Category Archives: YA

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!

1

Transfiguration

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.

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?

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.

2

Youth is wasted on the young. Or is it?

Every “semester” we have an office lunch for the purpose of getting to know our current batch of interns and to answer any questions they might have about the, undoubtedly, bizarre goings-on in publishing (and in our office).  Yesterday, over a Middle Eastern spread (the baba ganoush was delicious!) we asked everyone to tell us what they read for pleasure.  Overwhelmingly, the response was YA.  And, for some reason, that surprised me and even made me a little wistful for the days when youngsters couldn’t wait to get their grubby little hands on “adult” literature.

I still remember when, in seventh grade, a beat up copy of The Other Side of Midnight (which was already a decade old at the time, in case you were wondering about the timeline) was surreptitiously passed around at my school.  The book, of course, opened naturally to the “sexy” parts and we would have all been mortified if our parents had caught us reading it.  By the time I was a young adult, myself, my peeps and I were interested in SERIOUS fiction that dealt with IMPORTANT subjects, and if you wanted some sex and scandal, you turned to grown-up bestsellers like Marguerite Duras’ The Lover  or Josephine Hart’s Damage.  You know, stories about older people behaving badly….

The thing is that, traditionally,  YA was considered “aspirational”—kids younger than those depicted in the books were the primary market for it. Now, I know that YA literature has exploded as a genre and that, in many ways, it’s tackling tough subjects in ways  sometimes more inventive and provocative than we’ve seen in what is considered adult fiction.  That said, is it narcissism, solipsism or fear of growing up that accounts for young adults actually preferring YA books in general?  In recent years, with blockbusters like  the Harry Potter  and Twilight series playing havoc with readership demographics (as evidenced by 40-something moms reading YA and NA alongside their tweens and teenagers), it seems that the category now even appeals to its own namesakes.   Crazy, huh?

How do you account for this shift?  Are there broader cultural implications that I’m missing here or is this trend just a function of how sophisticated the category has become?

 

Girl power!

Having four daughters and working in book publishing presents both opportunities and challenges as far as finding appropriate books for the girls to read. They are all at different levels, and they all have different interests so it’s not as simple as passing on a sweater or pair of pants from one to the next. What I find happens is that if a kid isn’t interested in the book that’s up for discussion, it sits on a shelf or next to the bed or worse!

I recently came up on this really great website, amightygirl.com, that aims to empower girls by offering a range of resources that relate to books for girls. Its tagline is “The world’s largest collection of books, toys and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls”. It’s fun to play around and see what they’ve come up with, like a list of best female book characters, which includes the likes of Madeline, Hermione Granger, Nancy Drew and Ladybug Girl (impressive to find a way to fit all of those lovely girls into one sentence). I was also pleased to see a book listed on the same subject as an upcoming book on my own list about the inspiring Irena Sendler who saved 2,500 Jewish children in Poland during WWII, which means they must have great taste!

I wonder if any of you have thoughts on wonderful book ideas for girls? There was this book I read over and over as a kid that so resonated with me called Somebody Else’s Kids by Torey L. Hayden, a psychologist who writes nonfiction accounts of her work with children. It’s about four kids of varying ages with serious and very different issues and how their remarkable teacher goes to great lengths to help them. I suppose my love of narrative nonfiction started when I was young. I just ordered it for my oldest to read and look forward to finding many more books with strong, female protagonists that will empower my girls and help them reach their highest potential.

3

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!

0

Notes from the kid lit conference front lines

I was asked this past spring to join the council for the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature (RUCCL.org), a group that has been in existence for forty years. RUCCL is known for putting together each year an annual conference where aspiring authors and illustrators send in samples of their material which are then evaluated by published authors who also sit on the council. Those whose work gets the highest scores are admitted to the conference and paired with industry mentors who volunteer to spend the day meeting with these authors.

I attended the conference for the first time Saturday, October 18th. It was a wonderful day, full of positive energy and hard-working authors, illustrators, agents and editors all coming together with a love of children’s literature. A highlight for me was meeting the author Collen O’Shaughnessy Mckenna, who has been out of the business for many years, but who brought with her and signed for my girls a copy of her book FOURTH GRADE IS A JINX, published by Scholastic in 1990. I happen to have a fourth grader, so all the better!

The two main components of the conference are the Five-on-Five session where five (or so) authors who work in similar categories sit with agents and editors at a round table and talk about anything the attendees are interested in hearing or learning more about.

Then the grand finale is the One-on-One session where the author or illustrator meets for a full hour with the industry professional they’ve been paired with. It was great to walk around and see pairs of people in every corner of the campus. The feedback we got from the attendees was really positive and that hour spent with an industry professional is priceless.

In between the two events is the key note speaker. This year it was the lovely Nancy Werlin, who spoke about the many ways to find joy in the writing life.

As far as takeaway advice for authors, one of the things that struck me was how prepared so many of the authors were for the conference and their meetings. Many had attended the conference before, and even those who did not seemed to have a good working knowledge of the industry and of the editors and agents who were in attendance. No matter what level of the writing game you are at, it’s so important to do your research and know your audience. I can’t tell you enough what a difference it makes to be prepared.

I’m looking forward to planning and attending again on October 17, 2015. For all of you children’s authors out there, please send in an application. I’d love to meet you there!

1

Author blogging

Yesterday morning, I met up with one of my clients, Shandy Lawson, for a general catch-up meeting. One of the items on the agenda was Fiction Locker, a website he started to encourage young writers. I’ll get my shameless plug over with right now—it’s a great site, with plenty of writing options for those over 19 as well, so please check it out!

And actually, shameless plugging dovetails nicely with a little piece I saw today via Facebook from The Book Designer about the 5 Marketing Mistakes That Beginning Fiction Writers Make. In particular, I was struck by Number 3, Maintaining a Blog to Attract New Readers. It seems like obvious advice, but with Twitter and Facebook, I sometimes feel like the good old fashioned blog gets overlooked. And Jason makes a good point that the key to successful blogging is to provide quality material that connects with the right people, i.e., people who would then buy your book.

At the same time, Jason rightly cautions against using your blog as pure promotion, (or shameless plugging—he got me there!) which brings us back to Fiction Locker. Now, I know Shandy has a genuine interest in encouraging young writers, and the focus of Fiction Locker is squarely on helping teens find their voice. But at the same time, Shandy and other contributors are YA authors… and if readers want to check out their books, great!

In other words, here’s a good example of a blog that delivers meaningful content to the right people. But I’d love to know—are there other author blogs out there that you think do a good job of connecting?