Monday, 03 November 2014 00:00

Mentor's Critique - Oscar Fidge: An Unlikely Hero

Ian, you’re aiming this short novel at kids and it’s evident from Chapter 1 that you have the right tone and voice for a young audience. You use an expressive style that seems a natural fit for the narrator, Max Cooper, and it’s easy to believe he’s talking straight to us in a frank and friendly way. Max’s concerns are those of a small-town primary-school boy who’s looking for adventure close to home (in his case the big deal is fishing) and this dominates the book, bringing us effortlessly into Max’s world.

You sent me a pitch rather than a synopsis, which is unfortunate, as I can’t know whether your plotting skills match the clever way in which you set your story up. My guess is that Max will catch the giant Murray cod with some assistance from Big Red, who by that time will be a friend. Or Big Red will catch it and Max won’t be jealous because he’ll reckon Big Red (aka Oscar Ridge) deserves his triumph. Whatever the outcome, if the whole book zips along in the same fashion as you’ve managed in the first 30 pages, I can see its shape being very satisfactory.

Your story is full of action: the Yabba Creek Show (great opener), the intro to Max’s mother and father, the Tiger Moth demo, the prizegiving, the shooting gallery, the glimpse of KJ (Max’s love interest), Miss Fogarty and her dog … and so on. You maintain the forward movement whether in the classroom or on the cricket field, and put in elements that you feel are guaranteed to engross young kids, eg Big Red’s farting! Your dialogue is extremely well chosen – a great strength in this book.

Meanwhile you’re also interested in relationships, and here again the narrative voice is the right one: it neatly avoids preaching or sentimentality by sounding real. Max comes across as a child who cares about having friends and likes to get on with people (eg his parents and Miss Fogarty -- and I noticed it was to the willing Max that Mr Proud turned when the class needed to know whether they could use their room again, following a gigantic fart by Big Red!).Max is also a thoughtful kid, curious about other people’s lives (eg how can Miss Fogarty like gin as much as she does?) and reflective about his own thoughts and actions.

I have to say that despite the great care you take in developing Max’s inner commentary, the voice doesn’t always ring quite true. A case in point occurs in the extract, when Max, who up until now is not warming to Big Red, abruptly remembers a teacher’s advice about how to treat new kids on the block. To avoid cliché and keep up the tension between Max and Big Red, I suggest you remove this out-of-context thought from Max’s head and have him simply answer the question following another prompt (maybe Sparra repeats the query). The relationship between Max and Big Red is central to your story and its progress needs to be subtly signposted through action and interaction. You’re doing it so well until this point: keep up the suspense.

For the same reason, I’m suggesting you look again at your title. ‘Unlikely hero’ is a journalistic cliché but worse, it gives the game away (we guess at once that someone’s going to catch that big Murray cod). It’s a positive, happy-ending title, and yet, paradoxically, what often draws kids into books these days is the promise of risk and adventure. And your book is full of action, as I’ve pointed out. I’m wondering whether you might consider a negative-sounding title, to pique kids’ interest. ('Wimpy', for instance, is a negative word -- who would have thought Diary of a Wimpy Kid would appeal to millions?) What about something like Why I’ll Always Hate Big Red or Big Fish, Small Brain – I’m sure your ideas will be better than mine :)

I also believe that when submitting to publishers, it will help to be totally accurate about the reading age. Your novel is well-written without being difficult in terms of grammar and vocab, and it’s about a primary-age kid, not an adolescent. I thank you can confidently say that the reading age is 8-12, which puts it in a recognisable category. I could see it being a popular title in schools. I felt really disappointed when I got to the end of your 30 pages and there wasn’t any more of the story. I predict you’ll have kids reading feverishly to the end. Good luck with it!

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