Literary Agent Silvia Molteni on Children’s Book TrendsJan 31, 2021
If you’re thinking of writing a children’s book, or are interested in children’s literature, you might be curious to hear about what young readers – and the literary agents who scope out books for them – are into these days. Following children’s book trends can offer great insight into what’s popular and why, giving you a better understanding of the market and your audience.
And who better to shed some light on what kids are reading these days than the great literary agent for children’s books, Silvia Molteni?
Silvia Molteni is Head of Children's Books at Peters Fraser + Dunlop (PFD), one of our partner literary agencies here at The Novelry. Here's Silvia on what she's looking for and what's being published for young readers around the world right now.
Silvia Molteni’s career in children’s publishing
I started my career in publishing at PFD ten years ago and founded the children’s books department in 2015.
I call myself very lucky to be able to do something I love for a living, and to work for an agency that wholeheartedly supports the growth of the children’s books department.
Like everyone else who works in publishing, I can of course tell you that I love books and stories; nonetheless, my heart lies with children’s and young adult titles. Working specifically with children’s books has been a dream of mine since I can remember and it is something I treasure and never take for granted.
Why children’s literature is so special
Children are smart, brilliant, inquisitive, funny, amongst so many other things; their minds are open to what’s different, they rarely judge and they are sponges. And at the end of the day, they are the future.
What could be more important than writing for them or, in my case, helping the right stories find the right home to then go on and reach the hands of children and teenagers?
Silvia Molteni’s work as a literary agent
My mission as an agent is championing strong, brave, smart and exciting stories, as well as providing children and young adults with books that offer not only escapism, adventures, entertainment and tons of imagination, but also representation and information.
I strongly believe that with this job comes responsibility. Equally, I feel that children’s book writers should always keep their audience in mind and never let them out of their sight as they’re crafting their novels.
What Silvia is looking for
As an agent, I am actively looking for Middle-Grade novels, strong and diverse voices with brave narratives and contemporary and realistic settings; edgy, funny and moving Middle-Grade fiction.
I am also looking for YA fiction across all genres, but on my wish list at the moment is a great psychological thriller.
I am also on the hunt for non-fiction books aimed at children and young adults – from memoirs to manuals, popular science and humorous books.
Generally speaking, across MG and YA fiction, I am drawn to:
Voice-driven and character-driven narratives
LGBTQI storylines and characters
Upmarket literary fiction
What I truly love is gorgeous writing and voice, voice, voice! I never get tired of saying this. (I’m much less drawn towards plot-driven and ambitious world-building narratives.)
Trends Silvia has seen in children’s book publishing
Regardless of my personal wish-list, through the years working across children’s and YA books, I’ve seen a number of trends crop up in my submission pile. I find that these are normally dictated by what is successful during that specific timeframe in the children’s and YA books market.
We went from young adult love triangles, around the same time that vampires and werewolves started to populate all of the teen fantasy submissions. Following that, the Hunger Games propelled a series of dystopian settings (a concept too close to the bone these days, sadly!), as well as feminist, empowering protagonists (those are always welcome by the way, regardless of trends).
At one point, submissions shifted towards contemporary realistic settings and coming-of-age stories, often featuring terminally ill protagonists, à la John Green. The rom-com phase followed, thanks to To All the Boys I Loved Before finally landing on Netflix.
We’re now seeing an increasing number of psychological thrillers and horror books written for teenagers, on the back of the success of titles along the lines of Good Girls Die First, A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder and Harrow Lake.
There have been countless trends throughout the years, not necessarily in this order, but nothing prepared us for the submission-inbox chaos of 2020 – which I’ll address further below.
We’re now seeing an increasing number of psychological thrillers and horror books written for teenagers.
The problem with trying to match publishing trends
The issue with trying to follow these trends as a writer is that they don’t often last long and market saturation occurs quickly. Around the time the “new trend of the moment” starts to take the YA world by storm, with huge sales, the previous one becomes obsolete and overdone.
For this reason, writing from the heart and telling the story that you are most passionate about, regardless of market demands, is always valid advice.
A good story remains a good story, regardless of whether it’s set in a faraway land, a dystopian reality, or in our own contemporary world.
The difference in YA and middle grade trends
Having said that, there is no escaping that YA remains the literary genre most dictated by current bestsellers and movie adaptations, which is something that automatically turns it into a niche segment of the market, when in reality it should be one of the most widely read, by teenagers and adults alike.
