For Teachers

Agent Spotlight: Patricia Nelson

Patricia Nelson is an agent with the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, where she represents adult, young adult, and middle grade fiction. Patricia’s middle grade clients include Hayley Chewins (The Turnaway Girls), Margaret Dilloway (Summer of a Thousand Pies), Anna Meriano (Love Sugar Magic), Melissa Roske (Kat Greene Comes Clean), Sandy Stark-McGinnis (Extraordinary Birds), and Kristi Wientge (Karma Khullar’s Mustache).

Patricia is a member of SCBWI and holds a master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in Gender Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Follow Patricia on Twitter at @patricianels.

MR: Before becoming a literary agent, you spent four years as a university-level instructor of literature and writing. How has your experience as an academic contributed to your skills as an agent?

PN: My favorite thing about teaching was getting to know my students, engaging creatively with their work, and helping them grow as writers and thinkers. Agenting lets me build these kinds of bonds long-term with clients, which I love. And while the agent-client relationship is very different from the teacher-student relationship, as a very editorial agent who tends to do a lot of developmental editing with my clients, what I learned as a teacher about giving constructive feedback and helping a writer nurture their ideas definitely comes in handy.

MR: What is your favorite part of the job? Your least favorite?

PN: The best thing about agenting is the feeling of falling in love with a book no one else has seen yet – whether that’s a new project by an existing client, or a brand-new voice from the query pile – and then getting to champion that book and help it make its way into the world.

The worst part (and I think most agents will tell you the same) is sending rejections. We all got into this job because we love authors and want to support them… but because of the need to keep our client lists manageable, we unfortunately also have to spend a lot of time saying “no.” Nobody likes that.

MR: What sorts of queries prompt you to request more pages? What would make you reject a query outright?

PN: When reading a query, I’m looking for a fresh, original story with an interesting protagonist and clear stakes. I also ask for 10 sample pages with all queries, where I’m looking for a voice that feels vibrant and special. If I see all those things, it’s a request!

In general, the queries that get rejected outright have problems that no one doing the research of reading this interview would have: They don’t conform to our submission guidelines, they’re address to “Dear Agent” (or sometimes, inexplicably, “Dear Sir”), they’re just a blank email with an unsolicited attachment (which we don’t open), they don’t include sample pages, etc. If you’re following the rules, don’t worry! Your query will be thoughtfully considered.

MR: I know there’s no such thing as an “ideal” client, but what comes close? Also, what can a writer do to make an agent’s job easier?

PN: The best clients are hard-working, communicative, and full of ideas. They are proactive about their own careers, but also take seriously their agent’s advice and industry expertise. If they have a concern, they reach out. If they’re stuck on a project, they ask to hop on a call and brainstorm. Good communication is key – and saying “thank you” really does go a long way.

MR: Please fill in the blank: “If an MG novel about______­­­came across my desk, I would request it ASAP.”

PN: I’m hesitant to answer this one, because in reality, it’s not just about the premise, but also about the pages – even if I love the topic, nothing’s an automatic request unless I fall for the voice in the sample pages that accompany the query.

Sometimes authors will reply to a pass by saying “but this exact thing was on your MSWL, I thought it would be perfect for you!” But of course, not every story that falls into my broad MSWL categories is going to be a fit, and often I’ll fall head-over-heels with a story that I didn’t even know I was looking for. (Which is why while MSWL is useful, it’s not the be-all and end-all. If you think I might be interested, you should just try me!)

MR: Anything else on your MG manuscript wish list?

PN: With the caveats above, right now I’m especially hungry for literary MG fantasy with an original premise, unique worldbuilding, and beautiful writing. I’m always looking for stories from diverse perspectives that have been historically underrepresented. And I’d love to find an MG novel in verse.

MR: What are you not looking for?

PN: I tend not to be the right agent for slapstick or gross-out humor, or for Percy Jackson-style action/adventure stories. I also don’t represent chapter books or very young MG.

MR: What’s on the horizon for 2019? Any news and/or hopes and dreams you’d like to share with us?

PN: On the middle grade front, I have some client books that I’m very excited about coming out this year:

Summer of a Thousand Pies by Margaret Dilloway (out in April), about a 12-year-old Great British Baking Show superfan who gets sent to live with her pie-shop-owning aunt in the mountains of California. I want to be friends with every single character in this book, which is one of my favorite feelings.

