Editor / Agent Spotlight

Agent Spotlight: James McGowan of Bookends Literary Agency

I’ve been a long-time fan of the YouTube videos with James McGowan, Jessica Faust, and other agents at Bookends Literary Agency and am thrilled to be interviewing James about his career as an agent and a writer. But before we move on to the interview, here’s a brief bio about James and his work.

James McGowan began his career right where he is: at BookEnds. He joined the team as an intern in the summer of 2015, and as the joke goes, they couldn’t get rid of him. He has worked in all departments at the agency and is now a literary agent representing a talented list of award-winning authors and illustrators. James’ list focuses on illustrated projects for young readers (board books, picture books, chapter books, and middle grade) as well as adult nonfiction and mystery/suspense novels.

In addition to being an agent, James is a children’s author. His debut picture book Good Night, Oppy! launched from Astra BFYR in 2021. He is born, raised, and currently living in Staten Island, NY. He is a professional snacker, a huge fan of Jeopardy!, and fluent in sarcasm. To learn more about James, his wishlist, or upcoming client books please visit the BookEnds website or his personal website. To send a query, please use QueryManager. And to find a growing archive of thoughts no one asked for, follow James on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Dorian: Welcome, James, to The Mixed-Up Files! Can you tell us about your path to becoming a literary agent?

James: This is the most boring story since it was pretty linear. I realized I wanted to work in publishing halfway through undergrad, and hit the ground running on applying to internships. And, like anyone applying to a publishing internship knows, I had very little luck. Except for BookEnds, who scheduled an interview, asked me for a reader’s report, and pretty soon offered me the summer position. I instantly loved the team at BookEnds and we all clicked really well. I interned with them for a second semester, and a few weeks after I graduated college, I asked Jessica Faust if she had any openings. By the end of the month, she brought me on as her assistant. From there, I just climbed the ranks to agency assistant, worked in every department at the agency, and in 2018 I started taking on my own clients. I could not imagine myself working anywhere else.

 

Dorian: Not boring at all! Please tell us about Bookends and how our readers can access all the agency’s informative videos on YouTube.

James: Sure! BookEnds is a literary agency consisting of nearly a dozen agents and a dedicated support staff. We represent everything in fiction and nonfiction for the youngest to the oldest of readers. Our team is super collaborative and devoted to our work. We also are dedicated to educating and informing authors about the publishing industry. We know that it is sometimes not the most transparent business, so through our Blog and YouTube channel, we hope to arm authors and illustrators with everything they need to know in order to succeed. You can find us at www.bookendsliterary.com and on YouTube!

Jessica Faust and James McGowan having an animated conversation in one of their YouTube videos.

 

Dorian: What middle-grade books influenced you the most when you were growing up, and what contemporary books do you wish had been available then?

James: Growing up, I read a ton of series. I loved being invested in a long series of books and awaiting the new one every year. I read anything Rick Riordan wrote, of course. I also was a huge fan of Jenny Nimmo’s Charlie Bone series, and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. I read the Spiderwick Chronicles, The Giver, A Wrinkle in Time. I loved Louis Sachar. I was (and continue to be) obsessed with RL Stine.

I’m really excited by the middle-grade books publishing now, though. There is a lot more available to children in all genres, and it’s exciting to see new representation in this age range. I hope this middle-grade boom creates even more lifelong readers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dorian: R.L. Stine was an obsession in our house, too. I remember racing to the bookstore after school with my daughter when a new Goosebumps book was coming out. What genres, themes, or subjects are you mostly looking for in manuscripts?

James: In middle grade, two things I’m super excited about right now are middle-grade horror and humor (contemporary or otherwise). Bonus points if you have both! I love stories about a band of friends coming together to accomplish a task; I love sibling stories; I’d love to see a book celebrating cousin relationships; wacky humor at a summer camp or school or afterschool program. Fun set-ups and settings. My door is pretty open! I want to be surprised.

 

Dorian: Please tell us about your picture book, Good Night, Oppy and if you have any other projects in the works.

James: Yes! OPPY was such a fun project to work on. I’ve always been a lover of space exploration, and the Mars Rovers are the epitome of brilliant human engineering. When the news broke that Oppy’s mission was complete, I just had to write something. Everything came together pretty quickly, and the book launched (ha) in September of 2021. I enjoyed that process so much, I’ve been working on a couple more space projects that I hope I’ll get the opportunity to share with everyone soon.

Dorian: What tips do you have for writers who are in the querying stages?

James: So many tips, but my best one is to keep moving forward. Send new queries out as rejects arrive, research other agents, learn more about the industry, read new books, work on the next thing. Publishing is not an industry for staying still.

Of course our blog and YouTube have a ton more information for you!

For those interested in books and publishing, I highly recommend you check out the blog and videos! Thanks, James, for taking the time out of your busy schedule for the interview!

