When you’re just starting out as a writer contemplating your book going out into the world — querying agents, on submission to editors — there’s this one thing that you fear above all others.
OMG, [insert published book here] is just like my book!
Trust me, before the actual worst thing that could happen happened to me, I was one of the people who worried about stuff like this. While it’s not like my debut tells the most unique story in the world (girl’s sister dies–read a few, um, dozens of books with that plot before), I felt that there were some other elements that put a new spin on it. For one, The Distance To Home was as much a story about baseball as it was a story about grieving a sibling. It was also about changing relationships with a parent following a death in the family.
And then this summer, this book came out:
I’ll admit, there was a tiny part of me that was afraid to check it out from the library and read it. But, my curiosity and book hoarding tendencies got the best of me, and I took the plunge.
Before I even started reading the book, I could start counting out the similarities on my fingers.
1. The word “home” in the title? Check.
2. Main character loses older sibling of the same gender? Check.
3. Main character plays Little League baseball? Check.
4. Tag line of “Can the game they all love eventually bring them back together, safe at home?”: Yikes! And check.
5. Author’s favorite baseball team mentioned in the acknowledgments? Check.
::Cue calming breaths::
With nothing to lose at this point (besides my sanity), I opened up Wendy Wan-Long Shang’s book and started reading. The deeper I got into the story, the more I stopped seeing the things that were the same, and started paying attention to all the differences. For one, The Way Home Looks Now is a historical novel, set in the 1960s when girls playing Little League baseball was new. Also, as Chinese Americans, Peter Lee (a boy protagonist! phew!) and his father, who in an uncharacteristic move offers to coach his Little League team, face racism in ways that my protagonist, Quinnen, and her family, do not. Peter and his deceased older brother Nelson have a shared bond in the playing of baseball that Quinnen and her older sister Haley never did. The touchstone real baseball event in The Way Home Looks Now is the Little League World Series and the dominating performance of Taiwan’s team, where in my book, the real baseball comes in the form of the local (and fictional) minor league team, the Tri-City Bandits.
In innumerable ways, the two stories with similar one-line premises diverge greatly. Now, in retrospect, this should not be surprising. Depending on who you ask, there’s a static number of basic plots out there in the world. (Some say seven, others nine, etc.) We’re all telling the same root stories, but it’s the details that make all the difference. The distinct characters and settings, the way a writer infuses a story with his or her lived experience in the world, the language choices the writer makes, the structure, etc.
When I finished the book — and uh, had something in my eye — I did more than breath a sigh of relief. I actually got kind of excited. As a children’s librarian, I constantly had kids finishing a book and coming to me begging for me to figure out what they should read next. Often, I’d show them a book that had some similar elements, but there were many times when they really wanted to read something a lot closer to the premise of the book they had just finished. It turns out, it’s not the worst thing for your book to have similarities with another book.
Come next summer, as actual kids out there start reading my book, I’ll be pretty happy to put together a bibliography — once a librarian, always a librarian — of what kids who enjoyed my book could read next. And The Way Home Looks Now will be at the top of the list.