So, You Wanna Be a Children’s Book Writer

Meet Wendi Gu, a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit Associates. While we’ve covered agents on STET before, Wendi primarily focuses on authors of picture books, middle grade, and young adult stories — which feel like a different ballpark from the fiction novels we’re used to. Below, Wendi breaks down how to reach younger readers, what she looks for in new writers, and how she found her career. You can follow Wendi at @wendilulugu.

First, what drew you into the agenting side of book publishing?

I like this question but will first need to back it up a little. I landed in New York by happenstance. I think “happenstance” is the best way to describe why my resume was picked from the pile of supremely overqualified English majors. The agent’s assistant who did pick it from the pile, fun fact, is now one of my best friends. Life is wild.

Happenstance morphed into goddamn amazing luck, because that internship turned into a permanent position, health benefits and all. I learned that I like the book-pushing business. I’ve never liked any other product of capitalism more than a book. Books, if they’re good and lucky, can have very long lives, and I liked being part of the beginning of that. I also admired my boss immensely and wanted to be her when I grew up (and still do). Shout-out to Brenda Bowen!

Tell us about picture, middle grade, and YA books. This readership is very broad so I’m wondering how you determine with authors which stories fit into which age bracket?

ROUGHLY, here are the age ranges I work with. There’s a lot of crossover and room to wiggle:

Picture books: ages 3-7ish
Middle Grade: ages 8-13ish
YA: ages 14-18ish

I’ve had a lot of conversations with industry folks about children’s books and why they’re harder to write than a lot of people think. You have to do so many things at once. You teach without being preachy and didactic. Sometimes you have to shed the years of grown-up in you and think about the things you noticed the most when you were a kid. And if you dig deeply enough, you’ll find you weren’t any more dimwitted — you just had a different worldview. You were probably just as observant as you are today (if not more), but now you have a mortgage. You have to put yourself in the shoes and body of a child or teenager and that can be a visceral and humbling process. Children’s books shouldn’t shy away from the heavy stuff, either. It can also be impressionistic, lyrical, literary. It can also be laugh-out-loud funny and a lot of fun.

Growing up, the books I loved most were the ones that were brain-expanding. Young people are so smart. Do you feel that books for younger readers are edgier, less conventional, smarter — or not?

Great question. I don’t feel qualified to answer the question that speaks to the history of children’s books — I’ll let the academics answer that. But in my experience, I’ve seen, say, picture books from the ‘80s and ‘90s with much more staccato rhythm or a cartoony vibe that would probably never be published today. But I also think that in general, because there were fewer precedents, there was a lot of amazing experimentation and fine art — any Ludwig Bemelmans spread, for example, could hang in a museum. There were also books that broke societal barriers, like The Snow Day by Ezra Jack Keats. Or Judy Blume, who shocked the world by writing about period, lady libido, and masturbation. But these classics were still outliers. I’m happy that I entered the industry when it began, a little more publicly, at least, making investments in publishing books that talk about power structures, about people of color, queerness, disability. I hope more of that is to come. I’m working on it!

What makes a successful children’s book for modern times?

I am still figuring that one out, but in my experience, readers can see honesty from miles away — especially kids and teens. A different point of view — one that doesn’t already exist in the canon — is always great. I will read a new and interesting point of view like it’s a thriller novel. But it has to feel raw and true! Like only the author of that book would’ve been able to write it.

Walk us through picture books! If someone aspires to be a picture book author, do they also need to find their own illustrator and pitch their story in full visual form? Or do you work with authors to find an artist? How does that whole thing work?

Don’t pair up with an artist before you query! The publisher usually likes finding their own. Query an agent with your picture book manuscript, and if they like it, they’ll likely ask if you have any more. After they are able to sell it, the editor and art director will discuss, and then present the author with some options.

Another thing to note about picture book manuscripts — don’t riddle them with more illustration notes than text. The text should automatically telegraph itself for visuals.

You also work with adult books. In what ways do you like working with adult books vs. books for younger readers?

Weirdly, it’s very similar. More similar than not similar. I read and edit the manuscript or proposal until they’re vibrant and fat-free. During the submission process, though, I will of course submit to different editors and publishing houses.

In general/across the board: what kinds of stories would you like to see more of? What kinds of writers would you like to see more submissions from?

When one of my clients, A.K. Small, first queried me, she described her writing as “physical.” I didn’t know what she meant until I read the book, but she was definitely true to her word. I felt physically transported into the bodies of the girl protagonists. I appreciate a sentence that wallops you, if that makes sense. More of that, please!

How do you find your authors and/or stories?

The query inbox and referrals. Sometimes, at conferences.

What are some things you’d like aspiring writers to keep in mind when they send query letters and/or get passed on?

I supremely despise sending an email that will ruin a human person’s day!!!! Authors: keep in mind that we are flawed, we make mistakes, sometimes we need to take mental health days because we can’t look at our computer screen anymore either. It’s always easier to say yes than to say no, so it’s extremely common for agents to happily add way too much to our plate, which of course makes it harder to please everyone, from clients to prospective ones.

But! If we love the book and/or the writing, we will do good work for you and we will be good champions. One tip for prospective authors: look for that passion. Not prestige. That is the fuel that will get your book through the finish line.

In what areas do you think the book publishing industry could improve? In what areas do you think the book publishing industry is excelling?

I am glad that the industry has been paying more attention to diversity in the books we publish, but we need more diverse staff. Living in New York is expensive and feels impossible on a publishing salary unless you have help from your family. There’s this idea that you have to “pay your dues” as an assistant-level employee, but most entry-level people in the industry work extremely hard, and without overtime. The attrition rate is far too high. The burnout is real, and not justifiable on $30,000 (or less) a year. And in this economy? Yeesh.

I’ll be frank. My parents are the most frugal people I know but they were able and willing to pay for two months’ rent in New York so I could take my first publishing internship. They wired money into my account so I could feed myself, and even enough to have a little fun. It was one of the best summers of my life — I shared a tiny (kitchen-less!) studio with three other girls, our beds just a foot apart. We had a mini-fridge. We ate lots of pretzels and dip and maxed out on free restaurant bread. But that is the closest I ever came to “slumming it” and that’s nothing.

But there are some authors of color, authors who came up from not much, who are getting the attention and compensation they finally deserve. I saw Angie Thomas speak the week her second book published. She pointed to her Balenciaga shoes. She said, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dream.”

We have come a long way but we still have a ways to go!

For aspiring agents, what are the qualities that one must possess to succeed in the industry?

It’s helpful to be a fast reader, but I am not one. It’s also helpful to be detail-oriented, ambitious, but it is most crucial to be passionate. You will build it over time, but thick skin is also extremely useful because we receive rejections from editors all the time!