Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Face-Lift 1067

Guess the Plot

Sammy the Seashell

1. On his journey from the ocean to the beach, a shell named Sammy learns valuable life lessons from an older shell.

2. Mob boss Sammy the Seashell terrorizes Key West, until he messes with the wrong beach bum.

3. Sammy the Seashell has spectacular goals and ambitions. Unfortunately for him, Muriel the Mermaid already has a new bra.

4. After weeks of being washed in and out with the tide, a seashell finds stability as a window in a sandcastle. Or so he thinks.

5. Tight-lipped mollusk Sammy the Seashell is forced to become an informant by Meropolis Detective Jessica Scallop. But when she’s targeted by the Squidfather, Sammy joins forces with a murderous angelfish and a pair of cross-dressing eels to save the pointy gal who made his life a thermal vent.

6. A meteoroid strikes the Atlantic Ocean and causes the intelligence of mollusks to soar. Sammy, a conch, is elected supreme leader. He sends Carla, an oyster, topside to explore. She reports that humans eat shellfish. But there's good news: one religion forbids eating shellfish. Sammy comes up with a plan to convert all humans to Orthodox Judaism.

7. Witty memoir of a Hollywood extra who's worked in hundreds of movies, including Beaches and Castaway. Includes Sammy's favorite clam chowder recipes, and the real story of the obsessed fan who kept picking him up to hear the ocean.

Original Version

Dear :

Begin with some anxiety...a bit of stress...a feeling of not belonging. Now stir in a large measure of confidence. Add a generous dollop of self-esteem. Sprinkle on a liberal amount of optimism. Mix it all together with the love and inspiration of a great story. Let it sit for a short time, and you have [heart-rending literary fiction that Oprah would be proud to offer in her book club.] the recipe for a special reading experience! [Technically, the stirring, adding, sprinkling, mixing part was the recipe. What you have when you're done is not the recipe, but your book.]

Sammy the Seashell takes a long journey from the deep sea to the shores of a nearby beach. He encounters many situations that frighten him and cause the symptoms of stress to emerge. [Wouldn't it be better if Sammy were a clam instead of an inanimate object?] With the help of an older shell, Sammy learns some strategies to get through these difficult yet common situations that occur in everyone’s life. He learns that although stress will never go away, he can control the way it can affect his life. [The title/main character make it obvious this is for four-year-olds. The theme of the book seems geared toward adults with high-pressure jobs. For instance, if this was six years ago, I could see Barbara Bush reading it to George in bed. And the next night, when Barb wants to read a romance novel, George says, Can we do Sammy the Seashell again? Pleeease?] Most importantly, he learns the power of positive thinking and how it can change the way he tackles life's problems. [Maybe you should provide a couple specific examples of the life problems encountered by a shell.]

Diane Schute has worked with children for close to 20 years as a teacher, counselor and a therapist in a private practice. One theme has been apparent in all of these years in every place she has worked: kids are stressed! She sees kids on a daily basis struggling to deal with anxiety and not having the strategies needed to cope. Diane was a co-creator of a video titled “Stressball Sally,” [in which Sally the Stressball, with the help of an older stressball, learns some strategies to get through difficult yet common situations that occur in everyone’s life.] which demonstrated strategies to help children deal with stressful situations such as bullying, which we have heard so much about in today’s schools ( [Look, kid, if this shell managed to survive pollution and seaweed, you ought to be able to handle Tommy Parker.] Diane has worked since then to find ways for children to feel good about themselves and ultimately create an environment with less stress and more success!

Gail Marshall is a former elementary school teacher with 35 years of classroom experience. She taught a variety of grade levels and worked with many children who were dealing with a range of life issues and special needs. Gail shared her lifelong love of reading and the craft of writing with her many students. [Which one of you came up with the idea to make your main character a shell?]

We are members of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Over the years we have attended numerous workshops and curriculum-related seminars related to the art of writing and the many issues faced by children today.

We are submitting Sammy the Seashell, our picture book manuscript, along with this letter. We very much appreciate your time and consideration. Thank you very much.



