Posts Tagged middle-grade authors

Meet Literary Agent Kelly Dyksterhouse

Headshot, agent Kelly Dyksterhouse

What a pleasure it has been to get to know Kelly Dyksterhouse, a literary agent with the Tobias
Literary Agency. Kelly has her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults and specializes in
building the careers of authors and illustrators who work on a broad range of projects from
picture books to young adult novels, graphic novels, and fascinating nonfiction for the youth
market. I know that all of our Mixed-Up Filers are eager to learn more about Kelly.


SK: Kelly, tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an agent.

KD: While I was pursuing my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I applied for a
position as a reader at The Bent Agency. At the time, I thought it would be a good
opportunity to learn more about how the business side of publishing worked. In that role,
I read slush and full manuscripts and wrote reader reports on the fulls. That led to an
assistant position for Susan Hawk at Upstart Crow, who was, and remains, a most
fabulous mentor. After working for several years as an assistant, I joined Jacqui Lipton
at her new agency, Raven Quill Literary Agency and began building my own list. In 2022, RQLA
merged with The Tobias Agency.

While every path to becoming an agent is a little unique, this business remains one that
is apprenticeship based, and frankly the relationship-driven part of the industry is a
major part of what I enjoy about it.

SK: What can you tell us about the Tobias Agency?

KD: I love my team at TLA! We work very cohesively and support one another well, and a
win for one of us/our clients is celebrated as a win for all.

The Tobias Literary Agency is a full-service literary representation firm established in
2016. We specialize in shepherding writers and artists from dream to reality. Our literary
agents are nimble and fierce with a collaborative spirit. We take a 360-degree view of
our clients’ intellectual property. Each project receives a targeted plan for execution of
sub rights (film/TV, foreign translations, first serial, graphic novel adaptations, and more).
Authors and artists we represent include debut authors, New York Times and USA
Today bestsellers, multiple Bram Stoker Award winners, distinguished scientists,
Emmy-nominated journalists, Coretta Scott King honored illustrators, LA Times Book
Award winners, and authors selected by Reese Witherspoon Book Club. Our literary
agents represent the gamut of genres, including the finest in horror, children’s,
nonfiction and illustration. Our literary agents and literary managers take pride in investing in
clients’ long-lasting careers.

SK: Here at MUF, we are all about middle grade. What do you love most about middle-grade novels?

KD: I love that they appeal to readers who are on the cusp of independence. Kids who are actively figuring out who they are and where they fit in their world. I think what I love best about middle grade novels is that they really respect this time of life and take it seriously, reflecting all of the beauty and struggle and confusion and joy that are wrapped up in adolescence. Books for younger readers tend to be fairly straight forward, but the middle grade novel wrestles with questions, allowing the reader to ask
questions of themselves. It’s a time in life where readers are forming opinions and can choose their own books to read. We tend to idealize childhood and forget how hard and heavy and very, very immediate and important everything feels at this stage of life. The middle grade novel carries a huge responsibility in this respect—it can open new worlds or offer solace from the real one readers inhabit, creating space to process their own feelings through those of a character, space to dream and ask questions and not be
judged for doing so.

SK: Which middle-grade book(s) influenced you most as a child?

KD: Ah, so many! But the books I return to every couple of years to reread I found in 5th
grade: Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown and Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight,
Mr. Tom. As a younger reader, I plowed through C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia,
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time books, all of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion
books, and of course Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague.

SK: What are some of your favorite current middle-grade novels?

KD: Aside from those of my own clients, of course, I’ve really enjoyed Alyssa Wishingrad’s
The Verdigris Pawn and Between Monsters and Marvels. I love how she uses fantasy to
probe readers to ask questions about their own world, which I think is the genre’s

I also really loved Dan Gemeinhart’s The Midnight Children—It was brilliantly structured,
written with so much respect for the reader, and it was a surprise to read. (I love books
that surprise.) I never would have suspected that a book that wrestled such heavy
subject matter would have me laughing out loud on an airplane at the climax. (I also
love books that make me laugh!)

