Category Archives: John

6

Do you need kids to write for kids?

When I was a children’s book editor—even before I was married—people often asked if I had any children. After all, how could I understand what books kids might like to read if I didn’t have kids of my own?

It always struck me as an odd question–does a pediatrician or a teacher need to have kids to know how do her job? So I was very heartened to read Maile Meloy’s essay in the Times last weekend, and how she answered the question. In fact, her answer is so good that I have to print it in full:

“I write fiction, so I’ve written about many things I haven’t actually done. The novels would be very boring otherwise. But the thing I did do, for longer than anything else, was be a kid. Having had a childhood, I think my qualifications are pretty good.”

Amen! I only wish I was that pithy back when I was a childless editor–mostly I just fumbled out an answer or used the pediatrician/teacher analogy and got labeled as snarky…

To her credit, Meloy does allow that a parental perspective can be useful for a children’s book writer, particularly when it comes to parent characters (duh). And as a parent now myself, I appreciate how some writers (like Meloy’s brother) can write books for their own children that end up appealing to the general reading audience.

But I strongly agree with Meloy that tapping into one’s own childhood is most valuable for writing for children (that and reading widely in the field, of course). And I’d add that for writers who happen to be parents, keeping one’s own childhood in mind is a better strategy than observing your kids or, worse, using them as sounding boards. Kids are programmed from birth to tell parents what they want to hear, but if you can draw out the essence of your own childhood, you just might find the truth–and isn’t that what all writers strive to show?

Children’s Nonfiction

One of the more interesting and unexpected developments in the children’s book industry over the past year or two has been the rise of nonfiction. Publishers Weekly recently ran an article that surveys the landscape, and how publishers are having success with the kind of MG and YA nonfiction that, until recently, was thought to be going the way of the dodo. Who would have foreseen that in 2015, guidebooks for a video game would be bestsellers?

(Then again, if anyone can explain the appeal of Minecraft in the first place, please do!)

But while video game tie-ins are all well and good, obviously those are licensed products, and for the average children’s book writer, writing for a licensor is a hard gig to land. So how can writers take advantage of this NF “moment” and capitalize on the momentum?

Well, from my seat at the agent’s desk, books like BOMB and RAD AMERICAN WOMEN are the way to go–titles that can fit with Core Curriculum standards while having the kind of adult-market trade appeal that will catch parents’ eyes in the bookstore. Biographies are also attractive, particularly those of living figures (for instance, Hillary Clinton) recently deceased figures (Steve Jobs) or historical figures that are back in the zeitgeist (Alexander Hamilton). And if you’re a published adult writer whose book can be reworked for MG or YA, that’s a great way to further your reach, too.

I’ll also add that on the picture book end, nonfiction is in demand as well. Of course, the topics naturally skew younger than MG or YA–lots of animal stories and bios that can sidestep most controversy. Multicultural topics are also a plus at this level, as they can often be paired with the kind of highly imaginative artwork that editors love.

And here’s another plus on children’s NF–submission guidelines tend to be somewhat squishy. So while picture books submissions do require full text, often you can write longer than the 500-1,000 word limits that frustrate a lot of PB writers. And for MG and YA, my experience is that most editors will review a proposal in lieu of a full manuscript, and a fairly brief proposal at that.

So, for any children’s book writer who’s contemplating NF, this is the time to do it–and when you’ve got your MS or proposal together, send it to me!

4

Audio book ideas

As some readers might remember from past blog posts, my in-laws live in coastal Maine, which is about a 7-hour drive from NYC. Usually, we leave right after the boys wake up and arrive mid-afternoon. However, we’re going up next weekend, and to maximize our time, we’re attempting a night drive next Friday night. We’ve never done this before, but the boys are solid sleepers, and after a full week of camp they’re typically knocked out by Friday evening. So, I’m hopeful they’ll conk out before we hit Connecticut and stay that way!

Okay, what does this have to do with books? Well, typically when we drive up to Maine I get about a half-hour of radio in before the boys demand a DVD, and so most of the entertainment on the trip consists of me listening to the audio of their movie from the back seat. It’s a slightly surreal experience–I could probably recite the dialog of THE LEGO MOVIE and DESPICABLE ME before I’d even seen either movie.

But for the night drive, movies will be shut off by nightfall, and I figure the radio will be too noisy or distracting for the boys. And while they tend to snooze whenever we put on dub or reggae, I’m worried that might be a little sleep-inducing for the driver, too. So it dawned on me–here’s a perfect chance to listen to an audio book! And yet, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit, I’ve never done an audio book before. Whenever I’m alone in the car, I’m a music guy–either I tune in to the radio or load up the ipod with something new.

