Mary Cummings
Agent for Kids Books

New Books by Mary's Clients

LOTS of new titles have recently come out, or will be coming out throughout 2021 (and beyond). 

In late 2020, the third book in the Small Walt series by Elizabeth Verdick came out: SMALL WALT SPOTS DOT (Wiseman S & S). Walt is adorable, kind and helpful - even when that is more than a bit challenging for a small snowplow. Also late in the year, Rachel Tawil Kenyon's radiant YOU KNOW HOW TO LOVE was published (Philomel), and in late 2021 we'll see her first board book, ALPHABET LOVE (WorthyKids).

Dawn Young has a hilarious holiday and event-based series also with WorthyKids. Two in the series are 2021 titles: THE NIGHT BAAFORE EASTER and THE NIGHT BAAFORE THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, featuring a boy struggling to get to sleep the night before a big happening, only to have the sheep he's counting add to his problems. 

Ariel Bernstein's WE LOVE FISHING (Wiseman S & S) is about three friends who love to fish and one who - well, does not. 

Maggie Rudd debuts with two picture book titles this year: SOMETIMES IT'S HARD TO BE NICE (it really is, isn't it?) (Albert Whitman) and I'LL HOLD YOUR HAND (FSG), a gentle and sometimes wryly funny look at the bond between parent and child. 

A FLOOD OF KINDNESS by Ellen Leventhal (WorthyKids) is a look at a child's displacement and loss through a flood, but its message of kindness as a solution to grief resonates in many situations. 

THE YEAR OF THE BUTTERED CAT, a "mostly true story" for middle grade readers is by Susan Haas with Lexi Haas (Penelope Editions), about a girl with severe cerebral palsy facing a surgery which may help her to speak - or may cost her her sense of self. It came out in April 2021.

Joy Keller has two books in 2021 featuring a plucky girl scientist, her dog assistant and her slime friends in FRANKENSLIME and VALENSLIME (Feiwel & Friends). 

Angela Dalton's RUBY'S REUNION DAY DINNER (HarperCollins) is a touching story of finding a role in the family circle. It's full of luscious imagery on food preparation for a family feast. 

Melissa Martin's THOSE ARE NOT MY UNDERPANTS! (Random House) features what may be the funniest word in the English language (don't know? It's "underpants," silly) as a little bear searches the woods for the owner of a pair of underpants he found hanging from a branch. 

PANDO: A LIVING WONDER OF TREES by Kate Allen Fox will come out in Fall 2021 (Capstone). This nonfiction picture book lyrically evokes the wonder - and the potential fate - of the largest living being on the planet: a grove of aspens. 

2021 titles conclude with a board book edition of John Elkins' A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR SANTA (Zondervan), which features marvelous rhyme in a sweet story about remembering Santa with a present on Christmas, too. 

And for 2022 and beyond? Check back for additions to this article to find what's coming! 

Evolution of a Picture Book Text

Although picture book texts are relatively short, writers know all too well that there are portions which come easily - but other sections are really tough to get right. Critique partners, teachers and others can help with insights to polish the story before it is sent off to prospective agents.

I liked Ariel Horn's DO NOT GO IN THERE! very much. A perpetually nervous and pessimistic Bogart is not at all happy about his friend Morton's desire to open a door. As I do with virtually all potential new clients, there were some tweaks I requested, which she made, before I took on the project. I was delighted when this email arrived:

Hi Mary, 
Thank you so much for sending DO NOT GO IN THERE! This concept is so much fun and I love the wild scenarios Ariel has dreamed up.
I am intrigued, but I do think it would need some revising ... so here are some thoughts and if the author is open, I would love to see another draft!
We discussed internally, and we think it would be a lot of fun if Morton imagines what is behind the door as well! In contrast to Bogart, perhaps Morton dreams up outrageously light, fluffy, and happy situations. Seeing each of these kids' imaginary scenarios escalate until the end would allow for some really adorable and wild illustrations, while still hitting the message.
Let me know if Ariel would be interested in exploring this direction!

All the best,
Erin Stein
Publisher, Imprint 

Here's what Ariel had to say in response, and here's the opening of her stab at a revision:

I don't "like" the idea - I LOVE IT !!!!! I think it would make a story I love so much stronger - I only feel totally silly that I didn't think of this myself!

