The Glut of Children’s and YA

I’ve mentioned in several places that I’m seeking to represent some YA and middle-grade fiction. But holy cow, I didn’t realize that would open the proverbial floodgates. My inbox is bursting at the seams with childrens and YA, especially fantasy.

I’m not seeking to represent children’s books, and I don’t intend to make YA the bulk of my business, so I’m going to be VERY selective in choosing this genre. In fact, I haven’t yet found a YA project that’s right for me. So if you’ve received a pass letter, please don’t despair. You’re not alone. Plus, there are a lot of agents out there who are excited about YA. If your book is good, you’ll find the right agent.

Now, of course I find myself ruminating on why so many people want to write for kids and teens. I’m not sure, but I have an idea. (Don’t hate me here.) I think it’s because there’s a perception that it’s easier to write for kids than for adults. Also, many people have kids and they’re familiar with all the books their kids read, and they enjoy making up stories for their kids, so it’s a natural progression to want to write books for kids and teens. The popularity of Harry Potter has, no doubt, had something to do with this also. In any case, I just want to dispel a couple of myths: 1) It’s not easier to write for kids than for adults; and 2) Writing books for kids is quite different from making up bedtime stories for them.

Andrea Brown, one of the most well-known agents for children’s books, says this:

Most new writers think it’s easy to write for children, but it’s not. You have to get in a beginning, middle and end, tell a great story, write well, not be condescending—all in a few pages. Also, the best children’s book writers are not people who have kids, but people who write from the child within themselves. Most new writers are writing material that would have sold for kids of the 80’s, but not for kids of the 21st century. The voice sounds dated or too adult. You have to write challenging material for the kids of the next century. They are smart and savvy. They won’t bother with books that don’t excite them. I hate to sound negative, but most people are wasting their time and postage trying to get [children’s books] published.

Probably 50% of the fantasy proposals I’ve received involve a group of children who travel through some kind of portal into some kind of magical land. I try to never say never, but I just want to let you know up front that I’m not inclined to represent a book with this premise. Not unless it’s extremely original and clever. There are simply too many books that begin this way.

I’ve mentioned this to a couple of authors who pitched me, and they argued with me, claiming their books really weren’t too similar to Narnia and other portal/magical land books. Well. What can I say? When your book features four children who escape through a special door into a magical forest where creatures talk to them… call me crazy but it just doesn’t seem all that original.

So. If you have YA or teen fiction, please be aware that there are far more people writing it than publishers buying it. The competition is tough and you’ve got to be original. Do your homework, don’t be derivative, and be prepared to persevere.

Oh yeah, and write a great book.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. J8 Students on August 2, 2008 at 12:37 AM

    >This definitely sucks. My page refreshed and approximately a page of my really, really long comment got cut off. 🙁

    But just to add to the unfinished sentence of teen “chick-lit” is that it doesn’t stay fresh in the minds of those who read it. I forget the name as soon as I read finish reading.

    Originality is the key. 😀

  2. J8 Students on August 2, 2008 at 12:33 AM

    >As a teen, I’d like to say that all the works previously mentioned – Holes, Twilight, etc, were great reads for me.

    I’m an avid reader who you’d find in the school library every morning, but also president of the modelling club. That pretty much sums up my reading range.

    I have scoured through all the libraries that I have access to and people come to me when they want to find a book.

    Though I read anything and everything, there’s only a few that really make it on my list. I, who reads like someone who writes, can’t stop thinking about the technical aspect of the book while reading. I often look at the sentence structure, tone, character development as I’m hopping along the storyline. I know most people don’t read like I do, but it says a great deal when I’m too distracted by certain aspects of the book to pick out rhetorical details.

    It happens that these books are the big hits. I discovered Twilight before the whole Twilight craze, and finished the book overnight (I did NOT do well on my chem test the next day). I immediately recommended it to all my friends, who also became “Edward-lovers”.

    Though I hate reading anything that has to do with vampires and werewolves, this book was original in the sense that it captured the innate workings of a girl (with a flair of innocence almost bordering on naivety) with fresh dreams and hopes – something that can be found in almost every female out there.

    As much as I love to read, it’s difficult to find something that really adds the z in zest. The whole chick-lit genre

    Well, biggest tip as your reader base is to have some great characters and a peppered mix of romance. Teens love them.

  3. Katie on June 23, 2008 at 5:03 PM

    >Rachelle, thanks for posting all the information on your site, particularly THIS POST.

    I write YA and am aware of how much competition there is out there.

    But you just made my day with the snippet you posted from Andrea Brown. THANKS! This summed up something that occurred to me a short while back when critting something for a friend.

  4. pixy on April 8, 2008 at 3:08 PM

    >This is a tough subject in CBA. It’s not a welcoming place for us YA writers. I have the opposite problem [kids leaping through a porthole was never an issue ;)]. I write teen fantasy with too much reality. LOL…

    Rachelle, I applaud your willingness to take YA on in the CBA camp. There’s a huge need for quality work right now. And, most certainly, it is harder to write for the younger audience. And to find just the right sellable voice is a chore. I really hope you find that gem.

    Holes is awesome! I’ve read it twice. But I’m afraid my favourite is The Giver. And for those who are writing for the teen market and haven’t read Twilight–the book Natelie mentioned–then you’re way behind. This is the book that all the teens are reading right now. Read it. Study it. The voice is perfectly rendered and the editors in ABA are pushing for more sophistication like this in teen works now. And you know that CBA eventually follows.