Editor Spotlight: Elizabeth Law at Holiday House

If you haven’t already met Elizabeth Law, by way of her website, social media, a writers conference, or a webinar, I’m delighted to be the one to introduce you to her. She is a fount of knowledge about children’s books (and Broadway), and recently took the time to tell us about herself and her career in publishing. Enjoy!

 

Dorian: Welcome, Elizabeth! It’s great to have you here at the Mixed-Up Files. Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your career in children’s publishing?

Elizabeth: I’ve heard publishing called “the accidental career,” but it was anything but accidental for me. I loved to read as a kid, and when I was in high school, the librarian in my hometown of Belmont, Massachusetts, and I founded a children’s book discussion group. That really encouraged my passion. Then when I went to college, I took legendary critic Zena Sutherland’s course in Children’s Literature. She told stories about her friends who were editors in New York City, and who had worked on books such as Harriet the Spy, and I thought, “Oh, please, let that happen to me!” So I moved to New York after college, got a job as an editorial assistant at Viking Children’s Books, and have been in the field my whole post-college life.

 

Dorian: What middle-grade books influenced you the most as you were growing up?

Elizabeth: My sister is five years younger than I, and we lived in a big house. I had the third floor all to myself, and I idealized books about big, chaotic families and adventures. (The opposite of my small, WASPy, organized, and stable family.) I read the Elizabeth Enright books about the Melendys and Cheaper By the Dozen over and over again.  Today, Polly Horvath’s Pine Island Home and Rita Williams-Garcia’s Gaither sisters books still capture that feeling for me. Those are families I fantasize about being part of. So are the Penderwicks and Hilary McKay’s Cassons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still, that list barely scratches the surface of my childhood reading. I feel I need to give shout outs to Half Magic by Edward Eager, The Mixed-Up Files*, the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and anything by Beverly Cleary. Looking at this list now, I think, “Wow, that list is WHITE.” But that’s what we had in those days, and the books were great.

*Speaking of Mixed-Up Files, a kid asked me recently if there are more stories about Claudia and Jamie. These days Elaine Konigsburg would be under a lot of pressure from her fans and publisher to produce a sequel! I bet she would have resisted, though. But it shows how the business has changed.

 

Dorian: I know you’re one of Broadway’s biggest fans. What middle-grade novel or novels do you think would be great on Broadway?

Elizabeth: I love this question, Dorian! I would pick Jerry Craft’s New Kid because musicals set in high school are really trendy right now and it’s a great story. Also, I would love, LOVE to see Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven musicalized. It’s set in the sixties, and the music would be so hot, and Lilias White could play Big Ma and bring down the house with an 11 o’clock number. (Producers, are you paying attention?)

Dorian: What are some favorite middle-grade books you’ve worked on in the past? And what are some you’ve worked on recently that our readers should look out for?

Three I’m proud of in my past are No Talking by Andrew Clements, The False Princess by Eilis Oneal, and a book that might be hard to find by Christine McDonnell called Ballet Bug—it reminded me of a Scholastic paperback I had as a kid called On Your Toes, Suzie! (Why does ballet seem so magical to little girls?) I’m now working with an author named Polly Farquhar who is terrifically talented and whose characters are just so real. You can’t help but root for them as you read! Her debut novel is Itch, and she has a new novel next year called Lolo Weaver Swims upstream that I am really excited about.

Also, I’ve worked with Dan Gutman since his very first book for kids. I haven’t edited all his books—hardly—but one we just published, Houdini and Me, is super kid-pleasing—it’s the perfect, action-packed book for young middle graders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dorian: I’m sure you have a plethora of stories about publishing. Anything else you’d like to tell us about middle grade?

Elizabeth: I have a neat story. I became good friends with Ann Durell, the legendary editor who edited The Westing Game, Judy Blume’s Fudge books, and many others. She told me a story about my beloved Chronicles of Prydain, a Welsh fantasy series by Lloyd Alexander, that I read countless times as a kid. In those days, people said, “Fantasy doesn’t sell.” But she and Lloyd had dinner and she’d had a lot to drink so she signed the first book up! The series became a big hit, and a few years later Lloyd turned in the manuscript for the final book in the series, The High King. It wrapped up all the threads with a wonderfully satisfying conclusion and went on to win the Newbery Medal. Ann read the manuscript and said, “There’s a book missing.” Wow. She knew that we needed to know more about the main character’s origins to really appreciate, and get the full impact of, the final book. That “missing” book became Taran Wanderer, the penultimate book in the series.  Of course, as a reader, I never knew any of that. I just read the books over and over. But boy, did that story teach me about the power of editorial collaboration. When an editor and a writer are really in sync, it’s magical.

 

Dorian: What genres, themes, etc. are you particularly looking for at Holiday House?

Elizabeth: I, personally, am looking hard for middle grade fiction, and your readers can submit to submissions@holidayhouse.com and put my name in the subject heading. And since we have an open submissions policy, if you’re writing a different genre, just send it to the same address and someone smart will read it.

