Category Archives: middle grade

0

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!

 

0

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.

Stacey Glick interview at Writer’s Digest

It’s been a while since I wrote about the kinds of projects I’m looking for, and since I answer that question and many others in an interview I did that was recently published on writersdigest.com, I thought it would be nice to share it with our loyal blog readers.

The interview goes into some detail on my background, my list, and my thoughts on many different aspects of the market, where it is now, and where it is going.

I thought Ricki’s questions were really targeted to my interests and as a result we managed to squeeze a lot of information into a fairly brief interview.

I hope it’s useful to anyone reading, and if I didn’t answer all of your questions or you have others you’d like to ask, ask away and I will do my best to respond to each and every one. Promise! Enjoy.

9

Everything you ever wanted to know about middle grade, the finale

Molly O’Neill: It’s our final installment of Everything You Wanted To Know About Middle Grade and Weren’t Afraid To Ask! Michael and I could probably talk even longer about this topic—but when we’re blogging, we’re not signing/acquiring/editing the next Great American Middle Grade Novel, so….priorities!

One thing that I notice a lot about middle grade is that I see the same ideas over and over again, in countless submissions. We’ve already talked about creativity in Part One and Part Two of this series, but I think it’s a point worth coming back to again as we wind things up. Michael, what do you think: if there’s truth to that myth that there are only seven (or 3 or 20, etc, depending which expert you ask) basic plots, how does any writer create a story that feels fresh and exciting and unique?

Michael Bourret: That’s the challenge, isn’t it?  (Dramatic announcer voice) In a world where tens of thousands of novels a published a year, and it seems that every story has been told, how can authors writer something worthwhile, interesting and original? (End dramatic announcer voice.) I don’t think it’s easy, but I know it’s possible. I read new things every day, published and yet-to-be published that knock my socks off. Things that strike me as truly original, even if I can trace back elements of the stories to classic books like The Chronicles of Narnia or Phantom Tollbooth. A story may well be familiar: kid travels from ordinary world to magical one, learns things, grows up. (Which, by the way, is the experience of reading a book.) But that familiar story looks different through the lens of different authors. C.S. Lewis write a Christian parable, whereas Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer created a fantastic world of abstract concepts come to life. A more modern example is a series by Dale Basye that I represent. In the Heck books, a brother and sister are navigating a child’s version of hell. Inspired by Dante’s Inferno, there’s also a good dose of Norman Juster in the wordplay and smart-silliness. But the voice and point of view are very unique, and you certainly wouldn’t confuse it with either of those forebears.  Even if there are, say, a million stories, they’ve all be told already. The details are in the telling.

MO: Michael, it sounds like we’ve come to very similar conclusions: that the details of a middle grade story are so often where the magic is. A lot of time, it’s the details that make a story memorable. In fact, it’s often those same specific details that we remember, months or years after reading a book, rather than the plot itself. So on a craft-level, how does one build a story with the kinds of rich details that make it feel like a story that’s all-new? I think a key to it is being careful that your story does not become too singularly-focused and one-note in its telling. It’s all well and good to drive toward the ending from the moment you’ve begun your story—a story that meanders or doesn’t really know where it’s trying to go can get confusing or dull, after all—but if it’s too predictable, it can fall flat, or a reader may forget it almost as soon as they’ve finished reading it, or a reader may get bored because it’s too obvious where the story is going and there’s nothing really enticing to “find out” by reading more.

One thing that I notice time and again about the middle grade writers I publish, and also many that I don’t publish but that I admire, is the ability of their authors to take a handful of seemingly-disparate ingredients, ones that seem to have nothing in common at the story’s outset, and then weave and wind them together as the story progresses. The subplots that those details form can give a story more depth and range, and they also enliven it and create the unexpected twists and moments that keep you eager to read on. I’ll give two quick examples from my own list to explain exactly what I mean. If you boiled down Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s THE YEAR THE SWALLOWS CAME EARLY to its most basic nugget, it’s a story about something valuable that is stolen, and a young girl who has to deal with the ramifications of that loss. But it’s also a story about cooking, illegal immigration, friendship, bird migration, family, earthquakes, addiction, hair salons, and chocolate-covered strawberries. Those things don’t seem like they should go together—but they do, and learning precisely how is part of what makes the story so memorable. In the same way, the simplest core of Bobbie Pyron’s A DOG’S WAY HOME is that two friends, girl and dog, lose each other and must journey to find each other again. But how does that have anything to do with Nashville’s country music scene, or mapmaking, or a celebrity’s daughter? Those unexpected twisty sidenotes and subplots of the story make it a richer read than if it were simply a straightforward journey from points A to B with no other details in-between.

