unfamiliar or repellent" (including fleas, weasels, rats, and worms) and so do not make good anthromorphic characters.

All I can say is, I'm glad I found this one at the thrift store and didn't buy it new.


Jeanne said...

The Rats of NIMH made pretty good anthropomorphic characters!

Mama Squirrel said...

Yes--and it's one of the books listed. The booklists are pretty good (there, I've managed to find something positive to say), although there's not much unusual about them--Newbery winners etc.

naganpets said...

Nice.The booklists are pretty good must more interesting stories like animals that have worked as protagonists in stories.

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