A few weeks ago, the Children's Writers of the Hudson Valley (cwhv.org) held a First Impressions: A First Page and Query Event. We were delighted to have Susan Kochan, Associate Editorial Director of Putnam Children’s Book and Jennie Dunham of Dunham Literary, Inc. give their first impression of the submitted first pages and query letters.
The following advice pertains to picture book manuscripts (the examples are my own). From my five pages of notes, I have listed my highlights below.
1. The MC should be the first character introduced. Limit the characters on the first page to one or two.
2. The first few lines should answer some basic, but essential questions. Who is the MC? What does the MC want or lack? Where is the story’s setting? When is the story taking place?
In Christina Katerina and the Time She Quit the Family by Patricia Lee Gauch, illustrated by Elisa Primavera the opening line answers the four Ws. MC: Christina Katerina, MC’s Want: to quit her family, Where: family’s home, When: quarter past nine on a Saturday.
3. Does your story have enough set up? Are the MC’s wants clear?
4. Choose your kid-friendly details carefully. Unless it’s important to the story, we don’t need to know the MC has a barrel chest, lives in a tree house and eats worms. Leave room for the illustrator.
5. Narrator’s voice is also important. Make sure it has voice or personality.
6. Packing too much information into the first page can make scenes confusing and the first page boring. Avoid info dumps.
7. Is the story something a kid can relate to? Is it age appropriate? Is it new? Different? Does it entertain?
8. Is there some tension on the first page? In my earlier example, Christina Katerina’s opening line is full of tension. She wants to quit her family! Wow!
9. Does your story sound like a list rather than a narrative? Even alphabet books have a story. In Hi, Koo! A Year of Seasons by Jon J. Muth, children learn about the four seasons, but in every verse there is a letter of the alphabet, starting with A and ending with Z.
10. If the story is written in verse, why? Is the rhyme forced to advance the story? Did the story get left behind?