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Agent Spotlight: Ashley Herring Blake


Today I’m thrilled to interview the amazing and energetic Ashley Herring Blake. You may remember reading about her here previously when she talked about being an author of middle-grade novels.

Recently, Ashley became an agent at the Rees Literary Agency, and I was delighted to speak to her about her new venture.

To learn more about Ashley, her books, and her new position as an agent, visit her at her website: http://www.ashleyherringblake.com

 

 

 

Dorian: You’ve been a prolific writer of middle-grade novels such as Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea (published in May of this year), Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, and The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James. You’ve also written for young adults, and I noticed you have an adult romance coming out next year. What made you want to add agenting into your busy schedule?

Ashley: That’s an excellent question! I’m also a teacher for my day job, and last year, I was really wanting to think about how I could move my whole career into publishing. I’ve always been a big reader, and I love helping bring stories to life. My own agent has been so integral in my life—a support, an advocate, a pseudo-therapist—and I wanted to be that for other authors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dorian: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the Rees Literary Agency?

Ashley: Rees Agency has been around since the 1980s. They represent nonfiction and fiction, everything from literary to the very commercial, kid’s books, and romance. I’ve been with them as an author since 2014, so I knew joining them professionally as an agent was a smart move—I’m comfortable with them and I know they take care of their authors.

 

Click on this link for an archived interview with Ashley.

 

Dorian: Sounds great! How did you decide to specialize in the field of literature for children and teens?

Ashley: I actually didn’t! While I do rep middle grade and YA, I have more clients right now who write adult. I’m most interested in romance and contemporary fiction for all ages (sweet crushes for the MG set), and am really looking for queer stories more than anything right now.

 

Dorian: What was your favorite middle-grade book as a child?

Ashley: Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn. Something about that book wrapped itself around my heart and squeezed tight! While my love for the story didn’t translate into me writing ghost stories, I’ll always adore that book.

 

Dorian: I remember enjoying that book, too! What are some of your favorite middle-grade books now?

Ashley: There’s so much great middle grade out there right now. I love anything by Kacen Callender, Nicole Melleby, Kathryn Ormsbee, Karen Strong, Akemi Dawn Bowman, Erin Entrada Kelly, A. J. Sass, and more.

 

 

Dorian: I know our writers who are readers will want to know: What would you like to see in your submission box?

Ashley: As I mentioned above, I’m mostly looking for queer stories right now, mostly in the realistic fiction realm. I’m looking for MG, YA, and adult, and I’m a sucker for messy characters, super voicey writing, and a smidge (or a lot) of romance.

 

Dorian: Can you tell us about a special interest, hobby, or obsession you have that isn’t listed in your bio or wish list?

Ashley: I’m very into planners. I don’t create my own like bullet journalers, but the one I do use, I make look pretty with colors and washi tape and use it as part planner, part journal. When the mood hits me right and I’m not annoyed at all the frizz and effort, I’m into curly hair care as well. I’ve had curly hair since adolescence and am just now starting to really understand how to take care of it.

 

Writing and Query Tips

Dorian: What are two of your best writing tips?

Ashley: Write a lot and read a lot. That’s really the crux of it. You have to be willing to write badly, a lot, in order to get better. And reading widely will teach you what good writing is. It’ll also teach you what good writing isn’t. 🙂

 

Dorian: How about putting your agenting hat on now, and telling us your two best tips for querying?

Ashley: Keep your query letter about the book. The agent doesn’t need to know why you wrote a book or the themes they may find therein. That won’t make them want to read further. Stick to the book’s character and plot—what do they want, why can’t they have it, and what do they plan on doing about it? Secondly, follow the agent’s sub guidelines. I know we’re all busy and it’s been a wild couple of years, but that’s a basic professional courtesy, and one which, if not followed, is a red flag in my opinion.

 

Dorian: That’s great advice. Thank you! How can writers query you?

Ashley: They can query me at this link: https://querymanager.com/query/ashleyblake

I ONLY take queries through query manager. 🙂

 

Dorian: How can people follow you on social media?

Ashley: My handle is ashleyhblake on both Twitter and Instagram.

Thanks so much for taking the time out to talk to us today. Best of luck with your writing and agenting!

 

 

 

The Anatomy of a Middle Grade STEM book — AND a Giveaway!

People are always asking me where I come up with ideas for my STEM books. After all, if you’ve seen my books, I tend to use out-of-the-box angles to get kids excited about some interesting STEM topics.

Astronaut Aquanaut book by Jennifer Swanson

 

Take my Astronaut-Aquanaut book. This one compares and contrasts SPACE and the OCEAN. Pretty cool concept, especially when you learn that while these two places are very extreme enviroments, it takes a lot of similar training and equipment to go both places. Which would you rather be?

