Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 2, 2017

Agent of the Month: Jennie Dunham – First Page Results

Jennie Dunham owner of Dunham Literary Agency has agreed to be May’s Featured Agents and will critique four first pages from the submissions sent in this month. She has been a literary agent in New York, New York since May 1992. In August 2000 she founded Dunham Literary, Inc.

She represents authors of quality fiction and nonfiction books for adults and children and some illustrators of children’s books.

She has been a member of AAR (Association of Authors Representatives) since 1993 and is a member of the SCBWI. She served on the Program Committee and was Program Committee Director for several years. She was also a member of the Electronic Committee.

In 1996 she attended the US/China Joint Women in Business conference in Beijing where she gave a presentation about literary agents in the US. She also attended the NGO Forum at the International Women’s Conference.

She attended international meetings as the AAR representative to create the ISTC (International Standard Text Code) which is being created to ISO (International Standardization Organization) specifications. This business and tracking system will be based on titles not book formats (as is the case with ISBN) and will work in tandem with ISBN.

She started her career at John Brockman Associates and then Mildred Marmur Associates. She was employed by Russell & Volkening for 6 years before she left to found Dunham Literary, Inc.

HERE ARE THIS MONTH’S FIRST PAGES:

THE WINTER BOY        Lisa Fowler          Middle Grade Novel                                                                                                                         

“Don’t worry, boy. Your Momma will be fine, you’ll see.”

Pop could talk until he was blue in the face. I didn’t believe a thing he said—not this time. No matter how many words he strung together or how encouraging he made any of them sound, he couldn’t change the sick sort of feeling gnawing away at my stomach.

Practically slapping twenty-eight dollars plus the one-time two dollar processing fee for the room into the hand of the tall, pasty-faced stranger, Pop grinned like a possum. From the steps where he stood he shot me a reassuring nod and then winked. Oh, he was proud of himself all right, and maybe—just this once—he had a right to be. Getting Mom into one of the finest sanatoriums in Asheville was no small undertaking. All we had to do now was find a way to keep her there.

I watched from the street—swallowing tears and pacing—as the scene played out before me. Turning just slightly from the house I tugged my collar higher on my neck in order to hide the scars. Quickly, I shoved the rigid fingers of my hands even deeper into my pockets, fearing the pasty-faced man’s reaction if he saw. He might be inclined to turn Mom away.              

Half in fear, the other half in dread, I felt my body tremble. If I was wound this tightly I couldn’t imagine how Mom felt. She was probably worn out with it all; the constant coughing, the train ride from home, the long walk from the station. Still, she managed a weak little wave as they wheeled her up the ramp and into the two-story boarding house on Starnes Avenue. I turned away before she completely disappeared from view.

What an awful name for a disease: The White Plague. Just the words summoned images too horrible to speak. I shivered in the cool, crisp mountain air. Back home, folks called it the consumption. Doctors called it tuberculosis. Didn’t matter to me which name you tacked onto it, in 1915 the outcome was always pretty much the same. Death.

HERE’S JENNIE:

THE WINTER BOY by Lisa Fowler

The opening line makes me want to know what is wrong with Momma, and the following line makes me want to know why the protagonist doesn’t believe Pop. Immediately, that engages me to want to know more and pulls on my emotions. And the boy has a lot pulling on his emotions since we see that he’s both happy his mother is going to the best sanatorium available and yet overwhelmed with worry about it.

That said, the boy is primarily an observer, and I wish he were more active. I’d like to see him interact with Mom to say goodbye. What do they say to each other? If he isn’t allowed to get too close to Mom, the reader would begin to see how the disease has affected the boy and his family. Also, while it’s hard to watch something difficult, I don’t believe that he would look away instead of waving goodbye to Mom. I think he’d actually want to take in as much as possible of every minute with her, even as she’s wheeled into the facility.

A lot of information is given up front that could be revealed over time, especially since tuberculosis probably isn’t familiar to young readers. The last paragraph interrupts the story to describe Mom’s predicament with the disease. I’d prefer to find out about the disease as the story progresses. Let the reader experience tuberculosis through the boy’s experiences with Mom.

I like the start of the voice, but it needs to be consistent. It’s odd to me, for example, that Pop refers to “Momma” and the boy says “Mom” which doesn’t feel accurate for 100 years ago in North Carolina.

I also suggest stating that this is historical fiction in the description, not just middle grade. Historical fiction helps kids understand history on a personal, relatable level, and topics such as this have a strong curriculum tie-in possibility which makes this a good topic.

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The Salt of the Earth by Cynthia Williamson – middle grade novel

Chapter 1 – Sorrow by the sea 

Of course September on eastern Long Island was lovely, with the bay so calm and clear and the water still warm enough for a quick dip.  The summer traffic was gone and I wished I were taking a long bicycle ride on the quiet country roads of the North Fork.  Instead, I stood in an ugly black dress at my grandmother’s grave.

