For Writers

Interviewing Brent Taylor, Literary Agent, Triada US

Brent Taylor is a literary agent and subsidiary rights manager at Triada US, founded in 2004 by Dr. Uwe Stender. Brent joined Triada US in 2014; he was promoted to agent in April 2017. While we were interviewing, we found out we had a lot in common–one of Brent’s authors (K. D. Halbrook) was my first literary agent, and another (Rajani Narasimhan LaRocca) is in my Novel19s debut group. Plus we’re both wild about The Westing Game. Brent describes his reading tastes as “upmarket: I’m passionate about books for young readers that are extremely well-written, robust with emotion, and appeal to a wide, commercial audience.” 

Can you tell us a little about the road to becoming a literary agent? What sparked your interest in the business? And why children’s lit in particular?

As a kid, my reading level was always a grade or two lower than it should have been. I really struggled. Then, in middle school, all my friends started reading Twilight. Desperate to be able to participate in their conversations, I read it too and was hooked—I could not stop reading for fun. In high school, I became friends with someone who was a book blogger and would get advance copies of all the YA novels I was dying to read. She introduced me to the online book publishing community. During my sophomore year of high school, I started interning for a literary agent. I read middle grade and YA queries and manuscripts and wrote reader’s reports on them. I knew instantly that I wanted to work in book publishing, to have a hand in making books that would make young readers feel seen and heard. A few years later, I joined Triada US and started building my own list.

In your agent bio you list Charlotte’s Web, The Thing About Jellyfish, The Vast Fields of Ordinary, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, and The Westing Game as some of your favorite books (these are also many of mine!). What do these titles have in common, in your mind?

My taste is so eclectic that it’s hard to find a common thread between my favorite books, but all of them meant a lot to me when I read them for the first time and haven’t left my mind or heart since. Charlotte’s Web was the first time that I cried during a book, but also the first time that a book left me with joy. In Please Ignore Vera Dietz, the teen protagonist unravels before your eyes and in her messy truths, I found something profoundly identifiable. The Vast Fields of Ordinary lit my world up because it portrayed a gay teen in a small town pulling himself through all of life’s darkness. I guess what’s common about all of these books is that they changed and shaped me as a kid and teen, and continue to do so when I re-read them as an adult.

What’s changed about the middle grade books you see being published and/or recognized since you have been in the business, or watching the business? What do you expect will remain the same in middle grade, for all eternity?

When I was an intern, there were not many middle grade novels that accurately portrayed the many identities and backgrounds in our world: non-white, non-straight, etc. I feel so happy to be working in publishing at a time when all of my colleagues are just as passionate as I am about truthfully reflecting the richness of our vibrant world.

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

I love novels in verse and would love to represent a middle grade one. Most of the middle grade novels in verse are historical, so I’d love one that’s contemporary. I also love books in fresh and exciting formats: an author-illustrated novel, a graphic novel, a story told entirely through texts, stories told in reverse-chronological order.

Any genre you simply can’t stand? Or if that’s putting it too harshly, is “not your thing?” Verse? Vikings? Vampires (well, obviously not vampires)…

“Obviously not vampires” is right! I’m so proud to represent FAKE BLOOD by Whitney Gardner, a middle grade graphic novel about vampires out September 2018 from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. There’s really no genre I don’t love, especially in middle grade. Historical middle grade doesn’t get me as excited as other genres, but I still find the occasional one that I love.

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

Drug addiction is such a real and serious problem at this moment in history that I wish I saw more middle grade novels handling that issue, and showing kids navigating it, in a delicate but authentic way. Adults don’t give children enough credit for being the complex and thoughtful people that they are, and to not portray this issue or discuss it with children for fear of it being too mature for them does a great disservice to the kids who deserve to see their struggles and hope and love reflected back at them.

We had a discussion recently in our debut group about character-driven books versus action books. A lot of the male writers I know personally (and some female writers!) like to write hilarious, fast-paced, zany books that don’t spend a lot of time examining feelings and motivations. Yet these authors tell me that their agents and editors are pushing them to put more “heart” into their books. What’s your take on that?

This is not surprising to me, and it is something I push my own authors (all genders) to do all the time as well. The perfect balance has to be struck between action and emotion in order to engage kid readers. I think it’s a myth that reluctant readers, or kids struggling with reading, just want action. It’s the emotional layers that will touch their hearts—and it’s touching their hearts that will turn reluctant readers into passionate ones.

What’s the one thing that really makes you roll your eyes when you open up a fresh query letter from an aspiring author?

