Bridget Smith is more than an agent at Dunham Literary, Inc. She also studied anthropology and archaeology, worked as a radio DJ, fenced on the varsity team at Brown University, and helped design an experiment that she later performed in microgravity at NASA. So, she’s kind of awesome and you want her to represent your books.
Read on for Bridget’s insights into the kid lit community, how to include diversity in your books, and what happens after you get a full manuscript request.
Sarah Parker-Lee: So many would-be authors are laser-focused on the query and getting a deal, they probably don’t realize just how crazy your life might be or that you’re a real live person. What would you like them to know?
Bridget Smith: Most of my manuscript reading is done in my off hours – nights and weekends! Queries can fit into free chunks of time at the office, in between processing royalty statements and going over contracts and negotiating permissions (plus emails, of course). But when I really want to sit down and become immersed in a story, I need a stretch of time when I know I won’t be interrupted.
SPL: For a while, you were on track to become an archeologist and you have a degree in anthropology. How do those interests and backgrounds help you to find a good story and support a good storyteller?
BS: I think my interest in anthropology and archaeology comes from the same place as my interest in both SFF (sci-fi and fantasy) and historical fiction: I’m really interested in stories about humans living under different circumstances from mine. What do their worlds look like? How do they solve the basic needs of life, and how do they make it meaningful? What are their views on self, family, community, the universe? The thousand varied ways people address these questions, and the way they always remain human, fascinate me. In fiction, I’m always looking for well-constructed worlds (even if they’re the modern US) and that strong human emotional core to connect with. However, note I said humans: I really cannot deal with animal protagonists, and I’m pretty iffy on aliens. (Editor Note: check out Bridget’s full wishlist here.)
BS: One of my clients (whose book just sold but hasn’t been announced yet) just came back from a big SFF conference and told me all about the authors who were delighted to meet her and support her, so I’m feeling particularly enthusiastic about the supportive literary community right now! I think kid lit is similar to SFF in some ways: everyone who gets into it does it for the pure love of the books. (It’s certainly not for the money.) And with the fact that the outside world can be a bit dismissive of the category, there’s a sense that we are each other’s best cheerleaders. Plus, children’s books come with an important audience attached: we’re making the stories that will shape the next generation, and there’s a sense that we have to be good role models in whatever way matters to us.
SPL: You are a big supporter of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement. The word “diversity” often brings to mind race, gender, and sexual orientation. What other types of diversity do we need more of in kid lit? Any examples we should read?
BS: Just a few examples? Disability, mental health, religion, class. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater deals with class in a compelling way, and I love the use of religion and culture in The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight is a very charming book about what happens when everyone around you is so accepting of your sexuality that they just won’t shut up about it. Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince does some really interesting things with race and class and sexuality – one of the few bisexual love triangles I’ve read in YA, also made more interesting by the fact that the narrator is not the fulcrum. And I enjoy that both The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo have lying, dangerous heroes with limps. (I have a particular crush on Alan Ryves, inveterate liar with a generous heart.)
SPL: What do you tell writers who want to write more diverse characters but are afraid of either “shoe-horning” them into existing manuscripts or feel they are somehow co-opting those characters if they don’t have a similar background? Are they?
BS: My first question is: do your characters NEED to be straight/white/male/abled in whatever combination they are? There are plenty of valid reasons to make those decisions consciously – but be sure you’re making them consciously and not just lapsing into a perceived default. And maybe once you start thinking about it, you’ll realize they DON’T all need to be that way, and you can consider different options. It’s less about “shoe-horning” diversity than it is about reflecting the real world accurately. For example, my high school friend group was close to 50% Asian: an all-white cast only seems reasonable after years of exposure to all-white media. Plus, diversifying your characters offers all kinds of opportunities to open up the world of your book and explore themes with greater nuance.
The second question is a lot more complicated, and you’ll get a different answer from everyone you ask. It’s easy to get portrayals of other people and their experiences wrong, and you have to be willing to hear and accept that you’re wrong before you should even make the attempt. And there are certain stories that you probably don’t have the right to tell. For me, personally, I’d always rather see men make a genuine effort to write about women than not. But maybe leave the rape narrative for others.
SPL: We hear a lot about how to query, how not to query, and how to find an ever-elusive agent. But what happens after an agent makes an offer? What could a new client expect from you and your process?
BS: Once I’ve signed a client, I typically do a round or two of revision to deepen themes, amp up the plot, and build character development, followed by a smaller-scale edit. Editing is one of my favorite parts of my job, so while I expect authors to send me something well-constructed and polished, I like to go in-depth here. When both the author and I are happy with the manuscript, I’ll prepare a submission list and a pitch, then send it around to editors I know. Hopefully one of them will fall in love with the book and offer me money to publish it! Then there’s negotiation of terms, negotiation of the contract, chasing down money, and dealing with any other issues that arise during publication.
SPL: Including Twitter’s #MSWL (manuscript wish list), what are some other tools available to writers seeking agents that maybe aren’t utilized as much as they could be? What tools do you wish writers would use more often?
BS: Honestly, the agency’s website, but if you’re here you’re way past that! #MSWL and its associated website are the tools I push the most these days: you’ve probably heard about AgentQuery and Query Tracker and Writer’s Digest and (of course) the SCBWI. But the fun of #MSWL is that it gives you a feel for what the agent really likes, and it might even give you inspiration. Don’t write a book just because an editor tweets about it: you’ll probably be too slow anyway. But maybe there’s something in there that will ping your imagination!
SPL: Any appearances or books to plug?
BS: My next client book is This Adventure Ends by Emma Mills, a YA in which a teenage girl hunts down the last painting done by the late mother of her two new friends and finds love along the way, out from Macmillan in October! The paperback of her first novel, First & Then, comes out around the same time, so you can have a nice double feature – or pick up the hardcover now. I couldn’t possibly recommend Emma’s books more wholeheartedly: her particular blend of humor and heart, and her ability to balance the different relationships that shape a person’s life, embody my favorite kind of contemporary YA.
SPL: And last but not least, you have to tell this space nerd more about your experiment in microgravity for NASA!
BS: Hah! Well, NASA runs this program call Microgravity University, which lets teams of undergraduates perform experiments aboard the Vomit Comet. My college had a well-established program that had been going for several years, a sophomore living in my freshman hall was on the team, and I thought, “That is the coolest thing I will ever do.” So I joined! We designed an experiment to study the ability of sound to manipulate fluids – sort of like those videos you see of paint on speakers, but with a floating bubble of water instead. The summer after my junior year, I was on the flight team! We went down to Houston for a week and a half to tour NASA, make adjustments to our experiment, and train for the flight. Unfortunately, I’m pretty vulnerable to motion sickness, so after about five minutes (and an awesome photo) I had to be strapped back into a seat. But it was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done, and I can happily say everyone we met at NASA was awesome. (Special shout-out to Fernando, the cute young robotics engineer who hung out with our team all week. He worked on the Mars Rovers, which is – again – just incredibly cool. Everything was cool except the weather.)
To learn more about Bridget Smith, find her on Twitter, @bredalot, check out her podcast, Shipping & Handling, with fellow literary agent Jennifer Udden, and see her bio on the Dunham Literary, Inc. website. Find information on how to query her here.
Sarah Parker-Lee is managing co-editor of Kite Tales, reviews books for Dwarf+Giant, & writes for non-profits fighting injustice all over the interwebs. She is also available to edit your novels & writerly endeavors. She writes YA alt. history & sci-fi. Her humor blog, Dogs and Zombies: A Dog’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, shambles towards your tasty brains Summer-ish 2016. Twitterings: @SarahSoNovel