Advice on How to Query Agents From Agents

Sister from Mr. Fix-It Man

As promised, today I'm sharing advice from literary agents specifically for picture book authors and author/illustrators. 

For the last several weeks, I’ve been pulling together resources to make researching and querying agents easier. When I asked some of our successful Storyteller Academy students if they and their agents would be willing to share advice (and even the queries they sent their current agents), they came through. You can read about how our students signed with agents, and their advice in this blog post.

I'm also giving away a copy of LaRonda Gardner Middlemiss's debut picture book, I LOVE ME! I'll share giveaway details after I share wisdom from our agents.

LaRonda Gardner Middlemiss signed with Stephanie Hansen of Metamorphosis Literary Agency. You can read my interview with LaRonda if you'd like to learn more about her.

Myrna: Why did you sign LaRonda as your client?

Stephanie: I discovered LaRonda thanks to #DVpit. I found her storytelling voice to be fun and her manuscripts were full of heart. She is very professional and a pleasure to work with.

Myrna: What advice would you give picture book authors or author/illustrators who are querying?

Stephanie: Right now I would veer away from the anthropomorphization of non-children characters because it's not being picked up. I would focus on stories with heart seen through the eyes of a child. I would also caution writing picture books from the adult POV.

Mirka Hokkanen signed with Essie White of Storm Literary Agency, and you can read her interview here

Myrna: Why did you sign Mirka as your client?

Essie: I pursued Mirka as a client primarily because of the unique and varied illustrative choices she employs. Her traditional picture book art is engaging, child-centric and showcases a tremendous ability to develop characters, as well as a narrative arc. Her characters have personality and live and breathe on the page. But I was also fascinated with Mirka's background in printmaking, including linocuts and wood engravings. As an agent, I look for material that elevates the picture book experience, and that often means utilizing fine art techniques. I envisioned this particular type of art as perhaps a wonderful pairing for many nature themed nonfiction projects. I signed Mirka because she decided to sign with us, to join our agency. It is our privilege to represent her.

Myrna: What advice would you give picture book authors or author/illustrators who are querying?

Essie: I would advice authors and author/illustrators to carefully study the agent and agency to whom they submit. I receive a lot of queries, even though, on our website, it states I am closed to submissions. I also receive a lot of queries from those who specifically write material for adults. We are a children's literary agency and so, I often wonder, why do I receive adult queries? It's important that authors know what the agency actually represents.

Most importantly, be respectful and kind and patient. We all realize this business is fraught with rejection. What authors often do not realize is that agents are rejected over and over and over again. It takes work to find the right fit, the right home for a project. Same is true of an author/agent relationship. It takes work. You want the right fit for you. And that may take some time and some persistence.

Lily LaMotte signed with Laura Rennert of Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

Myrna: Why did you sign Lily as your client?

Laura: I signed Lily because I fell in love with her graphic novel text for MEASURING UP (now on the launch list for Harper Alley, Harper’s new graphic novel imprint). The set up of the story pulled me in immediately and I felt emotionally invested right away. I could see how well it would fit in the current market and that it had both great trade and school library appeal. I liked that the protagonist Cici’s immigration experience is distinctive, while also touching on universal themes of what it feels like to be an outsider; the connection to family and culture through food; and finding your own identity despite parental and cultural expectations.

It’s unusual for me to sign an author for a text only graphic novel, but in this case Lily's writing was pitch perfect and worked so well as a graphic novel script. She had submitted it in a form where I could clearly see how it would work with illustrations—she gave stage directions for the art she envisioned accompanying her text. This can be risky because this dimension of the story is the illustrator's purview, but Lily had a keen visual sense for how the art could enhance the storytelling and she used a light touch in her illustration suggestions. Because she was so adept at this, it helped me (and her editor) see the vision for the work.

Myrna: What advice would you give picture book authors or author/illustrators who are querying?

Laura: Before you start querying, I think it’s important to have more than one finished and strong project to share. I would recommend having two or three polished projects that feel shareable. When something piques my interest one of the first questions I ask is what other projects or works-in-progress can you share? Even for experienced picture book authors and author-illustrators, not all picture books will sell. Thus, if I’m going to make the long-term commitment and big investment of offering representation, I want to see that they have more than one intriguing story idea, that they will approach their work with passion and flexibility, and that they have the perseverance necessary to build a successful career. 

Teresa Robeson signed with Natascha Morris of BookEnds Literary Agency. You can read about more about Teresa and both of her picture books in this interview

Myrna: Why did you sign Teresa as your client?

Natascha: I loved Teresa’s picture book. It was a hidden history I had never heard of before, which to me is BIG when taking on non-fiction. And it spotlighted women in science, which I think is so important. I grew up around universities and in robotics labs, so bringing this world to more girls is important to me.

Myrna: What advice would you give picture book authors or author illustrators who are querying?

Natascha: Make sure you have 5-6 manuscripts at the same consistent level. Agents are looking to build careers and bringing consistency is key to that. The first manuscript might not sell, but if you can bring that same strength over and over, it helps.

Joana Pastro also signed with Natascha Morris. And yes, Natascha answered questions for both of them! You can read more about Joana here (and maybe even win a copy of her first picture book).

Myrna: Why did you sign Joana as your client?