 

 

 

Then there’s my Save the Crash-test Dummy book. It’s the history of car safety engineering, told through the lens of a day in the life of a crash-test dummy. Yes, you read that right.   Save the Crash-test Dummies book by Jennifer Swanson

A crash-test dummy. Probably NOT a job you want to have. But it’s a great way to get kids interested in car safety. (Shhh… don’t tell the kids they are learning about Newton’s Laws of Motion)

 

 

 

 

So HOW do I come up with my ideas? And then HOW do I turn these ideas into books? Well, I’m going to give you a peek inside my creative process. It’ll be fun. You might even say, SPORTS-tacular. 🙂

Yep, I’m going to use my new book that releases next Tuesday, July 20th, from Black Dog & Leventhal, as my example. I’ll take you through how this book started as an idea, then a proposal, then… a book. (With amazing illustrations by Laurène Boglio)

The Secret Science of Sports book by Jennifer Swanson

STEP 1: Come Up with an IDEA

  • The easiest thing to do is write what you KNOW. — For me, I grew up with 3 brothers and a father who love sports. It was natural that I would as well. After all, I spent most of my days playing baseball in the backyard with my brothers, shooting hoops in the driveway, swimming laps in the pool for swim practice, running, hiking, biking, etc. You name it, I’ve played the sport. It only seemed natural that I write a book about something I know and love.
  • Write something that INTERESTS you. This one should also be easy. If you know the topic, hopefully, you’ll like it. I do happen to like sports, which is good.
  • Find the HOOK– This can be the tough part! After all, just because YOU like it and find it interesting, does not mean that others will. You need to  think about how you can make this topic exciting to others. For this book, it was natural to combine my love of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) + Sports =  STEM Sports Book (Exciting!)

 

WHY STEM and Sports? To me, combining STEM and sports seemed natural. Many people watch sports and just look at the game, but I see the physics, the technology, and the math everywhere. I thought if I could get kids (of all ages) to see that, they might find it cool to know as well. Besides, using something a lot of people love (sports), with something everyone learns (science and STEM), that just seemed logical to me. Good thing my editor agreed. 🙂

 

STEP 2: Write the proposal and a really good pitch

Writing middle grade nonfiction book proposals are not for the faint of heart. They take a lot of time and research, but are totally worth it. Here is a great place that offers tips just for this:  https://www.dystel.com/nonfiction-proposals

Writing pitches is not easy either. You need to include enough information to make the editors interested, but not too much to make it boring. Keep your voice fun and entertaining (it should match your voice in the book) and have LOTS of energy.

Here is  my first pitch: Hey! Want to know the secret to winning at sports? It’s not what you’d think. It’s… SCIENCE! Yep. To be great at sports you need to know about physics, biology, neuroscience and even a little engineering. Who would have thought that science class would be the best place to learn how to be a better athlete. Shh…. don’t tell anyone.

 

STEP 3:   WRITE the manuscript!

So now that you’ve sold the book. Yes, I skipped over the hardest part, selling it.  It can take awhile or in the case of this book, it was relatively short. An editor happened to be looking for a book on this topic at just the right time that my proposal was ready. Pretty great, huh? That does not happen all the time. But let’s face it, part of this career is just plain luck, right?

Anyway, as I began writing, I knew I wanted this book to be different. First of all, it had to have  a cool kid-friendly voice. Here are the first few sentences:

If you picked up this book, it’s probably because you like sports. Maybe you want to see if it has tips for how to improve your game (it does), or how to become more fit (it has that, too), or just because you want to learn more about different types of sports (also there). But wait, the title says, the Science of Sports. That means that this book also teaches you about science. What does a sports book have science in it? Those two subjects seem so different. It’s not as if sitting in a science class can teach you more about your sport than practicing it. Actually, it can.       

©Jennifer Swanson, Secret Science of Sports 

 

But most of all, I wanted kids to USE this book. After all, science is best when it’s in action. So, I as I wrote about the science and STEM, I had the readers DO activities like these:

Secret Science of Sports book page

 

 

Secret Science of Sports Book page 25

I also included images that showed the readers how the STEM was actually happening.

Secret Science of Sports Book - Soccer pages

 

 

Again, my editor was totally on board with all of these ideas, thankfully. When you add in the amazing illustrations by Laurène Boglio it is really COOL! Readers get their own STEM sports-tastic view of the world!

So, THAT’s how I created my latest book. It was tons of fun and easy to write. For me, it was simply a trip through my sports-filled life. My hope is that readers of all ages find this book interesting, exciting, and useful. I want this book to get taken outside, sloshed through the mud-filled soccer fields, have sports drinks from tennis and football players spilled on it, and yes, even get a little wet from being beside the swimming pool.

It’s also a  PERFECT companion for those of you that will sit down to watch the 2021 Summer Olympics

Sports Book with Olympic rings

Finally, there NEEDS to be more STEM Middle grade books in the world, consider writing one. Kids of all ages will love you for it. GO STEM/STEAM!

I am giving away one copy of my Secret Science of Sports book. Leave a comment below with your favorite sport or favorite sports memory to be entered. 

 

 

Author Interview + Giveaway: THE VERDIGRIS PAWN by Alysa Wishingrad

We’re so pleased to welcome author Alysa Wishingrad to MUF, here to talk about her new middlegrade novel, THE VERDIGRIS PAWN. She tells us about the book, what the title means, and more about her career and journey to kidlit author.  