MB: Yes, yes, yes. I agree with all of those things. Great authors imbue their stories with particular details, both in terms of plot, setting, character and voice, that make them unique, interesting, and singular. What interesting to me is that as a reader, I can easily see the elements of a novel that make it stand out from the pack, and I don’t mean as a trained reader or agent. I think anyone who reads enough can point to the things that really make a book shine. But it constructing a book, writers can find it difficult to inject their stories with the necessary elements. This proves that not every reader is a writer (though as a non-writing reader, that I already knew!), and it also shows how hard it is to construct a book that’s satisfying on all levels.

And, as we’re wrapping up our discussion, I think that’s the thing I most want to stress to authors: while agents and editors are going to help you dig deep and make your book the best it can be, ask yourself if your book is firing on all cylinders. Is the central conflict/conceit compelling? Are the stakes high enough? Is my protagonist interesting/appealing/real? Have I given a good sense of the setting? Is the point of view the best one from which to tell this story? Is the voice helping to tell the story the best way possible? I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life locked in your basement fixing the story over and over, but it’s important to understand how to make your work as finished, polished and compelling as you can. Too much of what I see that is merely good instead of great is just under-baked.

MO: I don’t think I can say it better than Michael just did. There are so many steps to writing, and so many layers of refining involved. And while many exciting things can happen after you sign with an agent or get a book deal, you also become a part of a whole company’s processes at that point, and it can get busy, fast. Before you aim for that, be sure you’ve given enough time to your OWN processes. I think writers rarely get the chance to be as creative as when they’re in the creative stages of developing a new story – so don’t short-circuit your own creative potential by rushing to get to market too fast; in the end you could end up cheating yourself and your potential readers. And the great thing is, especially for middle grade writers, that there will always be new readers emerging, waiting for great stories.

Another thing I’ve been thinking more and more about lately is that, yeah,  we’re all consuming far more information, thanks to the internet, Twitter, etc. But pretty quickly, the seemingly-helpful internet can become an echo chamber of everyone seeing and hearing and talking about basically the same ten things each week that have loped the internet and gone viral. And I’m not convinced that the viral internet is an environment that breeds personal creativity—for a few it might, but for others, it might actually stunt creativity. So be sure you take time AWAY from the things that everyone else is thinking and talking about, in pursuit of the original, the unique, and the things that drive YOU versus all the other writers in the world. Visit new places and read old books you stumble across in used bookstores and talk to interesting strangers and throw yourself into unexpected situations and visit museums and go down bizarre and uncommon internet rabbit holes on Wikipedia or via StumbleUpon…in short, give yourself an environment in which you can try (and fail) in following different fascinations, and in discovering things that refresh your curiosity and sharpen your ability to recognize when you’ve had an idea that’s really special, one worth devoting months and years to as a writer. It’s no coincidence that some of the best writers I’ve ever met are also some of the most curious-about-the-world-and-all-the-people-in-it I’ve ever met, too.

MB: Oh, the rabbit hole that is Wikipedia. I’ve learned more about Morgellons and conspiracy theories that I ever intended. (Also, if you have any novels about Morgellons or conspiracy theories, I can assure you that both Lauren Abramo and I will be interested.) But Molly’s advice is excellent. It’s important to break out of your comfort zones and explore the world. Writers need inspiration, and our increasingly digital world provides opportunities to learn and grow, but it can also become, as Molly so well said, and echo chamber that just reinforces what a writer already “knows.”

I’m a little sad to be wrapping up our conversation on middle grade, but I feel like we’ve both said everything we set out to say, and I hope we’ve answered most of your questions. Since I’m wrapping things up, here are my final thoughts: if you take nothing else from what we’ve written here, I know we both feel that the focus of the writer should be on craft. You may know the market, know the players, have been to the conferences, but that all means bupkis if you haven’t taken the time to develop your work. Because in the end, it all comes down to the words on the page.