Finally, I recently read Erin Entrada Kelly’s We Dream of Space and was really blown
away. Perhaps because it recalled so much of my own childhood—I was the same age
as the protagonist when the Challenger exploded and vividly remember watching it live
in our school auditorium, so the book hit home in that regard. But the character work in
that book is spectacular, and it’s a wonderful study for anyone who is seeking to deepen
their craft in terms of writing character.

SK: You seem to enjoy your work, but we know it has its tough parts. What would you say are the best and worst parts of being an agent?

KD: There are so many best parts! Every day, depending on what I am doing that day, my
answer will be different. I love the excitement of finding a new project that I can’t wait to
gush about. I love that no day is the same. I can start a day working on a picture book,
break to meet with clients and editors, and then end the day working on a novel, or a
nonfiction proposal. I love, love, love getting to call a client and tell them we have an
offer! And it is just amazing to hold a book in my hands that I helped shepherd into

So in a nutshell the best part of the job is working with creative people to bring fantastic
stories into the hands of children.

The worst part is easy—waiting and rejection. It’s part of the business, but that doesn’t
mean that it ever gets easy.

SK: What do you look for in a query?

KD: A strong query tells me what the book is about (who the character is, what they want,
and what the stakes are if they can’t get it, so the major dramatic question), with strong
comps to tell me where it will sit in the market, and does so clearly and succinctly in an
engaging tone or voice.

A query is a first impression, which I liken to an initial handshake in a job interview. It
needs to be professional, confident and show the writer’s competence and
understanding of their work and craft. The primary job of the query is to make me want
to read the book!

SK: What are the top reasons you pass on a submission?

KD: The number one reason I pass is that the writing is not ready. The concept and story
may be great, but it is clear that the writer sent it off before revising deeply or taking the
time to really refine their writing craft.

Another common reason I pass on projects is that the concept feels overly familiar—not
a fresh enough take to be able to stand out in the market.

SK: What is your best guess on where the middle-grade market is headed?

KD: I am seeing a lot of calls for books that could fill the audience “gaps”—younger middle
grade and older middle grade. Shorter, illustrated books that appeal to the 8-9 year old
reader, and then books whose subject matter appeals to the older middle grade reader
who is not quite ready for YA. (Some would call those books young YA, but I’ve been
seeing them announced as middle grade—books with characters as old as 15, yet
whose story might feel younger.) And there is still a great need for books that reflect a
diversity of experience and representation.

SK: Before you go, let’s have some fun with a lightning round. Please name your favorites!

Dessert: bread pudding with vanilla ice cream

Type of weather: a crisp, clear spring or fall day

Genre of music: depends on what I’m doing. Editing, I listen to classical instrumentals,
when writing I listen to movie soundtracks (instrumental), and when running I listen to
classic 80’s rock.

Season: Spring or Fall.

Game: I am enjoying a board game called Azul right now—it’s a fun strategy game with
tiles, and it’s really pretty. I also enjoy playing Hearts and Spades and Rummikub.

SK: I know that our MUF readers are going to want to learn more about you. Where can we do that?

● @kellydhouse is my SM handle for Instagram, Threads and Twitter.
● Website:
● MSWL: Kelly Dyksterhouse

Thanks so much for sharing your time and wisdom with us, Kelly. We wish you great success in
your career as an agent. I’m sure a lot of new queries are about to head your way!

Author Spotlight: Sandy Stark-McGinnis + a GIVEAWAY!

Like many modern friendships, mine with author Sandy Stark-McGinnis began on Twitter. The date was June 4, 2017, and Sandy was about to go on sub for her debut novel, EXTRAORDINARY BIRDS (Bloomsbury, 2019). We shared an agent at the time, and Sandy asked if I could share my insights into the submission process.