     Bogart and Morton didn't always see eye to eye on things.
Do not go in there!
Why not?
There is probably a scary wolf with beady red eyes who eats bunnies for supper in there.
Or there might not be. There might be a HUGE pile of marshmallows and chocolate chips waiting for us on the other side of that door!
Trust me. DO NOT go in there. I bet it's a wolf. There's always a scary wolf in these kinds of stories. 
Well, I'm going to eat the marshmallows and chocolate chips before the wolf gets them, then.
No! Do NOT go in there!
Why not? Wait, maybe behind that door, there's this gigantic mountain just made of spaghetti - nothing but spaghetti - and we can get sleds and go down it! 

Although Ariel had added some very fun lines, Morton still primarily reacts to Bogart rather than half-listening to his friend and expressing his own personality and emotions.

Here's an excerpt of what I replied to Ariel about the revision:

Instead of Morton always listening and responding to Bogart, he could be in his own fluffy, puffy, dreamy realm ignoring what Morton's imagining. In many areas of the manuscript as you now have it he says "Why not?" and that takes away from his autonomy. He isn't outrageously light, fluffy, happy (not yet, anyway! But I know you can get there!).

How about if his first line is something to the effect of the door looks so inviting, it has a cute curly cue doorknob or something like that (instead of "Why not?") so he's ignoring what Bogart says and is reaching for it?

Maybe he imagines he can smell the goodies on the other side and he's salivating because they are yummy yummy. Maybe he argues that "no no. This isn't that kind of story - this is a happy happy story."

I think you have too many food images going - need more variety.

Could Morton just give a quick dismissive comment instead of the  more prolonged "Well, I've never seen a scary wolf ..." and maybe he's onto talking about cute, cuddly, furry puppies behind the door?

Ariel did a second revision, and emailed it to me with this comment:

I think it is a MILLION times better, no question! Such great feedback and guidance from you - it felt so good to revise it with those ideas in mind! 

Among her many adorable and hilarious new bits, Morton now says:

But look how RED that door is! Ooh, what if it's like a scratch n' sniff sticker and it smells like cherries? (in the final, "cherries" was changed to "candy")


Not wolves: PUPPIES! Snuggly, soft, cuddly puppies going into outer space for the very first time! With names like Captain Chewy and Mr. Slappy! With puppy-sized space helmets!

I felt she'd really nailed it, and sent off to Erin - who snapped it up! Only a little was changed from this version, though one crucial line at the end ("Or ... a magic wand that can make us invisible!") was moved from Morton to Bogart, which shifted Bogart's fears towards optimism and wondrous hope.

Kirkus Reviews called it "Tender, affirming and lots of fun" -- and they are right!

Used with client and publisher permission 

Rhyming Couplets

Many writers hoping to have a picture book published assume that each line should rhyme with its preceding line, producing a pair of rhymes (rhyming couplets). Writing in this form of rhyme may give a sense of satisfaction and pride in their writing - which is important - but some writers have learned from SCBWI conferences or other sources that it's difficult to sell such manuscripts. I get many submissions with the writer insisting it's the only way their story can be told. Perhaps that's true, but here are some things to consider. 

Writing in quatrains (stanzas of four lines) with the second and fourth line rhyming was a perfect structure for A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR SANTA by my client, J. Theron Elkins (Zonderkidz). He made fabulous, appealing word choices to communicate a tender-hearted story of Santa fearing that he had been forgotten in Christmas gift-giving. Here's an excerpt:

       His helpers were huddled
       On the couch where they dozed
       In polka-dot jammies
       And jingle-belled toes.

       But no present was there ...
       There was no paper bag
       Stuffed with color tissue
       And ribbon zigzags. 

       His reindeer were snuggled
       At the base of the tree,
       Snoring carols of Christmas
       As content as can be.
       But no present was there ...
       There was no box and bow
       With bright shiny paper
       From the twinkle lights' glow

The refrain of "But no present was there ..." gives variety to the rhythm of the story and reinforces its central theme. 

Here's another example from YOU KNOW HOW TO LOVE (Philomel) by Rachel Tawil Kenyon, another client of mine, which uses the same structure of second and fourth line rhyming. The rhymes are simple to fit the direct and ardent theme. It is so lovely, right from the opening stanza. I do not think it would have worked had it been done in rhyming couplets. 

       It starts at the start
       When you can't even talk.
       Before you stand up
       and learn how to walk.