  5. Mary Ellen on March 22, 2008 at 10:45 AM

    I appreciate your honest responses about Y/A. Like Christa, I teach teenagers. I feel called to help them realize that they are not alone. To do that takes a voice they hear as their own. That’s an incredible challenge. For now, wherever the market is, teens are my writing heart, and I will take your advice as I persevere.
    Mary Ellen

  6. Christa on February 29, 2008 at 9:21 PM

    >I ditto Mary’s suggestion on HOLES. It so captured my son I almost had to put his dinner on top of the open book pages for him to realize it was there.

    As a high school teacher, I’m surrounded daily by 130+ teens in my classes; there are 2,400 at my school. Even as someone so immersed in teen angst that I’m saying “my bad” and “OMG” on a regular basis, capturing their voice can be like trying to nail Jello to a wall. I learned even teens who may not be voracious readers can sniff out a book that doesn’t ring true by the second page.

  7. Catherine West on February 29, 2008 at 8:28 PM

    >Ha. Mary. I got it. Maybe late but hahahaha!

  8. Nancy I. Sanders on February 29, 2008 at 2:11 PM

    >Yes, Rachelle, you hit the target when you said writing for children is harder. Not only can it be harder in the writing scenario, but it’s also hard to find an agent to represent children’s books. So why am I a children’s book writer? Among other things, I find myself drawn to eating off those silly little cute kids’ plates and wanting to collect Winnie the Pooh stuff (still!) and listening to my boys’ children’s music CDs and singing their corny songs all through the day even tho my boys are now grown up into men. Ah! I think I’m still a child at heart and that’s the bug that’s bitten me and smitten me with the love of books for children. And I agree with all these wonderful posts that there is a tremendous need for a biblical worldview to be presented to kids through books in our generation. Now…if we can just find another way to draw kids in without the portal…any ideas? Smile.

  9. Mary DeMuth on February 29, 2008 at 11:11 AM

    >One word for those who think YA is easy: HOLES.

    If you haven’t read it, you must. It’s so beautifully woven and clever. I don’t think I’ll ever write that well! And that premise was wholly original.

  10. Ariel Allison Lawhon on February 29, 2008 at 10:33 AM

    >Truer words couldn’t be spoken Rachelle! I just sold three children’s books and they were by far the most difficult things I’ve written. And, not to discourage anyone, it took twelve years. I am learning that children’s literature is a genre not for the faint of heart.

  11. natalie on February 29, 2008 at 10:29 AM

    >I don’t write YA but I enjoy reading it. I just finished the Twilight series and even though it is technically written for teens it easily crosses into adult fiction. The dialogue is snappy and fast but also (for lack of a better word) smart. I like that she doesn’t write down. The author obviously remembers what it’s like to be a teen.

    At first, I thought the concept of the book seemed kind of out there (because there’s a fantasy element involving a vampire … which just made me think goth and emo and Buffy.) I was SO wrong. It isn’t some vampy campy love story at all. After I read the first book it immediately reminded me of classic stories about denied love – like Kathy and Heathclife or R&J. The way she writes conflict is great. I think the books work for me because the “magic” element only metaphors real human longing. Same with Harry Potter. I love that he could fight a fire-breathing dragon but still not have enough courage to ask a girl to the dance.

    Anywho, I’m not typically a fantasy reader but I like the Twilight books and I like HP as well. I don’t find loads of that style reading I enjoy, but when I do find it, I’m always excited.

  12. Dayle James Arceneaux on February 29, 2008 at 10:05 AM

    >I would go as far as saying it is probably harder to write for children or YA.

    As an adult writing adult fiction, I just strive to write a story that I would like to read. I’m already personally connected with the target audience. But a children’s writer has to cross a great divide to connect with their readers. Not an easy feat.

    I think it is a testament to how well Narnia, Potter, etc. are written when you consider the mass appeal to children and adults alike.

  13. Kim Kasch on February 29, 2008 at 1:53 AM

    >I’d been thinking about submitting a question about this very topic because I’d read that you were interested in middle grade fiction. But, lately, I’ve been reading that you aren’t interested in children’s stories.

    Maybe it’s time for me to switch and start writing for adults – a larger market – or at least taller. But, that would mean I’d have to grow up 😉 Don’t know if I’m ready for the adult world – yet.

    Thanks for all the info.

  14. JC on February 29, 2008 at 1:28 AM

    >You asked why so many people want to write children’s or YA. I shall answer. If I God wishes me to make a career out of writing, my next project will targeted at a young crowd, namely 10-14 year old boys. Why? Becuase if they are not grounded in scriptual truths, and fully immersed in the armor of God, they will never make it in this culture and society. Almost everything geared to them (10-14) is either sexual (preteen dating/kissing tv shows) violent (video games, PG-13 movies) or occultic (anime, sorcery tv shows, books, etc). Not to sound like the guy you ranted about yesterday, but I have not found much in Christian Fiction that is, as you say, updated to the 21st Century or that can compete with what I listed above. I have a 10 year old son, I have looked. Outside of Redemtion TCG and Angel Wars, I relaly haven’t found much that would interest him. But be rest assured, if I do write children’s books, it will be fantasy but will not have 4 children or a portal to another world.

    Hope that’s helpful.

  15. Marla Taviano on February 28, 2008 at 11:27 PM

    >Hi, Rachelle. Love your blog–it’s so helpful. Just wanted to let you know that I linked to it from my web site just now. People keep asking me, “How did you get published? I want to get published!” My story is unconventional and oh-so unhelpful. So, I’m linking all those people to you and Mary DeMuth–people who really know what they’re doing. Hope that’s fine. 🙂