Thanks again for reading, and for your patience while we battled sickness and deadlines. You can catch me here, and Molly over at her blog. Thanks!

23

Everything you ever wanted to know about middle grade…and were willing to ask

As promised, editor Molly O’Neill and I are going to have a dialogue about middle grade. After a lot of thought, we decided to have a conversation via email that we’d transcribe (minus our distracting tangents). Your questions as we go will help shape the discussion, just as your questions are getting us started, so let us know what you think!

MB: It seems only natural to start with this question (plus, you told me to): What is middle grade? It seems a much simpler question at first glance. If we’re looking at bookstore sections, it’s the 9 – 12 part of B&N. These aren’t chapter books or early readers, which are usually quite short, often in series, usually contain education content, and are aimed at a slightly younger audience, 6 – 8 year olds. But they’re also not teen novels, which are usually categorized as 12 and up (though can be 14 and up when there’s more “content”). YA novels often deal with more “controversial” subject matter, and often involve romantic story lines. But that brings us back to the question, what is middle grade? We can define it by age group, but I’d argue that classifying by content is more difficult.

MO: As you know, I have a marketing background, which means that whether or not I intend it, one of the first things my brain starts thinking about for a book is its readership: who is a book FOR? What kind of reader is it going to reach, and how? Maybe instead of asking “What is middle grade?” it’s easier to think about “Who is the middle grade reader, and what is he/she looking for in a book?”

I think that a middle grade reader is often (and note, I’m speaking BROADLY, here) reading for one of two reasons: to understand, or to escape. Middle grade readers who read to understand look for stories that help them piece together the truths that seem to be opening up all around them, about the world and their place in it, and the connections between themselves and their family, their community, their friends, etc. Or they’re reading to understand about a different time/ place and what it was/would be like to be a kid then. Or they’re reading to just understand how stuff works, period—from the everyday mundane stuff to big concepts like justice and honesty and friendship and happiness and love.

The middle grade reader who reads to escape is the kid who is commonly BORED—like middle-of-summer-vacation-bored!—with his/her ordinary life, yet has no means for alleviating that boredom, or even escaping his/her house or classroom. Or maybe he/she is craving excitement or adventure or entertainment or a sense of power and autonomy that family and school simply don’t offer. So that reader dives into an epic story, or something quirky or witty or fantastical or humorous, in order to escape and live in someone else’s world for a while.

The trick is, most middle grade readers are BOTH of those readers at various points, one who wants to understand AND to escape (I certainly was, anyway). So there’s not just one kind of story that appeals to them, which means that middle grade books can be ABOUT anything. So maybe the line between middle grade and YA maybe has more to do with perspective than content?

MB: As publishing professionals, we’re always asking ourselves the question Molly posed above (paraphrasing): Who is the reader for this book? On the one hand, I sometimes wish writers wouldn’t ask themselves that question, at least not at the outset. Too many times, I get a submission and it’s clear that the writer is writing to a specific market or reader. A symptom of this problem that I see very often in middle grade submissions is “writing down” to the reader. This is can take the form of trying-too-hard dialogue (“Zoinks, bud! We need to skedaddle out of here before our ‘rents come biz-ack.”), narrator-as-character (think Lemony Snicket done badly), or message-driven novels (books written only to teach a lesson). On the other hand, it’s important to think about your reader, especially during revision. I always encourage my clients to be as creative and rule-breaking as they want when conceiving of ideas or writing initial drafts, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t then rein things in based on market expectations. For instance, one of the mistakes I see all too often is a mismatch between the age of the protagonist and the intended reader. A 12 year old doesn’t want to read about a protagonist who’s 8 or 80–they want to read about someone in the same general age group.

How to figure out what the audience wants? Do what I always recommend: read. Go to the bookstore and buy some of the recently-published* middle grade. This will give you a good idea of what the audience is looking for, and just how broad the category is.

*Please, please, please: don’t reference books published decades ago as comparisons for your books. What worked years ago probably doesn’t work now–trends and tastes change. “But The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe still sells!” you say. Classic books sell because they are classics, and I would argue that many of them would not find an audience today.

