Editor / Agent Spotlight

Interview with S&S editor Sarah Jane Abbott

I’m so excited to be doing my first post for the From The Mixed Up Files website. When I was coming up with my topic, I was thinking about what readers might like to know, and it got me thinking about all the blog posts I devoured before I signed with my agent and sold my first book. I read everything I could find on the publishing industry, living vicariously through the authors, yes, but also trying to seek out any snippets of information that could help me be a better writer and move my career forward.

Reading, writing, repeat was the formula that ultimately got me a book deal, but one of the things I really loved — and still love — is reading authors interview their agents and/or editors. Having that insight to the process and relationship helped me understand a lot before I got the chance to step into those shoes myself.

Sarah Jane Abbott, editor at Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books

Sarah Jane Abbott, editor at Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books

So, for my first From The Mixed Up Files post, I thought I’d do just that — interview my editor, the lovely Sarah Jane Abbott with Simon & Schuster imprints Paula Wiseman Books and Beach Lane Books. I didn’t want to focus on the work we did together on my book, so I asked her about herself, her job, and aspects of her work that seem a bit of a mystery to us writers. I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I do…

Samantha: Sarah Jane, thank you so much for letting me interview you for this blog post! What made you want to be a children’s book editor and how did you get started?

Sarah Jane: I found my way to children’s books through a bit of random serendipity. I studied creative writing in college and knew I wanted to go into publishing, but thought I wanted to edit adult literary fiction.  So I started applying for editorial assistant positions only in that category.  After many months of no success, I had an informational interview with HR at S&S, who wisely advised me to cast my net wider. So I started applying for any open entry level publishing job I could find and ended up in children’s book publicity. At that point, I hadn’t read a picture book since I was a small child, but rediscovering the incredible artistry and literary talent in them made me want to work on them. So when a new position opened up with Paula Wiseman Books and Beach Lane Books, two imprints whose picture books I so admired, I jumped at the chance.

Samantha: Can you tell us about the work you do for the Paula Wiseman Books and Beach Lane imprints at Simon & Schuster?

Sarah Jane: I assist both imprints with administrative tasks, like routing contracts, processing invoices, and preparing sales materials.  For Beach Lane, since they work remotely from California, I also get to be the in-house representative for the imprint and assist with tasks that have to be done in person like color correcting, which is the process of matching the digital scans of artwork to the colors in the original art.  Since Paula Wiseman Books is based in New York, I am more involved in their acquisitions process, reading and evaluating manuscripts and giving editorial suggestions. And of course, I edit my own list of books under the Paula Wiseman Books imprint.

Samantha: Do you have any favorite parts of your job?

Littler Woman by Laua SchaeferSarah Jane: I love writing, so I enjoy writing up sales materials as well as flap copy for our books. I also really enjoy the collaborative parts of my job, like talking through edits and ideas with authors or meeting with the art director to talk through our notes on a new round of sketches. It’s so satisfying to help an author work out the perfect solution for a narrative problem or to help an artist find just the right way to illustrate a tricky moment in a picture book.

Samantha: Any parts you would avoid if you could?

Sarah Jane: Like most everyone’s job, there are tedious administrative tasks on my plate that I wish could be done by little elves at my desk while I’m home at night. I also never enjoy rejecting manuscripts—having received lots of rejections for my own writing, I know the disappointment of it, even if it is an encouraging rejection. I empathize!

Samantha: Tell us about some of the books you’ve worked on as an editor.

Sarah Jane: I’m so lucky to work with the wonderful authors and illustrators on my list. My recent middle grade novels include Littler Women by Laura Schaefer, a sweet modern day re-telling of the beloved classic, with a craft or recipe at the end of every chapter.  I also had the pleasure of working on a book the interviewer knows quite well, The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast by Samantha M. Clark. [Quick interruption from Samantha: Eep! 🙂 ] It’s a gripping blend of mystery, survival story, and the supernatural that explores themes like courage, self-esteem, family, and toxic masculinity. In the picture book realm, I am currently editing The Sea Knows by Alice McGinty and Alan Havis, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis, a lyrical exploration of the wonders of the ocean and marine life, as well as a forthcoming picture book biography of a groundbreaking female athlete.

Samantha: Those sound wonderful. When you’re reading a manuscript for acquisition, what do you look for?

THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST by Samantha M ClarkSarah Jane: I always look for a story that grabs me immediately, that I don’t want to put down and find myself thinking about even when I’m not reading it. I love when a story is imaginative and unique, when it surprises me. Editors read so many stories that are slight variations of the same theme or idea, so something truly fresh is a pleasure. In middle grade, I look for a strong voice that feels singular and specific to the character, one that’s quirky and endearing. In picture books, I want heart—a story that is going to leave its mark on the reader and give them something to think about. A story can be completely hilarious, but if there isn’t a layer underneath that, it may be a one-time read. If a picture book is moving enough to make me tear up at my desk, that is a good thing!