Extraordinary Birds by Sandy Stark-McGinnis (out in April), a debut novel about a girl who believes that one day she will transform into a bird and fly away, but has to reevaluate everything she thinks she knows when she’s placed with a foster mom who feels like family. It’s a beautiful story that makes me cry, in the best possible way.

Honeybees and Frenemies by Kristi Wientge (out in June), about two former best friends who have to spend their summer together when their parents volunteer them to help out a local beekeeper. This is Kristi’s follow-up to her debut Karma Khullar’s Mustache, and it is just as full of humor and heart—there’s one scene in particular in this novel that makes me laugh hysterically every single time I read it.

I love them all, and you should check them out!

MR: What is best way to contact you?  

PN: I’m open to queries via email, at patricia@marsallyonliteraryagency.com. As mentioned above, make sure you include your first 10 pages pasted in the body of the email.

MR: Thank you for your time, Patricia. It was great chatting with you! 

 

Diversity in MG Lit #7: Violence and the Response to it

I am keenly aware as I write this post that we are near the one year anniversary of the Parkland school shooting. It’s such a difficult topic. I wasn’t sure how or whether to address it here. And then I found a book about how six eyewitness survivors of a school shooting navigated their recovery. It’s geared for 12 and up, which puts it at the upper end of the MG range. Still I think the book is well worth a read for anyone who is curious about school shootings and the grief that follows an act of violence. 
It’s called THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED by Kody Keplinger.
 
 In addition to a very thoughtful take on the school shooting crisis, THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED has one of the more diverse casts of characters I’ve seen recently. The main character, Lee, identifies herself as asexual, meaning an individual who is is not sexually attracted to either men or women. The other characters are: a religiously observant Christian girl, a non-observant Christian presenting herself in a goth style, a boy whose race was unspecified with parents in prison for addiction, a black boy who is blind, and a Hispanic girl who is a lesbian. The author treats each of these identities as secondary to the main action of the plot but still vital to the identity of the character. If you are looking for an example of “incidental diversity or casual diversity” this is a good choice. 
 
My second recommendation this month is possibly the most uplifting book I’ve read all year. I love it because it’s lively non-fiction. Because it’s engaging and accessible activism.  Because it gives me hope for a kinder yet fiercer future where people of all ages will dig into the work of living more peacefully.  The book is called PUTTING PEACE FIRST: 7 COMMITMENTS TO CHANGE THE WORLD. It takes readers through concrete practical steps that other teens have used to make positive changes in their community. They include things like understanding the root cause of the problem you’d like to change and planning for bumps in the road. The young mentors profiled in this book include: a Muslim girl from California, a white boy from Arizona and one from Iowa, a young woman with cerebral palsy from Minnesota, a male Asian immigrant from Pennsylvania, a black boy from Maryland, a black girl from Georgia. Each one had a story of a specific goal they pursued in their community, from changing the social media culture of their high school to curbing gun violence in their neighborhood.
So many young people are not yet jaded. So many have energy and idealism and lack only mentors and the means to make a change. I’d love to see this book in every middle school and high school where it can have incredible impact. 

Author Spotlight: Jen Petro-Roy

Today is Valentine’s Day, but for middle-grade author Jen Petro-Roy, February 19 is the day to celebrate. Why? She has not one but TWO MG books launching that day, both from Feiwel & Friends: Good Enough, a contemporary middle-grade novel that explores a preteen’s recovery from anorexia, and You Are Enough, a self-help book for young readers who are struggling with eating and body-image issues. Here, Petro-Roy discusses why she chose to address the theme of disordered eating, and what she hopes readers will gain from her books.

MR: First, happy book(s) birthday, Jen! Publishing two books on the same day is a huge achievement—and highly unusual. What was your publisher’s strategy behind this? And what does it feel like to launch two books at once?

JPR: It is unusual—and exciting! I don’t think this is done very often in publishing, and I’m honored that Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends believed in me enough to market and publish these books together. Good Enough was the second book of my publishing contract (my MG debut, P.S. I Miss You, was published in 2018), and after I began writing it, I realized that besides the manuscript that I was writing, I wasn’t aware of many middle- grade books that featured a protagonist suffering from an eating disorder.

This made me realize that there weren’t many self-help books out there for teens and tweens with eating disorders, either–and that this disease, which seems to be starting earlier and earlier, is an all-too-common occurrence. When I was sick, the “recovery literature” was mainly geared towards college-aged kids or adults—either that, or to parents, and I really wanted there to be something out there that kids could turn to when they compared themselves to their friends; or saw their peers or parents going on a diet; or felt like their body was defective in some way. So I wrote up a proposal and my agent sent it on to my editors. They accepted, and I got to work!

