Hello Mixed-Up Filers! Are we in for a treat today! We have with us, Alyssa Henkin, Senior Vice-President of Trident Media Group!
Hi Alyssa, thanks for joining us today!
JR: To start, could you tell us a little bit about your path to Trident Media?
AH: I began my publishing career at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers and I worked there from 1999-2006. I went from being an editorial assistant to Kevin Lewis to an editor who reported to Elizabeth Law. I was very happy and had the opportunity to work with many talented authors including Laurie Halse Anderson, Derek Anderson, Lauren Thompson, and Heather Vogel Frederick (with many thanks to Kevin Lewis)! However, around year six of my seven years at S&S I began to feel the “itch” to do something more entrepreneurial. My favorite part of the editing job was the acquisition stage, and more often than not I was giving authors ideas based on my own IP, but as an editor I couldn’t really share in the remuneration. In October of 2016 Trident posted a job for an agent that specialized in children’s books. I interviewed with several agents at the firm and realized that this was the entrepreneurial but still publishing environment that I was dreaming of. The rest is history!
JR: I understand that a lot of your tastes in fiction are now coming from your son, Nathan’s love of non-fiction and graphic novels. I love both. What about them do you love and how do they influence your tastes? Let’s start with non-fiction.
AH: Nathan was an early fan of the WHO, WAS, IS series. When he was in first grade, we read them together at bedtime, and now he’s finishing 3rd grade and inhales the few titles in the series he hasn’t yet read. I love the way that readers even at the earliest levels of proficiency can comprehend everything from Jacqueline Kennedy’s marital challenges to Vince Lombardi’s quest to win the Super Bowl; nothing is spoon-fed or dumbed down. Neither my husband nor I are big fantasy/Star Wars/super hero people, and even our younger son William, age 4.5, is more likely to pretend play an airline pilot than a super hero! Stories about reality, and especially history and science are great for our family’s interests. Now that Nathan has read much of WHO WAS IS and I SURVIVED, we’re hungry for more series of that type but for slightly older readers.
JR: I love the Who Was series! What about graphic novels?
AH: Again, back when Nathan was in his first grade, we spent a Barnes & Noble gift card on DOG MAN shortly before heading out to dinner as a family. Despite the fact we were eating at a sports bar broadcasting multiple games, Nathan never looked up from his book and a graphic/illustrated novel lover was born. He went onto read that entire series as well as BAD GUYS and then became more interested in more classically-defined novels like EL DEAFO and the NATHAN HALE’S HAZARDOUS TALES series. I’ve come to see just how funny they are and how smart, and he literally carries the NATHAN HALE books around the house and reads them OVER AND OVER AGAIN, which, I find frustrating, wanting to find more NEW books that he loves as much as these!
JR: As a kid, I read comics nonstop. I read other things as well, but I immersed myself in comics. Many teachers and others looked down at them as a form of literature, which annoyed me. I’m reading how readers who love graphic novels now are facing the same thing. What do you say to people who say that graphic novels aren’t “Real literature”?
AH: I do think its real reading and I hate to hear people say it’s not. However, as a parent who buys a lot of books, it is frustrating to have so many graphic books (which are not leaflet-like comic book prices!) devoured so quickly relative to non-graphic books, which, take longer. In addition, I know from talking to some elementary school teacher and librarians that the kids don’t always seem to comprehend them as fully as they might a fully-written book. I think we all need to fuel our kids with the books they love, and given that this generation is so technology-centric, it’s no wonder they are enjoying books with more visuals and fewer long blocks of only text. That said, I think we as a publishing community need to work to make sure the demand for graphic novels is met while still making sure we don’t drastically reduce the amount of non-graphic books that have always been our middle grade bread and butter.
JR: What does Nathan love reading?
AH: In addition to the above, Nathan loved THE ENTIRE A to Z mystery series, KID SPY by Mac Barnett, CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander, WONDER by my client R.J. Palacio and the first four Harry Potters. We also do a lot of audio books as a family. He adored MANIAC MAGEE, THE SEVEN WONDERS OF SASSAFRASS COUNTY, SUPER FUDGE and others in that series, and PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH.
