Bad, bad books

Recently, I read The Joys of Slightly Subversive children’s Books, a blog post by CBI’s Laura Backes.  Within the blog, she comments that as long as there is a large enough audience to keep a book in print, there are no bad books.

Maybe I was just sleep deprived when I read this, but the phrase bad books immediately brought to mind an image — books jumping off the furniture, books swinging on the ceiling fan, books just generally being naughty.

Once I got that out of my head, I started thinking about Laura’s statement and was surprised to realize that I disagree.

Because, a book may sell and sell very well but still be boring and preachy where the child audience is concerned.  It sells, because the adult buyer loves the lesson it teaches and teaches oh so well.  Adults may very well recommend such a book to each other for various reasons, but that doesn’t mean that the message ever reaches the bored senseless audience.

Fortunately, editors are gatekeepers for a reason and they keep many malevolent manuscripts from becoming bad books.  Here are some signs that you may be creating a malevolent manuscript:

  • More important than the plot or the characters is the message.  Yes, you can teach a lesson through theme and consequences, but if you feel the need to state the message at the end of the book, you probably need to focus more on story.
  • Your adult characters become mouth pieces and spend lines and lines of dialog discussing the dangers of alcohol, sex and fast driving.  I’m not saying these things are good, but again work the lesson into the story.  Let your main character find it out for him or her self.
  • At the end of the story, your main character realizes that mom and dad are 100% correct.  Yes, it may be true but these goody, goody characters are really hard for young readers to identify with.

If you are in doubt about your manuscript, find a critique group.  Pay for a paid critique at a conference.  Read bagfuls of books published in the last two years.  You’ll learn how to work a lesson into the story so that your reader doesn’t have to swallow this great big bitter pill.  You’ll learn to write stories that guide even as readers beg for time to read one more page.

You can do it.  I know you can.


2 thoughts on “Bad, bad books

  1. Hi Sue:

    Thanks for commenting on my blog post. And I understand your point about a book still being “bad” even though it sells well. I agree. What I was conveying in my post (and maybe not clearly enough) is that the existence of “bad” books can be justified by publishers if the audience is big enough to keep the book moving off the shelves. That’s just business. I also made the point that the definition of “bad” varies from person to person:

    “I’ve come to learn that as long as a book has a big enough audience to justify keeping it in print, it deserves a place on the shelves. That’s because everyone’s definition of “bad” is different. Personally, I hate picture books whose sole purpose is to teach children a lesson or moral. It’s as if kids don’t deserve to be entertained, but simply preached to. The worst are books written by celebrity authors, who think because their names are household words they have the authority to tell kids how to behave. To top it off, the books almost never follow the standards of good writing editors require of their lesser-known authors. But a few publishers and a lot of adults have determined these books are “good” enough to buy. And so they exist.”

    I completely agree with your warning signs of malevolent manuscripts. These should be inscribed on a plaque over every writer’s computer.

    A final note on personal definitions of “bad”: I cringe every time I see a Curious George book. The writing is a perfect example of “telling” instead of “showing,” the plots make huge jumps without justification, and the text is far too wordy and poorly paced. But those books are products of their time, and George is an iconic figure in children’s literature. I can’t say he doesn’t deserve to exist. And since he’s undoubtedly financing a large portion of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s budget, I’m sure George will enjoy a long self life.

    Just not in my house! 🙂

    Laura Backes

    1. Laura,
      Thank you for posting this, because I really want people to consider what, to them, makes a bad book. Or a bad manuscript. I want them to noodle over why they write, what they write. My son adored Curious George. Adored! Ack. And Thomas the Tank Engine.

      Keep up the good work and keep us noodling over what doesn’t work and why!


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