Below, Sean shares his insights on creating memorable characters, what makes a book stand up to re-rereading, and his process for helping writers with revision.
Sean will also be doing a webinar for picture book writers on October 3rd. He’ll help us navigate the challenge of telling a fully realized story over a limited page format, while keeping the reader turning pages from start to finish. Learn more and register. Members of the KidLit411 Facebook group: register here (this helps us support KidLit411).
Sean, you have worked in the publishing business for more than ten years. What drew you to publishing, and to children’s in particular? What changes have you seen in the industry? What do you think is coming?
My path to publishing was not entirely by design. I was always a ravenous reader, and I loved writing (which is why I was an English major with a Creative Writing emphasis in college), but didn’t know how that could be a career.
My first job in publishing was an internship at Overlook Press in 2006. The reason why I got that position (and this shows how little I knew about the industry that I wanted to work in) was because I sent in clips of my music journalism to the hiring editor (who is now a brilliant adult writer). For some reason I thought she would want to know I was a good writer (she didn’t), but we did have similar taste in music, and so I was hired. I started at Sheldon Fogelman Agency later that year as an agent assistant, and slowly took on more responsibility until becoming an agent in 2009, while also helping out with permission, subsidiary rights, foreign rights, and accounting. I didn’t know that I wanted to work in children’s publishing until I was at Sheldon Fogelman Agency, but I quickly fell in love with it, and have been working in children’s books ever since.
Change seems to come very slowly in publishing, and then it happens all at once. When I first started in publishing, we were still printing out manuscripts and messengering them over to editors; I can’t remember the last time that I thought about doing that. Many local bookstores had gone out of business and two major chains seemed poised to dominate bookselling for years; that’s no longer the case, and local bookstores have seen a resurgence. I hesitate to make any bold proclamations, but I am still excited for the future, whatever it may be.
In October, you’re doing a webinar with us called “Lost in Pace: Making Sure Your Picture Book Doesn’t Go Off the Rails.” Could you share a little preview of what makes for good picture book pacing?
Having a good foundation in the beginning of your story will pay huge dividends in making sure that the pacing stays strong and steady throughout the entire text. Sometimes there’s a tendency to rush through those opening scenes to get to the fun middle part, but I love to see picture book texts that set up the entire book (even if the reader isn’t yet aware of it) in the very beginning.
You’re particularly interested in character-driven stories. For you, what makes a well-drawn character? What books would you recommend as exemplars?
I think a well-drawn character is one where I could place them in another story entirely, and still have a pretty good idea as to what they’d do or how they’d react (and that is something that I think about when I’m reading texts for representation). Personally, I love characters that are funny, flawed, and kind-hearted (which definitely describes Dot from Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman and illustrated by Zachariah OHora). And if you’re looking for other examples, character-driven books usually have the character in the title – checking the front cover can be a good place to start!
I’ve had the good fortune to work with you on many workshops through Inked Voices, so I know that you are excellent at giving feedback that propels a writer towards their next revision. Will you take us through your process of reading a manuscript?
On the first read, I’m looking to identify what the heart of the story is. What’s the key emotion in the manuscript that the author is trying to evoke, and make me as a reader feel. I’m also starting to think about the characters, and if they feel real, organic, and kid-friendly (particularly in children’s books, it’s essential that the characters feel like actual kids, and not what an adult thinks kids sound like). On the second read, I’m looking to build up the themes, internal/emotional core, narrative arc, character development, and structure (which is a lot, but it’s usually on this round of revision where we do the heaviest-lifting). And then on the third read, I’ll pay attention to grammar, spelling, word choice, etc. Only at the end do I focus on polishing the manuscript.
For you, what makes for a story that kids will pick up time and time again?
Character transformation and a deep emotional core. It is one of the unique aspects of picture books – it’s a book that can usually be read in 5 – 10 minutes, so you need to have something that kids will want to pick up even after they know how the story goes. A thrilling plot can draw a young reader in, but they need more than that on the fourth, fifth, or fiftieth read.
Many of your authors are achieving great success with their books. As an agent, how do you help your authors stretch and grow?
I’ve been fortunate to work with so many talented authors and illustrators, and I learned super quick that every author and illustrator works differently, so it’s my job to figure out what’s the best way we can work together, and go from there. Whenever I start working with a new client, I always do an orientation call where we talk about what our goals will be for not just the next manuscript, but for the next five years. Things rarely (read: never) go exactly according to plan, but I think it’s helpful to have a larger goal or dream in mind from the beginning.
And, just for fun…
Coffee or tea?
Coffee! I am a bit of a coffee snob, though I’m also fine with gallons of iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts (so not that much of a snob, apparently).
Fall! I tend to wilt quickly in any kind of heat, and I’m a big fan of sweaters and sweatshirts (and my birthday sometimes falls on the first day of autumn, so I was always looking forward to it).
A place you hope to visit some day?
Inbox Zero! I’ve heard many tales of this mythical place, and one day I hope to be able to experience it myself (though I’d also be fine with like Inbox Twelve, if it comes to it).
Thanks for your thoughts, Sean, and happy pre-birthday! We’re looking forward to your talk in a couple weeks!
Jessica Murray is a poet and children's writer. Her poetry collection Singing Without Melody is forthcoming from Galileo Press in spring 2022, and her poems are featured in journals such as AGNI Online, Barrow Street, The Cortland Review, Free State Review, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, and Memorious. A member of Inked Voices and SCBWI, by day she works in higher education, non-profit, and educational media production spaces.