I was thinking about the last three middle grade projects I’ve taken on and there’s some overlap worth exploring in terms of what I’m looking for as an agent.
Since I haven’t gone out on submission with two of the projects, I’m going to be most specific about Goodbye, Mr. Spalding (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills, Spring 2019). From the Publisher’s Weekly announcement:
Carolyn Yoder at Calkins Creek has acquired, at auction, Jennifer Robin Barr’s middle grade debut Goodbye, Mr. Spalding, the story of a boy and his best-friend who need to stop the Philadelphia A’s from building the “Spite Fence” along right field and prevent the loss of income from the families’ rooftop bleachers across the street. Set against the backdrop of baseball’s Golden Era, the Great Depression, and the construction of the Spite Fence at Shibe Park, this is a story about the power of friendship and forgiveness. Publication is scheduled for spring 2019.
Now that I’ve shared all that I can in terms of specifics (and I know that’s not much! Sorry!), the three things the middle grade fiction I represent all have in common:
All three of these middle grade projects have a main plot or subplot that revolves around friendship. What does it mean to be a friend? What should you (or shouldn’t you) do for a friend? How do you repair a broken friendship? How do you make new friends? These are all questions that I think are perfect for a middle grade audience, who are starting to navigate friendships made out of choice and not out of convenience (e.g. because of proximity, or family ties.)
One of the things I love about Goodbye, Mr. Spalding in particular is the friendship between Jimmy and Lola. Jimmy and Lola work through a number of the questions above, and they do it in a way that feels true and authentic for a middle grade audience.
Grappling with something bigger than oneself
One of the interesting things about middle grade, to me, is that sometimes the most important thing the character has to learn (particularly in contemporary and/or historical) is what you have the power to fix and what is bigger than yourself. (This is different from, say, a traditional picture book narrative where you’re trying to empower the child with a sense of agency.)
As you can see from the description of Spalding, taking on the construction of the Spite Fence is a very large task, with a lot of complicated parts. But in any middle grade fiction with this sort of task, I love either seeing the middle grade protagonist find that part of the colossal whole that they can change or see the way in which they’ve figured out how to move within the framework they’re given – in a way that feels satisfying to both themselves and the reader.
A bit of magic
For me, this could be actual magic. I am looking for more magical realism and I’m super excited about the book on my list that has this touch of the magical!
But the magic is also that spark that connects with me personally – and is probably the most difficult to describe and probably the most frustrating to hear as a querying author. (Having also queried to find my own agent, I totally, totally get it.)
But some of the magical things for me have included characters that I just love – I laugh when they’re funny, I want to hug them when they’re sad or scared or confused. They’re characters I either would have wanted to be or be friends with in middle school. Sometimes they’re daring and brave, sometimes they’re just trying so hard to do the right thing – even when, perhaps, they’ve been taken off the right path. And they all have this something that they care deeply about in a way that is just pitch-perfect for middle grade. Whether it’s their neighborhood ballpark, and/or their friendships, or :::these other things I can’t mention yet.:::
As someone who loves baseball and history (and the history of baseball), the magic for me can also be the ability to learn something new about something I loved as a child and/or still love as an adult.
I hope that helps not only writers considering querying me, but also in a more general “here’s the kind of things agents are looking for” sense in middle grade fiction. (And for readers, I hope this helps in terms of what you can expect from my future middle grade projects at BookEnds!)