I'd like to see the specificity with which you talk about yourselves applied to the story. Tell me what happens to Sammy and how he deals with it, and I'll decide whether kids will enjoy the story, in which case they will absorb the message through osmosis or through their parents saying, See how Sammy the Seashell stood up to that Great White Shark?

The spiel about stress and life's problems etc. isn't useful in determining whether the story is entertaining. You may say, we're enclosing the manuscript, so why should we discuss the plot? To which I say, you're enclosing the manuscript, so why should you discuss the message? If the message is clear to a child, the agent/editor will probably spot it when you say Sammy gets bullied by a barracuda and raises an army of mussels to teach it a lesson it won't forget.


AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Hi, Gail and Diane. I used to be a member of SCBWI until I started selling. Never went to any of the workshops but I'm sure they're very interesting.

EE is right-- you don't say anything about your story. You need to. And I would add:

1. Who's your market?

You might answer "our market is all children, because all children are experiencing stress." Thing is, bookstores don't stock a lot of books aimed at dealing with kids' stress. So you've got a Dealing With Issues picture book here, and the distribution and market for those tends to be more restricted.

Agents and editors look at a potential book and think about how it would be sold and where it would be shelved.

Unless there IS no story without the child psychology angle, emphasize the story more and the moral less, and your backgrounds hardly (or not) at all. Either that, or aim for a niche publisher.

2. About the title...

On editor Harold Underdown's children's book blog, he comments that when people set out to write a picture book, they overwhelmingly anthropomorphize something and then give it an alliterative name. Sammy the Seal. Larry the Ladder. Vivian the Voltage Regulator. Branch out a bit.

--If you haven't already, read Underdown's blog ( Also read Editorial Anonymous (, which hasn't been updated recently but is full of info about picture book querying from an editor's perspective. (Her comment in re experience working with children: "I don't care if you're a frickin' play structure!")

Btw, I thought you were querying an adult self-help book up until I read the bios.

Jo Antareau said...

That's a lot for a 500 word picture book to achieve. I'm not saying it can't be done... think of The Rainbow Fish demonstrating where happiness and friendship come from. Or Koala Lou showing us about dealing with setbacks, as two examples.

And those books are children's classics because there is nothing about them on the covers or in the text suggesting that they set out to achieve these goals. They are simply beautifully written and exquisitely illustrated. And kids love them even if they dont get the message (the picture book audience tend to be concrete thinkers as you doubtlessly know).

However, there are many books out that that slam messages into kids' heads. They spell the agenda out, make the mistake of telling rather than showing. And kids' eyes glaze over.

Alaska is spot-on with her advice about the child psych angle.

If you are aiming for a niche audience, perhaps you might develop a package with teaching notes and a DVD for teachers to use when they feel compelled to run some sort of 'developing resilience' program with their classes.

If you are targeting child psychs and see your book as a useful adjunct to therapy, then be prepared to address questions about the efficacy of your book as demonstrated by research - preferably published in a peer reviewed journal.

Hope it helps.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it would be helpful to provide a picture or two so the agent can see how fabulous your artwork is.

150 said...

Not sure if Anonymous is serious. As members of SCWBI, of course you know that publishers often accept text-only manuscripts and then pair them with an illustrator.

Anonymous said...

Oh, silly me! I just assumed that two people with all that expertise must be collaborating on a picture book because one of them was an artist. Never mind.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

150's right; it's not the done thing to provide pics with a picture book manuscript.

Illustrators have their own whole querying process they go through with submitting portfolios to publishers, in the hopes of being tapped to illustrate. I guess the idea is that when the right manuscript comes along, the editor cries "That lady who submitted those sketches of the winged kangaroos-- she'd be perfect for this!"

Or something like that.

Wilkins MacQueen said...

Start over. Read the queries here and the feed back. All of them.

I'm hoping you will present this again after taking note of many things. Sorry, this is going nowhere.

Really sorry but the query doesn't explain the book or its motivation. It makes the agent want to read on.

Really really sorry. It didn't do it for me.

I teach a lot of kids.

Wilkins MacQueen said...

Start over.

Sorry. It didn't do it for me.

I teach a lot of kids.

The query is meant to entice someone to read on. It is a sales tool not a forum to tell us how wonderful we are.

Really sorry but time to rethink a whole lot of things.