I’ve bumped into Susan Hawk a few times lately, which is easy for me, since I walk with a cane and my balance stinks! *rimshot*
Knowing I have blog followers who are eager to snag a picture book agent, I sat down with Susan (after we bumped—yes—right there on the floor) and asked her some questions about picture books, agenting, and the surreal softness of the carpet. Was it Turkish cotton? Or do they only use that for robes and towels? (Um, scratch those last couple questions.)
Susan, what led to your decision to become a kidlit agent? Can you tell us about your professional background?
I’m lucky to have worn a number of hats within the children’s book world. I’ve been a bookseller; I have a degree in Library Science and have worked in an elementary school library as well as the Brooklyn Public Library; I acquired a few book projects for Dutton Children’s Books. But most of my background is in Children’s Book Marketing, gathered at Penguin, Henry Holt and North-South Books. All of that led to my decision to make the jump to agenting three years ago, which feels like the perfect way to put these experiences to work. But, really, I think it all began with this: I’m a reader. I love reading books, I love meeting new characters and going new places in the pages of a book, and that’s always been true for me.
What are some of your all-time favorite picture books?
Ah, a great question. It’s hard to stop!
- ME, JANE by Patrick McDonnell
- SPOON by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Scott Magoon
- I’M NOT by Pam Smallcomb and Robert Weinstock
- THE HELLO, GOODBYE WINDOW by Norton Juster and Chris Raschka
- SO YOU WANT TO BE PRESIDENT by Judith St George and David Small
- OFFICER BUCKLE AND GLORIA by Peggy Rathmann
- “MORE, MORE, MORE,” SAID THE BABY by Vera B Williams
- BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL by Robert McCloskey
- GEORGE AND MARTHA, or anything by James Marshall
- SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE by William Steig
- MISS RUMPHIUS by Barbara Cooney
- LILLY’S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE by Kevin Henkes
- BREAD AND JAME FOR FRANCES by Russell Hoban
- FREDERICK by Leo Lionni
What about those books make them special?
Three things: character, humor, and each of these is a very satisfying book.
In most of them, the main character is someone I love. Like, obsessively love. ME, JANE—I already think Jane Goodall is amazing, but in the pages of this book, we’re introduced to a real little girl who’s so true to her own interests, that you can’t help but be entirely charmed. Spoon features the most adorable spoon you’d ever want to meet, not to mention his smart, reassuring parents. And it goes on—every one of these books holds a real, textured person, brought to life in just a few words and pages.
Almost all of them are funny. Some of them are more broadly so, in some of them the humor lies more in a clever twist, but with all of them, I find myself smiling. A lot.
You know the feeling when you close a book and think, I can’t wait to read that again? That happens when the author and artist, together, create a perfect symphony of voice, character and plot. When everything works in concert, you finish the story feeling somehow more whole, and will want to come back to that story again. Obviously, which books do this will be different for different people, but for me, these books all give me that sense.
What do you look for in a picture book submission?
Pretty much what I described above!
Also, shorter text (about 500-600 words), and I’m not usually a fan of rhyming text.
What makes you stop reading a submission?
Predictably, longer texts, rhyming texts—I usually stop reading those. There are also quite a few “evergreen” stories, themes or subjects out there—making a new friend is one. (Here’s a list of a few others.) These can be tricky because in the right hands, they can feel fresh and new, so I’d never say that I’d automatically stop reading a story like this. Still, these texts will be competing with quite a few others out there, so I’m cautious with these.
Is there anything you see too much of in your submission pile?
I see quite a few projects that want to teach kids a lesson. I’m not particularly interested in this, though there are quite a few picture books that want kids to understand some values—fairness, for instance—and do this quite skillfully. I guess that, in terms of message books, I want to see this emerge from the character’s journey, rather than leading the story.
What is the word from picture book editors these days? What are they seeking in picture books?
The main thing editors ask me for is strong, original characters with a compelling, meaty story. If that character has the potential to build a series, all the better. Length should be shorter (see word count above). Most editors will find something funny very appealing and are often looking for something quirky. This is harder to quantify—one gal’s quirky is another gal’s odd—but in general, I think this is about looking for something that feels new and different.
What factors go into your decision to offer a picture book author representation? (Do you offer representation based on only one picture book, or do you prefer that the author have a few ready to submit?)
Two things—I need to love the work, and I need to feel that I can sell it. Easy to explain, hard to find! Mainly that’s because it’s ultimately personal and what I may love is so different than what someone else may love. It’s best if the writer has a few books in the bag, so to speak, but not 100% necessary.
Do your rep author-illustrators? Is it best for them to query with a full dummy, or just a story and a portfolio?
I do! In fact, I’m very eager to take more author-illustrators on. I love seeing a full dummy, but querying either way is fine. My submissions information is here: http://www.thebentagency.com/submission.php.
Could you describe your ideal client?
Someone who loves their work. Writing and illustrating is amazing work, and I feel super lucky to work with children’s book creators, but it requires dedication, patience, flexibility, and some grit. You’re probably going to hear no a few times before you hear yes. Being able to balance all that against a deep love for your work, and a real pleasure in doing it, is key.
Are you open to submissions? How can writers reach you?
Very much so. Please visit The Bent Agency website to learn more about being in touch.
Thank you, Susan! I hope to bump into you again soon! Without dumping us both onto the floor. Although, it sparked a lovely, informative conversation, didn’t it?