Three years later, Sandy and I are still exchanging messages on everything from our shared obsession with The Golden Girls, to our favorite wines (Sandy and I both enjoy reds, particularly Pinot). On a more serious note, when my dad was diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease, Sandy was there with love and support. Her dad suffered with Alzheimer’s as well, before passing away in 2010. This shared struggle brought us closer, and it gave me an even deeper respect for Sandy, and for her latest middle-grade novel, THE SPACE BETWEEN LOST AND FOUND (Bloomsbury, April 28, 2020)—a novel that features a parent’s struggle with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Described by School Library Connection as “…{a} beautifully told novel of family and friendship that is brimming with love and feelings,” THE SPACE BETWEEN LOST AND FOUND is available now from Bloomsbury Publishing. Here is a summary:

“Cassie’s always looked up to her mom, a vivacious woman with big ideas and a mischievous smile. Together they planned to check off every item on a big-dream bucket list, no matter how far the adventure would take them. But then Mom was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and everything changed.

Now, Cassie tries to keep Mom happy, and to understand some of Dad’s restrictive new rules. She tries to focus on math lessons and struggles to come up with art ideas that used to just burst off her pen. When Mom’s memories started to fade, so did Cassie’s inspiration. And even worse, she’s accidentally pushed away Bailey, the one friend who could make it all okay.

After the worst Mom day yet, the day she forgets Cassie’s name, Cassie decides to take action. It’s time for one last adventure, even if it means lying and taking a big risk to get there.”


MR: Hi, Sandy. Before we start, I must tell you how deeply moved I was by your novel. It really hit home, because my dad—like yours—had Alzheimer’s. How did your experience with this disease provide insight into your characters, particularly Cassie’s mom? The dad? Cassie…?

SSM: Thank you! My experience with my dad was extremely influential and definitely defined the way I portrayed the characters, from the way my dad behaved at different stages of the disease, to how my mom coped on a day-to-day basis, to how we–my brothers, sister and I–processed and navigated our way through the slow but very real loss of the man we called “Dad.”

MR: As above, THE SPACE BETWEEN LOST AND FOUND focuses on a deeply personal topic. As you were writing and memories of your own experience with your dad’s Alzheimer’s surfaced, how did you keep your head above water emotionally? What advice would you give to other writers who choose to tackle emotionally difficult subjects?

SSM: I think the best way to go about facing any personal topics is to be in a place where those feelings are still strong but you can be objective about them, enough so you’re in the space (head and heart) of being able to portray characters and situations honestly. I think the hardest scene for me to write was when Cassie and her dad go to the assisted living facility to take a tour. I can still remember so vividly the day we took my dad to a facility. It was heartbreaking because his favorite place to be in the world was home, and to take him away from that, well… But, we (my family) knew it was what was best, because my mom could no longer take care of him.

MR: THE SPACE OF LOST AND FOUND is interspersed with flashbacks; the present day, and the years before Cassie’s mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. What was the purpose of using this stylistic device?

SSM: The use of flashback scenes was my editor, Allison Moore’s, idea. I think the purpose was to have a balance of emotion and to show what the family’s life was before the Alzheimer’s. I think the flashbacks also do a great job in establishing what Cassie and her father were saying goodbye to—the memories as a reminder of Kim’s (Cassie’s mom) energy and love for life.

MR: I know you’re familiar with the subject of Alzheimer’s Disease, but what kind of research did you have to do for this book? How did it affect your portrayal of Cassie’s mom? Of Cassie’s reactions to her mom’s disease?

SSM: Well, I mostly drew upon my experience with my dad. There are only a few ways early onset is different than other types of the disease. According to scientists, people who suffer from early onset have more of the brain changes that are linked to Alzheimer’s, and early onset is also linked to a defect in a certain part of a person’s DNA.

MR: Cassie’s mom, Kim, loves dolphins and swimming. I know you were a competitive swimmer back in the day (for 13 years!), but what’s the dolphin connection? Are you a dolphin lover, too?

