Q&A with Bath Children’s Novel Award Judge Sallyanne Sweeney

Sallyanne Sweeney grew up in Dublin and studied English at Trinity College before completing an MPhil in American Literature at Queens’ College, Cambridge. After graduating she joined Watson, Little Ltd, becoming a Literary Agent in 2008 and a Director of the company in 2011. She joined Mulcahy Associates in 2013 and is building her list of fiction and non-fiction authors for children and adults, as well as a small number of picture book illustrators. Passionate about working with debut authors, her fiction tastes are wide-ranging, from the literary to the very commercial.


What are you hoping to find in The Bath Children’s Novel Award‘s inaugural entry pile?

I would love to find something that I feel I haven’t seen before; a story that sweeps me up in its world and characters and makes me forget about everything else. I’ve always got a huge reading pile and it’s the most exciting part of my job when a manuscript is so compelling that it feels like pleasure rather than work.

Our word count is open for the competition. What would you recommend for chapter books, middle grade and YA novels?

I’d recommend 6-10,000 words for a chapter book, 40-60,000 words for middle grade and 50-70,000 words for YA. Fantasy novels are usually on the longer side (think HARRY POTTER and ERAGON etc). I think it’s useful to keep these numbers in mind but really, a book should be as long as it should be (if that makes sense!), and there are always exceptions to the guidelines. If your manuscript is on the long side though, make sure it’s as tight and pacey as it can possibly be as you’ll often find there is room to make cuts. Similarly, if your manuscript is very short, look at your character and plot development.

What makes a manuscript shine out to you?

Initially, the voice will either hook me in or leave me cold. After that, it’s strong, engaging (but not necessarily likeable) characters and a plot that’s tightly constructed and surprises. I want to feel that confidence and sense of purpose from the author from the opening pages, and love to be taken on an unexpected journey by a story. I’m also looking to be moved in some way by a manuscript – whether that’s laughing out loud or sobbing at my desk (preferably both!). I think books are sold on passion, so if I don’t feel anything for the characters or story, I don’t think I’m the right agent for it.

Which recent children’s novels made you laugh or cry?

rooftoppersI adored ROOFTOPPERS by Katherine Rundell – it was magical, charming and very poignant. Liz Pichon’s TOM GATES was the funniest book I’ve read in a long time and also had tons of heart. In terms of YA, can any novel make you cry as much as John Green’s THE FAULT IN OUR STARS? I made the foolish mistake of reading it on a plane. eleanor parkELEANOR AND PARK by Rainbow Rowell was also incredibly moving, with real, flawed characters you rooted for.

Who are your favourite children’s authors of all time?

matildaGrowing up, I was the biggest Roald Dahl fan. I think he does such a fantastic job of not writing ‘down’ to children. I re-read MATILDA recently and it was even funnier than I remembered. Judy Blume manages the perfect tone for whatever readership she writes for and I think still resonates with children because of how she explores difficult issues with humour, warmth and sensitivity. I also love Meg Rosoff – not one word is wasted in her novels, and the voice grabs you from the opening sentence and doesn’t let you go.

What’s the best part of agenting?

Finding a really special manuscript in the submissions pile is so exciting, but I think the very best part is matching a debut author with the perfect publisher, and sharing that good news with the author. I love that every day is different as an agent – I really enjoy the editorial process of working closely with an author, sometimes over several drafts, but also get satisfaction out of negotiating the best contract terms for clients, and in pitching their books to publishers around the world. I still get a thrill from seeing finished copies of manuscripts I’ve worked on too.

Tell us about the last children’s book you took on?

The last children’s author I took on from our unsolicited submissions was a young picture book author called Simon Philip. Great picture book texts are hard to find, but Simon’s I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO CALL MY CAT blew me away with how funny, smart and charming it was. It will be published by Simon & Schuster next year.

What do you look for in a synopsis?

I know authors, both new and established, worry about the synopsis – they’re not easy to write. I think the sample chapters are much more important though and really, the synopsis is just to illustrate what your book is about, what happens in the story. I prefer one-page at most and am happy for it to read like a book blurb, or be a straightforward plot overview.

Lastly any other advice for our entrants?

Write the book that only you can write and read over everything before submitting – a break between edits can be helpful. Good luck!

KBNA Trophy 2015The Bath Children’s Novel Award 2017 will be open to entries from 2 May  until 19 November 2017