This is one of the most amazing critiques I've ever seen for MG fiction. Thank you so much to Jill for submitting and Angela Eschler for critiquing!
by Jill Campbell
My name is Ripcord Fire Dragon, but you can call me Rip. Maybe I have another name, maybe I don’t. I look average. But don’t be fooled because I am anything but. In fact, I am most likely a superhero. Only I don’t wear tights, usually. But don’t go blabbing about this because then all the girls will try to kiss me and want my autograph and then how could I save the world?
Your friendly, neighborhood superhero, that’s me. Only I probably don’t live in your neighborhood, but I bet you wish I did. Because if I lived in your neighborhood, you wouldn’t have to worry about aliens. But who knows? Maybe I didn’t just scare them from my city, but from the whole planet. You can only hope my friend. You can only hope.
It all started on an ordinary day when I found something not so ordinary on our front door. It was a big circle of fruit and the moment I saw it, I knew it was trouble.
Fact: My mind is superior to average minds. This means I’m smarter than everyone else. Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m just giving you the simple facts. Fact: Everybody knows that you don’t eat fruit sticking on a door, especially if the fruit isn’t real. How did I know the fruit wasn’t real? Duh, I took a bite.
I pulled that thing off the door and threw it like a Frisby. By the way, I am a good thrower of Frisbies and other objects. It is one of my natural super-abilities. It sailed into Mr. Herriman’s yard. I didn’t care because I am pretty sure he is a werewolf.
“Mom, you don’t need to worry, I have saved the day!” I yelled as I ran into the house. “Aliens put an ugly circle of fruit on our door, but I threw it into Mr. Herriman’s yard.”
Unfortunately aliens had already taken over my mother’s body. Her face
Regarding this fun little story, I decided to consult a couple of editors that specialize in children’s fiction—just to make sure that I was guiding you on the right track (one male editor and one female editor for breadth of perspective/taste). Also, the strengths and the issues to consider in your story are part and parcel of the same package, so I’m just going to address everything all together, rather than break the review down into parts.
So let’s dive in:
The first editor I consulted with agreed that we wouldn’t classify it as early reader. Lack of contractions and the story idea alone won’t qualify it as early reader. There is a lot of contextual reading and tone that would pull this out of that age range. That being said, the voice is strong—very fun and creative. It might be a little too strong and complex for younger middle grade kids though (which seems to be your audience, based on the story content), but more on that later.
Why your book is more middle grade than early reader: So, the Fry readability measure (essentially similar to Lexile, if you’re familiar with that one) is an academic/research-based measuring tool to figure out the approximate reading/grade level of a piece of text. According to Fry, and assuming your story maintains the complexity level of your opening, your story is written on a 4th grade level, which means the audience is presumably that age or a year or two younger (and maybe even a little older, based on whether the kids read higher or lower than their grade level). If you’re interested, this was determined by the number of syllables (129) and sentences per hundred words (9.5). So I think it’s above the early reader level and is definitely more middle grade. It could be a series for slightly older elementary school kids.
Another factor, as mentioned above, that takes it out of the early reader range is the complexity of the tone. This might possibly be problematic if not tweaked or moderated a bit. I think what the tone creates is what’s sometimes called an “unreliable narrator.” It adds a level of complexity to the story that pushes an understanding of what’s going on out of a younger reader’s grasp. An unreliable narrator means that the narrator doesn’t seem sure of who he is or the state of things, or as if he’s trying to convince the reader of something he’s not sure or truthful about. That’s a very interesting character type, but it’s pretty different for younger readers and might make the story a little confusing. I’m not sure how you’ve decided to deal with this particular issue, but if you haven’t thought about it, you might want to make it clear whether this is a “real” fantastical event or if it’s the narrator’s imagination (aliens, being a superhero, etc.). Adult readers can pick up on slight cues that it’s his imagination (though it took me a couple of reads to figure out that’s what you were implying), but for kids, this might be harder to infer. Professor Ford, one of the editors I consulted, agreed that “The fact that the narrator is telling us that his mom was taken over by aliens is definitely something that needs to be addressed. Kids need very strong clues, maybe even visuals, that tell them that this boy is only pretending, then they’ll be more than capable of telling the difference. Even four-year olds can tell the difference between pretending and ‘reality.’”
