Happy Friday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight! I'm so glad you stumbled into this dusty corner of the internet.
If you happen to be on the hunt for a partner, a literary agent, someone to champion your work, and you find yourself slogging through the murky query trenches, this interview is for you...
I'm extra pumped to bring you this very special Agent Spotlight today. Because I have the privilege of spotlighting my very own literary agent, Jennifer Mattson of Andrea Brown Literary Agency! Jennifer and I are about to celebrate our one-year anniversary of collaborating together and I couldn't be more thrilled to continue working with her and to share this interview with you. She is in a word: awesomesauce.
But how has it been a year already? How is time going this quickly?! It feels like last week that I tossed this little announcement into the Twittersphere...
Truly, if you are actively querying, I cannot recommend Andrea Brown Literary Agency (and Jennifer) enough. Definitely check them out! Add them to your list and send them all the books. Like right now. Yes, that's right. Stop reading this sentence and go send any of their wonderful agents open for submission your awesome manuscript! What are you waiting for?!
At the risk of being sappy, I'm just super grateful for our time together, for her constant encouragement and expertise, and that she still believes in my silly voice and stories---especially the ones with wolves! So cheers, Jennifer! You are immensely appreciated for all you do (both seen and unseen). I simply cannot thank you enough! 🥂
Alright, kidlit fam. You ready for this? Let's dive into another Agent Spotlight!
Fade to black. Quiet backstage. Cue the spotlight...
Let's start with a fun one...what is something that adds joy to your life lately?
I take a weekly jazz dance class that is delightful!
What’s been the most meaningful or rewarding part of your job as an agent so far?
My background is in editorial (I used to work as an acquiring editor at Dutton Children’s Books), and so thinking about how writers can elevate their work is the most energizing thing that I do—and the moments when I discover that an author has found something I’ve suggested helpful in building a more successful story are probably the most rewarding. Of course, on the meaningful scale of 1 to 10, it’s a 10+ when I see a kid in my life absorbed in a client book!
Are you currently open to building your client list? If so, what are you most excited to see? What types of picture books might not be the best fit for you? If not, do you anticipate opening back up in the near future?
I’m currently closed to submissions apart from direct referrals and folks I’ve connected with at conferences/retreats/etc. That said, I plan to open to submissions again in the next month, so keep an eye on my twitter (@jannmatt) to find out exactly when. To be honest, right now I’m especially looking to build up my fiction list (i.e., novels), but I will never not be open to gifted picture book creators. Right now, though, in the picture book area I’m probably most actively looking for author-illustrators to round out my list!
Share three picture books that you would have LOVED to represent.
Oooh, fun question. SOPHIE’S SQUASH by Pat Zietlow Miller with art by Anne Wilsdorf. I love PB texts that tell a satisfying story while also organically including thematic or topical layers that make the connection to the age group even stronger. In Sophie’s squash, a little girl’s quirky decision to adopt a squash as a friend, and her need eventually to say goodbye as the squash slowly decays, nests themes of life cycles and botanical science inside a funny and sweet character-driven story arc.
THE SEVEN SILLY EATERS by Mary Ann Hoberman with art by Marla Frazee is such a cozy story, with such immediate resonance for both kids and parents, and yet without ever being didactic about picky eating. And Marla Frazee’s artwork transports me: if only I could live in that rustic Pacific Northwest cottage, minus the household chores, of course!
DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS by Mo Willems. I know, this isn’t exactly a dark horse candidate, but this picture book set the bar for direct-address and interactivity in picture books, and launched a thousand (or more) metanarrative subtrends. Representing a game-changer like that would be incredible!
In terms of query letters, what is the most important thing authors and illustrators need to accomplish? What kinds of things should we avoid?
You need to tell me the essence of your story and where it fits in the marketplace, and you also need to communicate your professionalism—do this by following the customary format of a query letter, and keeping your writing polished, direct, and free of errors. No need to be cutesy, and no need to tell me about the kids in your life. (Having kids is definitely not a pre-requisite for writing effective kidlit.)
What’s your take on art notes and manuscript formatting?
