Thursday, June 5, 2014

Meet Mark Collins! What he’s doing right, plus two book reviews.


Why share reviews on a blog about writing kids’ books?  Aren’t there a ton of great book-review blogs (not to mention professional publications reviewing books) out there already?

Yes and no.

Most publications, and even some of the blogs, won’t touch self-published children’s books.  They figure the world is flooded with self-published books, and most of them just aren’t any good (they’re not entirely wrong).

I see a ton of self-published kids’ books these days – most of which are not extraordinary (unless they’re extraordinarily bad). 

So when I come across somebody who’s doing a great job in every way – writing, illustrating, publishing, promotion – I feel like we ought to carve out a small space to highlight their accomplishments and see what they’re doing right because:

a) they deserve the kudos for doing something great, and

b) maybe we can all learn a thing or two.

Meet Mark C. Collins!

And Mark C. Collins is doing just that – writing terrific books that kids love (and testing them on his own kids).  It helps that he’s his own illustrator, too, with a bright, compelling style that – according to his bio – he’s been perfecting since age 2.  (Me, too, but my art is still a long way from being presentable.)

Two of Mark’s brand-new books, Ben’s Day and Meet the Bugs! are perfect for a wide range of ages, from 3 to about 8.

Spend the day with Ben…

Ben's Day, by Mark CollinsBen’s Day is such a fun book, about a loveably hyper boy who runs around making his own, old-fashioned good times:  soaring on his bike, diving in his kiddie pool, getting plopped on by a bird on his way to his treehouse.  And why not?  It’s the first day of summer. 

Ben's Day, by Mark Collins This enjoyable book loses a bit of its impact from its overuse of exclamation marks (“A mountain of ice cream is such a cool treat!”).  True, Ben’s having an exciting time, but that already comes across well in the illustrations, so the text doesn’t need to scream the point home over and over.

I also don’t personally love the gap-toothed, tongue-hanging-out look Mark’s given Ben throughout the story… but it’s exactly the kind of exaggerated / gross kid-style that my 6-year-old son enjoys, so I think Mark’s got his finger on the pulse on that one.

But what I really (really really!) want to talk about is Meet the Bugs, which is – frankly – terrific.

…Or come and meet the bugs!

In Meet the Bugs, he’s also managed to create a girl-friendly book about bugs, in that it’s not too creepy or gross, and quite a few of the bugs tucked inside (plus the cover image) are feminine.  Indeed, this may be my only concern with the book – boys may not want to open up a book featuring a heavily-lipsticked caterpillar on the cover. 

I hope they can get past it, though, because there’s lots inside for all kids.

The rhymes in the book are light and appealing.  Each insect is introduced with 4 lines of verse, and there’s also a one-page rhyming intro at the beginning of the book to draw the reader in:  “Be kind to bugs, it’s their world, too. / Would you want someone stepping on you?”

image Each insect has its own special name, and the names are cute, clever and relevant (Dusty the moth, Lee the flea) without being cutesy or weird.  The accompanying rhyme for each bug introduces one or two facts. 

The illustrations are the real highlight of Meet the Bugs!, though, tiptoeing expertly along the fine line between scientific accuracy and cartoonish exaggeration, all sporting smiles and delighting readers with their individuality.

This short book ends somewhat abruptly - “That’s all the bugs we have for you today.” – when a cute couplet at the very least might have made a better transition out of the book.  As a plus, Mark does offer a link to a National Geographic site about bugs, though I might have linked to a page I controlled so I could be certain the link wouldn’t go out of date. 

But aren’t we all a little disappointed when we come to the end of a good book?  And that’s what this is:  Meet the Bugs! is a terrific book, and we enjoyed it immensely.

Currently priced at or under $1, the Kindle version is a bargain amid a sea of overpriced, awful e-books. But if you want a book to keep on your shelf and read over and over and over (and have your kids read and enjoy on their own), consider buying the print version.  The paperback print version of Meet the Bugs! includes larger and more detailed illustrations, and two-page spreads which enhance the presentation of each of the featured bugs.


With three self-published kids’ books under his belt, and one more coming soon, it’s clear Mark is a writer / illustrator going places. 

But while in the past, “going places” might have meant a contract with a big-name publisher, today, his example gives us hope that there may actually be a future (and money) in self-publishing… if you do it right.

What’s in it for you?

What’s the biggest take-away for you from Mark’s books, as an aspiring writer?

In Meet the Bugs!, on the inside title page, Mark credits the book’s editor.  I love this not just because I work as an editor (and would be happy to take on your kids’ book!), but because every writer and artist needs to know what they’re capable of doing on their own – and at what point they need to ask (and pay) for help.

Self-publishing doesn’t mean you’re an island.  You may be the publisher, but you are not alone.  You’re part of a team.  So don’t wait for a publisher to tell you you’re great:  write yourself a book… then get yourself a team and get it published!

Want me to review your kids’ book here?  At the moment, I’m only taking picture books, and generally only those that stick to the traditional 32-page format.  I never charge for reviews, so if yours meets that criterion, please check my guidelines and get in touch.


  1. You are right on target, as usual, Jennifer. Your style of writing is perfect for absorption by my hard-wired brain. I can see your points, hear your suggestions and feel the improved impact of your suggestions.
    You are a source of real help to writers of the illustrated 32 page books.
    I also agree with you about Mark's work. Seeing great illustrations by the author is a refreshing event in my line of work..

