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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Title Wave

The Diagram Prize is a literary award handed out in Great Britain each year for the most bizarro book title. A few days ago, this year’s winner was announced: Crocheting Adventures With Hyperbolic Planes. The runner-up is What Kind of Bean Is This Chihuahua? (Bean is actually the name of the canine hero.) A stipulation for the award is that the titles be genuine and pertinent to the actual content of the book.

Ask any author or editor; they will tell you that the title is the hardest part of the book to create. Novels are easy. But a tiny little title? Think what those few words have to accomplish:

Sum up the theme, plot, and tone of the book
Be original
Be memorable
Make a reader pick up the book
Roll smoothly off the tongue (so readers and reviewers can easily recommend the book to their listeners)
And (a book designer will add) be short enough to fit on the book cover
And (young boys will add) not be embarrassing to be seen with

Titles have to accomplish so much in such a short space and time. It’s a daunting feat. No wonder authors quail and editors weep.

Most readers have their favorite titles. A few of mine are Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as well as his Everything Is Illuminated. Either he’s a genius at coming up with titles or his editor is. And I love the bewitching, bookish, and mouth-watering titles for the Flavia de Luce mysteries: The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie and the new The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (inspired by an 18th-Century English poem).

Titles are in the air at the moment here in the Stone Arch offices because we are working on two future seasons, Spring and Fall 2011. We need titles to accompany those terrific manuscripts that will inspire our cover illustrators. Many authors supply their own. And many of them are perfect. But there are always those titles that need a little help, or might sound too similar to another title and therefore need to be re-imagined.

Someone, somewhere is going to title a new children’s series with just the numbers. Can’t you see it? They’ll give the series a name, like, ZOMBIE PIE MAKERS and then call the first book, Number 1 and so on. And then we’ll all wish we’d thought of that.

Monday, March 29, 2010

It's Not DO Boys Read? It's WHAT Do Boys Read!

The New York Times published a disturbing article this past Sunday on boys and reading. Boys, it states, are trapped in a downward spiral when it comes to literacy: boys’ grade point averages are less than girls; their verbal skills are lagging; they are twice as likely to repeat a grade than a girl; and in federal writing tests, boys scored HALF of what girls score. It’s not just in the U.S., either. The problem affects most industrial nations.

There’s no single explanation for this disparity. However, with nations’ economies more dependent on workers who can multi-task and communicate over a broad spectrum of platforms, it may be that poor reading and writing skills now stand out more clearly than ever. “The world has gotten more verbal.” Reading is not simply a nice way to spend a leisurely hour anymore. It has become a necessity. It’s the gateway to higher learning, better jobs, and higher wages.

The article also suggests that a way to pique a boy’s interest in reading is to ensure that books have boy-friendly subject matter: ghosts, explosions, gross stuff, and wresters. Why not add monsters, aliens, soldiers, videogames, extreme sports, and scary stuff? That is exactly what we do at Stone Arch Books. It has always been our mission to reach those reluctant and struggling readers, especially boys, by starting right where they are. No boy is going to pick up War and Peace, but he will read about the clash of armies, artillery, bombs, and blood. And isn’t that what the classic tales were all about? Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Iliad, the chronicles of King Arthur. We need more books to pull a boy into that magical archway leading toward Literature; but we can’t always do it with Dickens, Hemingway, and Chabon. But we might do it with Captain Underpants, a wimpy kid, or Batman. And once those boys are through the archway, there’s no turning back.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Much Ado About Graphic Novels

Ever since 5th grade I have been nuts about William Shakespeare. My teacher, Mrs. Paulson, brought in a readers’ theater version of Macbeth. The story had everything a 10-year old boy could ask for – ghosts, curses, flying daggers, walking trees, swordplay and blood! Our class was transfixed when Mrs. Paulson read Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking speech: “Out damned spot! Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him?” The language was a revelation. This Shakespeare guy knew every word in the dictionary, and used them all.

Last week, I had the chance to speak at a conference on literacy held in Stratford-Upon-Avon. It was a dream come true. I spoke to a group of librarians and head teachers (they’d be called principals in the US), about the benefits of graphic novels for younger readers. In Shakespeare’s hometown! I also had the chance to work with some great people, including Joanne Thornhill and Gemma Mason from the Heinemann Raintree office in Oxford just down the road.