The potential and the variety of stories that you can tell aimed at a YA audience are endless, so if you feel the urge to tell a particular story, I’d say go ahead and do it.
The potential and the variety of stories that you can tell aimed at a YA audience are endless.
Middle-grade is, to some extent, a breath of fresh air compared to YA, mainly because it is the healthiest sector of the children’s books market – even through 2020. In fact, children’s books sales have shown resilience during the coronavirus pandemic due to the increasing demand from parents for more content, both within the trade and educational space. And this is also true across foreign markets.
Publishers are constantly on the hunt for a good middle-grade stand-alone or series, so I’ve always felt that there’s more space for freedom when it comes to exploring different genres, concepts and settings for this younger child audience. Nevertheless, the number of middle-grade books that hit my submission inbox is fairly small, compared to YA.
If I had to come up with a theory to explain such discrepancy, I would point the finger at the general misconception that YA is the best and easiest genre to write for, if you have it in your mind that you want to write for a younger audience and you want a good chance at becoming a published (and successful) author.
This is due to the fact that some writers assume YA is the only category with the potential to cross into and blend with adult fiction. It may also feel a million times harder to capture the voice of a ten-year-old in an authentic way; not to mention the gap between the personal experiences of the writer compared to those of their audience.
The boom in submissions in 2020
If I were to analyse my submission pile right now, first I’d have to admit that it is slightly out of control! (Please bear with us agents when it comes to reading and replying to your submissions! Please don’t chase us, unless it’s to simply flag that you have interest elsewhere!)
Second, I’d have to say that the majority is on the YA side, a smaller portion is MG and the remaining ones are Picture Books. I don’t make a habit of signing picture books, so I’ll leave them out of this blog (the picture book category would take up a whole separate discussion anyway). That said, I would actually welcome more chapter books and middle-grade novels on the younger end of the age spectrum.
The trend towards fantasy fiction
As for genres, we have seen a surge of fantasy submissions across both YA and middle-grade. The reason for this requires some reflection.
In the first instance, I believe it is due to the fact that most of the biggest MG successes in the past year or two have been fantasy stories (think of Starfell or Nevermoor for example) and fantasy YA is always in fashion (the endless string of titles similar to The Mortal Instrument series are living proof).
We have seen a surge of fantasy submissions across both YA and middle-grade.
On top of that, I think we can safely assume that to a certain extent this is also due to an intrinsic need for escapism that comes from having lived almost a full year in the midst of a global pandemic, one lockdown after the other.
The voices and stories publishers are looking for
Publishers are always looking for that special book, regardless of genres and trends.
More specifically, currently, there’s certainly a bigger demand for funny stories, novels with an immediate hook and a unique selling point, underrepresented voices, #ownvoices; with MG being the biggest growth area. Plus, feel-good romance, on the YA side of things.
There’s certainly a bigger demand for funny stories, novels with an immediate hook and a unique selling point, underrepresented voices, #ownvoices
There will come the need to capture the experiences that the pandemic brought upon children. Nevertheless, at the moment, it’s a fair assumption that there’s a bigger need for hopeful, fun, entertaining and uplifting books, and especially witty stories. Humour is something that I rarely see in submissions – primarily because it’s incredibly difficult to achieve – and I would love to see more of it.
Tips for querying agents
Lastly, a few tips on how to successfully query agents:
Keep your email short and straight to the point; start with introducing yourself and why you’ve selected to submit to said agent; follow with a short elevator pitch and a couple of similar books to give us a taste of genre and tone.
One short paragraph with an enticing blurb and a short writing biography should come next. Don’t forget the attachments (three sample chapters and an outline of the full book), preferably in a word document, as most kindles or E-readers don’t read pdf well – and I must say that I much prefer a separate document than having to read the sample in the body of the email.
I am not a fan of spelling mistakes (then again, who is?), but I won’t be necessarily put off by a typo in my name, as much as I would be by books that are too long (for example, over 80,000 words for MG or over 100,000 words for YA) or by a query that lacks respect or humility.
I hope you’ll find this blog helpful. I’m so grateful for the opportunity The Novelry has given me to offer some thoughts to you, and I hope you will think of me when your manuscript will be ready for submission.