“I’m retired now, so I finally decided to write a children’s book.” This really gets me. On the one hand, I think it is amazing to explore new hobbies and artistic expressions at any moment in your life. Lord knows I’ll try to become a fashion designer when I’m retired. However, when most people say this, you can tell that they mean it in the sense that children’s books are cursory to them and this is just something they decided to do on a whim, not because it’s a real dream or passion. From a query letter, I can very clearly tell whose lifelong dream this is and who just woke up one morning and thought they would try to publish a book.

What are your weird literary passions? Or non-literary ones?

Literary passions: My authors. Beautiful sentences that will make me cry and smile. Books that remind me why it matters that we become our truest selves.

Non-literary passions: Spending time with my family. Babysitting my ill-behaved cousins. Swimming. Beaches. Luxury skincare. Spending my Sephora VIB points.

Describe your favorite kind of workday. What are you spending most of your time doing?

In addition to representing and selling novels to U.S. publishers, I handle my agency’s foreign rights. I wake up in the morning to a lot of emails from Europe and Asia. I’ll drink coffee while I’m answering questions for foreign co-agents and publishers. After the important emails from outside the country are handled, I’ll get ready for the day. I usually try to respond to a lot of queries in the morning. Around lunchtime, I like to break up the day and go on a walk or run along the Ohio River and listen to an audiobook. I always end up getting a lot of phone calls, either from authors or my colleagues, which interrupts the audiobook. I usually return to my computer with an iced coffee and try to answer enough emails before doing some editing, reading a manuscript, pitching a book to editors, or reviewing a contract. After my big tasks for the day are completed, I spend 5:00 to 5:30 clearing out my email.

What keeps you up at night?

A lot of things! Politics, the scary crime TV shows I like to watch, my own ambitions that are oftentimes too big for my own good. The feeling that if there were more hours in the day, there are so many more things I could be accomplishing. But after a very busy and stressful year, I’ve re-centered myself and I’m sleeping a lot better at night. Because my only goal right now, in this moment, is to have as much fun as I can for as long as I can. Making books for young readers that will empower them to become their truest selves—that will make them laugh, and cry, and feel so much joy that they are nostalgic for the future? Being able to do that is the most fun thing I could possibly imagine. I am having the time of my life.

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

I want to tell you about all the middle grade novels I represent that are coming out soon. As I mentioned earlier, FAKE BLOOD by Whitney Gardner is a middle grade graphic novel about vampires. In a starred review, Kirkus said of it: “While many might say the vampire genre bled out years ago, Gardner has imbued it with new life, poking fun at well-known tropes—especially Twilight—in a manner sure to inspire hearty belly laughs. Her full-color illustrations are eye-catching, and her plotting is tightly wrought; think Raina Telgemeier with a Noelle Stevenson slant.”

I’m very excited for SMOKE AND MIRRORS, K. D. Halbrook’s first middle grade novel, out from Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster this September. It got a starred review from the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books: “Halbrook writes a heartbreaking account of a young girl’s spirit buckling under her longing to be accepted and her negotiating of a complicated legacy. The novel’s wistful prose and a relatable search for the Light will be rewarding for readers who can see in the Smoke any number of metaphors for the things that haunt us.”

A total book-of-my-heart, ALAN COLE IS NOT A COWARD by Eric Bell, came out last year. Its sequel, ALAN COLE DOESN’T DANCE, is out from Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins this October. Of the first book, Gary D. Schmidt said: “There are books in this world that show us why it matters that we become our truest selves. This is one of them.”

Look for Brent on Twitter @btaylorbooks and visit his Publishers Marketplace page.

Interview with Illustrator Jeffrey Ebbeler & Giveaway: Ellie May on Presidents’ Day and Ellie May on April Fools’ Day

When my editor sent me cover sketches of Ellie May on Presidents’ Day (Charlesbridge, December 2018) and Ellie May on April Fools’ Day (Charlesbridge, December 2018), I was bursting with happiness. Illustrator Jeffrey Ebbeler truly understands the essence of this enthusiastic kid who has been in my head for such a long time.

And yet for months, I couldn’t really share the covers of my chapter books with anyone, but then the covers were shown at ALA, as well as a School Library Journal webcast Behind the Scenes: SLJ in Conversation with Children’s Books Editors. Additionally, the covers were sent to Indiebound.org, Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other bookselling sites. So yes, by then the cat was out of the bag. And so today is a big deal because it’s the first time I’m officially showing them off and talking about them.

Even though Ellie May on Presidents’ Day and Ellie May on April Fools’ Day are my tenth and eleventh books, this whole publishing process still amazes and, at times, overwhelms me because there are so many things that need to happen, much of which I have little to do with. And with chapter books–that would be all of those interior illustrations–and plus, the covers.

So now I get to interview illustrator Jeffrey Ebbeler about how all of this came together. And you all get to enter for some awesome prizes. More on that later.

