Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 28, 2020

August Agent of the Month: Jennifer Mattson – First Page Results

August Agent of the Month, Jennifer Mattson at Andrea Brown Literary has read four first pages submitted and shared her thoughts. Scroll to bottom to read. Thank you Jennifer. Everyone enjoyed learning more about you.

JENNIFER MATTSON
AGENT
jmatt@andreabrownlit.com
Some client books that best represent Jennifer’s tastes

CLICK HERE TO QUERY JENNIFER BY FORM

I’ve been with Andrea Brown Literary Agency for more than a decade, and began working in children’s publishing immediately out of college—including five years as an editor at Dutton Children’s Books and five years as a Books for Youth reviewer with Booklist magazine. I rep all audiences and genres, from picture book through young adult, and I’m looking for authors or author-illustrators who bring a deep professionalism, an open mind, and a fresh point of view to their work.

My client list includes authors of YA and middle grade fiction (such as Katy Loutzenhiser and Kate Hannigan), authors of picture books (such as Kim Norman and Linda Ashman), illustrators (such as Katy Wu), and author-illustrators (such as J. R. Krause, Brandon Reese, and Liz Starin). I primarily gravitate to fiction, but occasionally can’t resist an impeccably researched nonfiction project. I’d currently like to add more novelists to my roster, especially those from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds; I also have soft spots for mindbending fantasy and gripping survival stories of all kinds. But I’ll always give more than a passing glance to a slam-dunk of a picture book!

In the picture book arena, Jennifer is interested in authors, illustrators, and author-illustrators who bring a distinctive, well-developed point of view to their work. In longer fiction, her interests are wide-ranging, but she always has a soft spot for middle grade about resilient kids sorting out the messiness of life. In middle grade and YA both, her heart beats faster for richly imagined, mind-bending fantasies that depart from typical quests (portals entered by protagonists who fulfill prophecies don’t tend to be for her). The most dogeared books in her childhood library tended to be fantasy adventures, survival stories, and sprawling, atmospheric tales with Dickensian twists and satisfying puzzles. She gravitates to all of the above, but contemporary realistic fiction can work for her too, especially if it’s voice-driven and carefully structured. In all categories, she is especially delighted to see queries in her inbox from kid-lit creators underrepresented in mainstream publishing.

Fiction that Jennifer represents includes Katy Loutzenhiser’s contemporary-realistic YA debut, IF YOU’RE OUT THERE (Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins) and Kate Hannigan’s historical middle grade novel, THE DETECTIVE’S ASSISTANT (Little, Brown/Hachette), which won the 2016 Golden Kite Award for Middle Grade Fiction, received two starred reviews, was a Booklist Editor’s Choice, and appeared on the 2016 Amelia Bloomer List. Picture books she represents include noted poet Linda Ashman’s lyrical ode to the rhythms of the natural world, ALL WE KNOW (HarperCollins), and her nearly wordless celebration of optimism, RAIN! (Houghton/HMH); and Kim Norman’s three Arctic Companion books that cleverly spin off favorite preschool songs, TEN ON THE SLED, IF IT’S SNOWY AND YOU KNOW IT, and SHE’LL BE COMIN’ UP THE MOUNTAIN (all Sterling). Artists she represents include Geisel Honor winning author-illustrator Paul Meisel, who has illustrated or written a total of more than 70 books for young readers; J.R. Krause, author-illustrator of DRAGON NIGHT (Putnam), an Indie Next selection; Rob Polivka, illustrator of GOD BLESS AMERICA (Hyperion) and co-author and illustrator of A DREAM OF FLIGHT: ALBERTO SANTOS-DUMONT’S RACE AROUND THE EIFFEL TOWER (FSG/Macmillan); and former Google doodler Katy Wu, illustrator of several picture book biographies, including Laurie Wallmark’s GRACE HOPPER: QUEEN OF COMPUTER CODE and HEDY LAMARR’S DOUBLE LIFE (both Sterling).

Prior to joining ABLA, Jennifer spent time as an editor at Dutton Children’s Books and as a Books for Youth staff reviewer at Booklist magazine. Jennifer is based in Chicago and enjoys speaking at SCBWI and other writers’ conferences in Chicagoland and farther afield. She is also in the midst of a personal mission to read through the oeuvre of Anthony Trollope. Follow her on Twitter @jannmatt.

