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Examining Trends vs. Style in Children's Books

Unless you’re into a time travel trend and have been MIA for the last years, you probably pretty much know the landscape: immortal, sexy creatures like vampires, werewolves and fey with an odd desire to return to high school and fall in love. Ghosts and fallen angels are fast becoming smoking’ hot. Zombies are now being resurrected (pun intended), but I’m skeptical about this one though (undead, flesh eaters as eye candy?) Guest column by Laura Toffler-Corrie, author of The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz (middle grade, Aug. 2010, Roaring Book Press). She has already sold her second book, a young adult story called The Accidental Sainthood of Jenna Bloom.

Recently I wrote an article about toy trends for kids, from hula hoops to pokemon to Silly Bandz. I discovered that none of these objects were particularly inspiring or educationally enriching, but they all seem to have one thing in common. There is a certain brilliance in their simplicity. Each of these toy’s originators captured the country’s imagination with something unique and fun. Quick fortunes were made not only for them, but for the clever and fast imitators as well.

So what does any of this have to do with kidslit? Well, there are the equivalent of toy fads in kidslit, too.

(Note: Laura is
organizing a publishing panel, with SCBWI sponsorship, called "Secrets of the Successful Author Agent Relationship" at the Harry Bennett Branch of the Ferguson Library in Stamford CT on Saturday, March 5, 2011, from 1:00-3:00 pm. The panel will consist of Laura, her agent Elana Roth from CJLA, YA/MG author Amanda Marrone, and Amanda's agent Wendy Schmalz.)

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Guest column by Laura Toffler-Corrie, author
of The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz (middle
grade, Aug. 2010, Roaring Book Press). She has
already sold her second book, a young adult
story called The Accidental Sainthood of Jenna
Bloom. See her website here.


TRENDS IN KIDSLIT

Unless you’re into a time travel trend and have been MIA for the last years, you probably pretty much know the landscape: immortal, sexy creatures like vampires, werewolves and fey with an odd desire to return to high school and fall in love. Ghosts and fallen angels are fast becoming smoking’ hot. Zombies are now being resurrected (pun intended), but I’m skeptical about this one though (undead, flesh eaters as eye candy?)

Dystopian stories are on the rise, And are those mythological monsters I see galumphing over yonder hills, signing up for algebra, hoping to score a seat next to an under the radar pretty, but socially marginalized girl with absent parents?

Seriously, though, I’m not mocking these trends or being superior. I read and like many of these books, and I say power to the writers who pen them and make them work. As with hula hoops and sillybandz, these authors have created, or re-visited, concepts and stories that have caught fire. Not an easy thing to do. And maybe kids do learn something from them, about tolerance, determination and even commitment perhaps.

Power to the publishers who get kids reading. And power to the max to the knockoff writers who are fast, clever and just different/same enough to also turn a profit. Why not? These books help keep the whole kidslit industry healthy.

WHERE DOES THE ASPIRING WRITER FIT IN?

So where does the aspiring writer fit into this scenario? Should he try to follow the trends? What about all the agents and editors who claim they don’t want to see anymore faddish topics, but keep publishing them? If you look on Publisher’s Marketplace, you’ll see that probably eight out of ten recent deals fall into one of these aforementioned categories.

To be honest, even my new soon to be published book has a romantic/paranormal thrust as well, although it’s more spoof than serious. Even so, did I jump on the trend bandwagon? And is that bad?

I say no—because my book, for example, was the book I truly wanted to write, which elucidates my first point. Always write the book that haunts you. Go with your gut. Perhaps that what’s successful "imitators" are doing anyway. You can’t be a second rate somebody else.

DON'T FOLLOW TRENDS, BUT DO PICK UP ON STYLES

And here’s my second thought: don’t blindly follow trends, but keep an eye towards styles. The reality is that there are generally accepted styles in every aspect of life and it’s foolish to deny it. Walk down the street with hair down to your butt and watch people stare and giggle (and not in a good way). Whereas a century ago, that look was not only acceptable but fashionable, at least for women. Look at the way styles in comedy, for example, have changed over the years in literature, film and stage. It’s edgier, more fast paced, darker, more absurd.

I recently read a kids MG book from about twenty years ago. There were a lot of talking animals. The plot was very simple and, in the end, "Daddy Bear" preached the lesson the author wanted to express. Ugh. Try getting something like that passed an agent or editor these days.

Now is there some exceptional genius who will blow the lid off the accepted style of the day and resurrect preachy talking bears (zombie bears perhaps...)? There always is. But, I’m not talking about that one in a million. I’m talking about us everyday writers trying to write the best we can and make a sale. I guess each writer must make these choices for himself.

And speaking of styles and sales, I’m reminded of a remark I heard recently from a big chain book buyer. She organized a book signing for a non-trendy, debut kids lit book but, unfortunately, not many people showed up. "Paranormal is always in style. If only that author could talk to dead people, we would have packed the room!”

Sigh. Talking to dead people—I wonder if any writing program offers a course in that?

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