       Deep in your heart
       the knowing is there.
       You know how to love
       and you know how to care.

But do rhyming couplets never succeed in today's market? Sometimes they do!

TAKE YOUR PET TO SCHOOL DAY by Linda Ashman (Random House) opens with a stanza in four lines, followed by two stanzas of three lines each:

     It's Friday here at Maple View.
     The students file in two by two,
     with books and bags and pets in tow -
     above, ahead, beside, below.

     They start the day off with a song.
     The pets attempt to sing along:
     They howl with gusto, bleat with glee.

     They shriek.
     The squeak.
     They're WAY off-key.

The first and second stanzas are comprised of lines with eight syllables, while the third stanza has a pattern of 2-2-4. Notice also that the main structure of rhyming couplets has been varied, with the final lines of the second and third stanzas rhyming. The reader is unconsciously waiting for a rhyme for "glee" because of the pattern established in the first stanza. Notice also in the first stanza that the dense imagery of the concluding lines suits a feeling of students bringing in loads of pets and gear. It's through having an engaging story, with spot-on word choices and a carefully composed structure suited to telling this story, that a delightful book emerged. 

So, dear writer: ponder some options for your own use of rhyme and all the best to you! 

More to Check Out

Want to read more about writing and publishing children's books as you get further acquainted with me and what I'm seeking? Check out these interviews:

Creative Book Promotion

Your publisher will work to make your book a success through visibility at book trade shows and by sending copies for reviews to journals, newspapers and other outlets. But sales and impact will be much greater if you, the author (or illustrator) also devote time, energy - and creativity - to its promotion. This is something you can begin to plan for even before the book is published. 

Elizabeth Verdick, author of SMALL WALT, SMALL WALT AND MO THE TOW and SMALL WALT SPOTS DOT (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) asked the publisher to work with her to create a colorful four-page booklet to bring to readings and other book events that she set up around the Midwest. She writes: "I was open to whatever they would provide. I mocked up some ideas myself, and Sylvie [Frank, editor of the SMALL WALT books] sent them along to the art department. The art department took my ideas and then made them much better! They added the maze and provided the booklet in printed form for me to use. They did the design, copy, and printing and then sent the materials to me in printed form. They also gave me the template so I can reprint in the future. Older children enjoy the maze and make-your-own plow sections; younger kids like to color Walt. I bring snowflake-shaped stampers and a variety of inkpads so children can decorate the pages with fun snowflakes. This has been a great way to extend the story and invite children to participate."

Identifying its underlying themes will help give you ideas about where and how to promote your book. Elizabeth notes: "One of the themes in my Small Walt stories is taking pride in your work. Gus and Sue (the drivers) and Walt and Mo (their machines), are hardworking and determined, just like real-life drivers and their machines. I knew it was important to reach those drivers as part of my audience, because most of them probably have kids in their lives  - and my books can perhaps serve as a connection. I contacted places like and Tow Times Magazine. The publishers [of those trade newsletters] agreed to review my books, which turned out to be a great (and inexpensive) way to connect with a professional audience. SnowPlowNews even ran online contests in which my books were the prizes. This was publicity outreach I could do on my own, while the publisher continued promotions on their end. Simon & Schuster agreed to send copies of SMALL WALT AND MO THE TOW to towing associations across the country from a list I compiled. This was so helpful, because the cost of doing that type of mass mailing wouldn't be possible for me as the author. I also found the International Towing Museum in Chattanooga, TN, and asked S & S if they would provide publicity materials and a book sample. I was so happy to learn that the museum now carries SMALL WALT AND MO THE TOW."

The collaborative efforts of the author and the publisher have propelled sales of the SMALL WALT books. Authors are often a bit shy and uncertain about asking their publishers for help, but identifying what you'd like and clearly articulating it to the publisher, while also being willing to do your part in research and outreach can make a huge difference, as Elizabeth Verdick's experiences demonstrate.

   (Note: Elizabeth has a beautiful website, with a delightful trailer and a blog with informative articles, including on Marc Rosenthal, the illustrator of the three SMALL WALT books   

Used with client permission

Conferences & Workshops

I've always enjoyed nurturing writers, working with them to bring out the very best in their work. From time to time I teach workshops and do pitch sessions or critiques. - I'm happy to consider invitations to conferences and workshops (email me at  

I'll be delivering the Keynote and doing several breakout sessions and critiques for the SCBWI AZ Regional Conference on September 24 - 26, 2021 to be held in Phoenix (Paradise Valley).