SSM: In the story Kim’s best stroke was the butterfly, so I think I made the connection to dolphins that way. But I also found through research that dolphins have amazing memories. So, I thought someone’s love of dolphins and the fact they were suffering from Alzheimer’s was an interesting dynamic to explore.

MR: In addition to dealing with her mom’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Cassie is having friendship troubles with her ex-best friend, Bailey. Specifically, Cassie doesn’t feel able to talk to Bailey about her mom. As a teacher, what advice would you give to a middle-school student about talking to their friends about personally painful topics?

SSM: Friends can be a great support system. Sometimes when students are going through emotional issues at school, or at home, they just need a friend, or friends, to listen to them. But it’s also wise to have friends who will encourage you to reach out to an adult if you need help.


MR: As a teacher and a mom, I can only guess how hard it is for you to sneak in writing time. What’s your secret? Do you have a specific routine?

SSM: I do have a routine! I’m a morning person (thanks to getting up at four o’clock every morning in high school for swim practice), so I get up early to write. I usually set a goal—five hundred, a thousand words—and try to be as consistent with reaching that goal as I can.

What are you working on now, Sandy? Can you give us a teaser?

SSM: Right now, I’m working on a third middle-grade novel that’s based on something that happened to me—an experience that had a great impact on the way I see the world–when I was eight years old.

MR: And finally, since you and I are HUGE Golden Girls fans, I thought we’d finish this interview with—you guessed it, my friend—a GOLDEN GIRLS LIGHTENING ROUND! Are you game?


Okay, here we go…

Dorothy, Blanche, Rose or Sophia? Rose.

Sicily or St. Olaf? St. Olaf.

Shady Pines or the Rusty Anchor? The Rusty Anchor.

Sophia’s lasagna or Rose’s beef tips on toast? I’m going with the lasagna.

Stanley Zbornak or Glenn O’Brien? Good ole Stanley.

Favorite guest star: George Clooney, Burt Reynolds, Sonny Bono, or Bob Hope? Burt Reynolds

“Johnny No Thumbs” or “Mr. Terrific”? Mr. Terrific!

Favorite episode? “Ladies of the Evening.”

It’s your birthday! Choose a gift: Rose’s piano-playing chicken, or “The Men of Blanche’s Boudoir” calendar? The chicken!

How do you like your cheesecake: Chocolate, or plain? Plain.

MR: Thanks for joining us on the Mixed-Up Files today, Sandy! I really loved your book and can’t wait to read the next one!

And now… a fabulous


Sandy has generously offered to gift a lucky reader with TWO autographed books; the paperback edition of EXTRAORDINARY BIRDS and a hardcover copy of THE SPACE BETWEEN LOST AND FOUND. Just comment on the blog for a chance to win!

SANDY STARK-McGINNIS was born in California. Early childhood dreams: Play quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams or work as a forest ranger. Instead, she became a teacher, a job she found deeply fulfilling. Currently, she teaches fifth grade, and is amazed and inspired by her students every day. She spends her time reading (of course), and traveling with her husband and two children. Sandy believes her thirteen years as a competitive swimmer trained her to have the discipline and perseverance to journey through a writing life. You can find Sandy at her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram


Book Festivals: Are They Worth the Time and Travel?

Photo by Laura Hays Hoover

Take a look at that picture. There’s a lot happening there. A lot. It was taken at the annual Ohioana Book Festival, held each April in Columbus, Ohio. Featuring 150 authors from all genres, it’s a flurry of literary hoopla.

Book festivals happen in major cities and small towns across the country each year. Fall seems to be a particularly popular season for book festivals, so I decided to devote a few minutes to dissecting the costs and benefits of book festivals – for authors and consumers alike.

So what’s in a book festival for…

Teachers and Librarians?  Uh, well, books!  It’s no secret that teachers and librarians love books. They love to read and collect them, and they, above all others, are usually interested in learning what’s new in world of literature. In order to remain fresh and interesting, most book festivals only offer slots to authors who have a new book, released within the past year, or sometimes two. Book festivals are a great way to see, hold, and peruse the newest releases.