I was going to miss her terribly, but I couldn’t cry for her yet.  It was hard to think of her passing as tragic.  Grandma’d relaxed into death contentedly at the age of 89, healthy and active up until the last few months of her life.  The person I was worried about was my mom.  It was Sunday. She’d been crying since Tuesday.

“Cry it out, Maggie,” said my Aunt Becky, patting mom’s back.  “Just cry it out.  Aunt Becky wasn’t really my Aunt. She was my mom’s best friend and the two had a lot in common — both professional women duking it out in the competitive trenches of corporate America; both single moms of one.  For years, they’d fooled themselves into believing that Rosie, Becky’s daughter, and I were best friends.  Finally, thankfully, this summer they’d let that lie die.  Rosie was everything I was not: sweet, petite and an A+ student. So glad I had somebody like that to be compared with my whole life. Not.

Mom fell into Becky’s arms crying harder than ever.  “Thank you for being here,” she whimpered.  “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Rosie sidled up beside me.  “OMG,” she said.  “Your mom is so, so sad and you must be too.  I’m so sorry, Sophia.  What can I do? How can I help?”

“Nothing,” I said.  “But thanks.” Just another dimension to Rosie’s perfection was her soft, kind heart.  I really wished I liked her more.

“There’s got to be something I can do,” she pleaded, her dark eyes wide and shiny.

“Thanks,” I said again, with as much warmth as I would muster.  The short service was over and the small crowd, made up mostly of Grandma’s neighbors from Scallop Alley, stood around awkwardly.

HERE’S JENNIE:

THE SALT OF THE EARTH by Cynthia Williamson

It’s an act of bravery for a writer to start a story with such a dark event in a character’s life. I also like the insight the author shows in Sophia’s understanding about the awkwardness of forced friendships.

The first sentence is essentially Sophia’s mind wandering about the weather, and it feels to me like it’s the writer’s way of getting into the story.  But it doesn’t bring me into the story as a reader. The jarring shift comes when I find out that Sophia is attending her grandmother’s funeral. I’d suggest finding a more arresting first sentence that makes the reader wonder what is going on.

Rosie will make a good foil for Sophia during the story, but for me it breaks the mood of the graveside setting to find out how different Rosie and Sophia are. That could come later, and I’d like to see the relationship evolve over time instead of getting this nutshell description.

Sophia is stoic throughout the events on the first page, and I appreciate that she is numb. But before I can share her numbness, I need to feel more connected to her. In this scene other people are interacting, but Sophia is literally a bystander. I’d like to meet Sophia in the middle of doing something.

I suspect this scene might not be the right moment for starting the story because, in addition to having Sophia more active, I would like to have a better sense of where the story is going.

I’m a sucker for black humor, and the graveside setting is apt for that. The tone of the story, however, is quite earnest, and I prefer a lot more humor in middle grade. Even with difficult topics such as a funeral, I find humor is a coping strategy that helps me stay with the tough topic.

The voice on this page feels older than middle grade to me. The seriousness implies a teen who has a greater understanding of the world than a middle grade kid. A more middle grade approach would be lighter and more naïve.

Contemporary stories for middle grade readers have a strong appeal. As middle graders experience challenges in life, they learn how to face them with more independence.

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Broken Table by Jamie Zakian – YA Arthurian legend retelling

A cool breeze curled around Morgan le Fay. Bitter exhaust fumes carried on strong gusts, and the sweet scent of cinnamon buns cut through skyscrapers. It was an odd mixture, the foul and delectable aromas, but one that brought comfort. It was the smell of home.

Morgan stepped to the edge of a high-rise, peered down at the city below. Cars crawled along the busy boulevard. Happy hour had ended quite some time ago. The moon sat high in a dark sky. An array of lights had shifted from the windows of tall office buildings to the slim condos on the eastside, yet each of the four lanes on King’s Boulevard were packed with taxis and people strolled down the neon-lit sidewalks.

From afar, the place looked like a normal city, in a normal world. Except, normal wasn’t exactly a thing anymore. The few city blocks Morgan stared at was the only safe haven left. And her kind—the witches—kept it protected within a mystical barrier at the order of their king, Arthur Pendragon.
Pebbles crunched beneath Morgan’s boots as she leaned closer to the edge of her apartment building’s roof. Darkness gripped the land beyond their great city, the city of Camelot.

Lights used to twinkle in every corner of the country. There wasn’t a place Morgan went where an engine’s rumble didn’t ring out. That was before … before senior year got interrupted by catastrophe, before she’d been outted as a witch, before some greedy company drilled where they shouldn’t have and released a dark force into the world.

HERE’S JENNIE:

BROKEN TABLE by Jamie Zakian

Morgan le Fay is a strong girl character, and instantly I want to know what she is up to in this story. I expect she’ll have wit and wiles, and she’ll wield some magic as well.

For clarity I suggest stating that this Arthurian retelling is a modern retelling in the original description. I stopped reading briefly at the first mention of skyscrapers because it surprised me after reading that the wind curled which evokes a natural setting. Surprise is good when it’s enticing, but it shouldn’t be confusing. Once I understood that this retelling was thoroughly modern, I kept going, but it did take a moment for me to straighten out the setting.