Another part of the unreliable narrator voice (that might be a problem if overdone) is a tad too much arrogance. In addition to possibly being a little much for a young kid—unless he really is extremely advanced (like the child narrator of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)—the arrogance contributes to making the reader unable to fully trust the narrator (as we instinctually know boastful people are self-serving and likely dishonest in order to maintain their status, wealth, power, or whatever it is; thus they are “unreliable”). And it can sometimes make a character hard to relate to. This is fun for adult readers to maneuver, but might be simply confusing or annoying to younger readers who don’t get the nuance of such characterization.
As to the arrogance, pretty soon you might need to make sure the character also faces or admits to his Achille’s heel and/or to some emotional vulnerability—at the level an elementary kid would understand. This is generally done in all the MG and early reader books I sampled while reading up to do your review. Eccentric character traits were leveled out by the narrator noting (as in a side comment or whatnot) that the character really was nice at heart, etc., and/or realizing that their eccentric traits often got them into trouble (this eccentricity often created the problem they faced in each book of the series). You may be planning on addressing all of this for the book already, but think about the voice of the narrator in terms of whether it is too complex for younger readers. (Should you decide that MG is what you’re going for. For me, the character and his dilemma read as too young for older kids—so definitely elementary school).
Professor Ford also mentioned something else you might want to pay attention to: “Aside from tone, it is sometimes tricky to write about a kid who is always getting in trouble [which, we assume, this is where the story is going]. This is why, in the reading list below, I am recommending Joey Pigza to you. It’s all about a bad boy, who isn’t really so bad. Actually, now that I think about it, I wonder if reading Artemis Fowl might be helpful, too. It’s for a slightly older group, but the characterization would be really helpful. It is about a 10-year old criminal mastermind. [What to pay attention to with your story is whether the tone complexity and personality/arrogance are too close to the Artemis Fowl variety—which appeals to older kids and is a little beyond many middle graders.]
The following list is compiled from suggestions from both children’s book editors, and I sampled many of these books as I was studying to do your critique: “All that said, depending on which direction you want to go with tone, the early reader series you would compare against would be Time Warp Trio, Captain Underpants, and Junie B. Jones (your book is much more complex than Junie B, for example), as they lean toward sarcasm. Wimpy Kid (and the girl version someone else made to match) are more of your MG readers. You can also look at the older series book section (the one by the Encyclopedia Brown, Sisters Grimm, Warriors, and 39 Clues books). This also reminds me a bit of some boy books like Wayside School is Falling Down or There’s a Girl in the Boy’s Bathroom by Louis Sachar, or The Day My Butt Went Psycho and other books by Andy Griffiths. There are a bunch of fairly recent superhero books, too, if that’s the direction this is going. You might try looking at the Babymouse graphic novels, which are early middle grade. They are a little more advanced than Judy Moody and books about her brother Stink by Megan McDonald, but you’ll want to look at those, too. There’s also Clementine by Marla Frazee (although it is about a girl). You should definitely try Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos or Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. If you are at the bookstore, you can wave a Louis Sachar or Andy Griffiths book at the employee and ask them to find you more boy books at that reading level. Or check out this website by Jon Scieszka: http://guysread.com ”
Couple quick questions on specific lines/parts that were confusing to me:
“You can call me Rip. Maybe I have another name, maybe I don’t.” As the opening line of the book, I’m not sure this is working. It fits the MG model in terms of introducing the character, but it creates confusion rather than places us clearly in the kid’s world. The reader has no context here for this being a cue that he’s imagining things. Thus it is unclear what this “maybe I have another name, but maybe not” implies. A child reader might not understand what the hidden info here is all about. After reading the story several times I figured out what you were doing here, but I think you need more context to pull this off (see my notes below).