So, any suggestions for a good listen? Any readers that I should look for or avoid if I want to stay awake but keep the boys asleep? I was thinking of downloading GIRL ON A TRAIN, since I haven’t read it yet–has anyone listened to it and can recommend? Thanks in advance for the feedback!

2

Men of constant sorrow

As my colleagues at DGLM know from last week’s staff meeting, I’m somewhat obsessed with the prison break in upstate New York. I think ever since O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? entered my all-time top-five movie list, I’m naturally predisposed to prison break stories, and this one is starting to shape up like a Coen brother’s movie. Yes, I know it’s poor taste to make light, given that our perps are actually violent killers not cuddly movie stars, but then today it comes out that Richard Matt painted a family portrait for Joyce Mitchell. Awwww…

And it doesn’t help, too, that the more I look at Matt and Sweat (such great names!) I see George Clooney and Tim Blake Nelson playing them in the movie version:

 

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But while I can’t wait to see how it all ends, I’m having trouble wrapping my agent hat around it. For one, where does a prison-break story fall in terms of genre? On first glance, I’d say True Crime, but the crime here isn’t murder—at least not yet—which still seems like a prerequisite for the genre. But if not True Crime, then what? Moreover, with the story having so much media attention and legs so far, what would be covered in a book that hasn’t already been seen on TV or the Web? It’s an issue that’s bedeviled traditional True Crime for years, and unless an author can get access to Matt, Sweat, or Mitchell, it’s hard to see what would pass the “new and newsworthy” test.

So, what’s the angle? It’s a question agents ask ourselves all the time, especially when it comes to stories in the news. If any readers have any ideas, I’d love to hear them, because I do think there’s something here, or that there will be down the line. At the very least, we can play the casting game—any thoughts on who plays Joyce?

1

Connections

Last week, I got a submission over the transom for a YA novel. The query was well structured, a sample was attached, and while it wasn’t for me, I did appreciate that the author took the time to research and follow our submission guidelines. End of story, until a few days later I got another email from the same author—turns out her son was a very close friend of my sister from college, and could I help her out with suggestions for other agents who might want to take a look?

Well, of course I’d be happy to help—but why didn’t she make the connection in the first place? Yes, it was a couple of degrees of separation, but I think if she’d dug just a little bit deeper, she would have connected me to my sister, and then she could have included that connection in her original query. And with that, while I still wouldn’t have taken on her project, I might have written her a personal note when I responded, or offered some editorial advice, rather than sending my form rejection.

The point is, connections are a major part of the publishing game. It’s why I stress to authors at every conference I attend that if they’re going to submit to me, make sure they reference meeting me or hearing me talk at that conference. And thanks to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin, etc., making those connections has never been easier.

If you really need further proof of the power of connections, go back and watch the MAD MEN finale again—or stop reading if you haven’t (SPOILER ALERT). For me, the most gratifying wrap-up by far was for Joan’s success in her new business—which is based, as they stress several times, on her Rolodex, i.e., her connections. Yes, it’s fictional and set 45 years ago, but the power of connection endure; after all, the job of a literary agent at root is to connect authors with publishers…

So while we always encourage authors to do their homework before submitting and check out the website, submission guidelines, etc., I’d urge you to go the extra mile and look for a more personal connection as well. Look around on-line, ask your friends and family if they know anyone in the publishing industry, check your college’s alumni listings—even the wedding listings in the Times can suggest a contact. Sure, at the end of the day it’s the work that matters, but that common link definitely helps get your foot in the door. And who knows where that connection might lead in the future?

0

Plausibility

As devoted DGLM readers know, we run an in-house book club here to broaden our horizons and keep abreast of categories we might not otherwise investigate. This month, we’re doing thrillers, and while I enjoyed my book—fast-paced, good characters, lots of practical information—ultimately it bugged me because the central premise was totally unbelievable. While there’s eventually a plot-twist that tries to explain away the implausibility of the concept, it doesn’t pass the smell test.

Yet without naming names, the book came from a Big Six house, edited by a top editor, and was the author’s tenth novel. It came armed with tons of blurbs from major authors, and I could find only one review that took issue with the premise. To which I say… really? But while I sit here feeling like I’m taking crazy pills with Mugatu from ZOOLANDER, the book did make me think about plausibility in general.

