April 19, 2013

What Am I Looking For?

I joined A.M.Heath in April, formerly of the Greenhouse Literary Agency where I ran the UK side of the business. So I’m new here, and I’m looking for great books for children and young adults.

From time to time, I write down on a scrap of paper what I’d love to see in my submissions, and stick it on a cork-board at home. It’s something of a ritual, like always wearing gold jewelry when I send out a debut.

Often the next great book that comes along bears no resemblance to what’s pinned up at home. I’m almost always blind-sided by what turns up in submissions and knocks me sideways. But I still do my list because it’s a good focusing practice, and my grandmother told me to write things down.

Today I’m sharing my scrap of paper. What am I looking for?

I’d love an animal story. From A DOG CALLED HOMELESS, to CHARLOTTE’S WEB, BLACK BEAUTY or WAR HORSE, that relationship, and how the love of an animal can be integral to the life of a child, is so rich and evergreen.

I’m a huge Cathy Cassidy fan, and I’d love to see some fiction that nails what it means to be an 9-12 year old girl, about friends, families and feelings. Every family is unusual, every friendship has secrets. I want to know those quirks and secrets. I’m looking for voice, concept, character and story, a freshness there, something that isn’t in the world already. I’m looking for a new situation, a story that we all understand and yet we might not have experienced. THE WEIGHT OF WATER sums this up for me. It’s the story of a Polish girl who comes to Coventry to find her missing father. It’s crystalline and spare, every word the right word, about what it means to be alone, on the outside, and struggling to find your spot in the world.

I want to see picture books, new fairytales. A great picture book has an elegance about it. It’s so tough to tell a story, in so few words, that has meaning and resonance and doesn’t feel borrowed and stale. How do you make something come alive, with a beginning, middle and end, in 300 words, less?! I love the brilliance and simplicity of GOODNIGHT MOON, the originality and joyfulness of DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS, the irrepressible child-friendliness of POO BUM. I hope to find new picture book writers who have a fresh and fun series character, or a magic stand-alone.

I’m interested in books that have a kind of cross-over, a slightly younger tone but an older, more worldly heart, like WONDER, about kindness and a boy with a facial disfigurement, or MY SISTER LIVES ON THE MANTELPIECE, about a grieving family. These books stretch, they’re for all sorts of readers, 10+, 12+, 14+.

I want a younger series for boys or girls or both. I daydream of finding a voice as mad and different and confident and spot-on as MR GUM.

And I’d love a classic fantasy series, the heartland of children’s fiction. THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE was the HARRY POTTER of its day. What is the HARRY POTTER of our day? I’m looking for world-building, playfulness, depth, a clever ‘what-if’ at the heart of the concept. I don’t often see 8-12 fantasy that feels fresh and springs from the page, but I believe in magic, and I’m sure it will come my way.

And I’m looking for a British YA talent to help break out. I don’t know if the next stand-out YA that comes to me will be a thriller, a love story, or a horror novel with the sharpest of teeth. Maybe it will be all of those things or none.

So that’s my wish-list, my cosmic order. If you’re writing for children or young adults, I’d love to see your work when it’s ready to share. What’s written above may give you an idea of what I’m looking for, but above all, there’s a lot of opportunity in not listening to what people are looking for, in not following trends, and in writing the book that only you can write. So if you’re writing that book, that’s what I really want to see.

When I was little, I was the dorkiest of waistcoat wearing metal detectors. Thankfully my dad is a big dork too, so we’d head out and treasure hunt on the weekends. We found the odd twisted piece of rust and scraps of whatever. But we also found 17th belt buckles, a cherub-shaped tankard handle, a diamond engagement ring from the 1930’s, a thick silver roman coin. I’m lucky that my job now is a treasure hunter. It’s an embarrassing truth that an agent feels a little like Indiana Jones for a day when they find their new treasured author. I don’t know quite what treasures I’ll be lucky enough to find as I start my new job here, but I’m looking hard and I know it when I see it.