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This is a guest post by Margaret Wellwood, a children’s book writer, editor, and grandmother. Margaret shares here some precious lessons she learned listening to feedback from her readers.

Compliments and Criticism: Lessons Learned and Applied from My First Book

When I was in grade six, our teacher read us a true story about the stalwart son of an Indian chief, a boy who took praise and blame with equal indifference. I don’t know any writers who are quite so unflappable! So, I will offer you some of the kind comments on my first book, Scissortown, as well as kindly worded, constructive criticism. My goal is to share how I’ve applied the lessons learned to my subsequent books in the hopes that they will also help you in your author journey.

Scissortown | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

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First, the storyline

YAY!

  • The story was very engaging. The Slicers and Dicers reminded me of Dr. Seuss, and that you used a pet as the ultimate hero was fabulous. Even as an adult I wanted to know what would happen.
  • A delightful story with many layers of meaning.
  • The book is a sweet surprise! The storyline may raise questions, but will also encourage conversation with your kids.
  • I loved it every step of the way! It is intriguing, unique and beautiful!
  • I’ve read it several times. I see more details that I like the more times I read it. I thought it was very cool how the children are distracting them with stories about nail clippers, bread knives and can openers, and the onion floating in the spaghetti sauce is so funny. It’s so different from today’s stories.
  • I have read my children many stories, but I have not read them one like this. So unique! Such depth!
  • You can have a lot of fun reading this book over and over to young ones.
  • I could easily picture adults in the late 1960’s commenting on how ‘far out’ the story is—and that is ‘far out’ in the very good sense—that capacity of boundless joyful imagination. This story had that for me and I give it a strong recommendation.

BUT…

  • Reading your story, I was left with a raft of unresolved questions which made me doubt the quality of the story as appropriate either for children or the adults who might be reading it to them… I can only suggest that once you have created your stories, you take some time to read them with a more intellectually critical eye.
  • There were a few points when my son interrupted to ask why different things were happening in the book (like why the Slicers and Dicers destroying things and why no one was doing anything to stop them, or why kids’ hair was growing so fast), and I didn’t have a better answer than “because.”
  • Although an innocuous story, the book paints the large hippopotamuses as the destroyers of the town and they are tricked into leaving instead of given ways to stay and stop cutting up everything. This may promote those who are fat or heavy are destructive and not to talk it out to resolve a problem.

Lessons learned

Is this a real thing?

Some people had problems with the unrealistic Scissortown storyline. And yet—no one asks why Mama Bear cooks porridge rather than venison for breakfast, or why she cooks at all, or why the Three Bears live in a house rather than a cave. I think that somehow Scissortown may be a sort of cross-genre story—both reality and fantasy—that throws some people off. My other stories have not had this problem.

For example, no one has expressed a problem with the storyline in Little Bunny’s Own Storybook—Little Bunny’s call to initiative and creativity is unhindered by the lack of reading rabbits in the real world. And my second book, Marie and Mr. Bee, has had a much smoother ride. It features a young girl who lives in a cabin in the woods, where she works and plays with the talking animals.

So, the takeaway here is to make the “Once upon a time” nature of your story apparent right from the beginning. 

Make the “Once upon a time” nature of your story apparent right from the beginning.

Weighty matters

A few reviewers expressed concern about “fat-shaming” re Scissortown’s hippo-like Slicers and Dicers, a thought that had crossed my mind when writing the story. Interestingly enough, there have not been any such problems in the other books. Marie’s irritating little nemesis becomes a good friend, and the only “villains” in Little Bunny’s world—a gentle looking wolf, some very cute pirates, and, of course, the librarian who closes his favorite place for inventory—have all been well received.

So, the takeaway here is that it’s best to watch out for such pitfalls early on. 

How about the message?

Please note: The inside back cover (last page of the “Scissortown” e-book) offers children encouragement to show kindness and take the initiative. The faith-based version features two Bible children as examples. Some of the following comments apply to both versions, others to the faith-based only.

YAY!

  • I really enjoyed this story and loved that it had this important message for children.
  • It teaches children the importance of being responsible and using their thinking skills to solve problems.
  • A story with a message—always important for today’s “techno” young people.
  • I loved the faith-based part at the back. It felt reassuring and loving to read what you have written.
  • An unexpected ending that challenged me to rethink the “shushing” of children.
  • I appreciated the many opportunities the book gave to lead into meaningful discussion, as well as the flexibility to pull various life lessons from it.
  • The message that children are important, have a voice and are contributing individuals is affirming. The ending is a beautiful reminder of the Kingdom value that Jesus places on children. Indeed—they are precious in His sight!

BUT…

  • When I read my children a story, I want them to take away more than there is to offer here. . . . The faith-based application falls short in actually offering anything that children can use to apply to daily life. The two verses offered at the end of the book do portray real biblical stories where children helped adults, but that’s the entirety of faith-based application.
  • Children are quite intelligent enough to be able to draw their own conclusions, in the same way that a congregation can draw their own conclusions from a clear exposition of Scripture often without any “application” needing to be spelled out.