Teachers and librarians who are looking to hire authors to speak at their venues can do a little reconnaissance at a book festival. Talking face-to-face with a potential speaker can provide lots of good information about their enthusiasm and their potential to captivate with your audience – something that’s hard to gauge from a website.  Sometimes, teachers and librarians might connect in person with an author they already know via social media. It was great to meet the real Ms. Yingling from Ms. Yingling Reads, a favorite middle-grade book blog, which you can find HERE.

Can you see the mutual admiration?

Parents and Families?  Most book festivals are family friendly, with kids corners and teen scenes and reading rooms and roaming storybook characters and face painting and food – of course, there must be food. I love watching families come by my table. I eavesdrop and hear young readers tell their parents “I read that at school” or “I love that author!” I hear families talking about what books to read together and what books to add to wish lists. I see parents getting a better understanding of their child’s likes and dislikes when it comes to reading. And I see lots of tigers, butterflies, and dragons on faces where the smile didn’t need to be painted.

Young readers get artsy making thaumatropes at the Buckeye Book Fair in Wooster, Ohio.

Authors and Illustrators? While attending a book festival is usually free for consumers, the cost of participation may vary for authors and illustrators.  Most book festivals don’t charge authors a fee, but participating authors are carefully selected by the organizers in order to reflect a wide variety of genres. Authors and illustrators are sometimes invited and sometimes they apply. If invited or accepted, authors must consider the cost of an entire day away from their work and travel and, sometimes, lodging near the venue. Some authors find that only a handful of their books were sold after hours of sitting behind a table, engaging in lively conversation with potential consumers. It can be exhausting. But, creators must consider the benefits of attending a large book festival, and there are many. Authors and illustrators often work alone. It’s good to get out of writing caves and interact with the very people for whom we write.  Meeting our audience gives us connection and puts faces to the vague terms “readers” and “middle-graders” and “consumers.” I also have to say that connecting with fellow authors is inspiring and refreshing. I look forward to several festivals a year because I know I will see other authors. Finally, I’ve been invited to many a school or library after meeting a teacher or librarian at a book festival, so often the benefits more than outweigh the cost of travel and lodging.

Nancy Roe Pimm, Julie K. Rubini, Cynthia A. Crane, and Michelle Houts participate in a Middle-Grade Biographies Panel Discussion at the 2019 Ohioana Book Festival

Catching up with children’s nonfiction author Mary Kay Carson at Books By the Banks in Cincinnati












It would be impossible to list every great book festival in the U.S. here, but I’ll start us off with a few that I’ve attended or hope to attend someday. In the comments below, please add more! And whether you’re a teacher, librarian, parent, author, or illustrator, I hope you’ll consider spending a day at a book festival near you. You just never know who you’ll meet!

Who knew Darth Vader was a Charley Harper fan?

A Short List of Book Festivals – add more in the comments below!

Ohioana Book Festival –  April – Columbus, OH

Southern Kentucky Book Fest – April – Bowling Green, KY

Hudson Children’s Book Festival – May – Hudson, NY

Claire’s Day – May – Toledo/Maumee, OH

Chesapeake Bay Children’s Book Festival – June – Easton, MD

Sheboygan Children’s Book Festival – September – Sheboygan, WI

Princeton Children’s Book Festival – September – Princeton, NJ

Books by the Banks – October – Cincinnati, OH

Warwick Children’s Book Festival – October – Warwick, NY

Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival – October – Chappaqua, NY

Texas Book Festival – October – Austin, TX

Twin Cities Book Festival – October – St. Paul, MN

Buckeye Book Fair – November – Wooster, OH

Kentucky Book Fair – November – Lexington, KY

Rochester Children’s Book Festival – November – Rochester, NY

Wordstock – November – Portland, OR

Western New York Children’s Book Expo – November – Buffalo, NY