Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Writing a Chapter Book Series that an Agent Will Love by Jordan Hamessley #ChaBooCha

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay
When I first got my start in publishing, I desperately wanted to be an editor of adult science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. I had spent much of my time in college reading classic science fiction and immersing myself in Stephen King and Shirley Jackson. But when it came time to graduate and find a job, I opened myself up to lots of possibilities applying for assistant jobs at literary agencies, interviewing for adult non-fiction publishers, adult genre publishers, and plenty of children’s publishers. I just wanted to get my foot in the door to start my path to editing the next Ursula K. LeGuin.

After a few months of applying for jobs, I was offered the position of Publisher’s Assistant at an imprint of Penguin Young Readers called Grosset & Dunlap. Grosset was known for publishing licensed film/tv tie-in programs and original chapter book and middle grade paperback original series. It had been quite some time since I had read chapter books and middle grade, so I spent lots of time reading those books and remember that my favorite books when I was growing up were all chapter books and middle grade, most of them series!

As a kid, I loved the way that I could pick up the first book in a series and know that there were ten more books with those characters waiting for me. I was particularly fond of a series called Silver Blades about a group of competitive figure skaters. I was a young figure skater myself and loved reading about girls doing the same thing I was doing (but much better! Ha!). Even when I moved on to The Babysitter’s Club series, I read the younger series about Karen, Kristy’s younger step-sister, because it allowed me to continue to live in the world of the series, even if I had “aged out” of reading early chapter books.

Once I realized how much chapter book series shaped me as a reader, I decided that I wanted to help make series that new generations of kids would read and ignite their love of reading. I asked to start working with the editors who acquired chapter series to really learn the ins and outs of making a chapter book.

The first series I worked on was Frankly, Frannie. The series followed a young girl named Frannie who desperately wanted a job, so each book showed her attempts at having a job as a child, complete with hilarious hijinks and mishaps. I loved the concept and it was ripe for multiple story ideas as we put Frannie in a new job in each book, from being her school principal for a day to a wedding planner.

Working on that series taught me how the key to a great chapter book series (and young middle grade series) is the episodic nature of the stories. The young reader has a certain expectation of how the story will play out in each book, but the plot is what makes each book different. With Frannie, we always knew she needed to “get” a job in every book. The fun was in choosing what job.

One of my other chapter book acquisitions was The Haunted Library series. That series was a classic chapter book mystery series. The series followed Claire, a human girl, and Kaz, a ghost boy, as they searched for Kaz’s family by solving “ghost” mysteries in their town. It had an on-going story arc over the course of the series, but each book followed that episodic formula of solving a mystery.

Whenever I read a query for a chapter book, I always ask myself “How many books can this concept hold?” At Penguin, I typically bought four books at a time for a chapter book series, with the expectation that we would continue publishing into the series for many books to come. If there wasn’t a clear formula that could be followed in each subsequent book AND find a new way to approach that formula in each book, the series wouldn’t have legs.

I always ask authors who pitch me a chapter book series to tell me what other ideas they have for the characters and plots. I need a minimum of four great book concepts for me to believe it can sell.

The reality of chapter book series is that there is minimal shelf space in the chapter book section and a lot of it is full of series books with ten or more books in a series. How do you make your book stand out? Many publishers will publish the first two books in a series at the same time to gain shelf space and then keep the author to a very fast publishing schedule with a new book out every three to six months. The author must have to have a stable of ideas to pull from to keep up with that kind of schedule.

As you go through your chapter book challenge, be thinking about the formula you are setting up for your characters and plot in that first book and think about how you can recreate it, but keep it fresh in subsequent books. You have to unlock the formula and that will allow you to continue to explore the characters and world of your book. Whether it’s a funny magical twist that happens in every book like Katie Kazoo Switcheroo, mystery that gets solved, or a high concept idea like Frankly, Frannie to keep your readers reading. And while you’re at it, check out that chapter book section in your bookstore and read widely. See how other authors find their formula and discover how yours is different!

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Jordan Hamessley is a literary agent at New Leaf Literary representing PB, MG, YA, and adult genre fiction. With nearly a decade of experience working on the editorial side of publishing at Penguin Young Readers (Grosset & Dunlap), Egmont USA, and Adaptive Studios, Jordan Hamessley made the switch to agenting. She is actively building a list of diverse children’s fiction from picture books through YA and select adult science fiction and horror authors. Jordan has a deep affection for contemporary middle grade and YA with heart and humor. She is always looking to find stories that bring the queer experience to the children’s space across all age ranges. In terms of genre, she is interested science fiction and horror. She is also looking for quirky, non-fiction picture books with a STEM focus.

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We have an official ChaBooCha keychain. These keychains are normally only given to ChaBooCha Regional Ambassadors (which reminds me: any RAs who are in their second year of being an RA, please let me know so I can send you your keychain), but, occasionally, I get to offer one as a prize during the challenge. If you are a signed-up member of the challenge, all you have to do to be entered into the random prize draw for this keychain is to comment on this blog post. The winner will be selected by a random number generator on March 31st.

9 comments:

  1. Thank you, Jordan, for reminding me about the simple joys of chapter book series that made each read such a wonderful adventure.

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  2. This was such a thoughtful post, and helps me keep in mind the needs of a publisher as a chapter book is put together. Thank you, Jordan, for taking the time to help all of us.

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  3. Thank you, Jordan, for the in depth look at the challenges of a good chapter book series. I'm in the middle of revising books One and Two while researching book Three of my historical fiction chapter book series. My series angle is a bit different from what you are describing, so hopefully when it comes time to submit my stories, there will be an agent out there interested in looking at my work...

    Great post!

    Donna L Martin

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  4. Thanks for sharing, Jordan. I learned from reading numerous Magic Tree House books what constants were needed to tie the series together. I will check out The Haunted Library series.

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  5. My daughter has been asking for the Haunted Library series, so I need to check those out. Great tips I haven’t thought of from a publisher’s standpoint. Thank you for breaking the process down for us

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  6. Thank you for reminding us of those early and excited readers of chapter books! Love those kids!

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  7. What a great article. Thanks for sharing the real business aspects of a CB series and how the author needs to be thinking about on-going titles, and a new way to approach the formula in each book. Really interesting!

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  8. Thanks so much for the information, and reminder as to how important a formula can be, esp for these emerging independent readers. One of my fav series--Sweet Valley High :) A bit on the older side but fun and formulaic :)

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  9. Very informative post! So keep in mind what that next book will be about! Loved reading The Magic Tree House series and will check out The Haunted Library series! Thank you sharing!

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