I’m sure plausibility is a question  for all writers, but especially ones who write in plot-heavy genres like thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, kids books, etc. It’s hard enough to come up with inventive plots, character and voice, yet do it in a way that readers will buy–even if your story is about, say, zombie kittens from Mars. So if you’re wrestling with plausibility issues, check out this essay from Steve Almond in Writer’s Digest, which ably dissects the various plausibility traps writers often fall into (I’d say the premise of my Book Club book falls under the Factual/Logistical umbrella). Or, for an elegant summation of how to think about plausibility, it’s hard to beat this letter from Ursula K. LeGuin.

How many of you have run into problems with plausibility? And how have you found your way out of the traps?

1

Libraries and Discoverability

Where do readers find out about new books?

It’s one of the questions every publisher asks itself over and over–perhaps even every time they release a new book. And on that topic, there was an interesting article in PW this week by branding guru David Vinjamuri about how libraries should be utilized to promote new titles. Vinjamuri makes some fascinating points here, especially when he correctly show how libraries do not cannibalize bookstore sales, which is unfortunately a truism that children’s book publishers have railed against with their corporate overlords for years. I was also impressed by his analysis of how important physical space is for discoverability, and how the shrinking of physical display space through store closings has affected sales—though it’s a little depressing that one takeaway here is how much people really do judge books by their cover!

Now, one can certainly debate Vinjamuri’s ultimate conclusion that publishers should work with libraries to replace bookstores as a means for finding new books. Myself, I wonder if a cynical attempt to promote through libraries might backfire, and backfire badly, as I think most people at some level go to libraries to escape commerce. I also know from years spent talking to librarians at ALA that they tend to guard their independence rather fiercely, and it’s hard to see them getting into the pay-to-play games of co-op advertising and display space.

But on the other hand, it’s great to see someone suggesting a new approach to book promotion. As I’ve written before here on the blog, with all the sales data available now, I wonder if we’re going to see more inventive ways of publishing and promoting books. While marketing through libraries may not be the best way to go, the fact that marketing types are thinking this way could lead to some rather interesting new book campaigns in the coming months and years.

Okay, enough speculation. Let’s get back to the question at hand—where do YOU (as a reader) find out about new books? And if libraries are one of the places, do you think publishers should market through them?

2

Why I love picture books

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As I’m sure you heard, there was a massive fire here in New York yesterday afternoon, and it happened just seven blocks away from our office. From our windows, we could see the huge cloud of smoke it produced–it looked something like this:

<> on March 26, 2015 in New York City.

And when I walked out the door of our office at 5, the hallway by the elevator had the telltale chemical aroma of a building fire. I have to say it freaked me out a little—the smell immediately brought me back to 9/11, when I lived downtown and woke up to that smell for a couple weeks.

But when I got home and told my 3-year-old son George about the fire, the first thing he asked was to read one of his favorite picture books, MY FIRE ENGINE by Michael Rex. And that, in essence, is one of the reasons I love picture books. There’s something amazing about a toddler’s ability to relate to the real world and make sense of it through the pictures and story of a book, and through them that view of the world becomes remarkable positive. While we adults worry about the safety of the victims and firefighters, or how a gas main might blow up our own building, a toddler sees only the bravery and camaraderie of the fire squad. Not to mention all the cool gear they get and the awesome trucks they ride…

It’s thanks to books like MY FIRE ENGINE and FIREFIGHTER FRANK that George tells us he wants to be a fireman when he grows up—and I’d be willing to bet that plenty of actual firefighters were inspired to some degree by the books they read as kids. While not every picture book is blatantly inspirational, it’s rare to find a picture book that doesn’t have some positive takeaway. They’re healthy for grown-ups, too—while I wallow in the darkness of my musical tastes (thanks, Uncle Lou) and fret over death and taxes, a picture book read with George always brings me back into the light.

Music in the air

Maybe it’s due to the long-awaited thaw here in NYC, but everywhere I turn this week it feels like music is in the air. And books about music are demanding to be heard…

First, the other night, my son Henry brought home PLAY, MOZART, PLAY by Peter Sis from school for his assigned reading. I adore Peter’s Sis’ MADLENKA and some of his other titles, but I didn’t know this one. It’s a very sweet (and bittersweet) depiction of Mozart the child prodigy, who spent his early years playing for kings and queens but missed out on being a kid. Not only did Henry ask to read it together, but since his class recently started writing book reviews, he asked me to write a blog post about it this week.