 

Dorian: You teach writing workshops all over the country. What are three top pieces of advice you have for writers?

Elizabeth: Write what you care about—don’t write for trends. That’s my first, second, and third piece of advice. I’ve learned again and again that trying to write something you don’t care about because you think there’s a demand for it never works. It’s the same with being an editor—when I’ve tried to publish something “popular” that I didn’t personally like, it bombed.

Also, it really IS about writing a good book, not about having the right contact or getting someone’s name to submit to. If you can get your book to a house that has an open submissions policy, that book will be read, and passed on to the right editor.

Finally, I’d add that it’s ok to let your manuscript rest. I so often get manuscripts re-submitted very quickly, and I think, “Did the author have time to digest my comments?” Step away for a bit and you’ll be surprised what you see when you come back to it.

 

Dorian: How can our readers follow you on social media?

Elizabeth: I’m @Elawreads on Twitter and Instagram. And I also have a side hustle and will work with you to help get your book stronger, or to get a query in shape, or to help you break through and get an agent. Or just anything you need, writing-wise. Check out my website, Elawreads.com.  Thanks, Dorian!

Agent Spotlight: Kristin Ostby from The Greenhouse Agency

Today, I’m thrilled to introduce our readers to agent Kristin Ostby from The Greenhouse Literary Agency. Now an agent, Kristin has been an editor, as well as a writer, of children’s books for many years. Check out the books she’s edited here and the books she’s written here.

Dorian: Welcome, Kristin!

Kristin: Thank you so much for having me at Mixed-Up Files! Middle-grade is the age category closest to my heart, and I’m so glad to have the opportunity to introduce myself to your readership.

 

Dorian: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your path to becoming a literary agent?

Kristin: I spent many years as a children’s book editor, most notably at Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, and becoming a literary agent always seemed like an interesting opportunity. During my time as an editor, a couple of agents indicated there was a place for me should I be interested in the job, and a former boss encouraged agenting at one point as well. I spoke to agent friends and gathered information, but the right opportunity didn’t come my way until Greenhouse came calling and everything clicked into place.

 

Dorian: Please tell us a bit about The Greenhouse Literary Agency?

Kristin: Greenhouse is an editorial agency. It was founded by a former publisher and is led by another former editor—the phenomenal Chelsea Eberly—so it was a fantastic fit for me, not to mention a golden opportunity. Greenhouse’s sterling reputation and remarkable track record speak for themselves. It’s a fabulous place to be an agent, and I’m really looking forward to what’s to come.

 

Dorian: What middle-grade books inspired you as a child?

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech is, for me, the gold standard, and I’ll always be looking for middle-grade novels that affect me the way that book did as a child. It’s lyrical, it’s off-beat, the voice jumps off the page, and the surprise ending sincerely pulled the rug out from underneath me when I first read it.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because I was a voracious reader as a kid, it’s hard to narrow down the books that inspired me, but I remember being impacted by the honesty of Judy Blume, the whimsy and weirdness of Roald Dahl, the grounded friendships of the Babysitters Club, the devourable mysteries of Nancy Drew, the delightfully trippy qualities of A Wrinkle in Time, and the depth and nuance of Number the Stars.

 

Dorian: What are some of your favorite contemporary middle-grade novels?

Kristin: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos, Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, El Deafo by Cece Bell, and The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dorian: All great books! What genres, subjects, or themes do you wish to see in your inbox?

Kristin: I would love to see high concept stories with hooky premises, preferably by BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled creators. I would particularly love to see more stories from Native American authors. I’m a sucker for observational humor and wit, and I would love to see clever humor in all stories including mysteries, contemporary literary fiction, speculative fiction, magical stories, supernatural stories, horror or spooky stories, and light fantasy and sci-fi with a focused set of characters and minimal world building.

 

Dorian: Do you have any hobbies or special interests that most people don’t know about?

Kristin: I love to downhill ski. My guilty pleasure is celebrity gossip. I religiously write in a journal. I also enjoy reading tarot!

 

Dorian: Interesting! What tips do you have for writers in the querying stages?

Kristin: If you’re reading Mixed-Up Files, there’s a good chance you’re doing your homework as far as nailing a query letter. But I would still emphasize being sure to hit agents at the top of your query letter with an impactful elevator pitch, including your comp titles. This is the most important part of your query letter, so don’t be afraid to get right to it. Agents get so many queries each day that it’s important to hook them as soon as you can, and to demonstrate your knowledge of the marketplace.

Beyond that, good luck! What you’re doing is really hard, and I wish you all the best finding a great advocate for your story.

 

Dorian: How can people follow you on social media or query you?

Kristin: You can occasionally find me on Twitter at @kristinostby. Learn more about me at kristinostby.com and about Greenhouse at greenhouseliterary.com.

Thanks so much, Kristin, for taking the time out to tell us about yourself and Greenhouse!