Samantha: What happens in the acquisition process at these imprints?

Sarah Jane: Like a lot of publishers, our acquisitions process has several steps. First, of course, I read all of my submissions. Then I send the manuscripts that stand out to me on to my colleagues and we discuss them at a weekly editors’ staff meeting. Manuscripts that make it through that meeting as well go on to the last layer of acquisitions approval, before I am given the go-ahead to make an offer.

Samantha: If you couldn’t be an editor, what would you want to be?

Sarah Jane: As I’ve said, I love writing, so I would probably be pursuing a career as a freelance writer or journalist. I started college majoring in international relations, looking to work at a non-profit or NGO in the area of third world development with the hopes of making the world a better place. If I hadn’t taken a creative writing elective on a whim and decided to change my major because of it, I would probably be working in that field today. I’m grateful that on my current path, I still get to make the world a better place—through books!

Samantha: Yes! Books can change the world. Thank you, Sarah Jane.

And dear readers, I’ll add one more thing about my early publishing research: One of the best ways to get to know an agent or editor is through the books they worked on. So, while I don’t mean for this to be a plug — I really don’t! — if you think the Paula Wiseman Imprint could be a good place for you, read the books Sarah Jane mentioned here. They’re now on my to-read list. 🙂 And you can follow Sarah Jane at one of the best names on the Twitterverse: @sarahjaneyre.

Agent Spotlight: Rena Rossner

Literary agent and author Rena Rossner is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars Program, where she majored in poetry and non-fiction writing. She also holds an MA in History from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She lives in Israel where she works as a literary and foreign rights agent at the Deborah Harris Literary Agency in Jerusalem. Rena’s debut historical fantasy novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, published in September, 2018.

Rena says: “You can usually find me cooking or reading, but I also do ceramics (in my non-existent spare time) and have been known to do yoga and take walks with my pug, Pablo. Did I mention I have five kids? Yeah. That too.”

Find out more about Rena and how to query her at www.renarossner.com.

Hi Rena! I know this is a crazy busy month for you—thanks so much for agreeing to chat with us. What have you been up to lately?

Most recently, I finished writing my second novel. But before that I returned from a five-week trip to the USA, a combination of being on book tour for my own first novel, The Sisters Of The Winter Wood, combined with editor meetings in New York City on behalf of my clients. I attended World Fantasy Con in Baltimore, YALLFEST in Charleston, and the Miami Book Fair – where various authors of mine were speaking and signing books.

Talk to me about middle grade novels in verse. I know you studied poetry at Johns Hopkins. What do you think a verse novel can do for middle grade readers that a prose novel can’t?

Well, novels in verse have a very special place in my heart. I was a poet first, before I decided to try my hand at fiction, and The Sisters Of The Winter Wood is written in two voices – one sister narrates in verse and one sister narrates in prose.

I also represent two middle grade novels in verse – Rachel Toalson’s The Colors of the Rain which came out in September 2018. And the upcoming ALL OF ME by Chris Baron which comes out in June 2019.

Something about novels in verse can be more dramatic than prose. Verse leaves space on the page, room for breath, room for thought. Room for the reader to fill in the blanks. Novels in verse can be more emotive than novels in prose because they take readers on an emotional journey. I absolutely love working with writers who were clearly poets first. You can tell, on the sentence level, that there is something different about their work.

I just finished reading ALL OF ME. I read through tears for the last hundred pages. This was easily the most moving MG book I’ve ever read about being a “big” kid. You’re right, the emotions just cut right through in a good verse novel, because it’s so spare.

2019 is going to be a big year for you! You represent three of my new middle grade debut pals, Cory Leonardo, Chris Baron, and Sofiya Pasternack whose first books for middle graders are publishing in 2019. Cory’s THE SIMPLE ART OF FLYING features a poetry-spouting parrot who eats the Norton Anthology of Poetry page by page. Sofiya’s 9th century historical fantasy ANYA KOZLOVA AND THE DRAGON has Vikings! And a water dragon! Can you tell us more about them? What did you love about each of these novels when their queries first hit your inbox?

2019 is going to be a great year for middle grade! Both Cory and Sofiya came to me as a result of PitchWars, actually! Cory and I connected back in 2016 as a result of the contest. I fell madly in love not only with her parrots (I am a bird lover and was the owner of a very precocious cockatiel when I was a teen) but her poetry and wit. Her book reduced me to a blubbering mess of tears, absolutely had me hooked. (Also, cherry crumble pie.)

