Category Archives: middle grade


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!


Learning about Middle Grade fiction

I have been agenting for a long time, and I’ve met a lot of interesting and wonderful writers and learned a great deal about different categories of fiction and nonfiction, what sells and what doesn’t.  But, I am always eager to learn new things.

Over the last several years we have all heard a great deal about Young Adult books and what seems to work and what doesn’t.  And we at DGLM represent a bunch of bestsellers in this category.  One of the interesting things in this category is the crossover market that has developed with books like THE HUNGER GAMES series and titles authored by John Green and James Dashner.  And I have been fortunate to represent a number of significant new YA authors.

When we were looking to choose a category for our next book club meeting, Jim McCarthy wisely came up with the concept of all of us reading a recently published Middle Grade book and I loved this idea as this is a category I am just now dipping my toe into.  The potential market is huge since the Harry Potter series put the genre on the map and obviously crossed over into an adult market.

RATSCALIBURTo prepare, I have studied the category a bit.  I know that the age range of readers is between 8 and 12 and the average length of books is 100 pages or less.  Here is a piece I found that clearly describes this category and its traditional market.

Middle Grade classics include the previously mentioned Harry Potter titles, Charlotte’s Web, Matilda and our own Chris Grabenstein’s Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and The Island of Dr. Libris.

So I chose as my book club title (with Jim’s help) Ratscalibur by Josh Lieb.  And my thought is that I will read this and then give it to my seven-year-old granddaughter, Elena, who is a terrific reader, to see what she thinks.  Stay tuned for our thoughts.

I’d also love to know what your experiences are with Middle Grade and what you (and your children) have enjoyed reading in the category.



The Lambda Literary Awards were held the Monday after BEA, and, although the ceremony stretched over the course of nearly three hours, the feeling was festive. This year there was something new in the air.

For many years, LGBTQ literature has seemed the poor stepchild of the publishing industry. What had once been a boom back in the 80s and 90s had, by the new millennium, been relegated to a “niche” category that wasn’t showing profits.  LGBTQ individuals were, fortunately, becoming less marginalized, and many no longer felt the same drive to seek the solace of literature. Why did you need to pore through the Gay and Lesbian section at Barnes and Noble, or haunt A Different Light, when you could turn on a rerun of Will and Grace any night of the week?  The nation’s LGBTQ book shops shuttered one by one, and the major publishers became reluctant to acquire queer fiction.

But the sector that has always remained open to such books is just the one where it is most needed: YA and Middle Grade. Gay characters have been thriving in the pages of YA and Middle Grade novels—Seth Rudetsky’s upcoming The Rise and Fall of a Theater Geek, Stephen Chbosky’s  The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Tim Federle’s Better Nate Than Ever are just a few of the books where sexual orientation is basically taken for granted–it is not even the major issue. Times have changed, very much for the better.

Now, transgender is a hot topic among young readers. Along with the growing acceptance of transgender people in society, we are seeing a rising tide of books about kids who are navigating their own gender issues. Alex Gino’s George, slated to be published in August by  Scholastic, was one of the most touted Middle Grade books at BEA. Memoirs like Rethinking Normal by Katie Rain Hill and Some Assembly Required by Arin Andrews are making an impact. And my colleague Jim McCarthy just closed a deal with HarperCollins for Rory Harrison’s Looking for Group, in which a transgender teen will figure prominently. These titles are just the tip of the iceberg.

Will transgender novels reach a tipping point, just as vampires did? Perhaps, but for now, they will help a lot of kids who are going to be very grateful. Adolescence is difficult enough to navigate on its own. It must be a lot tougher when you feel you’re stuck in the wrong body.


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.


What I’m Looking for Now

Happy 2015, everybody! (Though with everything going on in the news, maybe just “Let’s get through 2015, everybody!” But I’m a sensitive type.)

It’s been a while since I’ve written about what I’m looking for, in part because I haven’t been signing much up over the past couple of years. It’s been a great time for my authors, and they’ve kept me rather busy! But after a bit of a hiatus in signing new clients, I’m eager to find some fresh talent.

I continue to look for exceptional children’s projects at all age levels. Despite representing some of the best authors writing YA, I want more. What can I say? I’m greedy! I continue to appreciate challenging, convention-defying, inventive fiction. I’ve said it before, and will say it again: if someone has told you, “you can’t write that for teenagers,” then I want to see it. If you’ve got something that subverts expectations or thumbs its nose at YA conventions, send it my way. I think I best represent the kinds of books about which I can say to an editor, “You’ve never seen this before.”

That said, I do love “commercial” books, too. I love a high-concept page-turner, whether it’s contemporary, historical or fantasy. While it’d be tough to get me to take on anything with a whiff of dystopia, I wouldn’t mind seeing a more grounded ghost story or something—dare I say it?—paranormal. It still needs to be brilliantly written and executed, of course.