Since I obviously can’t refuse a request like that, I’ll just say that if you can find a copy, it’s worth a look as a fine example of how to write about music for kids. So many picture books with musical themes simply present song lyrics, and while there are some successful titles (THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND, for example), too often they fall flat without the musical accompaniment (sadly, Bob Marley’s ONE LOVE comes to mind immediately). With PLAY, MOZART, PLAY, Sis sidesteps any direct citation, instead letting Mozart’s imagination reflect the mood and themes of his music. It’s a much more successful technique, and one that I think registers strongly with readers, even if they don’t know Mozart’s music at all.

Then, on Wednesday night, I had the honor of attending the National Jewish Book Awards to support my client James A. Grymes, whose VIOLINS OF HOPE had won the award in the Holocaust category. VIOLINS OF HOPE chronicles the stories behind several violins that were played by Jewish musicians during WWII, mostly in concentration camps, and how these instruments eventually made their way to Amnon Weinstein, a violin restorer in Israel, who fixed them up for a travelling exhibition. A sobering subject, no doubt, so it was all the more enjoyable to toast Jay’s success last night.

Now, one of the many things I love about this book is that it a great example of using physical objects to tell a much larger story—throughout, the violins are used as a jumping-off point to discuss bigger themes, such as the treatment of musicians in concentration camps, the partisan movement, emigration to Israel, and so on. Taking a small element or story to tell a larger one is a narrative style that I personally love, and it can make for very successful popular nonfiction—Michael Lewis, anyone? So if anyone out there is working in that vein, especially with a musical connection, I’d love to see your work…

Finally, what were two of the big publishing stories this week? The sale of Chrissie Hynde’s memoir and Kim Gordon’s GIRL IN A BAND hitting #2 on the NY Times bestseller list. Seems like the musician memoir is still a hot commodity, and it’s especially exciting to see Gordon’s success, given how non-commercial so much of Sonic Youth’s output was. And it’s got an awesome jacket, too!

So, to paraphrase the Bard, “If music be the food of books, write on.” Let’s see what you can do!

3

No more “boy books”

When I first started agenting, I naturally put out a call for submissions. Through my bio and personal essay on this site, and through interviews and postings on other sites and in print, I told anyone who would listen that I was looking for “boy books,” or that I was known as a “boy book” kind of guy. At the time, it seemed to make sense based on much of what I’d edited at Penguin, and also as a way to differentiate myself from my colleagues here at DGLM. And it worked, in that I quickly built up a client list, most of whom were male and writing about male characters in their fiction.

However, over time, I started to chafe at my self-assigned “boy book” label. For one, I realized that while I might gravitate toward what’s considered “boy book” territory, especially in nonfiction, my personal reading is chock full of books that might be called “girl books”—most YA, for example, as well as some popular fiction and even nonfiction. (I loved WILD, after all.) Moreover, one of my proudest achievements as an editor was working on Padma Venkatraman’s CLIMBING THE STAIRS, which would certainly get labeled a “girl book”—in other words, I had a track record working on “girl books,” so why give that up as an agent? Plus, I discovered that I was limiting the kinds of submissions I was getting, quite severely at times, which is certainly problematic for my bottom line.

So, last year I revamped my bio and essay and took out the “boy book” designation. But while I had practical reasons for trying to shy away from the “boy book” label, I never really thought about it in political or moral terms. So it was pretty staggering to read this recent blog post by bestelling author Shannon Hale, and how “boy/girl” labeling has affected her school visits. On first glance, it seems ludicrous that school administers would only excuse girls from class to hear her talk, yet I can understand the thinking: “Well, her books feature girl protagonists, and we know boys won’t read those kind of books, so why should they skip class for a talk where we know they’ll be bored and won’t learn anything?”

Now, while I can understand the thinking, that doesn’t mean it’s right. Hale correctly points out that the expectation that boys won’t like books featuring girl characters is so deeply rooted in the educational system that for boys a book like THE HUNGER GAMES has to be qualified: “Even though it’s about a girl, I think you’ll like it.” And by denying the encouragement of boys to read girl characters, and the shaming of them when they do, Hale makes a valid argument that this leads to the rape culture that is far too prevalent, particularly at the college level these days.

So—no more “boy books” for me. Or “girl books.” Instead, just great books, featuring interesting, original, engaging characters. Hopefully this post will supersede any “boy book” info linked to me in searches, and if it does, I’d love for writers to take a look at Hale’s post and reconsider how they might label their work. Obviously, the effort to get past boy/girl labels will involve heavy lifting on the part of educators, parents, and publishers, who are certainly culpable for perpetuating the gendered reading divide. But if authors can shift how they view their own work, that’s a major step toward helping the boy who was too embarrassed to hear Hale talk because he would have needed special permission to miss class.