Natascha: I loved the humor I saw in Joana’s texts. I loved the second person (it was a thing for me in 2017), but the humor really stayed with him. But more than that, there is an underlying sweetness to her text. A lot of kid appeal going here. But just pure fun. 

Myrna: What advice would you give picture book authors or author illustrators who are querying?

Natascha: All of Joana’s early books knew their brand, and that was a great thing. Though they were different, I knew where I could place in her in the market. But when the time came, she wasn’t afraid to grow and pivot. Which is how we got Bisa’s Carnaval. So being open to experimenting and growing is absolutely a necessary skill. 

Kendra Marcus of BookStop Literary Agency represents Abi CushmanIf you’d like to know more about Abi, you can read her interview here

Myrna: Why did BookStop Literary take on Abi as a client?

Kendra: From day one when we received her work, we were impressed. Her first dummy was an ABC book with an intriguing and unusual element that set it apart from most ABCs. Then she sent another dummy with characters whose facial expressions made us laugh out loud. (If you can get a good laugh out of readers, it counts for a lot!). How could we resist!

We signed her because she demonstrated a solid and clear understanding of story and skill as an illustrator. Her professional quality illustrations complemented the stories perfectly. Characters with GREAT expressions go a long way in picture book storytelling. Abi demonstrated the determination, willingness and ability to tweak her stories until they ‘worked'. Most importantly, she understands who her readers are and how to connect with them. Her first book, SOAKED!, is a great example of how Abi uses humor to appeal to readers and relay her subtle message that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade!

In addition, Abi was an efficient conference attendee. She didn’t attend every conference, but she made good use of those she attended. She was able to connect with editors and art directors and get positive feedback on her stories, and then she followed up with them.

She is a delight to work with. She sends ideas and sketches at an early stage and is thoughtful as we go back and forth until her stories are ready for submission. We have established a great partnership with her that makes both our jobs easier.  

Myrna: What advice would you give picture book authors or author/illustrators who are querying?

Kendra: Make sure you listen carefully to critiques on your work and clear up weak spots before you send it to an agent. We shouldn't be the first ones with whom you share your story. You should always be reading and thinking critically about recently published picture books. Study the different storytelling elements and how they work together. And then, ask yourself, how your book will contribute to the literature on the subject.

Isabella Kung signed with Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. If you’d like to know more about Isabella, you can read her interview here

Myrna: Why did you sign Isabella as a client?

Jennifer: I signed Isabella as a client because she's extraordinarily talented, and her picture book dummy was nearly perfect and totally adorable!

Myrna: What advice would you give picture book authors or author/illustrators who are querying?

Jennifer: I'd tell picture book authors that they should not query the first picture book they write. They should be sure to have at least a few really strong texts before querying. I'd tell picture book illustrators and author/illustrators to be sure their online portfolio is easy to access, clean and well-designed with a variety of pieces showcasing their talents. Ideally, a picture book portfolio would include both color and line art, children and animals, and pieces with a lot of movement and active scenes, not just portraits.

Todd Sturgell signed with  Molly O'Neill of Root Literary

(Todd’s note: According to Molly, there was nothing earth shattering about my query. It was succinct, informative, and interesting enough to get her to read the book dummy.)

Myrna: Why did you sign Todd as your client?

Molly: Todd's book dummy and its characters made me laugh every time I read it, many times over! His story's comedic timing was pitch-perfect, and I know that detail will make it a great read-aloud, too. And he landed the ending so perfectly and organically, yet it reads like he did it effortlessly, and accomplishing THAT is no small task for a bookmaker! 

Myrna: What advice would you give picture book authors or author/illustrators who are querying?

Molly: If you are querying with the hope that the children's book industry will one day support you and your stories, it's important that you do the same now. Buy books whenever you can and check them out of your libraries; even while many libraries are closed during quarantine, you can still check out e-books, and circulation statistics for libraries help assure that they have a budget for more book purchases for their patrons next year. Attend book events: online and in-person. Leave reviews for books you enjoy on Goodreads or Amazon, or share your thoughts about books you've loved on social media, so that other readers might in turn pick up a copy. Immersing yourself more deeply in the book community in these ways will also help you prepare for the day when one day, you're the bookmaker hoping for good sales and reviews from readers!

Book Giveaway Details

I'm giving away a copy of LaRonda's I LOVE ME! To enter, let me know something that you've learned from one of our contributing agents in the comments by midnight on April 25. You don’t have to buy anything or be a student. The book releases next week!

Please share this post on social media for extra entries, and paste the link to wherever you shared as a reply to your original comment.

 I want to give a huge THANK YOU to all of the agents who answered questions. 

Blog Contributors

Instructor Photo: Myrna Foster

Myrna Foster writes and edits content for Storyteller Academy and the WriteRiders Newsletter for SCBWI Nevada. She has spent a lot of time teaching and coaching children, including five years as a preschool teacher. She's also worked as a journalist, and Highlights High Five has published six of her poems. 

Arree Chung is an author/illustrator and the founder of Storyteller Academy. Arree’s Ninja! series has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. Kirkus also gave a starred review to Mixed, which recently won the FCGB award. 

Today Arree lives a creative life, making stories for children. Arree spends most of his time making picture books, writing middle grade novels, and sharing his love for art, design, and storytelling with kids and dreamers everywhere.

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