In middle grade, my tastes are quite broad, and my list is much less full. I’m still waiting to see something that comes close to capturing the feel of John Bellairs’s books, which I devoured as a kid. It’d be great to get something as terrifying as A House with a Clock in Its Walls, which had me sleeping with the lights on when I was a kid. The right combination of humor and horror is always great. And it would be good to see more exciting, adventure novels that can get kids interested in history. Little-known events, overlooked heroes/heroines, and underserved minorities (we do need books with diverse themes, characters, settings, etc.) are all subjects I’d be particularly interested to see.

On the adult side, I’m really hankering for some science narrative, particularly in the realm of space and physics. Scientists or science journalists who can explain complex ideas to the masses are some of the people I admire most. I believe that science education for the general public is one of the greatest ways we can improve the world in which we live. The more we understand who we are, where we come from and our place in the universe, the better we can make decisions about our collective future. So bring on the science books!

While this is what I’m currently jonesing for, that doesn’t mean I’m not open to other things. My tastes are broad and I love to be surprised by submissions. I don’t really handle adult Sci-fi or fantasy, and I’m not really a picture book expert. And though I am always on the lookout for good food narrative, I’m no longer representing new cookbook authors.

Remember, too, that if I’m not right for your work, surely there’s another great DGLM agent who might be, so be sure to look at everyone’s bios. Get to querying, authors!

What I’m looking for now (2014 edition)

The mornings are getting chilly, the leaves are changing, and we just stocked up on pumpkin chai mix at Trader Joe’s—fall must be here! And with the autumn, it’s time for my somwhat annual wish list. If anyone’s writing and/or illustrating in the following categories, I’d love to see your work. And please note a few small but significant changes from the last time I put my wish list out there:

PICTURE BOOK AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATORS: Our list of author/illustrators has continued to grow by leaps and bounds here at DLGM. (please revel in our illustration samples if you haven’t seen them yet!) But I’m still very much on the hunt for artists and illustrators who can write. So if you’ve got a great story, a cool concept, or a fantastic character paired with spectacular, professional-level artwork, I’d LOVE to see it.  And if you’re submitting art, a PDF that’s 5MB or less would be ideal.

MIDDLE GRADE FICTION: Last year, I noted that editors seem hungry for MG in all forms, and a year later that hunger has only grown. I hear more requests now for MG, even from longtime YA editors, than I ever have before. That said, I think editors still aren’t quite sure what they want out of MG, but whether it’s realistic or genre, loud or quiet, funny or serious—whatever it is, I’d love to see what you’ve got.

YOUNG ADULT FICTION: Similar to MG, the call for realistic YA, which started to be heard last year, has only grown louder in 2014. And that’s always been my sweet-spot for YA, too, though I’m always a fan of an original genre piece (“original” being the key word), be it historical, fantasy, or sci-fi. But mostly, I’d love to see realistic stories, and I’d love to see stories with both male and female protagonists. I know I’m the self-declared “boy book” guy here, but in looking at my list, about half my YA authors write female main characters, so please think of me for “girl” books, too!

CHILDREN’S NONFICTION: Here’s a new one for me. About a year ago, I started hearing from children’s editors that they were looking for nonfiction, and not just at the picture book level.  Partly, that’s due to Common Core reading standards, but I also think that ALA has been more interested in nonfiction recently, and as we know, awards stickers sell books. So if you’ve got a good nonfiction idea for any children’s category, please send it my way—and that includes picture book MSS, which I typically don’t take unless they’re from artists.

ADULT NARRATIVE NON-FICTION:   I’ve used this line for a few years now, but it’s a good one, so I’m sticking to it: “If there’s an amazing book-length true story out there, I want to hear it. History, memoir, sports, music, immersion journalism, popular science, health, animals, military history, politics—whatever the subject, if you’ve got the credentials to write about it, send it my way.” In particular, though, I’d love to do some more sports and music—I think there are holes in both marketplaces here.

ADULT FICTION: I’ve been thinking about this one a lot over the past year. As with YA, while I’ve often declared myself the “boy book” guy, I’ve realized that my tastes aren’t really exclusive to boy books. And in fact, some of the books I’ve loved most this year were clearly targeted to a female readership. So I’d like to take a step back from the manly side of things and just say that I’m looking for fiction that tells a good story. More than anything, I’ve realized that regardless of the audience, good plotting and momentum are what really get me going—to take an obvious example, I’ve finally gotten around to GONE GIRL, and I am totally sleep-deprived this week from staying up to see what happens next. So with that, I’ll repeat a little of what I said last year: I’m looking for “high-concept, character-driven narratives, be they literary, commercial, thrillers, suspense, horror, what have you.” And to that I’ll add strong plotting with male or female characters as well.

Thanks so much for taking a look, and I can’t wait to see what you’ve got!


The name game

There’s nothing quite like starting off a new season with a book sale, particularly in Autumn, when the summer’s lethargy fades and it feels like everyone in publishing is back on the hunt for new work. And happily enough, I was able to place a middle grade novel that I absolutely loved, made even more gratifying by the fact that, full disclosure, it took quite a while to find its home. But back-patting aside, I wanted to share this story because it speaks to the importance of a really good title.