When the narrator says he’s scared aliens away from the planet, I assume you’re referring to something that will happen later in the book that we haven’t read on this first page? If the Frisbee-throwing fruit-circle incident is what you meant by scaring aliens away, you’ll have a chronology problem. You have the “it all started when” structure set up. So you’ll have to make sure that you don’t get to the big reveals till the end of the story. Just wanted to make sure you’re clear on the story arc. The reason I ask, is because it was a little bit confusing, in the beginning, if we were getting the story from the immediate present or told as if looking back on it. I think the potential/slight confusion is caused by your interrupting the narrative to give asides about the character. Like interrupting the “It all started when I found the fruit” bit by the commentary on the character’s above-average intelligence. These types of interruptions make us lose our place in the story chronology, so to speak, and after the narrative interruption we have to mentally scramble to re-enter the story and place ourselves in it at the right spot in order to fend off confusion. You might want to save the interruptions to the narrative for a little further in when we have a good sense of setting, what’s at stake, and where we are in the chronology—interrupting in a downtime moment, if possible.
“It was a big circle of fruit . . .” Sort of a vague image. What’s a “circle” of fruit? A plate of it? A bunch of fruit stuck together in a ring? Something that he can’t name that looks like an apple or orange—round?
The section where the narrator is listing “facts”: The style is a little fast-paced and transition-less. It requires a fair bit of reader inference, which I’m not sure is a good thing for young middle grade or early readers. This is an example of where you might need to trim the exuberance of the voice a little so that readers can follow what’s going on. Here’s another example where the implications are thrown in and quickly abandoned without enough context for younger readers to be sure of the meaning: “It sailed into Mr. Herriman’s yard. I didn’t care because I am pretty sure he is a werewolf.” My question: why would you not care that it’s in his yard because he’s a werewolf? Meaning, werewolves don’t deserve respect? Or meaning something else? I think you should clarify the implication.
The character’s name: Given that the narrator has introduced us to a world that has werewolves, aliens, and superheroes all within one page, I wasn’t entirely sure if his name implied that he was an actual dragon, or that he’s a human kid using that code name. It makes sense after reading the intro several times that the bit about the “maybe I have another name” means this is the boy’s made-up name, but I don’t know that kids are going to get that right away. If I had to read the piece several times, build up an understanding of context, and then realize everything you were doing it, I think kids would likely have to do the same. And I don’t know that they’d read it several times in order to be sure what literary tricks you were handing them. Perhaps start the story out with the voice you’ve created, but save the imagination tricks for a little later when we understand his personality, world view, whether he’s pretending or not, etc. That extra page of context or so will make it more clear what’s going on so we can enjoy the narrator as opposed to working too hard to figure him out. Another tactic would be to include a little context in the opening. He can introduce his fake name, then we can get a line of dialogue of his mom calling him (by his real name—asking him to do the dishes or whatever), and then he can say “maybe I have another name, maybe I don’t.” This bit of context immediately helps us see he’s pretending, which provides a framework for the rest of what we read. Just some thoughts on ways to keep the voice but lose the confusion. A little physical setting, along with a bit from his mom like that, would really help I think.
Finally, editorially we agree that the writing is compelling and the voice is energetic. Professor Ford’s final thoughts: “I would need to know a bit more about the plot and how the character grows, but the voice isn’t bad. The question is, can you sustain this level of writing? Do you think you’d be willing to trim a bit and round a bit in other places? The core is pretty stable, I think.”
Conclusion: This is a great idea (from what we have seen), but making it work for middle grade is an issue of finessing the tone so that it matches the age group you are trying to target. The best way to do that is to study the books above, dividing them into early reader vs middle grade, and determine what common denominators each category bears, as well as studying what agents are saying about the distinctions, then choose a tone complexity level that fits what your goals are. There will always be kids that read above and below their grade level, so there’s no exact science to defining middle grade vs early reader, but there are some notable differences in tone, complexity, and content you will see as you study different examples in the list above.
Best of luck—it’s a great time to be writing middle grade scifi (if that’s what this ends up to be, anyway, with the aliens and all). That’s one thing agents and editors would like to see more of these days; even if just imaginary scifi!