Sofiya and I connected in 2017. Her story about a little Jewish girl who must choose between saving her home and protecting a water dragon blew me away with its originality. But it also hit my sweet spot – bringing more Jewish fantasy to the world, especially more diverse Jewish fantasy set in all different places and time periods. Her main character Anya has spunk, but she also bakes challah. I mean, what could really be better than that?

Chris was a cold query, but when I read his book, I was instantly smitten. I had never been reduced to tears in the space of a few lines of poetry before! ALL OF ME is about a boy around the time is his bar mitzvah who struggles with his weight. As someone who has struggled with her weight her whole life, and who has boys who have struggled with the same issue around the time of their bar mitzvahs – this book really hit home for me in a very deep way.

There’s been a lot of discussion among Jewish children’s authors of late on social media, particularly in light of anti-Semitic acts both here in the U.S. and in Europe. Do you think Jewish writers are underrepresented in kid lit? What kinds of books by Jewish authors or about Jewish characters would you like to see more of?

For me, it’s less that Jewish writers are underrepresented and more that certain types of Jewish stories are underrepresented. I think we need to showcase more of the multiplicity of Jewish experience in children’s literature. Jews have literally lived in almost every country in the world, and I want us to see more of their stories. Jews from Shanghai, Morocco, Cuba, Ethiopia and Yemen all have stories to tell. But their stories are not well represented in the canon of Jewish children’s literature.

I also think we don’t see enough diverse Jewish families and stories about all the different ways in which people identify as Jewish – including blended families, unaffiliated families, LGBQT Jewish families, Jews who have converted to Judaism, and more.

So much Jewish children’s literature tends to be about the Holocaust. And while that’s always going to be super important (I even sold a Holocaust memoir that came out last year called Claiming My Place by Planaria Price and Helen West), Jewish history is full of so many stories – some tragic, others full of incredible moments of resistance and heroism. I want to see more of those stories told as well.

On a personal note, I’m a huge fan of Jewish fantasy and SciFi, and I’m always looking to see more of that. We haven’t scratched the surface of what Judaism has to offer the SFF world. I can’t wait to bring more of those types of stories onto the shelves of bookstores.

What’s on your wish list for middle grade now? Why?

I’d love to see more novels in verse. I’m a huge fan of Science Fiction and Fantasy of all types. Books that make me cry:  so, real, heartfelt middle grade stories that turn me into a blubbering mess of tears. I’m a sucker for beautiful writing, strong female (and male!) characters, and stories based on different mythologies and folklore. I love a good fairy tale re-telling, but bring me fairy tales from all over the world that and retell them in a way we haven’t seen before.

I love stories full of puzzles and whip-smart kids – like the books that another one of my authors, Ben Guterson, writes. His Winterhouse series (THE SECRETS OF WINTERHOUSE comes out December 31, 2019!) is a perfect example of that type of middle grade story that I love and would love to see more of! And of course, any middle grade that showcases the multiplicity of the Jewish experience.

Any genre you simply can’t stand?

I don’t know if there is any genre that I can’t stand – I read pretty widely. But I’m not the best person for a book about sports or for most straight non-fiction. Having said that, I’d love to be proven wrong! I never know what I will see in my inbox and what I will fall in love with. So I don’t really like to make any kind of absolute statements. I like to be surprised.

Are you an editorial agent? Is there any one piece of advice you give to middle grade authors? In other words, are there any common kinds of problems that you are good at helping MG authors fix?

I’m a super editorial agent (as many of my authors can attest to).  I’m not afraid to cut a novel in half, if that’s what’s needed. I think that many novels in verse tend to be too long – those are often the ones I end up having to do the most work on.

Middle Grade is tough to write because it’s hard to nail the right voice. It’s important to talk to kids that age – but I mean, really talk to them. Find out what they’re thinking, what’s important to them, what they find funny. I’m lucky to have middle graders who live with me, and my kids are an invaluable resource to help me know what will or won’t work for kids their age.

What’s missing in the middle-grade marketplace now? The big sinkhole in the room that we’re not seeing?

Well, once upon a time I would have said: more books for middle grade boys, and especially for boys who are struggling with their weight. More books about body positivity. But I am so happy that Chris Baron’s book ALL OF ME is now going to be out in the world, because I think it fills a big hole in the MG space.

We need to make sure that every kid can see himself or herself reflected in fiction, to do so much more work to bring diverse stories and diverse voices to MG shelves. I’m super proud of a book that came out in October 2018, Charlie Hernandez and the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo. We need more books like that.