Oh, but first you probably will want to know a little bit about the series. It stars the irrepressible Ellie May. When it’s time to celebrate holidays in the classroom, second-grader Ellie May can get a little overzealous, often learning about honesty and patience through trial and error. In Ellie May on Presidents’ Day, the second grader struggles with how to be honest and be a leader (wow, I no idea how timely this topic would be when I first wrote this one). Ellie May on April Fools’ Day ultimately debates how to be funny and not hurt people’s feelings.

Now, without further ado, here’s Jeffrey to tell us about the process of creating the covers, which I think are adorable (but I’m very biased!).

Where did the inspiration for the covers come from?

I have the same experience that I think most readers have. When I read a new story, a little movie plays in my head. When I read the descriptions and dialogue, I imagine how all of the characters might look. I try to imagine every small detail, from the kind of house they live in, to the clothes that they wear.
Ellie is such an exuberant character. She bursts with excitement and enthusiasm. I felt really fortunate that I was asked to illustrate Hillary’s two books, and it came at it came at a serendipitous time for me. I have twin daughters that were in third grade last year (the same age as Ellie May) when I was working on this book. Ellie May’s personality reminds me so much of my daughter Olivia, and her friend Lizzy is like my daughter Isabel.
I used a lot of family photos as inspiration for the poses and facial expressions of those two characters.
I wanted both covers to focus on Ellie May and convey her wide-eyed excitement.

Take us through the process of how you created the covers?

When I am illustrating a book, I try to do the cover last. I always start by reading the story several times. I write lots of notes and do a bunch of doodles. Then I do a character sheet, where I draw every character. It’s really important that the characters look the same through out the whole book. Sketching a book takes a couple of weeks, and I always find that I am refining and adding new details to the characters as I go. That’s why I like to save the cover for last, because by then I have really worked out all of the characters individual mannerisms.

Did you start with pencil sketches or work on the computer?

I do most of my work the old fashion way, with pencils and paint. I sketch everything on paper, and the final art for the covers are painted. I do some additional work to the art in the computer, though. After I scan in the finished paintings, I do some retouching in Photoshop. I lightened up the background behind Ellie May on both covers in the computer, so she would be the focus of the cover.

Did you have hurdles or challenges?

I knew right away that the cover President’s Day should be Ellie May saying the Pledge of Allegiance. The biggest challenge was her pose. I did four or five different poses that ranged from her standing very seriously at attention, to some goofy poses. I think the end result is a good mix of respect for the flag and the excitement in Ellie May.
I worried more about the April Fool’s Day cover because pranks can be a dicey subject. I think Hillary did a great job in the story of having Ellie May think through some jokes and why some might not be a good idea to actually do to someone. The cover hints at one of Ellie May’s joke ideas without revealing too much. She does give someone a stinky gift, but it has a surprising result.

Any aha moments?

I had tons of moments working on these two books. I love reading a funny passage in a book and trying to think of a way that I can add to that joke with a funny image. Some of my favorite illustrations in the books are when Ellie May is researching little known facts about presidents or birds. I got to draw Abraham Lincoln covered in cats, and a cardinal taking a bath in a tub full of ants.

What medium did you use?

The cover art is done in acrylic paint on paper. The black and white art inside the book is also painted with a brush. I love painting fine lines with a liner brush. I like the look if it better than using pens or markers. All of the art has had some touchups that I do in the computer.

What do you hope the covers communicates?

I hope Ellie May’s pose and facial expression communicate that she is enthusiastic, fun, a little mischievous, but also well meaning.

How many drafts did you do before you settled on what you wanted?

For book covers, I always try to present a bunch of different options. I showed about five or six different ideas for each book. I doodled about 20 ideas that I didn’t show because they weren’t quite right.

For the Presidents’ Day book, I did a sketch that ended up being the title page for the book. It was Ellie May dressed in Revolutionary War era clothing, holding the flag. I also sketched a cover that was a grid of presidential portraits with Ellie’s portrait in the middle.

For April Fools’ Day I sketched out several different April Fool’s jokes from the book. I also thought that it might be a fun and goofy image to have Ellie hanging upside down from the monkey bars, because she does that in both books.

In what ways is the final version different from your original concept for the cover?

The final versions were much more focused directly on Ellie May. Her face is the most important thing, and I hope that it will convey somethings about her personality, and get people curious to see what she’s all about.

How important is a cover to a book’s success?

It can definitely be important. I know I’ve picked up lots of books because they had intriguing covers. In the end, there needs to be a great story inside, and there is. It would be wonderful if my cover could help draw young readers in, to check out Ellie May’s adventures.

Anything new you learned from working on the Ellie May series?