MO: Oh, I heartily second the need to read recently-published books, even if you’re a great appreciator of the classics! Unless you have a time-travel machine to go back to a different era in publishing to sell your book, it’s today’s market and audience a new book you’re trying to sell it to. Someone asked in the comments about whether there’s a middle grade canon and I think there’s a canon in every genre of literature, even if its an informal one—that’s why it’s so important to read widely, to have a sense of where your book fits and be able to articulate the things that both make it a natural fit within the genre AND a stand-out addition to the genre.

Speaking of problems you often see, I think one of the most common ones I run across in middle grade is “low stakes.” I think this can happen as a result of writers wanting to make a story feel familiar, but when I was a kid, other people’s lives always felt more interesting than my own, so why would I want to read about everyday, average things like homework and piano lessons and third-period math class all over again? I guess I’m trying to say that there can be a fine line between stories that feel familiar and those that feel, well, dull. This is a big reason I often encourage my authors to push past their initial ideas and explore the unknown creative wilds beyond the very first idea/solution/problem/mystery/story point/etc that they think of – because often the really fresh ideas live deep in writer’s minds, not at the very forefront. Like you said, Michael, you can always rein an idea in later, but too much of the middle grade that crosses my desk in submission feels like it never got a chance to be as creative as it maybe could have been.

Of course, sometimes it’s not always the idea that is the magical part of the story—an incredible voice or character can make even the most average story-moments feel vivid and memorable. But that’s just it—memorable is important. I think about middle grade being the time when a lot of readers discover “that book”—the one that turns them into a lifelong reader, or explodes their world open with new ideas, or shares exactly the right truth at exactly the right moment in a way they’ll never forget. You know, any time I tell people at a social event like a wedding or a party what I do for a living, there’s an odd compulsion—people simply HAVE to tell me what their favorite book was as a kid. And as an editor, those are the kind of books I want to publish—the ones that a reader of today will recall decades from now as being “that book.”

MB: I think it’s great that you bring up the issue of stakes, which can be an issue in any sort of novel. What’s on the line for the protagonist? What makes this story important enough to tell? To be clear, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be writing wonderful, contemporary, realistic middle grade. One question we got (perhaps from a client of mine) was, is there room for a “quiet” middle grade novel? I’d argue that the best books, even when they’re not deal with the end of the world or magic, aren’t really “quiet.” They may be a smaller story, with very real, relatable stakes. But if the story is constructed well, and the voice is strong, the writer can make us care very much what happens in these more everyday struggles. While not contemporary, The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt comes to mind.

As an agent, I too have spent my my career looking for those kinds of books. Books that have a lasting impact on readers, that stick with them long after they’ve turned the final page. It’s why I keep hunting for great middle grade.

MO: And as a matter of fact, I think it’s why we’re doing this blog conversation. And it’s getting good! But now we have to get back to work. Check back late next week for a second installment, on Molly’s blog.

18

What grabs you?

I just spent a great weekend in Gettysburg, PA, at an SCBWI conference—incredibly well organized, plus delightful, inspiring keynote addresses by Patricia MacLachlan and E.B. Lewis. My only regret is that I wish I could have sat in on the break-out workshops and speeches, but I was booked solid with one-on-one manuscript critiques all day Saturday and Sunday morning. For each critique, I was sent the first 10 pages of a YA or MG novel, plus a one-page synopsis, in advance of a 15-minute session with the author. Which leads me to the question at hand…

Whenever I have a lot of critiques in a row (fifteen, in this case), as the day goes on I usually end up identifying one or two key issues that come up in multiple manuscripts. This time out, it seemed like a lot of the openings were rushed—to me, it almost felt like authors were consciously trying to smush all the key ingredients of characterization, setting, conflict, symbolism, voice, etc., into those precious ten pages for my review. However, when I asked if any had tailored their samples specifically for the critique, the answer was a resounding “no.”

Hence, I’m wondering: What’s the main thing you look for in a story? Do you want to meet the main character? Find out the central issue of the book? Dive right into the plot? Or do you want it all? I will say, in several of these critiques I found myself advocating for the author to slow down and let us get to know the main character before diving headfirst into the plot. But maybe that’s just me—which element gets you turning the pages?

9

Let’s think about place

I saw this review in The Seattle Times for the new David Guterson novel. The book is set in Seattle, and it sounds from the description that it’s an important part of the book. It got me to thinking about settings and the inherent importance of where a novel takes place.