Creativity: Lovely, Elusive, Essential and Joyous

The pandemic has pounded us all. We’ve felt boredom, fear, frustration, isolation. And we’ve suffered losses. But now we truly treasure the opportunity to gather in celebration of our creative lives. This keynote touches on some insights about the nature of creativity and the need for it, and includes some experiences related to creativity with the development of books by Mary’s clients.

Agent-Author session: Mary Cummings and Dawn Young

Our inside scoop

It can be mysterious, exciting and intimidating (all at once!) to move to the next level in your writing and seek an agent. In this session, we’ll talk about knowing when you’re ready (hint: there’s no one-size-fits-all answer); tips for your search; how best to prepare for and use time on the call with a potential agent; what to expect in a working relationship; how a book offer comes about, and more. Dawn and Mary will discuss COUNTING ELEPHANTS, the book that began their relationship and will touch on several others, including related communications, editing, brainstorming, submissions, etc. Questions are welcomed! 

POSTPONED till spring 2022 - The 2020 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference will be held in Nashville, Tennessee from September 11 - 13. I'll be teaching two break-out sessions and holding manuscript critique sessions. The first break-out is called "The Next Big Step: Reaching Out to Agents" and the second "Is it 'Working'?" Details to follow!

I had lots of fun with pitches, networking and a workshop at Ft. Collins CO: Friday and Saturday, May 3 and 4, 2019 Northern Colorado Writers' Conference     Here's the workshop description:
    From tips for developing a picture book manuscript to insights about why agents and editors say “no” (and “yes”!), this session will give you new tools and inspiration for attaining your goals. Bring two copies of your work-in-progress for a writing exercise that may unlock exciting new possibilities. We’ll save time for Q & A, too. Attendees may wish to bring or to read ahead of time: THE WOLF  THE DUCK & THE MOUSE by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen (Candlewick 2017); SMALL WALT by Elizabeth Verdick, illustrated by Marc Rosenthal (Wiseman/S & S 2017); and LITTLE THINGS by Nick Dyer, illustrated by Kelly Pousette (Peter Pauper Press 2019).

The Most Fun

A large box arrives on my doorstep. It’s heavy. Right away I know what it is: my agent copies of a newly published book. Opening it is going to be fun. I’ve read the manuscript (many times), probably worked with the author on edits (a few, or maybe extensive) before it was sent to the publisher, and I’ve seen the ARC. But feeling the paper, hearing the soft swish plop of the pages as they turn, looking at the design, the art, the totality of the book is amazingly joyous and satisfying.


I think about the excitement of the author who is also seeing the finished book and recall our process of connecting, and the work to refine the manuscript and bring it to editors. I think about the kids who will read the book. Hundreds, thousands of kids. Some will be indifferent to it, or forget it quickly, or not like it at all, or will adore it. It will make its mark on an unknowable number of kids, enlarging their world in some way. I won’t see this happening and neither will the author or the editor, the designer, marketing team or any number of others who played a role in its creation. But the book will do its work all the same.


I also love it when I receive a copy of a translated book because it’s tangible proof of the book’s ability to reach across seas and cultures. It demonstrates a kind of universality. I look on my bookshelf at Loretta Ellsworth’s IN A HEARTBEAT in Korean. In Japanese. I look at George Shannon’s HANDS SAY LOVE in Simplified Chinese. Ariel Bernstein’s I HAVE A BALLOON in Norwegian. -- More kids in more places impacted by books I helped bring into being. Fun!



Making a Good Start

The opening pages in a manuscript – including the opening sentences – are an invitation to a reader to enter the story. Let’s assume that your reader is an agent. This agent may be tired, frazzled, semi-distracted and have a sore back or bleary eyes at the moment of encountering your story. But your reader also has at least some element of hope that your work will be something marvelous.

Your task is to charm, seduce, delight and surprise. You have precious little time and space in which to create enough magic to gain the reader’s assent to continue. (This of course is true at both the manuscript stage and for the completed book being considered by your child reader). 

I recall my reaction to Karen’s Briner’s opening of her middle-grade novel, SNOWIZE & SNITCH: Highly Effective Defective Detectives (Holiday House). I was immediately enveloped in the setting and a moment in time, sitting under a tree with a girl named Ever, who was being spoken to by a crow. 