MR: Let’s talk first about your contemporary MG, Good Enough. In this novel, 12-year-old Riley, an aspiring artist, is placed in an in-treatment facility for anorexia. I’ve read that the topic of disordered eating is a personal one for you. Can you tell us how this is reflected in your book?

JPR: Like Riley, I suffered from anorexia nervosa, with an accompanying exercise addiction. Unlike Riley, though, I got sick later in life, when I went to college. However, the feelings that I felt, both when I was sick and when I started to go through treatment and recovery, are universal. There’s fear and hope, bargaining, and doubt. There’s relapse and struggle and so much more. I have a huge stack of old journals from when I was sick, and like Riley, I wrote about what I went through and the people I met through treatment. I definitely cried at some points while writing this book, but I’m so glad that I reflected the journey accurately. I’ve heard from some readers who had once had an eating disorder that they related to Riley a lot.

MR: What most connects you most to your main character, Riley? How is she different from you? How is she the same?

JPR: Riley and I are definitely a lot alike. Like her, I struggled with running as a symptom of my disease and felt like my family didn’t understand how hard recovery was for me. I actually felt like no one understood what I was going through, which was a major reason I wanted to write this book; to assure kids that they aren’t alone, and to help others become more empathetic to the struggles of those dealing with an eating disorder. Riley and I are both highly internal and like to reflect on the world through words. She’s absolutely her own person, though; she has different insecurities than I do and her relationships play out in different ways. I love her so.

MR: Writing such a deeply personal book must have been an extremely emotional experience for you. How did you deal with the highs and lows? Were some sections/chapters harder to write than others?

JPR: Like I mentioned, I absolutely did tear up. I think that unpacking those emotions was really cathartic. I’ve gone through therapy but there’s always more to deal with, and it was interesting to be able to see my feelings and journey through Riley while also making her a unique character of her own. The beginning of the book, when she is more ambivalent and conflicted about recovery, was definitely more difficult for me to write. From my vantage point, I wanted to just tell her to get better; that life is so much more fulfilling on the other side! But I knew that for Riley, as for the many other kids who suffer from eating disorders, recovery is a process and she had to go through these struggles to move forward.

MR: What kind of research did you do for Good Enough? And what about for your self-help book, You Are Enough: Your Guide to Body Image and Eating Disorder Recovery?

JPR: I did so much research, and I honestly enjoyed every second of it. Above all, I wanted to make sure that You Are Enough was super inclusive, so I interviewed males who had suffered from eating disorders, those who identify as LGBQTIA+, people with chronic illnesses, and those who aren’t the size that stereotypically suffer from eating disorders. I also talked to people active in the fat-acceptance movement, to body-positive nutritionists, and to those who suffered from bulimia, binge-eating disorder, and more. The end result is that this book isn’t about the “typical” eating- disorder sufferer. It has lessons for anyone who is struggling with their self-image.

MR: Speaking of which, what is the main message behind You Are Enough? Do you consider it a companion to your novel?

JPR: I do consider You Are Enough a companion to Good Enough; in fact, I’m sure Riley would have gotten a lot of out of it! But the books can be read independently from each other, too. They’re connected in their message, though; that you don’t have to look a certain way, or act a certain way, or “seem” a certain way to have value. You don’t have to control your life through an eating disorder, because eventually it will come to control you. Deep down, you are enough just as you are. All you have to do is live…and BE.

MR: Finally, your first MG novel, P.S. I Miss You (Macmillan, 2018), garnered considerable controversy when schools and libraries, in both liberal and conservative parts of the country, declined visits from you, due to your book’s frank examination of sexual orientation, teen pregnancy, and religion. How did this affect you overall? And how did it affect your approach to writing Good Enough? Was it a help, or a hindrance?

JPR: I honestly don’t think the pushback that P.S. I Miss You received affected Good Enough in any way. Partly because the book was drafted by the time of my debut’s release, but mostly because I firmly believe that kids need books that deal with “tough” issues; books that talk about the sensitive issues that everyone deals with in some way. Every reader may not have an eating disorder, but they may know someone with one. Or they may struggle with another issue. It’s only by bringing the full range of humanity into the light that we can learn how to have to empathy for others and realize we are not alone.

For more about Jen Petro-Roy, visit her website and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.