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.
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.