So, the first time I sent the novel around, it had what I thought was a snappy title—two words that rhymed, which seemed quirky and fun, plus it came from a line in the book, which is always a good thing. Yet, on the first round, despite some enthusiastic reports and near misses, we didn’t end up with a sale. And after enough passes, for which a lot of editors said the same thing, the author and I decided to table the novel for now and work on something new.

But then, a few months after we put it aside, the author came back to me and asked if we could try again with a new title. He just had a feeling that the original title wasn’t quite representing the substance and tenor of the book. Instead, he suggested a three-word phrase that was much more literary and ambiguous, though still taken from a line in the book. So, we gave it another shot, and lo and behold, the offer came in about a month later!

Now, there could certainly be many other variables here at play—the timing of the submission, not finding the right editor until late in the game, the holes in the editor’s list, etc. But I do think that the new title reframed readers’ expectations about what was inside and put them in a different mindset when reading it. Yes, titles can be a struggle, and since publishers almost always contractually control the title, the struggle can seem counterproductive at times. But I hope this story shows how important it is to find a title that truly reflects the book—and at the same time, if the title isn’t quite working but the content’s there, a title change just might be what the doctor ordered…


Schoolday reading

With the summer season coming to a close (I know, I know, it’s a harsh reality, but we all have to accept it), I was thinking fondly on how excited I used to get to go back to school. Clean, fresh notebooks, brand new pens, new seat assignments and, of course, finding out what books we were going to be reading that year.

I remember in elementary school when there was a whole separate class called “Reading,” and that was amazing. I relished in having read a little ahead of the class and knowing what was coming next and learning about the culture surrounding each book. I think my favorite thing, however, was when we read aloud, a paragraph per student, which was excruciating when it got to those who didn’t care or couldn’t read as well (by “well” I meant with emotion as a performance because I also fancied myself a budding actress. Naturally.), but was empowering when it was my turn and I got an especially long paragraph to say.

Reminiscing about some of my very favorite books we read in grade school, my mind immediately went to Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins which easily led me to the rest of the books in the series and will forever be remembered initially as the first time I learned what a cormorant was.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry is another one that struck me hard and I think was the catalyst for my fervent love of middle grade and young adult fiction that centered on WWII, the Holocaust and wartime in general. The memories are coming back to me in floods now and my next immediate thought is of The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig about a family exiled to Siberia. I don’t remember too much about the plot (though I did just look it up), but I do remember declaring that it was my number one favorite book for a while…and of course it turns out that it also took place during the early 1940s.

And then there are those books that I remember pieces of, but have no idea what they might be. Struck with a thought, I just searched “wearing broccoli around your neck,” and weirdly, that worked. Apparently a fourth grade favorite of mine was called Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days by Stephen Manes. I should have known that searching “everything you touch turns to chocolate” would provide me with a book titled The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling. Should have figured that one out, Rachel. I think I just liked that book so much because it’s actually a dream of mine to have chocolate whenever I want it.

It’s funny the way certain parts of stories, especially stories from childhood, stick with us even if the rest of the book doesn’t. Vivid scenes, like the making a cape of cormorant feathers in Island of the Blue Dolphins or the main character in In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson learning how to play stickball (also when I learned what stickball was, myself). Is it because there is so much new information that we’re learning for the first time or because a kid’s imagination works in overdrive, much more easily able to relate fantastical stories to his or her own life?

Whatever the reason, it was a nice little trip down memory lane—and a relief that my images of broccoli necklaces and chocolate mailboxes were based on something real and not a sign that I’m going insane. What books immediately come to mind for you when you think back to grade school? Were there any that you remember hating? Loving? Maybe it’ll jog my memory, too!


Defining children’s categories

I often get asked what the differences are between a middle grade and young adult novel. I think with the success of the children’s category in general over the last decade or so, those answers have changed. There is a lot more overlap now between upper middle grade and younger young adult, and with older young adult to adult crossover. The books that work best in both categories are the ones that become widely read by boys and girls, children and adults. Think blockbuster series like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Divergent and our own Maze Runner.

I found this article from my favorite source,, about defining middle grade and ya fiction. While there is some really good basic beginner advice here, I do think that some rules were made to be broken. Don’t get caught up in word count to stick to category norms. Then again, don’t submit a manuscript that’s 150,000 words either. But straying 10k in either direction is totally fine.

Another important point to consider is that the majority of middle grade is third person, and the majority of young adult is first. You might think of this as children’s books 101 but I’ve had authors try to do third person YA and then find switching to first works a whole lot better for the book and the category.

I think that children’s books are opening up in many directions and kids today are able to digest a lot more than ever before. I see it with my own girls, two of whom are reading and two are about to be as they enter Kindergarten. Their minds are so open to the many adventures that await them in both middle grade and young adult novels. I can’t wait to share it with them! Please let us know about your favorite MG and YA novels, and if they follow the guidelines set forth by Writer’s Digest.