A couple of years ago, after many rejections, I was fortunate enough to land Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media as my agent! Alyssa worked as an editor for over six years at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers where she edited books such as Laurie Halse Anderson’s THANK YOU, SARAH and THE MOTHER DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB by Heather Frederick.
Four years ago, Trident made her an offer she couldn’t refuse when they decided to represent children’s authors. Since she’s been a fan of this blog for a while, she was happy to take time out of her busy agenting/editing/parenting schedule to talk with me about the magic of middle grade books and readers.
What’s so special about middle grade books and readers?
AH: I came into my reading own during the middle grade years. Fourth grade was particularly memorable with the discovery of BETSY-TACY THE HIGHT SCHOOL YEARS, ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT”S ME, MARGARET, and the canon of Elaine Konigsburg. I remember these books differently than those books read to me at bedtime when I was in second grade because I felt so grown-up and so lucky to devour them on my own. It’s that private entryway into reading, the kind that literally impels a kid to bring a book to the dinner table (as I did with Margaret!), that really kicks in amidst those middle years.
You’ve been in the publishing industry-first as an editor and now as an agent-for over ten years. How has children’s publishing changed and evolved in that time:
AH: Children’s books contribute to the bottom -line successes of publishing houses much more so than they did in the era before HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT. We live in a time when a new WIMPY KID might well out-sell a former president’s autobiography. As a result, editors frequently seek “big” children’s and YA books, be they epic romance trilogies, dystopian thrillers, graphic novels, or books with online dimensions that ensure readers continued interest, not only in the storyline, but in the world of books, which lends itself to merchandising, film, etc.
How have middle-grade books changed-or have they?
AH: Today, we’re living in a robust climate for illustrated and graphic middle grade. And while there’s definitely a need for very plot-driven and commercial books for middle grade, it is till a genre with many successful titles that are not instant bestsellers upon publication. Books like THE PENDERWICKS, MOCKINGBIRD, or WHEN YOU REACH ME, to name just a few, become
popular in large part due to the great buzz and critical acclaim surrounding them, and also perhaps in part because they embody a more timeless feel.
Ah yes, I have a particular fondness for “timeless” books. What makes a middle grade book timeless? Do you think it’s different than what makes an adult novel timeless, like for instance, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD?
AH: Sometimes it’s the notable absence of things like texting and cell phone and such. More importantly though, it’s the relatability and sheer appeal of the characters and the drive that fuels their quests. In your forthcoming middle grade novel, A DOG’S WAY HOME, readers are so hungry to know if Tam and Abby will find their way back to each other, the fact that it’s contemporary seems secondary to the riveting quest itself. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD feels timeless in a different way. The story is very much about the South at a certain point in time. That era’s prejudice and disenfranchisement propel the story. However, the masterful voice itself grabs onto new readers discovering it for the first time, and in that way, the appeal is timeless. Also the retrospective quality of Scout’s voice makes it feel much different than many classic children’s books.
Who are some of your favorite middle grade authors?
AH: As a child, I adored Lois Lowry, Sydney Taylor, L.M. Montgomery, Frances Hodgson, Elinor Estes, and Noel Streatfeild. I still adore Lois Lowry’s new books! Sadly, the others are dead. Thankfully, I’ve also come to admire and enjoy works by Lauren Tarsish, Jacqueline West, Lauren Myracle, and Michael Buckley, as well as those of my incredible clients: Lisa Greenwald, Jennifer Roy, Julie Berry, Lauren Barnholdt, among many others.
Your son is about nine months old now. Want to take a look in your crystal ball and predict where books/publishing will be when he’s old enough to read middle grade books?
AH: I think he might see a rejuvenation of the “choose your own adventure” style books that were semi-popular when I was a kid. He will be likely, though, to see them in a new media form. I expect there will be many more graphic novels and maybe even mobile device novels that feel quite modern. And yet, while formats might be changing, I think the standards for writing quality and kid-appeal are high. So, while there will still be room for books about a variety of topics that kids hear about via word of mouth. And I have a feeling my son will be reading at the dinner table in about eight years, considering he already tried to eat his board books!
Speaking of dinner, if you could have dinner with any book character, who would it be?
AH: It would have to be Betsy Ray in the Maud Hart Lovelace books. I’d be happy to eat only the infamous onion sandwiches that Betsy’s father would serve at Sunday Night Lunch! I’d ask her what it was like to be in Europe when The Great War broke out and if she ever thought then she’d marry Joe Willard!
A lot of agents and editors say they are looking for “high concept” books. Can you explain to us exactly what “high concept” means?
AH: Good question! High concept books tend to be books that have a unique kind of storytelling device in addition to the straight narrative, like code cracking, and/or are heavily quest or plot-driven. They often involve wish fulfillment or worst-nightmare-come-true scenarios. Whether it’s about the only two kids left searching for water on a seemingly dry planet in the year 2111, or about two kids running away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art over forty years ago, readers that age seem to love the “what if” scenarios that they might never attempt in their own lives. Though, for the record, I did have two friends who tried to get locked in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Sadly, a security guard found them and kicked them out!
When you’re reading a submission or just for your own pleasure, what grabs you first: voice or plot?
AH: Voice grabs me first and foremost when I read for pleasure. That’s true to some extent when I read for work too. But I know both editors and kid readers are very ken on the plot-driven-pull-you-in-and-don’t-let-go books that are popular these days. So I’d say plot is a huge factor in my decision in whether or not to represent a book. However, a great voice is certainly of paramount importance. The two are by no means mutually exclusive!
And speaking of submissions, are you currently seeking to expand your author list? And if so, what kind of submissions are you eager to find?
AH: I’m always looking for well-written and commercial projects. I enjoy middle grade manuscripts with big swashbuckling plots from mystery to adventure to code cracking to wish fulfillment. I’m a sucker for anything with a classic feel, like THE PENDERWICKS and THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY. On the YA side, I love epic romances of all stripes, be they historical, dystopian, etc. I’m also keen on finding a YA Stieg Larson, and I’d love a snarky contemporary that retails a classic story. I take email queries only. You can email me at email@example.com
Bobbie Pyron’s book (agented by the fabulous Alyssa Eisner Henkin) A DOG’S WAY HOME hits bookstores the end of this month!