When I opened the email with J. Theron Elkins’ YOU ARE THE PEA, AND I AM THE CARROT (Abrams), I became instantly captivated by the warmth and intimacy in this story of companions who belong together. 

In David Cundy’s ANIMALS SPELL LOVE (David R. Godine), it was the elegance of his illustrations as well as the world-expanding spelling of “love” in sixteen languages that entranced.  

In Joy Keller’s MONSTER TRUCKS (Godwin Books/Henry Holt), it was the pairing of monsters with big trucks: two things kids adore, which had not been combined in any other children’s book. And, of course, not only was the concept clever and original, but the writing was excellent.

In Angela Dalton's RUBY'S REUNION DAY DINNER (HarperCollins), it was the glorious, sensual imagery of food being prepared and enticing aromas filling a kitchen, with such wonderful lines as "the room quakes with laughter" as a family gathers to make a soul food dinner for their Reunion Day. She had me with the opening phrases: "Grocery bags rustle, pots and pans clatter..."

The opening stanzas of Maggie Rudd's I'LL HOLD YOUR HAND (FSG) totally charmed me:

I’ll hold your hand  

on the night you arrive

when the whole world comes alive. 

When you're learning to crawl

and you stumble and fall, 

I'll hold your hand.

I'll hold your hand 

when new things are scary

or monsters too hairy. 

Space constraints dictate that I move on from successful examples to discussion of opening pages that I see all too often and which quickly get deleted. 

For novels: Don’t start with a line of dialogue. You may think it adds energy but it’s a cliché. But don’t just write description on your opening page: we do need dialogue. Don’t do a long prologue. Give only small pieces of backstory. Don’t have the character waking up from a dream, or waking up to mom’s call that he’ll be late for school. Don’t have her in a pitch black room on a cement floor gasping, bleeding, tortured and swearing all in one sentence. Don’t state the kid’s age or use a device like looking in a mirror to describe hair color, facial features, etc. Avoid the cliché of a green-eyed, mysterious hot boy. Give some hint of the direction and flavor of the story and its central character.

For picture books: Agents see loads of rhyming picture books, and loads of manuscripts in a narration style not suited to the picture book format.
Many people want to write in rhyme. Some assume that’s the only and right way to do a picture book. It’s not. (Look at the article on this site specifically on rhyme).

Here’s a gray area that’s hard to define, but important. In general, the narration style associated with oral storytelling isn’t suited to picture books. The good news is that it often works as a short story for a children’s magazine. If your manuscript contains phrases like “one day a boy woke up and …” or “once there was …” or “then they decided to …,” or “I don’t know,” said Dad pensively. “We’ll have to see what happens when …” -- it’s probably a short story. 

A few more tips. Do some research to know if your idea is original or fills some kind of niche. There are far too many submissions that come my way with a character who is in some way “different,” and the market for them is pretty tight. Dragons and monsters are a tough sell, but sometimes workable. Be aware of standard pagination and word length norms in picture books. Ask yourself: will a child enjoy hearing or reading this multiple times? Is there a refrain or repeated image she will delight in anticipating? Is it fun to read aloud? Consider also: do the words suggest variety in action, characters, plot etc. to support a lively visual flow?
And finally, although the first few sentences and first page are of crucial importance, make sure that the entire manuscript is also really well done. 

Tips about Rhyme

Every agent sees too many (way, way too many) picture book submissions in rhyme. Nearly always it’s poorly done. Forced, dated or generally drecky rhyme results in souring the already skeptical reviewer on the project. Particularly painful is writing with end rhyme of every line. It feels like a hammer pounding away. Usually. Few people can get away with it. George Shannon is one, in his glorious HANDS SAY LOVE (Little, Brown).  Part of his secret lies in varying the rhythm. But he has other secrets you might detect upon close reading.

If you haven’t tried writing your story without rhyme, this is something you must do. Perhaps you’ll conclude it works better in rhyme, but push yourself (and your characters and story) to be sure. 

Rhyme works best in combination with other language devices. Elizabeth Verdick’s SMALL WALT (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) is a great example. Rhyme appears only for special emphasis and effect: a) when Small Walt (who is a snow plow) thinks, and b) in six lines that most strongly convey the drama of the story. Much of the rest of the language energy comes from deliciously snow-plowish sound effects Walt makes, and perfectly chosen words to convey the snowy night struggle. 

