Category Archives: middle grade

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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.

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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!

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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…

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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!

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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, writersdigest.com, 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.

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MG vs YA

Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference in Seattle. At the opening Agent’s Panel, I gave my usual spiel of what I’m looking for–Adult nonfiction, a smattering of offbeat adult fiction, and the broad range of children’s projects–YA, Middle Grade, and picture books. After that, I settled into my seat in the ballroom for a long stretch of power pitching, where the writers line up for 4-minute pitch meetings one after the other in the hopes of getting a request to see a full MS.

As exhausting as power pitching can be, it does serve to give an agent a good idea of what writers are generally working on these days. Although we often recommend that writers NOT write for the market, it’s natural for writers to turn to what seems to be popular. And hence, I heard a ton of MG pitches, which makes sense, since a ton of editors seem to be focusing on it these days.

But what surprised me about these MG pitches is that a solid majority of them featured a main character who was 13 years old. Which, if you go by the traditional demarcations of MG as ages 8-12 and YA as 12 up, means that they’re really writing YA. At the same time, the stories seemed to be solidly MG–heavy on fantasy and school stories, light on teen issues and racy content.

So what gives? Do these writers not know the basic guidelines? Are they just trying to age down their YA novels for the market? Or has MG become more elastic and less constricted by age distinctions than in the past?

Frankly, I’m not exactly sure, so I was very interested to read this article from PW Children’s Bookshelf, which looks at how bookstores are struggling with how to shelve MG and YA. And from their survey, it seems that stores are making up their own rules–some are keeping YA and MG totally separate, some create overlapping sections of 8-12, 10-14, and 14 up, while others lump them all together. Different strokes for different customer bases, perhaps, but for me it seems like there’s just confusion all round about where books belong on the shelf.

So, what’s a writer to do? Well, like a lot of category distinctions in publishing, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there’s a clear answer. My personal feeling is that despite the shifting winds, a writer seeking representation is still better off adhering to the old guidelines–if your character is 12 or under, it’s MG, 13 and up, YA. Not that I’m trying to take the easy way out here, but the last thing I want to hear from an editor is that they love the book but aren’t sure where it would live on the shelf–that’s a classic rejection line.  So I’d much prefer an author adhere to what’s been done in the past when starting out and go genre-busting on book 2.

That said, others may have different ideas of what marks MG versus YA these days, so I’d love to know what you’ve been hearing. Are 8-12 and 12 up still recommended? If not, what are folks suggesting as new guidelines?

 

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A long time coming

One of the many things I love about book publishing is that the life of a book can be much longer than one might think. Generally speaking, from a publisher’s point of view a book’s “life” runs about three years–that’s when the business office usually runs their final post-mortem on a book’s performance. Yet even three years down the line (or more), things happen that can boost a book’s sales and give it new life on the shelf, and those surprises are gratifying in so many ways.

Case in point: When I was an editor at Putnam, I had the great pleasure to debut Royce Buckingham, whose DEMONKEEPER made a nice little splash in MG circles. However, it wasn’t as big as Putnam hoped, and his next novel didn’t do so well, either. So when it came time for Book 3, Royce and I felt he had to try something different. Thus, he came up with THE DEAD BOYS, which was much darker and scarier than his previous books, but in my opinion, the best thing he’d written by far.

As you might have guessed, THE DEAD BOYS totally tanked, despite some good reviews. But then some funny things happened: first, DEMONKEEPER became a huge hit in Germany, to the point that his German publishers asked him to write sequels in English solely for translation into German. It’s hard to quantify how much this helped raise Royce’s profile stateside, but it certainly didn’t hurt!

And then, THE DEAD BOYS quietly chugged along, particularly in Royce’s home state of Washington, where he does his share of school visits and other local promotion. The result? THE DEAD BOYS just won the Washington State 2014 Sasquatch Award, for which it was nominated by local librarians and voted on by kids across the state–four years after it was first published!

So, great news for THE DEAD BOYS–validation for a book that should have been “dead” by now, and I’m sure it will be followed by the sales boost that accompanies state awards. But more to the point, it’s just one of the many examples of a book whose life was extended beyond expectations, and I feel like it’s good for authors to keep these stories in mind when faced with dwindling royalty reports or out-of-print notices. You just never know–especially if you put in the work!