How does what you do as an agent influence your art as a fiction writer, or vice versa?

Sometimes people think it gives me an edge in the industry. But the truth is, I went through just as much rejection (if not more…) as anyone else. When The Sisters of the Winter Wood sold, it was with my third agent, the third book I had been out on submission with.

Having said that, I definitely saw a hole in the market and decided to fill it. I wanted to write a fantasy novel about two Orthodox Jewish teen heroines – the kind of book that I wish had been around for me when I was a teen. But I don’t think you need to be an agent to know what’s missing from bookstore shelves today. You just need to read a lot and pay attention. I do think that my authors benefit from my being able to have a lot of empathy. I know what they are going through, often intimately.

Anything you’d like to elaborate on that I haven’t asked you? How’s life treating you?

Life is incredibly busy, but great! I can’t wait to see what 2019 will bring, but I certainly hope it bring more great middle grade authors my way!

Huge thanks, Rena! It was great to speak with you.

Interview with Kristin Daly Rens, Executive Editor at Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

We are in for a treat today! We have with us, Executive Editor from Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins, Kristin Daly Rens!

I met Kristin years ago, and I can honestly say that she’s one of the nicest people.  So, if you don’t know her, sit back, relax, and get to know her now!

JR: Hi Kristin, thanks for joining us today!

KDR: I’m so happy to be here—thanks so much for asking!

JR: To start, could you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an editor in children’s books?

KDR: Sure! My path was a bit roundabout, while also somehow feeling predestined, in a way. I’ve always been a reader, but my interest in publishing as a career really began my freshman year of high school, when I got a job shelving books in my local public library. Nobody else ever wanted to shelve in the children’s room, for one simple reason—skinnier books meant more books per cart, and thus more work—but I found myself drawn there. I loved to flip through the picture books as I shelved…I definitely spent a lot of time hidden in the stacks reading when I should have been shelving! Once I got to college, though, I found myself sidetracked by a love of German literature, so after graduation I actually moved to Germany for several months to learn the language, and then came back to get my Master’s in Comparative Literature. But children’s publishing kept calling to me, and every time I was in a bookstore I always seemed to wind up browsing the children’s section—looking back, I think part of me knew even then that I would “grow up” to work in children’s publishing.


JR: Getting to live overseas for any amount of time is an amazing experience. We share that in common. What was the first book you worked on?

KDR: Oh gosh, let’s see, the first books I ever had a hand in editing were two Golden Books Road to Reading titles—the first was Shred It Up! by Craig Carey, a nonfiction book about snowboarding, tied to the Winter Olympics, and the second was Beans Baker, Number Five, by Richard Torrey, which I co-edited with my boss at the time—I actually went on to work with Rich on three picture books after I moved to Harper. The first books I ever acquired on my own were at Harper—an I Can Read Book called The Just-So Woman by Gary Blackwood, and a picture book called My Mom is a Firefighter by Lois Grambling. Both were illustrated—in very different styles!—by Jane Manning, a wonderful, versatile artist who I’ve worked with a number of times over the last fifteen years or so.

JR: That book looks really cute! How did you land at Harper Collins?

KDR: Through luck and the kindness of others, really! Shortly after Golden Books was acquired by Random House, one of my bosses—the editorial director for the Road to Reading line—decided to leave the business side of publishing to write full time. As she was making her phone calls to authors and agents to let them know, she happened to talk to an agent who mentioned that Harper was looking for an associate editor to work on I Can Read Books and picture books—my boss recommended me to the agent, the agent passed it along, and here I am, almost seventeen years later, still at Harper! Though my job has changed a good deal over the years—I now acquire and edit for the Balzer + Bray imprint, and work primarily on YA and middle-grade novels, with a smattering of picture books.

JR: What’s changed in publishing between the time you started and now?

KDR: Everything and nothing! The most obvious change has been the advent of ebooks, which didn’t even exist in 1999 when I got my first job in publishing. And on a related note, there’s no more lugging around of big stacks of novel submissions, as agents now submit projects via email, and most editors read them electronically. There’s also the importance of social media for networking and promotion—both for authors and publishers.


JR: What do you enjoy the most about your job?

KDR: There are so many things that I adore about this job—from brainstorming with authors, to collaborating with designers on cover visions, to offering ideas and suggestions to an author that may open up the possibilities of their story or the world they’ve created and help them to see their manuscript in a new and exciting way. Hands down, though, my favorite part of the job is the fact that on any day I could fall in love with a new manuscript and get the chance to work with the author and help them build a career doing what THEY love.


JR: What sort of books do you look for?

