Mary Cummings
Agent for Kids Books


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 b.amster.kidsbooks@gmail.com). 

I hope to see you for pitches, networking and workshops at these upcoming conferences: St. Paul MN: Saturday, March 2, 2019: Minnesota Writing Workshop   Ft. Collins CO: Friday and Saturday, May 3 and 4, 2019 Northern Colorado Writers' Conference   Details soon!




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 (which was published by 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 (which was published by 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 (which was published by 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 (which was published by 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.

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!) 

My tastes are pretty broad. I like warmth, humor, adventure, and quirky charm. I like adorable and cute. I like sad and satisfying. I like gorgeous and lyrical. I like wondrous. I 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

Friendship stories

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

Great read-aloud picture books

Stories about important, complex relationships

Historical fiction and narrative nonfiction

Work tied to school standards (tell me which) or geared to a specific audience

Biographies, especially in the arts and sciences (as picture books or longer works) (how about a pb bio on one of the great opera singers? I'm a huge fan)

Lyrically written science, nature, mindfulness and social awareness topics

Stories about holidays, including those important to a minority community

Author-illustrator picture books 

Poetry collections (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
YA stories with characters out of their teens 
Zombies, vampires, etc.
Mean girl stories and school dramas
Abuse, murder, gore
   (which is not to say I totally shy away from darkness and danger!) 

I look forward to hearing from you. Remember to follow the submission guidelines!





Tweaking the middle-grade novel

HORUS AND THE CURSE OF EVERLASTING REGRET


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?

 

Reply:
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

Categories

Backstory to Books

Wishlist

Tips

Etc.