Posted by: Kathy Temean | January 26, 2018

January Agent of the Month -Penelope Burns – Results

Penelope Burns of Gelfman Schneider/ICM Partners has agreed to kick off 2018 as our Featured Agent of the Month and critique four submitted first pages. 

Penelope is the newest member of Gelfman Schneider/ICM Partners. She came to the agency as an intern after graduating from Colgate University and attending the Denver Publishing Institute in 2012. Currently, as an agency assistant, Penelope is looking to a build a list of her own. She is interested in Literary and Commercial fiction and non-fiction, as well as a variety of Young Adult and Middle Grade.

She is actively looking for YA/MG novels with a unique voice or an unreliable narrator, or an interesting and unique premise. I’d also love to see a YA contemporary romance, or a clever MG with a lot of humor. I am not seeking adult thrillers.


ORDER OF THE DRAGON by Sarah Maumas – YA

Chapter 1: A Whole New World

It’s official. I have the most embarrassing parents in the world.

My twin brother Luka and I are at Portland International Airport heading to New York City to visit our Uncle Sean for the summer. Mom has been fussing over us for at least an hour in front of everyone in the terminal. Actually, she’s been fussing over us for days, but it’s escalated to an all-consuming worry session, which is, needless to say, mortifying. Dad is trying to shield our fellow passengers from the onslaught, but his efforts aren’t doing much good. I’m quite confident that everyone in the entire terminal knows that we are traveling all the way from Portland to visit our Uncle Sean in New York City for the summer – a trip that we make every year, mind you, but this is the first time we are flying alone. Without our parents. For the first time. ALONE.

Luka hasn’t seemed to notice that we’re drawing more stares than a tattooed baby. The few times he’d looked up from his video game, he’d just smiled at our mother and assured her that we’ll be all right. She keeps telling him he’s going to fry his brains playing that thing. Maybe they’re already fried because he doesn’t seem to be able to hear her. Dad is continuing to do the calm-and-soothe dance. I’m practicing the fine art of invisibility, unsuccessfully.

In an effort to distract myself from my parents, I was staring at one of the many TV monitors scattered around the terminal when a Breaking News headline came onto the screen. “American archaeologists, Dr. John Woods and Dr. Karen Steiner are among the fifteen believed to have been captured in a recent raid of the controversial Maeotian Dig in Russia,” the caption read beneath the anchorwoman.

I nudged my mom who was sitting next to me and pointed to the TV. “Isn’t that where you’re going?” I asked. Photos of the archaeologists flashed on the screen. I heard my mom inhale sharply as she grabbed my dad’s knee on the other side of her.


Order of the Dragon by Sarah Maumas

This is an intriguing opening and I really like the voice. It could be even more enhanced if we open with a scene and get to see the narrator’s mother fussing over her children and worrying about their flying alone, while the narrator sits embarrassed at the display. Right now we’re getting a lot of information upfront, and it’d be more compelling if we get that information through dialogue and action rather than having the narrator tell us about it. The moment where the narrator’s mother inhales and grabs the father’s knee is a really great moment of showing rather than telling—I can see that she is upset about the news, and I’m intrigued about their trip and the danger they apparently face. One other thing of note is to be careful of tense shifts. Is this story being told in present, or past tense? There’s a shift to past tense towards the end. Opening with dialogue/action would be a good way to make sure that tense is consistent.


FINDING LILITH by S. K. Van Zandt – Middle Grade

The hawk’s feathers were both soft and stiff, silk and bone, beneath Lilith’s hand. Everything about the bird was complicated.

Always before, Lilith had been afraid. The powerful beak, talons. The bird’s fierceness and strength. But Annabeth was patient, and, this time, when the bird perched before Lilith, she could lift the feathers and name them. Primary, secondary, quills, beams. The bird sat perfectly still as Lilith examined it.

“And this one?” her grandmother said.

“Lesser, middle,” Lilith said.

“Now the principal.”

Lilith reached out and lifted the long tail feathers. The bird let out a soft chirr.

Lilith was afraid of many other things, but she would admit none to her grandmother. She watched Annabeth’s eyes, looked for the shadow that sometimes fell over them. It happened more and more frequently. The door to her eyes would close. This was what Lilith feared most. For her grandmother was lost to her then. Only time could bring her back. It often took hours. Sometimes, days.

Today there was no shadow. No closing door. Today, her grandmother’s eyes were clear, bright, as she took Lilith’s hand and showed her how to stroke the bird. “See how it relaxes her,” she said. “Touch is important. It communicates more than words and signals ever can.”

Grandmother returned Star to her mew. “Tomorrow, you will feel the heft of the bird on your arm,” she said. “And before long, you will hunt with her yourself.”

So, she had decided for sure. She was handing her beloved bird off to Lilith. What did it mean?