So much of the best fiction has a strong sense of place. Think The Help or Gone with the Wind. Could you imagine them set anywhere but the South? And what about Carl Hiassen’s books set in Florida, where he has lived all his life? Or Annie Proulx’s excellent The Shipping News, which is like taking a trip to Newfoundland.

Even on my own list, Amy Plum’s Die for Me takes place in Paris, as advertised on the cover with a gorgeous image of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. And the just-released middle grade fantasy Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact by A.J. Hartley is set in Atlanta. I recall when I sold the book that one of the conversations with his publisher was about how few books are set there, and how that fact was one of the things that set the book apart.

So, for those of you writing fiction, how do you decide where your novel will take place? And is it one of the first things you think about when you start writing? Or do you think of the setting before you even begin?

I think it’s as important as plot or character development to have the right atmosphere in which to tell your story. It’s the finer details of place that really bring a novel to life, and that makes for the best kind of fiction. What are your favorite books that feature a strong sense of place?

4

The lasting effect of literature

With each passing year comes a certain degree of increased life experience and maturity—we all gradually become a little less impressionable, a little more jaded.  I think that, in many ways, the same can be said for the reading experience.  When read by a grade school or high school student, the influence that a novel’s themes or imagery can have are understandably deeper and farther-reaching than when absorbed by an older, more well-read adult.  Unfortunate? Maybe. I can remember a few certain novels that I first read years ago that, upon rereading, felt somewhat less emotionally impactful than I remember.

Despite this, what I felt always remained, thankfully, was the same sense of enchantment that certain stories evoked, regardless of age.  Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, and yes, even the Harry Potter books still manage to provide for me the same thrill that they did years ago. And this article from the Wall Street Journal poses the same concept from a slightly different viewpoint.

Do you agree/disagree? Are there certain books from your youth that still manage to draw you in and give you the same sense of admiration that they did as a child?

1

Retreat! Retreat!

Like Jim, I was away last weekend on book-related activities. I attended the SCBWI Eastern PA Poconos Retreat, doing manuscript critiques and a first-pages session, as well as sitting on an author/editor panel. Maybe it’s because I haven’t done a retreat in a few years, or maybe because this one was simply exceptional, but I came away as excited and rejuvenated about kids’ books as I’ve felt in quite a while.

First off, I was thrilled to see the traditional balance of projects among the writers, i.e., half picture books and half fiction. For so many years now, YA and middle-grade have dominated the kids’ books scene, and I’ve often felt a collective sense of despair among the picture book authors that there’s just no interest in their work. So it was very heartening to see that, despite no real signs of improvement in the market, authors are still coming up with stories for the youngest reader—and more importantly, are actively trying to get them published. No doubt, it’ll continue to be a struggle, especially as it’s generally not economically feasible for agents (like me) to rep text-only picture books until conditions improve. But I’m hopeful we’ll see more author/illustrators push things forward to a point where authors-only can get a shot, too—so keep it up, team!

I also noted more realistic fiction among my critiques than fantasy, which was a welcome shift. By far, the bulk of the queries I receive are fantasy-based or have paranormal elements, and while that’s all fine and good, I’d LOVE to see more fiction that deals with kids in contemporary, realistic settings. And it’s not that these stories can’t be creative or plot-driven—too often, I feel like authors equate fantasy with action, while realism is reserved for “issues.” There are tons of possibilities for high-concept storylines that don’t involve alternate worlds or werewolves, and I was very glad to see some of them this weekend.

Finally, it was great to feel just some good ol’ fashioned love for the book. We spend so much time wringing our hands over ebooks and the future of publishing (yours truly, guilty as charged), yet on the bus back to the city I realized that over the course of the weekend I only had one in-depth conversation about ebooks, and a good one at that. Moreover, as part of a silent auction, there was an impressive collection of picture books and novels from the 1940s and 1950s, including Adam of the Road with Robert Lawson’s illustrations and the original version of Ray Bradbury’s picture book Switch on the Night. Nothing like some beautiful oldies to reaffirm your faith in the printed word…

What’s your feeling about writers’ retreats? Do you find them inspiring? Helpful for your craft? Do they provide a sense of where the market’s headed? Or have you had bad experiences? I hope that’s not the case, but if so, what happened? I’d love to hear, as I’m trying to schedule some more retreats for 2011 and 2012—hey, maybe I’ll even see you at one of them!