I did learn a bunch of interesting facts about the presidents as well as the history April Fool’s Day. Two of my favorite facts were that in France, “jokers tape a fish to unsuspecting peoples backs on April Fool’s Day” and that George Washington’s false teeth were made from “gold, lead, hippo, cow and donkey teeth.”

Anything else you would like to share?
I want to thank Hillary for writing these excellent stories, and also for interviewing me about illustrating her books. I hope you will have as much fun reading them as I did illustrating them.

Oh, and here’s the giveaway part! It’s–drumroll. One high-quality print of an Ellie May illustration signed by Jeffrey Ebbeler AND signed paperback copies of Ellie May on Presidents’ Day and Ellie May on April Fools’ Day (these will be mailed in December) AND PDFs of both books.

How to register to win? Lots of ways. 1) Make a comment here. 2) Follow me on Twitter @hillaryhomzie. 3) Tweet about this and tag me on Twitter @hillaryhomzie 4) retweet my Twitter post about this post. If you do all four things, you will increase your odds of winning but you only need to do one thing in order to get registered. Good luck everyone!

Jeffrey Ebbeler has been creating award-winning art for children for over 15 years. He has illustrated more than forty picture books, including Melvin the Mouth, Captain’s Log: Snowbound and he is both the author and illustrator of George the Hero Hound. Jeffrey has worked as an art director and has done paper engineering for pop-up books. He and his wife, Eileen, both attended the Art Academy of Cincinnati. They have twin daughters, Olivia and Isabel.
www.jeffillustration.com

Hillary Homzie is the author of the forthcoming Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, Dec 18, 2018), as well as the forthcoming Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

Judging a Book by its Title

We’re told (often metaphorically) not to judge a book by its cover. But what about judging a book by its title? One of the most important and anxiety inducing things a writer must do is what some authors call “naming the baby.”

With my most recent novel, I went through seven titles. Six of them contained the word, summer. Because my publisher had a plethora of books with summer in the title that season, several needed to be changed. Lucky for me, my editor and her group got together and brainstormed. They came up with the title The First Last Day, which alluded to the Groundhog Day premise of the story—much better than the titles I had come up with.

Subsequently I’ve been agonizing over the title of a work in progress. This has made me think about titles I love and why I love them. It turns out some of my favorites are inspired by Bible stories, poetry, song lyrics, and other art forms. Not only are these titles catchy and meaningful, but they can also be a way to teach students how to identify allusions in what they read and how to use allusion in their own writing. Below are just a few titles I love that call to mind other works:

 

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

This novel, which won the 1977 Newbery Medal, is about racism during the Great Depression. The title is directly from the first line of a spiritual sung by slaves. Such songs were often used to inspire rebelliousness. The song is alluded to at the beginning of Chapter 11. It has been written that the thunder referred to in the title is a metaphor for all the hate the Logan family must put up with from whites like the Wallaces, a racist family in town. The second part of the title has been seen as a call to action against the injustices toward African Americans. I can’t think of a more perfect title for this novel.

 

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

The title of this novel, which won the 1981 Newbery Medal, came straight from the Bible and refers to the sibling rivalry of twin brothers Jacob and Esau. The quote reads: “As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” The allusion to the quote has significance because the novel is about twins Sara Louise and Caroline. Louise, like Esau, is the child who lives in the shadow of the other twin. The novel follows her search for self and how she can find a place in the world apart from her sister.

 

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake

The second half of this title is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson. The novel is about a girl, who in the wake of a tornado that has destroyed her home, is developing feelings for another girl. The following quote from Dickinson appears in an epigraph and is repeated during a scene in the novel: “This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me …” The quote has symbolic meaning for the main character who, like Dickinson’s narrator, entrusts an invisible audience with her inner thoughts. At the end of Dickinson’s poem, the speaker asks not to be judged for what she has written. This would seem to have significant meaning for Ivy who is on a journey of self-discovery and wonder.

 

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Lowry’s novel about the Holocaust won the 1990 Newbery Medal. The title is from Psalm 147:4 in the Old Testament, which talks about God numbering the stars and naming each one of them. The quote alludes to the fact that if God can count the stars, He can see the persecution of the Jews. Although at one point, Annemarie, who is watching so much suffering, wonders how anyone could number the stars one by one. “There were too many. The sky was too big.”

 

She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah) by Ann Hood

Beatles fans will recognize the line from the beginning of the hit song, “She Loves You.” The title is perfect for Hood’s novel about a girl growing up in the sixties during the Vietnam War and the Beatles era. In the novel, the main character, whose social status has diminished, is determined to see the band perform in Boston during its final world tour and to meet her beloved Paul McCartney.

 

 

 

If you have any favorite middle-grade titles that allude to a previous work of art, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Also, if you have any great titles kicking around in your brain that you don’t want, send them my way. Just kidding. Sort of.