Finding Lilith by S. K. Van Zandt

This is such a solid, beautiful opening that really drew me in. It’s descriptive and flows nicely and sets stakes immediately, and I also have the same question as Lilith at the end: why is her grandmother giving her Star? I would absolutely read more.  I only have some nitpicky thoughts: when the name “Annabeth” first appears, it’s not immediately clear that it’s referring to Lilith’s grandmother. I’d initially thought Annabeth was the hawk’s name, and was a little confused. Since this is from Lilith’s perspective, it might be better to refer to her as Grandmother instead of Annabeth.



As soon as Parker tells me he likes Jenna’s hair, I know we’re on the brink of a major disaster.

“What?” he asks, feigning innocence. Feigning it pretty ineffectively, since Parker can’t act or lie to save his life. He’s always the person who gets cast as a tree or a rock in school plays, and even then he usually finds a way to fuck things up.

“Do not say something awful–” I start, but it’s already too late.

Jenna Price climbs up the stairs of the bus. She’s oblivious, talking animatedly to my sister, playing with the ends of her now fire-engine-red hair.

I knew this was coming, because the dye job happened at our house, in our bathroom. It looked like they had killed a clown in there by the time they were done. Approximately six hundred thousand commemorative selfies were taken in our living room. And the entire time this was going on, I was having flashbacks to everything gross Parker has ever said to me about redheads.

That process took up a good two hours of my life.

So I already know how this is going to end. I consider taking some preventative measure, like covering his mouth with my hand, except there’s a decent chance he’d bite my palm.

He straightens up in the seat we’re sharing, and I slump down accordingly. Pretty much my number one goal in life is to avoid being the center of attention, which is difficult when your best friend has the self-control of a rabid dog.

“Hey Jenna,” he calls out, “I like your hair.”

To a normal person this might sound like a compliment, but Jenna wasn’t born yesterday. She flips him off without so much as looking in our direction.


Tourist Attractions of the Upper Midwest by Emma Evenson

What a great title! It immediately caught my interest and sets this up as a fun read. And I love the voice here! Our narrator is charming and funny, and there were definitely a few lines that had me chuckling. I love the little details, like the six hundred thousand commemorative selfies or looking like the dye job killed a clown, or Parker messing up being a tree or rock in school plays. The narrator says that his goal in life is to avoid being the center of attention, and I think that’s a little too on display here, as the opening makes him seem a little passive. I don’t feel like I know very much about the main character yet (although I certainly know Parker!). What is his name? I also really like the opening line, but I’m not actually sure what the “disaster” the narrator is referring to is. Jenna just flips Parker off and ignores him. Why is our narrator worried about Parker offending Jenna? Perhaps that’ll be explained in the following pages—I know I’d be reading on.


UNTITLED by Ayesha Ali – MG

Chapter One

The game consul buzzed in the middle of English class, just as the teacher turned to write instructions on the board. Adrian slipped his hand inside his pocket and let his fingers vibrate against its screen for a moment. He wished—as he did every time it buzzed—that he could ignore it. But he couldn’t.

He slipped out of his seat and snatched the bathroom pass off its hook on his way out the door. The only one who saw him leave was Hollis, the daughter of the school’s psychologist, and only because she sat in the seat in front of him.

In the hall Adrian broke into a run, reaching the bathroom was as the headache set in. He slammed through the door and glanced around quickly before heading for the sinks. The room was blissfully empty.

He leaned against the sink and held the game up to the mirror. As soon as his finger touched its screen, both the buzzing and the headache stopped. Adrian watched the images reflected upside down in the foggy mirror as his hands moved, almost of their accord, across the screen. Banishing the monsters, the magical creatures, that insisted on reappearing on the consul screen. He could never be sure when they’d pop up either. Sometimes they reappeared within a few hours, sometimes he’d be left alone for nearly a week.

The game was still in his hand when the bathroom door swung open. Staring fixedly at the mirror, Adrian watched as familiar forms moved behind him.

“Hey! You again!” It was Jayden a kid he had known from elementary school. “With your game like always.”

Adrian closed his eyes and slid his finger across the screen. Done! He put it in his pocket, but didn’t turn around.


Untitled by Ayesha Ali 

This opening is super intriguing and I really like the set-up here! I want to know how Adrian got this game and why it gives him headaches that compel him to play. There is really strong writing here and some really good action verbs here (snatched, slammed) that help convey Adrian’s panic and really draw me in. And I’m intrigued to see how he interacts with Jayden. Is he a school bully? One thing that seems a little out of place is the information that Hollis is the daughter of the school’s psychologist. The reveal feels a little out of place and distracts from Adrian. Also, just make sure to be careful of grammar/spelling: I think “consul” is the wrong word here, and it should be “console” instead. Just a case of homonyms getting mixed up, but since the console seems to be a big part of the story, you want to avoid confusion.



Thank you so much for sharing your time and expertise with us. Your thoughts help all of us improve our skills. Keep in touch and make sure you share you future successes.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. These are helpful to review! I appreciate your time and thoughtful critiques, Ms. Burns. I also appreciate your efforts in facilitating this, Ms. Temean!


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