What I’m looking for now

With this October marking my third anniversary here at DGLM, I’ve been in a reflective mood. I’ve been thinking about how my client list has developed, how it’s changed over the years, and what kinds of projects I’d like to represent going forward. In that spirit, I took a gander at my old blogposts, and I realized it’s been almost two years since I published a wish list—yikes! I really didn’t mean to let it go that long, especially because last one I published drew plenty of interesting submissions, not to mention a few clients…

So, without further ado, here’s what I’m looking for now, by category:

PICTURE BOOK AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATORS: Picture books have always had a special place in my heart. In fact, they’re one of the main reasons I stuck it out in children’s publishing for so long. And to my great joy, it seems like picture books are cycling back into favor–we’ve had a couple of major picture book deals here at DGLM recently. So if there are any author/illustrators out there with a fun, character-based story to tell, I’d LOVE to see your work!

MIDDLE GRADE FICTION: More than any other category, it seems like children’s book editors are hungry for middle-grade these days in any form—realistic, fantasy, sci-fi, boy- or girl-focused, you name it—and I couldn’t be happier. Ever since HARRY POTTER ended, I think publishers have been searching for the next classic, and with YA in flux (more on that below), the search has become a top priority. Personally, I’m most interested in realistic, contemporary MG a la WONDER. (Can’t argue with those numbers!) However, I’m more than happy to look at anything fantastic that fits the category, so if anyone’s got a great 8-12 character (or a great YA character that can be aged down), bring it on!

YOUNG ADULT FICTION: YA has been a puzzle for the last year or so. On the one hand, we’ve got John Green waving the banner of realistic, issue-driven YA; on the other, there’s DIVERGENT and now STEELHEART fanning the flames of sci-fi/dystopia/fantasy. My feeling is the fantasy side will keep lumbering on, but the bar for originality has never been set higher. So while I’m certainly open to fantasy/sci-fi, it really needs to be something special to have a chance. At the same time, contemporary YA seems to be in demand, though again, originality is the key. But on both sides, strong characterization trumps all–without that, we won’t get anywhere.

ADULT NARRATIVE NON-FICTION:   As I said last time: “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—whatever the subject, if you’ve got the credentials to write about it, send it my way.” To this list, I’ll add military history and politics, as well as a request—whatever the subject, try to make it as expansive as possible without losing the main narrative. A favorite rejection line from editors is that a subject is too narrow… so go wide!

ADULT MEN’S FICTION: When I first started at DGLM, I signed a number of adult fiction clients without much understanding of the categories or market, and after a number of misses, I decided to steer clear of adult fiction for a while. Three years on, I think I’ve got a better handle of how things work, plus our independent publishing program provides a viable alternative for projects that can’t find a traditional home. So, once again, I’m on the look-out for high-concept, character-driven narratives, be they thrillers, suspense, literary, commercial, horror, what have you—happy to take a look.

Thanks for giving this a read. Can’t wait to see what comes in!

 

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What happens after you win a Newbery or Caldecott?

The Newbery and Caldecott award nominees are being announced on Monday, January 28th. Each year I look forward to seeing who is chosen for these prestigious awards. Children’s literature has exploded over the last decade and the quality of material being published in this category is outstanding. When I create my reading lists for pleasure, there are always at least a few middle grade or young adult novels on there. Recent additions include  the much-hyped bestselling FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green and CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth E. Wein, which I recall receiving starred reviews when it was released from all of the major trade publications.

So I loved coming across this piece in Publisher’s Weekly recently which interviews previous recipients of this award to ask about how winning has impacted their lives and careers. The answers vary considerably, but it’s always interesting and can be insightful to learn about how writers respond to this type of rare positive attention to their work. Most seem to agree the media outreach and public speaking present a new and unexpected challenge. It’s like becoming a literary celebrity overnight!

I’d love to know if you find any helpful advice for your own work in these interviews, and also if there are books you think or hope will be nominated next week. Please let us know.