As the customary wordcounts for PB texts dropped over the last decade or so, I think the judicious use of art notes has come to be more accepted: as writers pared words and began to anticipate how artists might help fill in the gaps, art notes are sometimes just plain necessary to preserve the story’s logical sense. The best picture book authors are visual thinkers, and sometimes have great ideas about how an illustrator might help extend the text’s meaning, or land an extra-effective visual joke. Those skills are appreciated by editors as long as they don’t overstep or become too prescriptive about, say, inessential descriptive details. When a client and I agree that art notes might be useful, we find some way to set them off from the text so that they don’t distract. Often we’ll put them in brackets and italics and set them off to the side directly under the relevant line of text.
Have I shared this with trusted critique group or a trusted reader who is not a member of your family? Have I revised it multiple times? And specifically for picture book authors, do I have at least two or three other manuscripts that I’d be ready to share upon request? And finally, what is it about Jennifer’s tastes, interests, and books/client list makes me think that this particular manuscript might be a good match? (Your answer to that should appear in your query letter!)
If we could put on “Jennifer Mattson eyes” to look critically at our stories, what is ONE THING that you always look for that we can too?
Gosh, I’m not sure there’s one thing that I always look for—each manuscript has its own constellation of strengths and weaknesses. However, I think a high-level thing that I always consider is whether the manuscript leaves you with a sense that it had a purpose—an answer to the question, “So what?” Sometimes it comes in the form of a really tight, rewarding story arc; sometimes it comes in the form of a powerful, universal emotion; sometimes it comes in the form of a perfectly landed clever ending to a humorous story; or something else indefinable that nonetheless feels worthy of 32 pages and a $17.99 pricetag.
has an abiding love of picture books as an art form, and a belief in their powerful importance to children.
Thank you so much for opening the door on your perspective and agent journey, Jennifer. I'm so grateful for our time together this past year--I've learned so much from you! Cheers to all things ahead!
And thank YOU for stopping by, kidlit fam! As a thank you for reading this Agent Spotlight, Jennifer is giving away a picture book manuscript or dummy critique for one lucky winner! See details below on how you can enter the giveaway!
TO ENTER THE GIVEAWAY:
✅ Retweet this post on Twitter
✅ Subscribe to Picture Book Spotlight
✅ Share our Facebook post
✅ Subscribe to Picture Book Spotlight
***The deadline for this contest is Friday, September 30 at 9AM CST
The winner will be contacted on Friday, September 30 and announced on Twitter and Facebook***
About Jennifer Mattson
Jennifer represents authors, illustrators, and author-illustrators who bring a distinct point of view to their work, and who tell stories with multiple layers. In middle grade and YA both, her heart beats faster for stories that cascade from a mind-expanding premise. She also loves survival stories and losing herself in Dickensian sagas (WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE!), and enjoys watching characters puzzle their way through problems. She has a special soft spot for middle grade about resilient kids sorting out the messiness of life.
Jennifer has worked previously as an editor at Dutton Children's Books and as a Books for Youth staff reviewer at Booklist. Two fun facts: she spent a summer giving tours at Emily Dickinson’s house, and has a coauthor credit in THE OFFICIAL EASY-BAKE OVEN COOKBOOK. Jennifer is based in Chicago, where, when not reading, she spends her free time in dance classes or jogging the lakefront.
This is a bio about a boy. A boy named Brian. A boy who dared to write a bio. A bio so facetious and yet so completely on brand that it just screamed something Brian would have written. Because Brian does not just write a bio. No, he does not. He is physically incapable of writing a normal bio--because he will die if he does. Die of boredom. And life is far too short to write something normal or boring. So he writes mostly nonsense and sometimes people read it. And let's be honest, most people don't read the smallish text at the end of a blog. They maybe glance at it and assume it's a longish bio about the person in the photo. The guy with the spiky hair from last fall. Whoever that guy is to the left. They see the words and decide maybe not. Because what else could it be besides a normal bio? What could it possibly contain other than basic facts about that guy on the left? Certainly nothing like a hidden code for an increased chance of winning the giveaway with Jennifer Mattson. Certainly nothing like that. Especially not a hidden emoji code. Because what even is that? It's just made up, incoherent words. Words at the end of an already longish blog that you've read before. Hey, are you still reading this? Go do something with your life! Abandon this paragraph and forsake its words. Go water a plant. You know you need to anyway. They are dying for the water you keep forgetting. The emoji code is a plant. Include literally any plant emoji in your retweet of this post and you will receive ten additional entries in the raffle. Yepp. Ten. Hurray for plants. Hurray for reading. Hurray for you...