My suggestion? Create a great story. Find the best language to house that story. (They’ll probably evolve together). Explore not only rhyme but parallelism, alliteration, rhythm and repetition. Find out what’s natural and what enhances your characters and brings the story to life. Aim at a great read aloud, with words that are fun to say and refrains a child will anticipate with delight. To get there, have other people read your picture book manuscript aloud to you because you may “hear it” in your head in a way that’s different from what you’ve put on the page. It may lead you to a good revision. 

Keep in mind that many editors will simply not consider stories in rhyme. Perhaps they are being narrow-minded but that’s the reality that your agent is facing. Rhyme can be tricky to translate (though HANDS SAY LOVE has been). You may be doing yourself a disservice by pitching a story in rhyme, given these realities. So, if you use it – use it really well. 

Wish List

                                       What I’m Wishing For (and not!) 
Top of my list for picture books: 
Love themes. This could be love for a pet, baby, friend, sibling, parent, etc. or love for the full world and nature. (I see too many that are heavily mom focused, with the baby or child passive or not present. I'm looking for the back and forth dynamic, the "twosome"). 

I'm also eager to see:
      a lyrically written Thanksgiving book on gratitude 
      holiday books (especially lesser-known and from minority cultures)
      a story about a kid who collects (rocks, buttons, or some such)  
      one on the beauty of the Western landscape
      lyrical nature topics

Top of my list for middle grade novels: 
Contemporary, or historical (perhaps end of 19th/beginning 20th century,  McCarthy Red Scare era, polio epidemic). I'd like to see a school story about an idealized relationship that develops more nuance (a crush, a best friend, a favorite teacher). Magical realism or light fantasy. 

Top of my list for young adult novels: 
A strong - but not romantic - relationship between two main characters. Prefer realism over fantasy, but not dark or gritty.  

My tastes are pretty broad. I particularly like warmth. Also good are humor, adventure, and quirky charm. Kindness is important to me. I like adorable and cute. I like sad and satisfying. I like gorgeous and lyrical. I like wondrous. I really like love. I like energetic and unconventional. I like serious and poignant. (I know. As I say: my tastes are pretty broad).

I want to feel a change in my breathing when I read a manuscript: a change because I’m seeing something really good that makes me go “wow!” I want a strong story arc and strong protagonist. I want characters to experience some kind of change or transformation. I want something that kids will relate to, stirring or awakening new emotions and providing them with a look at possible ways to live in the world. 

My personal “golden time” with books growing up was when I was 9 – 11, and I have special connection with middle grade work perhaps as a result of this. 

I began collecting picture books when I was in high school and truly love the form.

Always welcome:

Stories about times, people and places underrepresented in children’s and teen lit

Picture books with a main character (like Pete the Cat, Fancy Nancy etc.) with enough energy, personality and situation possibilities for a series

Friendship stories

Magic realism, and fantasy grounded in or related to the real world

Great read-aloud picture books

Stories about important, complex relationships

Middle grade narrative nonfiction 

Lyrically written science, nature, mindfulness and social awareness topics

Stories about holidays, including those important to a minority community

Author-illustrator picture books 

Middle grade or ya written in multiple formats (poetry and prose; diary and text etc.)

Probably not a fit for me:

Picture books with rhyming words at the end of every line (see more info and suggestions in "Rhyming Couplets" article under "Tips" section)
YA stories with characters out of their teens 
Zombies, vampires, etc.
Monster-under-the-bed (even if cute, there are way too many on the market)
"Different is good" stories (again, flooded market)
Mean girl stories and school dramas
Anthropomorphic or animated objects (except vehicle stories. I love them)
Meta narrated picture book texts
Abuse, murder, gore
   (which is not to say I totally shy away from darkness and danger!) 

I look forward to hearing from you - but don't send attachments as we delete without being read. Remember to follow the submission guidelines!

Tweaking the middle-grade novel


Different agents have different outlooks and different ways of working with clients. I only take on projects that I really am excited about, and that are in very good shape. I use my experience and insight to work with authors to open up other possibilities for manuscripts to be even better.

