Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fiction for Girls

Periodically, I am contacted by independent authors asking if I'll review their books.  I only say yes if I'm really think I'd be interested in the book.  I have to be honest.  I am very hesitant to read independently published books.  It has more to do with my opinions than the books themselves.  I have committed to myself to be honest in my reviews--sharing both positive comments and hopefully constructive criticism.  I know that for me it is often hard to hear constructive criticism and so I think about how it would feel if I was an author (who'd gone out on a limb) hearing a reviewer write anything negative about my work.  I know constructive criticism has to be carefully shared though.  Too much comes off as too harsh.  I sincerely understand this and I pray that my words won't sound too harsh.

Last month, Vicki Watson contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in reviewing a fiction book she'd written for girls about Autumn's age (8, almost 9) about horses, Rosie and Scamper.  Autumn loves horses and I'm always interested in finding wholesome book series for her to read.  So, I said I'd review them and requested the author's second book as well because of the story line of the book.

The books arrived and Autumn breezed through them.  She saw the covers and at first wasn't sure, but I asked her to open up the first book.  Within a few moments, she was curled up on the couch reading through both books.  I asked her what she thought after she was done and she affirmed that she enjoyed them and would like to get the third one for her birthday in October since it's supposed to be published in the fall.  I took that as a high compliment from my daughter for the books.

A few weeks later, I sat down with the books to read them.  I started with Rosie and Scamper.  Then, I read book 2 in the Sonrise Stable series, Carrie and Bandit.  Rosie and Scamper is the story of how Scamper came to be Rosie's horse.  The story doesn't stick to that storyline though as it meanders along.  It takes a lot of rabbit trails, including the introduction of Carrie and Rosie getting grounded after accepting Carrie's dare.  The second story, Carrie and Bandit, is primarily about Carrie's adoption into Rosie's family, but again there are many rabbit trails in the book so it would be difficult to say this is the main focus of the story.

I felt puzzled as I read through the books.  There were good, strong, and loving relationships portrayed in the book.  There was nothing objectionable.  They were books that reflected traditional "family values".  The author strove to convey what it really is like to take care of a horse and it felt as if she did that (from a non-horse owner's perspective).  The illustrations added to the story and did not detract.

But, as I read, there were a few things that I noticed.  One was the marking of time.  My husband and I listened to a Mars Hill Audio episode recently in which an author (who also happened to be a college writing professor) explained that one of the marks of good writing is how an author shows the passage of time.  Often it was the titles of her chapters that marked the time.  Sometimes it was months and even years that passed between the ending and beginning of the next chapter.  There are a couple of difficult things about this.  People change in time and the story needs to show that through description.  These are books for 3rd or 4th graders and so my daughter tends to skip a lot of details.  She doesn't realize yet how important they are.  But, they are important.  What she reads will influence what kind of writer she becomes.  We want our children to read good, well written literature so that they will imitate it with good grammar and their own voices.  One of the greatest skills beginning writers learn is how to include details and describe people and events.  Because of this, they also need to read stories that include good, descriptive details.

Then there were also parts of the stories that I wished had been filled in a bit more.  One was when Rosie was grounded from riding her horse.  What was her experience?  How did she feel?  This would have been an important lesson learning time.  If your daughter reads Rosie and Scamper, I would suggest discussing this with her and using it as an opportunity for practicing making inferences.  

I realize that there is a big difference between adult and children's fiction.  The details included expand with amount of writing and pages.  In a way, I think that would make children's fiction more difficult to write.  One would have to be very discerning about what details to include and what not to.

So, where does that leave me feeling about these stories?  I think they have strong premises and the author has some great ideas.  I think a second edition should weed out the details that detract from the story (the many rabbit trails) and focus in on the main story.  The timelines of the stories should be much shorter (less change to have to show).  I think this would make it easier to focus the story.  If something (like Scamper having to grow 2 years before being ridden in competition) needs a long timeline, then either the story needs to be longer or that story line needs to be a lesser story line and stretched over 2 books as a connecting line. Are they a good start?  Yes.  This author does not have the advantage of a major publisher's editor's help.  I remember seeing Abby Johnson's video for Unplanned and then reading Unplanned, which was co-written with an editor's help.  That book made me realize for a moment what a difference an editor can make because Abby's voice on the video and in the book were so different.  

The other thing that I would caution this author about is being careful for the stories not to become "moralist" fiction--where it feels as if she has an agenda to teach kids a lesson.  The lessons are naturally a part of the story.  We don't have to force them into the story line because we want to make sure our children hear them.  The Secret Garden is a good example and The Door in the Wall is another.  Both stories have huge lessons for children in them, but you never feel that the conversations are forced or contrived.  

I would encourage this author to keep writing.  She has experience with horses that she brings to her stories and a love of them that she wants to impart to readers.

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of these two books from Vicki Watson for review.

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