I’m based in Chicago, where I live with my husband and two daughters. I like to run at a decidedly non-marathon level and enjoy dance as both audience member and participant. I also spent two years a little bit obsessed with the works of Anthony Trollope.

You can occasionally find me at writers’ conferences in Chicagoland and farther afield.

*******
Jennifer’s thoughts in RED. 

Title – Name – Genre in Bold.

Bolded text in the first page lets you know what Jennifer is referencing. (No way to highlight, sorry.)

BELOW ARE THE FOUR FIRST PAGES THAT JENNIFER READ:

FINDING DESIDERATA by Kiley Orchard – MG

Chapter One

Daddy Grand (I like the specificity of this unusual grandparent nickname, and the fact that the author has the confidence to just jump right in with it rather than explaining it.) taught me a lot of things, but how to find a Petoskey stone (Fun coincidence:  I just learned about Petoskey stones this summer, on a trip to northern Michigan!)  was not one of them.

I told this to Ginny (Might there be a way to hint at Ginny’s age in a subtle way in these first few paragraphs?  We get the sense she’s an adult at the end of the page, but earlier I had assumed she was a friend or cousin close in age.) at breakfast, but she wasn’t deterred. She just reached for the pepper.

“Well, of course he didn’t,” she said. Black flakes dotted her eggs. “You didn’t have Petoskey stones in Alabama. They’re one of the things that make the Great Lakes so special. But give it a shot, Rae. It’s fun!”

I knew she was trying to distract me.

I scan the water’s edge, where Ginny said I should focus my search. The shores of Lake Michigan, at least the ones near Harborville, are nothing like the shores back home. The beaches of the Gulf Coast are wide, flat and white, with sand that smushes between your toes and little crabs that burrow way down deep (Lovely rhythm to the language here) before you can catch them. I hear Michigan has shores like that too, but so far, I’ve only seen the kind within biking distance of Ginny’s—narrow and rocky, sand the color of cardboard. (I like how this description telegraphs the character’s feelings about Michigan, without describing them explicitly.)

The first time Ginny brought me here, she’d said, “Calming, isn’t it?” I hadn’t wanted to contradict her—not so soon after she’d upended her entire life to make sure mine stayed stable(There’s something about this aside that feels potentially off-voice; maybe a little too aware of adults’ lives separate from the child’s needs, and less self centered than a typical child would be?) but I can’t say I agree. The lake doesn’t appear super menacing, but that’s the problem, I think. It’s like it’s lulling me in with that glassy surface, wanting me to concentrate so hard on finding one rock—that one “special” Petoskey stone—that I’ll walk farther and farther out until I’m so far in that my feet don’t touch and the lake just swallows me up whole.

HERE IS JENNIFER:

I love this controlled first line, a compact sentence that delivers a lot of information at once:  an indication of the POV character’s close relationship to a grandparent; a slightly acerbic sense of humor; and a little teasing mystery (what’s a Petoskey stone?). Overall, I appreciated this excerpt’s self-assured and likeable voice.  There’s a bit of wobbliness to be sorted out around Ginny’s age and her level of sophistication—her reference to Ginny having “upended her entire life to make sure mine stayed stable” seems to imply an adult’s worldview more than a child’s—but these are details easily addressed.  (In part, by giving us a good sense of Ginny’s age relatively quickly, probably by the end of the next page.)  In all, though, this is a strong first page for a contemporary-realistic middle grade novel.

*******

HIRAM by K. Van Zandt – MG Fantasy

The old magician stirred the mixture in the glass crock slowly. He had never prepared this potion before, for the recipe came from the most ancient of his books and contained a cure for the deepest aches of the heart. And his heart ached. Oh, how it ached. He delivered the last two ingredients to the mixture – mist from a storm cloud and sap from the rive plant – and then he said the words and released the liquid into the air and waited. Surely, surely, this would bring her back.

Above him, from a heavy gray sky, snow began to fall.

Chapter One

A Boy, A Clock, and A Message

In an old house on the outskirts of the town of Nob, a boy sat in a room. He watched as snowflakes fell through a small hole in the ceiling. The snowflakes (I like how this snow connects with the snow at the end of the prologue, and makes us wonder whether it’s the same snow.) drifted slowly, slowly, one by one by one, to the floor. The boy shivered.

