top of page

Agent Spotlight: Mary Cummings

Agent Spotlight: Mary Cummings


Happy Monday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight!

I feel like it's been a minute since our last "normal" Spotlight Interview. And by minute I mean since September 18th. The leviathan of #PBCritiqueFest and teaching high school English and raising a tiny human have proven to be formidable foes. I have emerged from the belly of the beast, albeit slimy but alive...for now.

I write to you, precariously perched atop an actual stack of ungraded essays, somehow mixed with my infant son's toys and overdue picture books. #typicalmonday

If you haven't had a moment to read my tell-all piece about writing life after finding an agent, The Myth of the Other Side, check it out here. Thanks to all for your kind words of support--it means the world!

On with today's Agent Spotlight.

Mary Cummings of Betsy Amster Literary Enterprises has much to share and is actively on the hunt for new picture book clients. Let's jump right in! Yes, she's doing a giveaway but let's be civilized the interview before you scroll to the bottom like a pack of hungry wolves.

Speaking of which, does your picture book manuscript have a wolf in it? If so, you're doing well. Keep it up, friend! If may need to consider another dream.

Because your dream is basically dead.

Here's Mary!


It’s like realtors with their “location, location, location.” Wonderful, imaginative, distinctive, engaging manuscripts x 3.

What’s something you absolutely must have in your refrigerator or pantry?

Dark chocolate.

Where do you feel most inspired and why?

The mountains in the Western states. They open me up, give me a still point, make me feel their grandeur and beauty.

Being a key part of bringing a manuscript into a BOOK to be read by thousands of kids

Are you actively looking to build your picture book client list?

Yes, I am.

What types of picture book submissions are you most excited about and want to see more of?

A review of my website,, and the agency’s website, will give potential clients a good sense of what I’m looking for as well as what to avoid in submissions. Beyond that, I want to see submissions with warmth; that are character-based; that are stories with beginning, middle and end; and that with minimal word count create something which leaves the reader feeling changed, enlarged, delighted. I’m especially keen on love themes in picture books: love between child and parent, pet, friend or other.

It’s a boutique agency: small and efficient. Betsy works only on projects for adult readers and I work only on projects for children and teens, but we work together in a couple of key areas. Betsy negotiates publisher contracts and is very good at it, having many years’ experience looking carefully at language which might seem irrelevant or innocent – but she knows under certain circumstances it isn’t and is unyielding! I only take on projects that I really love, and that gets me charged up to start submitting right away. I know that this entire endeavor of writing and hoping for publication is hard on writers and I make the process as smooth, clear and prompt as possible.

When you are not crazy about a project, how do you typically reject?

If it’s clearly not publishable or not for me I don’t respond (true of pretty much every agent because of the volume we receive). If I see strong promise I’ll work with the author suggesting areas or ways to revise, and may look at several rounds. I encourage writers to take the time they need, but expect it will be at least a few days but typically less than a month (longer for a novel).

Heart, absolutely. Humor is one vehicle to communicate heart, but without some degree of heart it’s likely to feel oddly cold and not engaging. Heart may have overt warmth, but it doesn’t have to. It’s about human engagement. Kids are learning how to be human beings – about relationships and how the world works and what’s in the world – and picture books help with that.

What kinds of picture books have you noticed are having a hard time selling, and which ones are selling like hotcakes in winter?

You’re really asking what writers should submit to fit the market. The answer is still what it’s been for a long time: be aware of what’s recently sold (via PW and PM) and recently published but don’t go in a direction not natural for you.

What are some picture book submissions that may not be the best fit for you?

Meta narratives (“Hi! My name’s Tamar and my dog …”) ** Texts that lack visual variety or potential ** Manuscripts longer than 700 words unless the story demands it ** Manuscripts with every line ending in rhyme (and I get millions of these!) ** Rhyme using unimaginative words or odd, forced rhyme ** Unicorns, zombies, mermaids, etc. ** Manuscripts with long sentences of extended dialogue and description and/or portraying the passing of time. These usually work better as short stories than as picture books.

A writer able to capture the essence of the storyline with character, conflict and tone, in a phrase or sentence.

Share a few common query mistakes that you see in picture book submissions.