KDR: B+B is all about publishing bold, creative, groundbreaking books with fresh voices—so that’s always the first thing I’m looking for in a project. Even if a story addresses a universal theme that’s been written about before, we always want to make sure that the project is adding to the conversation in a new way. Genre-wise, I read a little bit of everything so my editorial tastes are also pretty broad—but what really draws me into a story, no matter the genre, are character and heart. In terms of middle grade in particular, there’s so much I love—great magical realism, classic-feeling fantasy or adventure, humorous middle grade stories along the lines of Andrew Clements (I adore Frindle!).  More than anything else, though, I’m an absolute sucker for a heartfelt middle-grade friendship or family story that tugs at my heartstrings.

JR: Are you very hands-on with your authors?

KDR: Yes! I’m sure some of them would say too much so, haha! I work very closely with my authors on revisions for their books—I usually take each manuscript through several rounds of edits with the author, with the edits going in order from large (character, plot, pacing, voice, world-building) to small (word choice, fixing grammar, etc) before we’re ready to send the ms to copy editing. Once the manuscript is off to copy editing, I remain very involved—as do most editors—working with our cover designers, marketing directors, and publicists on every stage of the publishing process.


JR: What’s going on in Middle Grade?

KDR: It feels like an exciting time for middle grade! It’s one of the categories that has been experiencing the most growth over the last couple of years, and as a result more agents and editors seem to be looking for great middle-grade manuscripts. Personally, I especially love the fact that these past few years seem to have seen a surge in interest in the kinds of standalone, heartfelt friendship and family stories that are my favorite types of books for this age group.


JR: What advice can you give to authors?

KDR: Don’t worry about what is trendy—write what interests YOU. So often at conferences, etc, editors and agents get asked what the current trends are in children’s and teen books, but the truth of the matter is that the best way to make someone—whether that someone is an agent, editor, or reader—care about your book is if the author is writing something they believe in and care about themselves. When an author is passionate about what he or she is writing about, readers can see that passion on the page—and it makes them fall in love with that story as well.

JR: That’s great advice, because I do still see people chasing trends. What books do you have coming up that you’re excited about?

KDR: Well, that’s not really a fair question at all! Editors are excited about all their books—after all, this is a business driven by passion for reading. But here are a couple by new (or new to me) authors I’m excited to be working with:

  • NOCTURNA is the first book in an own voices YA fantasy series by debut author Maya Motayne. Set in a Latinx-inspired kingdom, it’s the story of two very different characters—Finn, who possesses magic that allows her to change her face at will, which comes in handy, since she’s also a talented thief. And Alfie, the kingdom’s crown prince, who’s obsessed with finding a way to bring back his murdered brother, even if it means dabbling in forbidden magic. When Alfie unwittingly unleashes a terrible, ancient power, the two must race to fix his mistake before it leads to the destruction of everything & everyone they love. The world here is so richly, vividly drawn—it positively crackles with life, as do Finn and Alfie themselves! And there’s a magical card game that is one of the most fun scenes I’ve ever read in YA fantasy.
  • SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES by Margaret Dilloway is a middle-grade story about a girl who is sent to live with an aunt she’s never met in a quaint mountain town—and, when she learns her aunt’s pie shop is failing, she decides to do everything she can to save the first real home she’s ever known. This book is heartfelt, and moving, and unexpectedly funny in spots—and also includes lots and lots of PIE (with recipes at the back of the book!). Every time I read it, I just want to hug it to my chest, I adore it so much.


JR: Those both sound great! Can’t wait to read! What was your favorite book as a child?

KDR: I had so many! Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, the Trixie Belden mysteries, the Chronicles of Prydain—but my FAVORITE favorite books were the Chronicles of Narnia. I was one of those kids who spent half their childhoods knocking on the back wall of every closet in the house, looking for a door to another world.

JR: The Narnia books were among my favorites, as well. I was living overseas when I first read them, and also tried to find a way to another place. And speaking of childhood, before we go, I have one last question. What’s one thing from your childhood that you wish could make a comeback?

KDR: Well, I wouldn’t say no to an amazing YA paranormal romance—while there was definitely a glut in the couple of years after Twilight hit, it’s been a few years now and every once in a while I find myself longing for a great paranormal read. On the flip side, with the current craze for remakes of classic TV shows and movies, there are also a lot of things that I don’t want to come back, or at least don’t want them to be remade. In particular, if anyone ever considers a remake of The Goonies, they’re dead to me—why try to remake perfection?!

JR: Amen to that!


Kristin, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today and I hope you have a very Happy Holiday and New Year!


You can find Kristin at: 

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