A clock on the wall puffed itself out (This is such a strange verb to associate with a clock, I find it a bit distracting so early in the book.) and announced, “The time is seven o’clock, and all is well!”

But, of course, all was not well.

Tap, tap, tap.”

There it was again.

Three times a day the knocks came and the door opened and there stood a cloaked figure, bony hands extended, offering a small bowl of porridge or a bit of bread and cheese or potato hash. Three times a day, always the same. And after each visit, the hollow click of the lock.

HERE IS JENNIFER:

There is a distinct voice here, which suggests that the first page offers a good microcosm of what I assume to be the overall book’s tone—atmospheric; magical; and perhaps poignant, based on the magician’s loss (“surely, this will bring her back”) and the presence of a child in what seems to be a dungeon.  That said, I’m not sure about the necessity of the prologue.  Prologues are among publishing’s most oft-cited pet peeves, and the image of a magician stirring a potion feels a little bit generically Dumbledore-ish and might lead cold readers to dismiss the manuscript too soon. 

Overall, the writing is balanced, showing a mix of sentence lengths and structures; dialogue, narrative, and onomatopoeia; description and action.  We don’t yet know whose POV we will be inhabiting over the course of the novel (the fact that the child is referenced with the general term, “boy,” kind of makes a point of this, in fact), and I’d be looking to find out soon which character will be the child reader’s surrogate.

*******

BACKWARDISTAN by Bill Borders – PB   

(Important note: Ideally, this book would be produced in reverse: i.e. read from back to front, spine on the right. Page one would start at the end of the book and ensuing pages numbered forward.)

BACKWARDISTAN

Borders Bill by

(I realize this is tongue-in-cheek, but as an agent I’m concerned about unintentionally causing young readers to associate “backwards” qualities with countries with “-istan” in their names.  Since those countries are often largely Muslim, and therefore already subject to quite a bit of negative press in the West, it’s worth rethinking this title.)

Not long ago but far away, a cunning ruler ordered everyone in the land must do everything backwards. This made it easier to control his subjects.

(I’m not sure I’m totally clear on why this follows. How does doing things backwards control his subjects? Do they get tickets or something when they’re caught doing things forwards? And why does the ruler need to control his subjects—is he unpopular? I think a few more details to flesh out this kingdom would be helpful here to set the stage.)

He proclaimed a new name for the country.

(Art Note: National flag of Backwardistan.)

People had to walk backwards.

Say “excuse me” before burping.

(Such a funny concept. Kids will love this!)

Smile when sad and frown when happy.

(So, yes, there was a great deal of sad smiling.)

But one boy was a trouble maker. He disliked dumb rules.

(Maybe some specific examples of how he makes trouble would be more vivid here?)

His Backwardistan name was Noswad Kram.

(So clever to choose a typical American name that looks so especially hilarious when written backward!)

There were several things that irked Noswad besides his name.

Like riding his bike backwards.

(This actually sounds kind of fun/goofy… not irritating)

Wearing his underwear outside his clothes.

(References to underwear = always hilarious to kids!)

Eating breakfast cereal for dinner.

(Careful, most kids would find this delightful)

But one rule really pushed Noswad over the edge.

“Why can’t I go to school and learn things?” he whined to his mom.

(I’m wondering if you might lose kids here. This definitely would not be most children’s biggest complaint about the backwards policy! Perhaps if you could give a strong REASON for him wanting to go to school – more specific than just “to learn things”—it would help readers get behind this motivation.)

“For the zillionth time, school’s only for old people,” his mom replied.

HERE IS JENNIFER:

This narrative has a funny premise with lots of kid appeal.  However, its folklore/allegorical tone feels a little distanced and slightly old-fashioned, notwithstanding the child-friendly humor.  I’m wondering if it might be more marketable if it were to be developed in a more character-driven direction.  In other words, bring Noswad in earlier (rather than opening with the cruel ruler), establish his character straightaway, and then set up the problem of the backwards rules.  I would also caution the author to consider the mindset of a child when inventing the examples of backwards life that annoy Noswad.  Many kids would find the chaotic absurdity of doing everything backwards pretty fun (indeed, lots of schools have special Backwards Days, where everyone wears their clothes backwards!)—so you’ll need to work all the harder to be sure that the negative aspects of backwardsness will actually seem that way to kids.  For instance, cereal for dinner and no school until you’re old?  My kids would celebrate, not complain!