Misspellings and typos. Cattle call queries (“Hello,” “Dear Agent”) rather than using my name. Writing in the guise of a main character in the story. Sending attachments (we automatically delete attachments unless we’ve requested the material). Sending a manuscript without a query or with only a sentence or two, or lacking bio info.

If we could put on Mary Cummings eyes to look at our stories, what is ONE THING that you always look for that we can too?

Is this something that invites multiple reads? (Before you say “of course!”, articulate for yourself what the core theme is that promotes emotional enjoyment and repeat reads.)

#1: Is this ready for publication? Beyond that: Who is the intended reader? Are word choices, sentence length, characters, conflict, etc. suited to the world of that reader? Is this a subject that’s been seen in other picture books? If so, is it an “evergreen” topic so well matched to parent and kid desires to be marketable, or are a few other titles out there too many for this to stand out?

What is something upcoming you are excited about or would like to promote? Any travel plans or upcoming conferences that you’ll be attending?

I’m really excited about the just released and forthcoming 2020 books by my clients! They include a great range of picture books, from John Elkins’ A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR SANTA (Zondervan Children’s) to Dawn Young’s COUNTING ELEPHANTS (Running Press Kids), Ariel Horn’s DO NOT GO IN THERE! (Imprint/Macmillan), Lois Barr’s WHEN NUMBERS MET LETTERS (Holiday House) and Rachel Tawil Kenyon’s YOU KNOW HOW TO LOVE (Philomel/Penguin), plus Elizabeth Verdick’s third book in her SMALL WALT series (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster), and more.

I’ll be doing the Minnesota Writing Workshop in March, and maybe two SCBWI conferences in fall. I always enjoy these opportunities to meet authors and illustrators and work face to face with them on their projects.

Please complete the following sentence: "Mary is an agent who…"

adores picture books and loves to get more of them out into the world.

Thank you for sharing with us, Mary!

Thank YOU for reading and sharing and subscribing, kidlit fam! As a thank you for stopping by, Mary has generously offered to give away a picture book manuscript critique...MAKE THAT 3 MANUSCRIPTS! (say whaaaaaaaat?!?) See details below for how you can get your work in front of Mary!

Up to 3 Picture book

manuscripts critique!!!

Giveaway Details from Mary:

"I’ll read up to three picture book manuscripts (text only, or text with illustrations if by author-illustrator) giving overview comments and suggestions, or will choose one for a more detailed response. (Be sure to send introductory email first WITHOUT attachments and wait for my response before sending manuscripts)"


Retweet this post, AND

Subscribe to Picture Book Spotlight


Share our Facebook post AND

Subscribe to Picture Book Spotlight

The deadline for this contest is Monday, November 25th at 9AM CST

The winner will be contacted on Monday, November 25th and announced on Twitter and Facebook

About Mary Cummings

I'm a literary agent with Betsy Amster Literary Enterprises. My sales include picture books, chapter books and novels by George Shannon, Ariel Bernstein, Angela Dalton, Elizabeth Verdick, Loretta Ellsworth, Karen Briner, Hannah Voskuil, David Cundy, Joy Keller, Ariel Horn, Susan Haas, Lois Barr, Dawn Young, Nick Dyer, Melissa Martin, John Elkins and others. Houses I've sold to range from Viking and Knopf to HarperCollins, Random House, Philomel, Wiseman/S & S and many more. Take a look on this site to learn about how I work with clients, what's on my wishlist, common query and writing mistakes I see, backstory on some of the books I represent, and more. To learn more about our submission guidelines and to read client profiles, please visit


About Brian Gehrlein

When Brian isn't hibernating or foraging for food in preparation for hibernating, he writes books about hibernating. You can read his books on hibernating anywhere books are sold in the future. Assuming there are still books and assuming there is a future (pending of course the will of our Robot Overlords). Speaking of robots, the secret emoji code for this post is bananas. As in, "it's bananas to suggest we won't be enslaved by tyrannical robots in the not so distant future." Toss in a bunch of banana emojis on your retweet of this post for X3 raffle entries!

October 19, 2021 (34)_edited.jpg
October 19, 2021 (34)_edited.jpg
bottom of page