JR: What are some of your tastes and what do you look for in non-fiction?
AH: Like Nathan, I’m a huge history buff and I’m pleased to have signed a really wonderful and diverse array of historical biography picture books. In addition, I have two forthcoming narrative nonfiction works as well. What I don’t have at the moment is a great photographic book or series in the vein of ATLAS OBSCURA that I think kids in the elementary age really enjoy. And I think publishers are eager for things that are packaged with visual elements in this way. I would also love to represent a series like I SURVIVED that is rooted in nonfiction that does not involve time travel. Clearly there’s a strong interest in disasters, as evidenced by I SURVIVED which, are not published in chronological order and you don’t need to read one to enjoy another. I wonder what a chronological series of events that does perhaps build more cumulatively, for a slightly older readership, looks like?
JR: I love all the things you mentioned. I devour history books! How about graphic novels?
AH: I think the graphic novel market in middle grade is very strong. I think MANY people are seeking the next Dog Man, so it’s a great climate for authors who can also draw! On the older side, I think there’s absolutely a desire for standalones like EL DEAFO and ROLLER GIRL and the SMILE series that embody the same humor and empathy we find in middle grade novels. My client Lisa Greenwald has also experienced some really nice traction with the TBH series that is not graphic but is told predominantly in text format. It is so relatable to readers. Years ago, people used to talk about “reluctant readers” needing books like that. But I’ve noticed with Nathan, spending so much time using computers in school and playing Fortnite and checking sports scores on my phone, that he definitely enjoys books with less text that he can finish more quickly. This is not because he’s a reluctant reader (he does stay up late reading actual books every night), but he likes the instant gratification of finishing books more quickly than I did at the same age.
JR: My kids are the same. How’s the market for them in Middle Grade?
AH: The market for middle grade, both graphic and not, is still very robust. Librarians are hugely helpful in getting titles found and backlisting well for years to come and national programs like Reading Olympics and summer reading lists and state lists provide a lot of ongoing revenue that doesn’t exist in the adult book market. That said, I’ve noticed publishers are definitely trying to devise newer formats to attract today’s technology-obsessed kids. Nathan and I recently read ESCAPE THIS BOOK: TITANIC, which, is definitely a fun way for kids to draw along their Titanic adventure. I’ve also noticed on a local level that at Nathan’s K-5 elementary school library (at which I’m a regular volunteer), the librarians are very keen to stock novels that are not too mature for a precocious first or second grade reader to enjoy. This might mean the stocking of more animal books, fantasy books, and fewer starting middle school/coming of age books. My community library (Ludington in Bryn Mawr, PA) still loves middle school coming of age and has an incredible collection, which, enables me to keep up on the hot books. But since a lot of middle schools are doing away with libraries and replacing them with “media centers”, it’s important to consider the needs of the elementary school library.
JR: Very good point. What advice can you give to authors?
AH: Still write what you love. Don’t write to trends. Be knowledgeable of what kids like and what the various emerging trends and formats are, but don’t feel like you need to jump on every bandwagon. And I think for people who are not writing graphic novels, we can still learn a lot from them in terms of how brevity and clever dialogue can be our friend in writing!
JR: Good advice. I’m always amazed by people who tell me that they are writing a book based on what’s selling now. What was your favorite book as a child?
AH: My favorites were Betsy-Tacy, All of A Kind Family, Anastasia Krupnick, Ramona, Judy Blume, Babysitter’s Club, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A LITLTE PRINCESS and SECRET GARDEN, Anne of Green Gables and anything by Karen Hurwitz. In school, I remember loving THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND and MY BROTHER SAM IS DAD!
JR: My daughter loves The Baby-Sitter’s Club books now that they have been done as graphic novels! Before we go, is there anything else that you’d like us to know, that I might not have asked?
AH: I can’t emphasize enough how important it is not to write to trends, and write what you love!
JR: Where can we find you on Social Media?
AH: Twitter! @agenthenkin
JR: Well, that’s it for now, my Mixed-Up friends! I’d like to once again thank Alyysa Henkin for taking the time to speak to us today!
Until next time . . .