Lessons learned

It’s a set-up

A few reviewers found the faith-based application at the back of Scissortown inadequate, while others found the presence of an overt application surprising. Marie and Mr. Bee, on the other hand, features a Note to Parents on the inside front cover that “sets up” the reader to look for a faith-based or secular (but moral) application as s/he shares the story with the child. The last page has Marie reading to Mr. Bee from the Book of John and the Book of Proverbs, or from her and Mr. Bee’s very own storybook. This scene, with the elderly Mr. Bee sitting on Marie’s lap, a tiny and a regular teacup on the side table, and Marie’s “Tiny Sweaters Pattern Book” in the knitting basket, seems to provide a very satisfying ending.

Themes that work

Scissortown | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's bookIt is interesting that the Note to Parents, outside back cover, and last scene in the story appear to be entirely adequate for the Proverbs Version of Marie and Mr. Bee. I think that’s not only because the reader has been “set up” to look for the lessons, but also because the themes of diligence in work, reaping the consequences of our actions, forgiveness, and compassion resonate with Christian readers. So does the overall theme of Scissortown—that children have important contributions to make. However, in a culture where parents and teachers are dealing with bullying and brutality, Marie’s themes of forgiveness and compassion may shine most brightly.

The themes of both books also work very well for those who prefer secular literature. Indeed, the element of choice—religious or secular—has been a strong selling point for both Scissortown and Marie. Many customers who buy these books as gifts like the option of giving different versions to different families.

Little Bunny’s love of books, his ability to solve problems with initiative and creativity, his parents’ role in supporting his efforts, and the invitation to children to write their own stories, are woven into the plot. This approach has worked very well, but is only possible where there’s only one version.

Does it appeal to kids?

  • This sweet tale will enchant any child, not least through its amusing exploration of the possible consequences of a life without scissors.
  • The kids thought it was so funny! They loved it!
  • I LOVE this book! (comment by a seven-year-old)
  • My grandson was thoroughly enraptured and wanted me to read it over and over again.
  • What a delightful children’s story – appealing to a child’s imagination and demonstrating the wonderful gift of the author’s imagination.
  • Kids everywhere will appreciate a book about “sharp things.”
  • My six-year-old son gave this book 5 stars, so I’ll honor that review. He said his favorite part was the grown-ups making a big mistake hiding all the sharp things.
  • My kids have read it over and over!

Lessons learned

From the audience

All three books have kid appeal. I attribute this in part to what I’ve learned from sharing a variety of stories with my grandchildren, and during story circles at various venues.

From other authors

Reviewing my top picks is also helpful, as I reflect on what makes these stories work so well.

From feedback

I must also credit my small but merciless army of beta readers—family members and friends who give honest and helpful feedback.

From the pros 

Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul and You Can Write Children’s Books by Tracey E. Dils have been rich sources of instruction. You may also wish to check out Sowing Seeds: Writing for the Christian Children’s Market, a good basic guide for the beginning writer by Kathleen M. Muldoon.

How’s the artwork?

  • Illustrations are beautiful and an integral part of the whole.
  • The cover page is really nice. It grabs one’s attention from the beginning, and the illustrations are good for the kids to follow.
  • Your artist is excellent.
  • It tells a wonderful story through beautiful images, even the dastardly Slicers and Dicers!
  • Scissortownis a fun, beautifully illustrated story.
  • You and the illustrator have done a fantastic job!
  • The illustrations are captivating!

Lesson learned

The illustrations of both Coralie and Nataly have been well received, reaffirming the importance of choosing the right artist. In my experience, “the right artist” is one who is willing to follow the writer’s suggestions, but will also speak up when something doesn’t seem right, and will generously contribute his or her own ideas and vision. In World Building for a Little Girl, I detail some of Coralie’s contributions to the world Marie shares with her forest friends.

In conclusion, let’s learn from the masters; pay attention to our editors, beta readers, reviewers, and audience—and enjoy the journey!

Author Bio

Margaret Welwood | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's bookPropelled by the welcome question, “Grandma, can you tell me a story?” Margaret Welwood has enjoyed the journey from adult non-fiction writer and editor to children’s picture book writer and editor. In Life A (which she revisits from time to time), she edited a business magazine, a Writer’s Digest award-winning non-fiction book, and a five-star Bible study book. Now in Life B, she babysits charming grandchildren (her target audience), and writes and edits picture books for children and short non-fiction pieces for adults.

Please visit Grandma’s Bookshelf to learn about Margaret’s picture books for children and her editing services. Margaret’s books are available on Amazon. She invites you to connect with her on her website, Grandma’s Bookshelf, and on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, and google+.

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