I take an editorial approach, but exactly what that looks like depends upon the client’s needs and the particular manuscript. Sometimes a manuscript is too long and I’ll suggest areas to cut. Sometimes the chapter endings need to be sharpened. Sometimes there are fuzzy passages or unclear transitions. Or other issues.

Here’s what author Hannah Voskuil had to say on how we worked together before submitting her engaging, suspenseful novel manuscript to editors:

"Mary suggested edits to my middle grade novel that proved extremely valuable. One useful change she proposed was to make the Horus character, whom I originally had written as an adult, a child character. It wasn’t a difficult change to implement, but it solved numerous problems. I wished I’d thought of it! She also offered insights into how to maintain momentum throughout the story: punching up the chapter endings, focusing less on minor characters that didn’t forward the plot, and building out others that did. The robot character WindUp, and by extension WindUp’s owner Peter, became more fully imagined under Mary’s guidance. I also really struggled with finding a good title, and I credit Mary with developing a memorable one. "

Here’s the note from Melanie Nolan at Knopf, which arrived with their offer notice:

"HORUS ticked all the best boxes for us when it comes to charming, affable middle grade. Peter and Tunie are such likable characters—earnest and relatable, with demons of their own to chase, and the set up in the museum, the curse, the mummy, and the kidnapping all add up to a suspenseful, accessible young mystery. We were smitten! Though we both feel the story would benefit from some revisions—chiefly, developing some of the plot strands, and setting up the mummy and the curse in a more careful way—the essentials are all here, and we'd be delighted to make an offer to publish the novel here at Knopf, with Allison to edit upon her return in January."

Used with client and publisher permission

Tweaking the Ending of picture book I HAVE A BALLOON

Ariel Bernstein’s I HAVE A BALLOON is the first project I did with this wildly talented author of picture books and chapter books. I immediately loved the manuscript, but wasn’t happy with the ending:

Monkey: All I’ve ever wanted, since right now, is a sock with a star and a perfectly shaped hole. It makes me so happy.

Monkey: Maybe…we can trade later.

Owl: Okay.

Monkey: We can play now.

Owl: We can play now. Let’s go play.

Monkey: Okay.

Monkey: I have a sock.

Owl: I have a balloon.


Here’s what I wrote to Ariel:


Hi Ariel,

I do love the last two lines of "I have a sock." "I have a balloon." But, I've been doing my pondering, and don't think the manuscript is perfect yet.


From the get go, I've been captivated by Owl's description of the sock: of seeing it as a wondrous object, and helping Monkey to realize it as such. It's not a con job, nor a booby prize. The sock is just as truly marvelous as the balloon. (And you've done something truly marvelous by coming up with this!).


So: is Monkey still wanting to trade at the end? It feels to me like he isn't thinking about that any more. He's attained connection with Owl, and happiness with the sock, which is what he actually wanted. So, are you sure you want to be talking still about trading? It seems to lessen the impact of what came before.


Perhaps they can just simply play together, content and delighted with what each has?


Maybe it was happy accident that you went from two frogs to an owl and a monkey - but you really hit on something there. The characters are individuals, but also archetypes. Owl is wise and calm. Monkey is curious and distractible. They find balance together.


(Though I'm not suggesting an illo note, some possible visual interpretations come to mind that reinforce for me this idea for the text. Maybe Monkey jumps up onto the branch with Owl, and we see his sock waving on his tail, just like Owl holds up his balloon. Or, Owl flys down from his perch, and he and Monkey meander off into the sunset, with the balloon on his wing and the sock is on Monkey's ear or tail.


Could you ponder and play around with this?


Hi Mary,

I understand your point about the ending. I don't always think of ideas this quickly but your point about Monkey feeling happiness with the sock at the end made me realize that Owl and Monkey are at peace with their own possessions and thought of a way to show it. I've attached the new version but you can also quickly see the change below. I'll definitely play around with it some more although this feels like it could work. I think your ideas for possible illustrations are great and I promise not to add them as art notes!


Monkey: All I’ve ever wanted, since right now, is a sock with a star and a perfectly shaped hole. It makes me so happy.

Owl: You have a sock.

Monkey: I have a sock.

Monkey: You have a balloon.

Owl: I have a balloon.


This is the ending that editor Sylvie Frank at Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers went with. What’s interesting is that illustrator Scott Magoon added a visual twist at the end, keeping the sense of desire and dissatisfaction in play. Take a look at the book and you’ll see what I mean!

Used with client permission


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