It was a busy couple of days. I spoke with dozens of teachers who face the same challenges in the UK that confront educators here in the US – falling test scores, rising illiteracy, a growing apathy toward the written word. Two powerful weapons in their arsenal, however, are high-interest books and graphic novels. That was cheering news to me, since it’s part of the Stone Arch mission to create more such books.

I could not leave Stratford without paying my respects to the man whose work has meant so much to me as a reader and an author. A short walk led from the hotel to Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare, his wife, and his children are buried just beneath the altar. I feel sheepish saying it was an “altering” experience, but I think Shakespeare would have appreciated the pun.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Poetry Friday!--book spine style

Have you all seen the book spine poems at 100 Scope Notes? They're amazing!

I spotted an SAB title in these wonderful examples at Ms. B's Book Blog.

I've been thinking about titles a lot lately, because we're working on creating the perfect titles for our Spring 2011 books right now.

So I decided to use my BA in poetry and do a few of my own book spine poems, using Stone Arch and Picture Window books, of course.

(Sorry about the not-fabulous image quality!)


the girl who breathed fire--
burning secrets
under the red sun

Don't go in the cellar
on the ghost trail!
Eric won't do it.


Horror of the heights--
how do you get there?
Leap of faith.
Diving off the edge.
Just try it--
slamming success!

Argh, it's an alien!
Yikes, it's a yeti!
Hit it!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Sports Stars

Monday was the last day to submit entries to our Create Your Own Sports Star Contest. Now comes the hardest part . . . choosing the winners! We had over 840 entries and 57 sports submitted. I had no idea that there were that many sports! Wrestling, fencing, rugby - you name it! It was also amazing to see the commonalities among the entries. Kids must have a fascination with sushi - it was in several entries as something the characters loved or hated. And the messy ponytail was a popular description for the girls. The boy stars were often described as fast, muscular, and fearless. No zits was definitely an important trait! It was interesting to get a feel for the kids lives through their writing. Family struggles, being the underdog, mean girls, fierce competition, the quest to be the best . . . these were cited over and over again. I loved reading all of the entries and must admit that I am a bit sad to find my contest inbox empty when I come into the office. Thanks for encouraging your students to participate. On March 20th, we will announce the top five finalists and give you an opportunity to vote for your favorite. You won't be disappointed!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Happy National Grammar Day!

It's National Grammar Day--which is like Christmas to those of us who think about words for a living. Okay, not really. But all of us in the editorial department get a special little thrill out of all things grammar- and punctuation-related.

I asked a few of my colleagues to share what they love about grammar or punctuation...

Michael: I probably have 10 grammar guides at home; I used to read the dictionary for fun in 4th and 5th grade (loving the punctuation guide and discovering something called the subjunctive!! "If he were going home this afternoon, . . ."); and I had an uncle who said he had a semi-colon because of his appendectomy.

Julie: I love the exclamation point! The rules say to limit their usage, but it is hard for me to do so. In my perfect world, everything would be said with excitement and enthusiasm.

Christianne: I love the period. It’s so final and so basic. However, I can make a pretty good case for the comma. It offers a nice pause, but nothing overly dramatic. It’s an understated mark that people often overuse and underuse. But when used correctly, it gives the nicest little break in any sentence.

Ali: Probably commas in compound sentences. Which is super nerdy. Or hyphens between compound adjectives. On another note, things that are incorrectly hyphenated are my biggest pet peeve.

And mine? Well, I harbor a not-so-secret love for the look of a diagrammed sentence (I never learned to diagram sentences in school, so my adoration of them wasn't spoiled); I was a two-time winner of the Onamia Elementary spelling bee (the trophy pictured here is my participant trophy from the regional bee, during which I didn't make it to the second round); I married a guy who used to copyedit for a living; and my favorite punctuation mark is, of course, the semicolon.

What about you?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

More Katie Woo!

Yes, I know, there has been a lot of talk about Katie Woo on the blog as of late, but how can we not? She's just SO cute! When Fran Manushkin (the author) sent me these photos, I had to share them with you. She visited Herbert Hoover school in Pennsylvania yesterday, and they welcomed her with the fabulous cake below-isn't it great? It was made by one of the parents, and it perfectly sums up Katie- from the lettering, to the colors, to the flowers.

The second photo is of a drawing a student made with her own version of Katie Woo. I love that it says "books are one of my favorite things", because I feel the very same way!