“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent kids agent Jennifer Mattson of Andrea Brown Literary Agency) is a series of quick interviews with literary agents and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else. This series has more than 170 interviews so far with reps from great literary agencies. This collection of interviews is a great place to start if you are just starting your research on literary agents.
This installment features Jennifer Mattson of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Jennifer came to the agency after nearly five years of reviewing children’s literature as part of the Books for Youth staff of Booklist magazine. A native of California now based in Chicago, Jennifer has a degree in English from Amherst College.
She is seeking: picture books, middle grade and young adult. For the older set, she is drawn to richly imagined fantasies that depart from old-hat heroic quests (alternate realities, magical realism, and steampunk are all styles/premises to have recently caught her notice). She has a special interest in dystopian fiction for middle graders and in sprawling, atmospheric tales with Dickensian twists and satisfying puzzles.
GLA: How did you become an agent?
JM: After working as a children’s bookseller in New York, and then as an editor at Dutton Children’s Books, I moved to Chicago. Chicago’s not known as a big center for children’s-book publishing, but lucky for me, it is the home base of the American Library Association. I joined the staff of the ALA’s Booklist magazine and reviewed children’s books for nearly five years, but I missed working with authors and participating in the bookmaking process. I knew that agenting could be done from home bases other than New York, and was very fortunate that Andrea Brown Literary was open to expansion at that time. I’ve been agenting with ABLA for nearly two years now.
GLA: What’s something coming out, or recently came out, that you’re excited about?
JM: Kimberly Norman’s picture book, Ten on the Sled, illustrated by Liza Woodruff, will be coming out from Sterling this Fall—it’s a rollicking winter celebration set in the Arctic. On the YA side this summer, watch for Emily Horner’s debut, A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend, about a group of friends who band together to stage a crazy ninja musical after the show’s author dies in a car accident; and Jenny Meyerhoff’s Queen of Secrets, about a contemporary conflict between peer and family loyalty that was subtly inspired by the Old Testament story of Queen Esther. I should note that the two previous books were sold by my predecessor Michelle Andelman, but they’re both novels that I’m thrilled to be associated with as the authors’ new agent.
GLA: Let’s talk picture books. Besides rhyming, where are writers going wrong with these submissions?
JM: I wish I could see more picture book authors showing an awareness of that all-important “turn”—the picture-book raison d’etre that leaves readers feeling surprised and satisfied. So many picture books have a nice premise, concept, or tone, but seem to lack critical mass when it comes to the story’s end. Also, voice. Talk about voice is huge among writers of fiction, but less so when it comes to picture books. I really sit up and take notice when a picture book author seems to have a considered, well-developed voice. For instance, I love Kate McMullen’s I Stink, and others in that series, for their great, in-your-face approach.
(Learn more about other picture book literary agents.)
GLA: Is it true that so many picture book submissions focus on tired subjects, such as going to bed or monsters in the closet? If so, does the foundation of a good picture book come with a unique idea as a foundation?
JM: I’ve heard a lot of editors say they’re looking for “high-concept” picture books, which I take to mean a picture book with some sort of succinctly stated, unusual premise. A vegetarian vampire, or something like that. So, certainly a fresh idea is a big part of what would excite an agent’s interest, but for me it’s also sensibility—a sense of the kind of varied language and sentence structure that works for young children, a keen awareness of the powers of the pageturn, and a respect for the future illustrator’s contribution.
GLA: If the normal length of a picture book is 32 pages, should submissions not actually be that long to leave room for covers and title pages?
JM: Word counts are more important than page counts at the manuscript stage. Most editors will want to figure out how and where the text will break from page to page themselves, so it’s useful for authors to paginate their manuscripts, but not necessary (and in some cases, not advisable) to submit them that way. By knowing the range of word counts that can work for the picture book audience, you’ll be taking covers, title pages, and other frontmatter into account by default. A lot of writers I know use what’s called “mentor texts” to get a sense for appropriate word counts; these are the texts of published picture books typed out into a Word document, allowing you to really get a sense for what a functional picture book manuscript looks like on the computer screen.
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GLA: Concerning MG and YA, it seems like so many agents these days are searching for the next dystopian hit, after the success of Hunger Games. Are you seeing a lot of dystopian come in through the slush?
(Look over our growing list of young adult literary agents.)
GLA: In your bio, you talk a little bit about what kinds of fantasy you want to see vs. those you don’t. Can you delve into this a little more, in terms of what catches your eye and what doesn’t work for you?
JM: I’m not a big fan of sword-and-sorcery, witch-and-wizardry fantasies, especially those in which characters from our own world open a portal into another world (and often discover that they’re some kind of descendent of that world, and/or some kind of prophesied savior). Having said all of that, I do like Suzanne Collins’ pre-Hunger Games hit, the Gregor the Overlander series, which does involve a kind of portal! (I never promise to be consistent.) Some of my favorite fantasies feature alternate realities that are just slightly tilted from our own: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter Duet. I also relish fantasies that explore culture quasi- anthropologically: Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea was a huge touchstone for me growing up, and I love Shannon Hale’s romantic, folksy fantasies, as well as Sharon Shinn’s books.
GLA: You say you will always look for good stories that take great voice over a high–concept hook. Is this what drew you to Tom Leveen’s Party? What did he do right and what can other writers learn from him?
JM: Tom was originally signed to Andrea Brown Literary by our former agent Michelle Andelman. When Michelle left to become a scout, each of the remaining agents were given the opportunity to “adopt” her clients, and I jumped at the chance to work with Tom. As you say, his voice just stood out—his interstitial narrative has a relaxed, authentic feel, and the dialogue between his characters really pops. Tom has a background in theater, and I think his experience reading scripts and performing on stage proved an exceptional training ground for writing dialogue and communicating the volumes spoken through body language.
GLA: Will you be at any upcoming conferences people can meet/pitch you at? (Find more writers conferences here.)
JM: I’m attending Big Sur in the Rockies, a conference run jointly by Andrea Brown, and SCBWI-Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Chapter, May 14-16, 2010, in Boulder, Colo. And I’ll be at the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Writer’s Day, Nov. 13, 2010.
GLA: Something about you writers may be surprised to know?
JM: I love to take dance classes, any kind of dance, but lately especially ones choreographed to really corny top-40s music. Right now I’m taking a class with the amusing title “Cardio Strip,” which always makes me laugh. I’m definitely a great prospect for writers whose characters dance.
GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t discussed?
JM: The best piece of advice I ever received, from Anita Silvey, who met me for an informational interview back when I was trying to break into children’s publishing, was “work in a bookstore.” I was lucky to have an indie children’s store to train at—Books of Wonder in NYC. But I’ve also worked in children’s sections of chain stores. It’s fantastic advice for writers, too. You can’t get more valuable, direct experience of what goes on the bookstore shelves and what leaves them, and the conversations with customers are useful, too. Plus: You can often cadge galleys from the buyers.
Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- 5 Rules For Writing Young Adult Fiction.
- Literary Agent Interview: Jen Rofe of Andrea Brown Literary.
- Agent Tina Wexler Explains “6 Ways to Impress an Agent.”
- Agents Talk Trends at an SCBWI Conference.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Author Platform.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and how to write a query letter.
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