Posts Tagged verse novels
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.
Krista Vitola is a Senior Editor at Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. Follow her @kav_tepedino.
What books were you reading at 11 or 12? Do you think those books influenced your taste in children’s literature?
As a child, I read anything I could get my hands on. I would go through the stacks of books and pick out title after title. I read so many wonderful stories that would transport me out of my small suburban town on Long Island. I didn’t care where the author took me, so long as I could escape from the world where I currently lived. The Secret Garden, The Little Prince, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Charlotte’s Web, The Chronicles of Narnia, Number the Stars, novels by Louis Sachar, Judy Blume, Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl. These books took me under their wing.
My characters didn’t care that I had glasses and braces and frizzy hair. They didn’t care if I had the newest Adidas sneakers or Gap jacket in jolly rancher grape. All that was required of me was that I listen and learn. They taught me many precious nuggets of information on life and love and relationships. It was definitely the age in which I relied on books the most. They were my friends as much as any human sitting next to me in the classroom or playing with me on the field.
Working in publishing now, I hope that every title I acquire will do the same.
When you speak about middle grade books, it sounds like you have a real soft spot for that age level. What is it that appeals to you specifically about middle grade?
There are so many shifts that occur when you’re in the middle-grade age range. You’re not yet an adult but you’re definitely not a child and you relish in these moments of autonomy. Your parents listen more to what you have to say, and yet there’s only so far you can push. The world you live in takes on a different hue and you want to read about characters that feel the same way. Things aren’t as black and white as they were before you turned this age, everything is complicated and feelings are messy; you begin to explore the world of your own accord.
And with all of these balls juggling in the air that is your life, there are, of course, so many questions that arise. This is the meat of a middle-grade novel. Answering these questions that seem essential for you as you age another year older and start to understand how all these factors—friends, family, school and feelings—of loss, shame, need, anxiety, happiness— fit into the life puzzle. You still need help but the answers you find are your own and arise when you’re ready. You’re not too self-aware yet or jaded and it’s chaotic and hard and beautiful.
How have middle grade books changed since you have been editing and publishing?
Middle grade novels have always been a pillar in children’s literature. But I think they’ve recently been receiving more recognition in the marketplace. And rightfully so! Middle grade will always have its audience, but I would say it’s widened in the past five years. More readers are coming to these books and weekly numbers have seen an increase. This may be a slow effect of the Harry Potter novels or the beauty of Wonder. Novels that transcend age.
I also think that the world we live in isn’t always kind or safe. Middle grade books have a way of holding your hand through these dark periods.
What themes or subjects remain constant?
One of the many reasons why I love editing middle grade is that, for the most part, they don’t follow “trends”. At the core of every middle-grade novel are these questions about who we are and how we fit in the fabric of our everyday lives. They touch on the importance of family—and friendship and siblings and teachers and coaches. It’s exploring new places and making your own choices. And above all learning more about yourself and those values, beliefs, and joys that make you tick. Adventure stories, sibling stories, and realistic fiction are additional subjects that will always appeal in this age range.
Is there a disconnect between the MG books that win awards and books most kids are actually buying, requesting, or reading?
I wouldn’t say there’s a disconnect per se, but there are certain titles that appeal to a wider audience of readers. Books that win the Newbery may not be every reader’s cup of tea–the language may be challenging or the subject matter esoteric, so a more straightforward, comedic novel may be more appealing. A novel that wins an award does so for a reason–it stands out in the genre. And to do this, there needs to be a quality present that may not be as highly valued by the target audience.
How much have the recent movements helped bring more diverse writers into children’s publishing?
Each and every day we try to do better, to find those talented voices whose stories must be shared with the world. Organization like We Need Diverse Books and twitter trends like DVpit have provided a forum for diverse authors and content to find a pathway into the publishing sphere, and the more outlets are available to writers, the better able we are as agents and editors to acquire this content and share it widely.
What kinds of books are you looking for now to round out your list?
I would love to acquire more middle grade graphic novels, novels that focus on girls turning their hobbies into grassroots businesses, and novels in verse. But I will always buy more novels that make me cry and question and wonder.
Are there any controversial or dark topics that you try to steer clear of?
There are a few topics that I’m unable to take on as an editor: novels about abuse (whether that’s verbal, physical or substance) and eating disorders.
Is there any one piece of advice you give again and again to the authors you work with?
Stop comparing yourself to other authors!
Write. Enjoy the writing process. Thrive in tapping into your amazing and vast imaginations. The writing process is a long and arduous one, yet it is also one of the most gratifying. No one goes into publishing for the fame and the fortune. You do it because you love it and there’s no other profession that will offer as much joy on a daily basis. Your book will find its way into the hands of a young reader needing it. You’ll receive your first fan letter or be asked to sign your novel. And you’ll remember why you started typing away at your computer. To share your story. Not anyone else’s.
Can you talk about a couple of books you have forthcoming this year and next? What you love about them?
Sure! I’ve been working on a fabulous book about cadaver dogs called What the Dog Knows. It’s brilliant and reads like a dog and his owner adventure. I have a sweet young middle-grade novel called Meena Meets Her Match about a girl who’s dealing with the everyday ups and downs of third grade, all while dealing with epilepsy. I’m working on additional books in a chapter book series, Franny K. Stein Mad Scientist that follows an eccentric and hilarious young lady who loves science and likes to perform experiments in her bedroom (these experiments also have a habit of running rampant in her hometown). I have two middle grade novels coming out in Spring 2020—one that discusses important topics on immigration, the other about the power of kindness and community—both have a dash of magical realism. And finally, I recently bought a beautiful historical fiction novel about The Merci Train (if you don’t know what this is, I highly recommend you look it up!).
Thank you, Gail!