I recommend paying close attention to details. It would be unusual for pebbles to be on top of a skyscraper roof. Smells are often overlooked, so I like that you’re describing the place with what Morgan le Fay smells and how it makes her feel. It does seem surprising to me that she could smell what is at the street level if she’s on top of a skyscraper which I find to be quite windy. And, I encourage you to be more specific. What was foul? What was delectable? This information would help orient me.

How Morgan le Fay describes what she sees gives me information about the audience for the book, and I’m finding a mix here that seems inconsistent to me. On the one hand, I know she is (or was?) in her senior year when catastrophe struck. Since the book is young adult, having a protagonist in high school is fine. On the other hand, she notices happy hour ending which makes me wonder if she has an adult sensibility since that’s an event for adults not teens. I’d suggest having her notice teenage comings and goings.

Just as she is watching the city below, I’m watching her as a reader. I wonder why the book starts with this quiet moment. The rest of the story will help elicit if this is the right scene to start the story. I suggest that the details of the dark changes be revealed in a process of Morgan le Fay’s discovery in the story. Here it feels like I’m being told what I need to know.

The Arthurian legend is a classic, and a modern retelling is appealing as long as it’s substantially different so that it sets itself apart from other books.

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Green Swamp Monster Middle Grade by Betsy Koscher

I sat in the back seat of the big black car. Scrunched in the corner, my knees to my chin, I wrapped my arms around my legs and I held back the tears. Everything I feared had finally come true. The car roared along and I didn’t care where it went. All I could think about was how my world had come to an end. My brother was taken God knows where. My father was gone five weeks now. The police thought he was a murderer. I wondered if I’d ever see Elizabeth, her mom, her dad again. The kitten, who will feed the kitten and give it hugs? That almost pushed me over. That is why I sat up straight and shouted, “Where are you taking me! Where’s my brother!” Don’t cry I promised myself.

The woman driving the car peeked at me in the rearview mirror. She had long dark hair in a ponytail. She had a black ribbony thing in it matching her black dress and black dressy jacket. She reminded me of something from the house or horrors or the Haunted Mansion. She wore no smile and just seemed determined to ruin my life.

“Your brother went with someone else. I’ll find out where. We needed you to come with us. There are reasons. It is a teen shelter. It’s for abused kids and others. We need to process you. You won’t be there long. Just cooperate and don’t give anyone a hard time.”

Process me? What the hell does that mean? I pulled my knees back up and looked at the buildings zip by like we were on an express train. I said nothing more, not giving her the satisfaction of getting to me. I was sure they planned to break me. How was it that for 5 weeks everything was fine? We took care of everything. Problems almost solved themselves. I wanted to scream. I remembered that night and the next day when we played in the snow as if there was nothing to worry about.

HERE’S JENNIE:

GREEN SWAMP MONSTER by Betsy Koscher

A funny creature story sounds like a blast for kids. Already I want to read more. Revealing that in the title, however, eliminates the element of surprise, so I’d suggest changing the title before publication.

The real world setting of the car ride is at odds with the fantasy title. I expect this will be a gateway fantasy that starts in the real world before the protagonist encounters the green swamp monster, but I’d like some hint of where the story will go. If I didn’t know the title and only read the first page, I would expect a story about a protagonist separated from parents and siblings and dealing with the foster system. I’d like a better understanding from the page, not the title, where the story is headed.

I find that word choice is important in middle grade, and there isn’t as much freedom as in young adult books. I suggest changing “hell” to “heck” to stay true to middle grade fiction.

As I imagine the protagonist huddling in the back of the car, I wonder if this is the right place to start the story. In order to increase the feelings of loss, I’d like to see the family together even briefly before this scene. Show me what those five weeks when “everything was fine” look like for the protagonist.

The first paragraph shows the protagonist’s thoughts racing, but he or she is also helpless which makes me worry that the story will happen to the protagonist rather than that the protagonist will drive the story forward. It’s very important that the main character is active more than reactive.

I’d like to know the protagonist better. Even a small detail would help me know if I’m identifying with a boy or a girl.

The serious nature of this scene doesn’t set the tone for a fun middle grade creature story. With the protagonist’s worry that “they planned to break me,” I’m prepping for a kidnapping or torture story in which authority abuses power over vulnerable children. The first page needs to set the tone for the story.

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Thank you Jennie for taking time out of your busy schedule to share you knowledge with us. See you in Avalon in September.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. I loved these story openings, and it was interesting to get a professional opinion on them too, Jennie offered some great advice. Great post!

    Like

  2. Your ‘First Pages’ are always tremendously insightful, Kathy! Thank you for offering them and thank you Jennie, for your expert advice this month…soooo helpful. Also a big shout of thanks to ‘the chosen ones’ for being brave enough to submit!

    Like

  3. I second what Donna said!

    Like


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