Agent Advice: Jennifer Mattson of Andrea Brown Literary Agency

“Agent Advice” is a series
of quick interviews with literary and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary
about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else.

This installment features Jennifer
of Andrea Brown Literary
. Jennifer came to the agency after nearly five years of reviewing
children’s literature as part of the Books for Youth staff of Booklist magazine.
A native of California now based in Chicago, Jennifer has a degree in English from
Amherst College.

She is seeking: picture books, middle grade and
young adult. For the older set, she is drawn to richly imagined fantasies that
depart from old-hat heroic quests (alternate realities, magical realism, and steampunk
are all styles/premises to have recently caught her notice). She has a special interest
in dystopian fiction for middle graders and in sprawling, atmospheric tales with Dickensian
twists and satisfying puzzles.

GLA: How did you become an agent?

JM: After working as a children’s bookseller in New York, and then
as an editor at Dutton Children’s Books, I moved to Chicago. Chicago’s not known
as a big center for children’s-book publishing, but lucky for me, it is the home base
of the American Library Association. I joined the staff of the ALA’s Booklist magazine
and reviewed children’s books for nearly five years, but I missed working with authors
and participating in the bookmaking process. I knew that agenting could be done
from home bases other than New York, and was very fortunate that Andrea
Brown Literary
was open to expansion at that time. I’ve been agenting with
ABLA for nearly two years now.  

GLA: What’s something coming out,
or recently came out, that you’re excited about?

: Kimberly Norman’s picture book, Ten on the Sled, illustrated
by Liza Woodruff, will be coming out from Sterling this Fall—it’s a rollicking
winter celebration set in the Arctic. On the YA side this summer, watch for Emily
Horner’s debut, A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend, about a group
of friends who band together to stage a crazy ninja musical after the show’s author
dies in a car accident; and Jenny Meyerhoff’s Queen of Secrets, about a contemporary
conflict between peer and family loyalty that was subtly inspired by the Old Testament
story of Queen Esther. I should note that the two previous books were sold by
my predecessor Michelle Andelman, but they’re both novels that I’m thrilled to be
associated with as the authors’ new agent. 

GLA: Let’s talk picture books. Besides
rhyming, where are writers going wrong with these submissions?

: I wish I could see more picture book authors showing an awareness of
that all-important “turn”—the picture-book raison d’etre that leaves readers
feeling surprised and satisfied. So many picture books have a nice premise, concept,
or tone, but seem to lack critical mass when it comes to the story’s end. Also,
voice. Talk about voice is huge among writers of fiction, but less so when it
comes to picture books. I really sit up and take notice when a picture book author
seems to have a considered, well-developed voice. For instance, I love Kate McMullen’s I
, and others in that series, for their great, in-your-face approach.

it true that so many picture book submissions focus on tired subjects, such as going
to bed or monsters in the closet? If so, does the foundation of a good picture book
come with a unique idea as a foundation?

: I’ve heard a lot of editors say they’re looking for “high-concept” picture
books, which I take to mean a picture book with some sort of succinctly stated, unusual
premise. A vegetarian vampire, or something like that. So, certainly a fresh
idea is a big part of what would excite an agent’s interest, but for me it’s also
sensibility—a sense of the kind of varied language and sentence structure that works
for young children, a keen awareness of the powers of the pageturn, and a respect
for the future illustrator’s contribution.

GLA: If the normal length of a picture
book is 32 pages, should submissions not actually be that long to leave room for covers
and title pages?

: Word counts are more important than page counts at the manuscript stage. Most
editors will want to figure out how and where the text will break from page to page
themselves, so it’s useful for authors to paginate their manuscripts, but not necessary
(and in some cases, not advisable) to submit them that way. By knowing the range
of word counts that can work for the picture book audience, you’ll be taking covers,
title pages, and other frontmatter into account by default. A lot of writers
I know use what’s called “mentor texts” to get a sense for appropriate word counts;
these are the texts of published picture books typed out into a Word document, allowing
you to really get a sense for what a functional picture book manuscript looks like
on the computer screen.

GLA: Concerning MG and YA, it seems
like so many agents these days are searching for the next dystopian hit, after the
success of Hunger Games. Are you seeing a lot of dystopian come in through
the slush?

: Yep.

GLA: In your bio, you talk a little
bit about what kinds of fantasy you want to see vs. those you don’t. Can you delve
into this a little more, in terms of what catches your eye and what doesn’t work for

: I’m not a big fan of sword-and-sorcery, witch-and-wizardry fantasies,
especially those in which characters from our own world open a portal into another
world (and often discover that they’re some kind of descendent of that world, and/or
some kind of prophesied savior).  Having said all of that, I do like Suzanne
Collins’ pre-Hunger Games hit, the Gregor the Overlander series,
which does involve a kind of portal!  (I never promise to be consistent.) Some
of my favorite fantasies feature alternate realities that are just slightly tilted
from our own:  Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter
. I also relish fantasies that explore culture quasi- anthropologically: Ursula
K. LeGuin’s Earthsea was a huge touchstone for me growing up, and I love
Shannon Hale’s romantic, folksy fantasies, as well as Sharon Shinn’s books.

GLA: You say you will always look
for good stories that take great voice over a high–concept hook. Is this what drew
you to Tom Leveen’s Party? What did he do right and what can other writers
learn from him?

: Tom was originally signed to Andrea Brown Literary by our former agent
Michelle Andelman. When Michelle left to become a scout, each of the remaining
agents were given the opportunity to “adopt” her clients, and I jumped at the chance
to work with Tom. As you say, his voice just stood out—his interstitial narrative
has a relaxed, authentic feel, and the dialogue between his characters really pops. Tom
has a background in theater, and I think his experience reading scripts and performing
on stage proved an exceptional training ground for writing dialogue and communicating
the volumes spoken through body language.

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming conferences
people can meet/pitch you at?

: I’m attending Big Sur in the Rockies, a conference run jointly by Andrea
Brown, and SCBWI-Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Chapter,
May 14-16, 2010, in Boulder, Colo. And I’ll be at the SCBWI-Illinois
Prairie Writer’s Day
, Nov. 13, 2010. 

GLA: Something about you writers may
be surprised to know?

JM: I love to take dance classes, any kind of dance, but lately especially
ones choreographed to really corny top-40s music. Right now I’m taking a class
with the amusing title “Cardio Strip,” which always makes me laugh. I’m definitely
a great prospect for writers whose characters dance. 

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t

JM: The best piece of advice I ever received, from Anita Silvey,
who met me for an informational interview back when I was trying to break into children’s
publishing, was “work in a bookstore.” I was lucky to have an indie children’s
store to train at—Books of Wonder in NYC. But I’ve also worked in children’s
sections of chain stores. It’s fantastic advice for writers, too. You can’t
get more valuable, direct experience of what goes on the bookstore shelves and what
leaves them, and the conversations with customers are useful, too. Plus: You
can often cadge galleys from the buyers.   

Want more on children’s writing?