THE VERDIGRIS PAWN is the story of Beau, heir to the ruler of the Land, a man so frightening, people only dare call him Himself. Beau has been raised isolated and alone. And despite the harsh and judgmental treatment he gets from his father, Beau has no idea of the brutal tyranny Himself unleashes upon his subjects, and how hated and feared their family is.  This all changes when he meets Cressi, a young servant, who opens his eyes to the realities of life in the Land – especially about Mastery House, a terrible and brutal place where the children of the poor are sent to be raised and trained to be servants in exchange for payment of their families taxes.

The Verdigris Pawn by Alysa Wishingrad

This discovery of the truth sets Beau off on an epic adventure as he tries to undo the poisoned legacy of his family. But in order to restore fairness and equality to the Land, he must think of things like a real-life game of Fist (a board game similar to chess!)  But when you’re reviled throughout the Land and false heroes lurk around every corner, leading a rebellion is easier said than done.  This is a story about how appearances aren’t always what they seem and how real power can come from the most unlikely places.

MUF: What does the title mean?
AW: The title refers to the key game piece in Fist, in which either the king must knock the verdigris pawn off the board, or the pawn will unseat the king. As for Verdigris, it’s an alchemical reaction that turns copper and brass a beautiful blue-ish green color when it oxidizes. A great example that we can all call to mind is the Statue of Liberty. Just as the pawn in fist can be transformed into the king, Beau, Cressi and Nate, my three central characters, all also go through life-changing transformations.

MUF: This is your debut kidlit novel. What career path led you to write a book? Why MG?
AW: 
I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I was constantly telling and writing stories as a kid. I graduated college with a degree in playwriting and moved back to NYC with the intention of writing plays. But life and work, and a measure of insecurity about my words, got in the way. I followed another career path for about 15 years, but writing would not leave me alone. It was when I moved up to the country to raise my kids that I got back to it.

As for why I write MG, simply put, I love this age. I think MG readers are truly some of the smartest and open people there are. It’s this beautiful knife’s edge time between childhood and the teen years, before the cynicism and deep seeded doubts can take hold. It’s a time of realizing you have a voice and striving to use it. This is fertile terrain both for telling stories and for learning about ourselves.

MUF: You say that your novel is, a “new take on the classic middle grade books we all grew up with.” Can you speak more to that? 

AW: There’s a very classic feel to this story, to the way it’s constructed, and I think in the writing as well. It might bring to mind classic fantasies such as the Chronicles of Prydain and Diana Wynn Jones’s work. But while it nods to those stories, it also poses questions that are urgently relevant to our world while challenging some deeply held cultural assumptions.

One of the themes the story explores is who gets to write history, and how is it even possible to tell the entire story from all sides. I like to think that the book will encourage readers to examine issues around power; what does it mean to have it, how can you claim your power when you feel powerless, and can power be wielded to enhance rather than sacrifice the greater good.

Author Alysa Wishingrad

MUF: Speaking of classics, what are a few of your favorite classic MG titles?
AW: I used to get lost in Mary Norton’s The Borrowers books for hours on end– oh, how I wanted to have little people living in the walls of my house. I loved how resourceful they were, how clever and united as a family they were, especially through all the very hard times they faced

This one I mention with a caveat that I haven’t re-read it in a very long time, and I’m sure there are elements that do not hold up today, but E.B. White’s Stuart Little was another book I re-read so many times. I loved that here was this mouse who was unconditionally welcomed into the family. That no one questioned that he was different was a picture of the world as it ought to be. And then somehow he aged at twice the rate of his sibling and was ready to go off and explore the world long before they were. There was so much hope and inspiration in that story for me. The blending of the world as we know it with the potential for the fantastical is still the terrain I like to explore as a writer.

MUF:  What new MG book(s) do you love? 

AW:  Oh gosh! How much time do we have?

I have been blown away by so many of my fellow 2021 debuts – but I’ll just stick to the fantasy titles for now since that’s where my heart lives.

Root Magic by Eden Royce is gorgeous, magical historical fiction.

The Gilded Girl by Alyssa Colman is a wonderful magical retelling of The Little Princess with a social conscious.

I love the infusion of mythology with adventure in Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne.

And last but not least, The Wolf’s Curse by Jessica Vitalis, which will be out in September, is a lyrical and fantastic examination of grief, love and life.

MUF: Can you tell us one thing you learned while writing The Verdigris Pawn?
AW: I learned that white paging a book  (starting over from the blank page) is nothing to fear. In fact,  it’s incredibly liberating. Sometimes beginning anew is the best way to get to the heart of a story.

I’ll explain.

I had a meeting early on with my editors to address some issues on how the story was rolling out. The longer we talked the more I realized that I couldn’t patch it, I couldn’t revise my way to a fix. So, I metaphorically balled the book up into a giant 375 page wad, threw it over my shoulder and started over.

The arc of the story has always been the same, but how it rolled out changed – and so very much for the better!

That experience of doing what I once thought of as the unthinkable has made me more daring, and freer as a writer.

Find Alysa on Twitter @agwishingrad, on Instagram @alysawishingradwrites, and her website at www.AlysaWishingrad.com  (where you might find some Pawn-ish treats and facts).

Thank you so much for having me, I’ve loved chatting with you!

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