As for the suggested format, it’s an interesting idea and fine to make this kind of prefacing remark, as long as it’s clear (as this one is) that the author is aware that final format decisions fall to the publisher.  However, speaking directly to the idea of printing a book in reverse, I wonder if publishers might not want to risk creating confusion for bookstores.  This might be a topic to bring up with an agent/editor after you’ve received an offer of rep or an offer of publication.

*******

THE ANTSY ANTEATER by Lindsey Aduskevich-PB

Peter scrambled up his mom’s back and crouched down low. He loved the silky feel of her hair. From there, he could see so much of the rainforest. He watched his mom sniff the ground for ants.

(The strong verbs and clean rhythms of these sentences are good, but this lead-in would be better used to establish Peter’s desire to sniff for his own ants; instead, it distracts by focusing so much on his enjoyment of his mom’s fur and the view of the rainforest.)

“I want to try!”
“I’m not sure you’re ready. Your nose is small, and the sand is thick,” said Mom.

(Nice language here, and the underlying emotion is relatable for kids, since they’re accustomed to being told what they can and can’t do.)

Sniff, sniff, sniff.
“Peter!” she pleaded, but it was too late.
Peter’s nose was stuffed.

(I think the threat of sand getting stuck up his nose doesn’t feel clearly enough set forth. My assumption was that Mom simply thought he wouldn’t be able to smell the ants through the thick layer of sand, not that he would get his nose blocked up. Also, visually I wonder if depicting this might be a bit icky?)

He snorted and he snuffed. He stomped and he . . .

Gruffed.

(Since this is neither a real verb nor familiar onomatopoeia, I’m not sure this choice of word works.)

“Now don’t get antsy, Peter. The rainforest pepper will clear your nose. But just one bite.”

So Peter nibbled and chewed one tiny scrap. But when nothing happened, he ate five in a snap.

(The intermittency of the rhyming couplets is a little distracting.)

He stopped when he prickled, from his nose to his toes. The sand flew out, but his mouth was on fire.
He shuddered and he scowled. He trembled and he . . .
Howled!
“Peter, the matico plant will help your boo boo. (What boo-boo does he have? Clarify) But listen closely, you must only eat two.”
Peter took a bite, then one more again. The taste was so good, he gobbled up ten.
“Peter!” pleaded his mom. But it was too late.

HERE IS JENNIFER:

The rainforest setting and anteater characters offer a lot of scope for vibrant and unusual illustrations, and Peter’s yearning to do what the adult anteaters can do has universal appeal.  However, the story’s structure feels a little confused.  It begins with a traditional narrative approach, but then introduces rhyming elements a bit erratically that don’t always perfectly scan (i.e., with even beats and exact rhymes).  For instance, So Peter nibbled and chewed one tiny scrap. But when nothing happened, he ate five in a snap. is followed by a similarly structured sentence that doesn’t rhyme: He stopped when he prickled, from his nose to his toes. The sand flew out, but his mouth was on fire.”) It’s often effective to tie a narrative story together with some kind of rhyming refrain, but these refrains should appear at consistent, evenly spaced points in the story, and should be set off clearly from the rest of the narrative, usually indented and broken into shorter lines of verse, so that readers can anticipate them and adjust their reading rhythms accordingly. A secondary concern is readers’ emotional connection to the story.  I think they’ll most relate to Peter’s desire to be more independent and sniff for his own ants, but the bulk of the story events on this first page put Peter in a position of ridicule as his impatience repeatedly causes him physical harm.  As an agent, I would be looking for the rest of the story to allow Peter to be more than just a bad example and achieve his goal in ways no one might have expected.

*******

Jennifer, thank you for sharing your time and expertise with us. Your thoughts will help everyone who reads this post, so it is really appreciated. Please keep in touch and let us know your future successes.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. Very informative! Thank you for setting this us, Kathy, and the great feedback, Jennifer!

    Like

  2. Love the analyses! Thank you!

    Like

  3. Great feedback! Thank you!

    Like

  4. Ah! I am somehow just seeing this! Thank you Kathy and Jennifer!!

    Like


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