“In Praise of the Standalone Book”
In 2010, I switched careers. I had been a middle school language arts teacher for many years, and I decided it was time for a change. So, I became a school librarian. It’s the perfect career for someone who loves kids, books, and kids’ books. It’s also a great job choice for someone who doesn’t want to grade even one more essay written by a 12-year-old. And because of this shift to the library, I was able to pursue my lifelong dream of writing books. The Prince of Steel Pier is my debut novel.
You know which parts of my job I love the most? First, I thoroughly enjoy matching students with the perfect book for them. This process is called Readers’ Advisory in librarian lingo. It’s a mini-interview and discussion that helps the librarian connect readers with great book choices specific to their likes and needs. I start off every Readers’ Advisory by asking what I think is the most telling question: What’s the last book you read that you really loved?
The other best part of my job? Filling the shelves! I get to order ALL the books and materials. It’s like a childhood fantasy come true! Yes, I’ll order that one and that one, and oh, I have to get the new book by that author, and I must order that one. It’ll fly off the shelves! Between being a middle school librarian and being a children’s book author, I know what kids like.
And what they like is a long book series. They like getting comfortable with a set of characters and reading about those characters again and again and again. Investing time and emotion in a new protagonist is hard! The path of least resistance, which, honestly, kids are prone to take, means they’ll reach for Diary of a Wimpy Kid #5 and #8 and #16, and on and on. I have reserve lists five-kids deep every time Stuart Gibbs publishes the next Spy School novel. In kids’ minds, long book series rule.
Or do they?
Let’s go back to my Readers’ Advisory opening question: What’s the last book you read that you really loved? Last year, I received an answer from a sixth grader that caught me off guard in the best way. She said, “The last book I really loved was A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielsen. I don’t really want to read another series. After, like, the third book, they all get repetitive and boring.”
I wanted to hug her when she said that.
Stand-alone books make me smile. And as a writer, I understand how difficult a great stand-alone is to pull off. Stand-alone books do all their own heavy lifting. They work their 250-page tails off (or 350 or 180; you get the idea). The author of a stand-alone knows she only has one shot at capturing her audience. None of this “You’ll find out in book 4 why he and his dad don’t get along” or “It will all make sense once you finish book 7” stuff. Good stand-alone books give readers a satisfying character arc and a complete storyline. A reader can finish the last page of a stand-alone and close the book with a gratified exhale. Nothing more is needed. It’s like leaving the dinner table sated after a delicious meal. Sure, you can raid the fridge for leftovers later, but the experience just isn’t the same, is it?
Historical fiction is especially well-suited for the stand-alone format. Authors of historical fiction evoke a moment in time, the only moment when that story could have happened to that person in that place. Thanhha Lai didn’t need to make Inside Out & Back Again into a six-book series. This National Book Award-winning stand-alone tells us one story: Hà’s story, as her family flees war-torn Vietnam and comes to the United States. There’s no need for us to see what happens to Hà the following year, or the year after that, or the year after that. Inside Out & Back Again beautifully presents the family’s traumas and triumphs of that singular experience. Lai leaves it to us, her readers, to imagine Hà’s future, rather than simply telling us everything that happens to her. That stand-alone novel, that no more-no less story, is enough.
This is exactly what I hope I’ve achieved with The Prince of Steel Pier. The main character, 13-year-old Joey Goodman, doesn’t cease to exist after the last page of the book. I’m sure he goes on to have more adventures and more experiences. But you’ll have to envision them for yourself. Joey’s story from two weeks in August of 1975 stands alone. His moments of happiness and moments of fear, his epiphanies and realizations, can only happen in that one special time in his life. Making my book into an endless series would take away from the power of what Joey learns about himself and his world in The Prince of Steel Pier.
I’m not calling for the abolishment of the long children’s book series. Not at all! Kids need to be able to rely on Percy Jackson getting himself into another mythological mess. They love the continuing escapades of Dogman and The Last Kids on Earth.
But here’s to the stand-alone book, the book that needs no sequels, no books #3-#10. Here’s to a story that thrills kids from its inciting incident all the way through its climax and denouement, and that’s it. Here’s to the books that have no more to say because they’ve said it all, perfectly, the first time around.
Some of my favorite stand-alone middle grade books:
The Magical Imperfect by Chris Baron
Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin
A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus
Alone by Megan Freeman
Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder
Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca
Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand
One Jar of Magic by Corey Ann Haydu
The Prince of Steel Pier
Published September 1st, 2022 by Kar-Ben Publishing
About the Book:
Poor 13-year-old Joey Goodman is not suited for 1975 Atlantic City: he’s anxious, fearful, and prone to puking at any moment. On top of it all, his tight-knit Jewish family babies him more than they do his younger brother! With wanting to prove his mettle top of mind, Joey ends up working for kingpin Artie Bishop, whose gangsters are impressed by how Joey handles thieves who steal his prize tickets. Joey suddenly feels important as he runs around with Artie and his crew – but after a streak of deceiving his loved ones and dangerous jobs that put his family at risk, Joey’s resolve will be put to the test. This adventure-filled middle grade will have young readers relating to Joey as he goes through his fair share of feelings (like a crush!), goons, and finding that his place was with his real family all along.
Advance Praise for THE PRINCE OF STEEL PIER:
- “What a wonderful book! I loved the sense of atmosphere, all the things that Joey struggles with, and most of all, that big, beautiful family.” —Rajani LaRocca, Newbery Honor-winning author of Red, White, and Whole
- “I love the funny voice of Joey/Joseph/Squirt Goodman. (Who wouldn’t fall for a Skeeball champion with a big heart and a nervous stomach?) I was captivated by Joey’s large lovable family and the authentic rendering of the 1970’s Atlantic City setting complete with gangsters, gangster’s daughters, lucky frog fountains, sinister business and mysterious packages. A fun read from start to finish.” —Gennifer Choldenko, Newbery Honor-winning author of the Alcatraz series
- “The Prince of Steel Pier has everything a great book needs: an engaging main character, a blooming crush, page-turning adventure, and a loving, quirky family that owns a hotel on the delightfully nostalgic Atlantic City boardwalk. Oh, and don’t forget to throw in some just-short-of-too-scary gangsters and a huge helping of heart.” —Nora Raleigh Baskin, ALA Schneider Family Book Award–winning author of Anything But Typical
About the Author: Stacy Nockowitz is a middle school librarian and former language arts teacher with more than 25 years of experience in middle school education. Stacy received her BA from Brandeis University and holds Master’s Degrees from Columbia University Teachers College and Kent State University. She is also an MFA candidate in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Stacy received a PJ Library Writer’s Incentive Award in 2020 for her debut novel THE PRINCE OF STEEL PIER, coming in September 2022 from Kar-Ben Publishing. An unrepentant Jersey Girl, Stacy still teases her hair and uses plenty of spray. When she’s not writing or matching great kids with great books, Stacy can most likely be found reading or rooting on her beloved Philadelphia Eagles. Her kids have flown the coop, so Stacy lives in central Ohio with her husband and their cat, Queen Esther. Find her on Twitter @snockowitz or at www.stacynockowitz.com
Thank you, Stacy, for sharing the joy in the standalone!