    1. Thanks, Earl. Indeed, it is refreshing. I do tend to focus on the 32-pagers, because that's where my interest lies, but there's lots here for other writers, too - I hope. :-)

  2. I have to say this blog post is abrasive. I am about to self-publish a children's book and you certainly don't make me feel good about it. English was my major and I'm all for well-written stories and correct grammar, but to nit-pick over a few exclamation marks you feel are too plentiful? Guess what- a child will not care one bit about it. I hope my children's book will be enjoyed by kids and the parents reading the stories to them. I hope it won't be picked apart in the way you did so I don't end up in your evil circle of awful children's books. Also, your overpriced comment... just not helpful. Someone hosting that much data on amazon automatically is not in the 70% royalty category. That is only for novels with just text. Children's books are automatically put in the 30% royalty category, meaning, it's mostly a labor of love and we don't make a lot. So, if an e-book is 99cents... um, we essentially make nothing. It's not the same as selling a novel. The exact percentages escape me, but I believe in my research, if I price my paperback at $13 I make around $5 and the kindle is another story (70% royalty but you have to price it lower than the paperback). I came across this from LinkedIn- in a group of people who are hoping to publish because we don't want to wait 8 years and be rejected a billion times from publishers. Who has time for that? How about some ENCOURAGEMENT ?????

    1. @Anonymous: Thanks for stopping by, and I'm sorry you were disappointed by my take on the current self-publishing situation, for both print and e-books.
      I understand as well as anyone that royalties aren't high, and I certainly didn't specify how much is too much money to spend on either an e-book or a self-published paperback. That's up to each parent / buyer, of course.
      And yet... I met an author yesterday in a forum who was charging over $20 for her vanity press published book (paperback, 26 pages; Kindle version, 11 pages - same price for both), with no Look Inside available, and the blurb copy full of errors. Is there ever a point at which we might agree that a book like that was overpriced?
      (Of course, if it served a specific niche, ie it addressed autism within the Orthodox Jewish community (just a random example, not something I'm specifically shopping for), parents and teachers within that niche might buy the book even at a high price due to its rarity. I wouldn't consider the book overpriced if the reason for the high price (rarity, specificity, research, art, etc) was clear.)
      I totally agree with you that kids' priorities are different from ours. Indeed, I did mention in my review that I didn't love the art in Ben's Day, but that it's exactly the sort of thing my 6-year-old son goes nuts for. He's into Trash Pack characters and fart jokes... I'm not. Mark is doing a great job in that he doesn't pander to mommies like me, but to kids like him.
      Again, I'm really sorry that the post rubbed you the wrong way. I hope you will agree that the emphasis on what Mark's done right is a significant take-away that just might balance out any negativity about the flood of self-pubbed kids' books on the market right now.
      The message that I hope comes across is that sure, it's a crowded market, but you CAN help your books stand out... and here's a great example.
      Have a super day! :-)

    2. I thought this post was pretty encouraging. There are many people that throw together a book without taking the time to have it properly edited or even taking the time to consider the audience. When an author puts the time and energy into making a book well, so that even mothers who aren't keen one part or another can say it's nicely done, he or she should be lauded. This post has done just that and it's a comfort to authors who are willing to go the distance for their books that they can be assured that their efforts will be noticed amidst a sea of books the same way the dove found an olive branch growing in a flooded world.

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  4. Yadhira Gonzalez-TaylorJune 6, 2014 at 8:57 AM

    I think your review is fair and compliments the author. As a self-published author I want honest reviews. When we encourage friends and relatives to go on amazon to give us 5 stars when the quality of our work is not 5 stars we are being disingenuous. It hurts you in the end because an independent buyer who purchases your book based on your reviews will tare you up if your book is not meeting their expectations. That is what makes Amazon such a wonderful tool to level the field--where our books (indie books) can compete with "traditional" books. Along with that of course you will find a sea of books that are not grammatically correct, poorly written and put out there at exuberant prices. I appreciate an honest review because it is honest. Not only does this help the authenticity of my product it helps me develop as an author in my future publications. I read Mark's Grandma Stinks and it is a wonderful book. I am looking forward to reading the other books with my child who loved the illustrations.

    1. Thanks, Yadhira. I really appreciate your support!

  5. Thank you, Jennifer, Earl, and Yadhira!

    @Anonymous #1: You're right. Most kids do not care about some misplaced punctuation, but I do. As a new author, one of the things I literally stress over is putting something out there that is less than perfect; less than what I could have done (the main reason I now use a very good editor). I'm an extremely confident illustrator, but not as confident with my writing – yet.

    Jennifer's review of my last two books is spot-on in my opinion. I welcome honest and legitimate critiques, and I knew what I would be up against when I sent Jennifer the books for her review. Jennifer is a 'no bs' critic who has an uncanny ability to see and express clearly. These "abrasive" points you bring up are actually like gold for me, and like Yadhira had said above, they, "... help the authenticity of my product which helps me develop as an author in my future publications."

    Sure, Jennifer points out the faults openly, but she also praises lavishly where deserved. I felt a whole new excitement and motivation after reading Jenn's review. Discouraged? Not in the least.

    I wish you well in self-publishing your book.

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Mark!


As always, I love to hear from you.