LAUREN GARDNER Literary Agent at Bell Lomax Moreton: “I can’t wait to read the Junior Judges feedback on their shortlisted manuscripts and have them tell me what they loved – I’m excited to learn from them.”
We’re delighted to welcome Lauren Gardner as this year’s judge. Lauren is a literary agent for children’s authors at Bell Lomax Moreton where her list includes Katy Birchall, Lucy Powrie, Alesha Dixon and Alex Sheppard, alongside rising stars like Bath Children’s Novel Award shortlisted Emma Read.
Thank you for judging this year’s prize. What kind of manuscripts would you like to find within both middle grade and young adult?
Thank you so much for having me, I’m so thrilled to be this year’s judge and can’t wait to see what’s in store!
I think the thing I’m most excited about is not knowing what kind of manuscripts we might find and being blown away by something completely unexpected. But without wanting to tempt fate or be overly prescriptive, I would really hope to find some truly funny and laugh out loud manuscripts in MG and YA, both contemporary set and magical realism.
In MG, I’d love to find the next Dork Diaries or Tom Gates – a witty, fast, character driven read is always top of my list, especially if it’s celebrating funny girls and boys.
I’d also love to find a really classic, swoony teen/YA romance – something in the style of Judy Blume, Meg Cabot or Holly Bourne, with the high school setting and humour of something like Sex Education, or the secret diaries of a young Fleabag.
I’m always looking for MG or YA manuscripts that can change the way young readers think about the world around them, and utilise themes such as social justice, diversity, environmental issues and feminism, to speak to the real life concerns that young readers have. I want to see more inclusion of diverse aspects of contemporary life across MG in particular, and would like to see younger LGBQT+ characters represented here.
How important is the first page and do you have any page one no-no’s?
This is a great question and a tough one to answer – the first page is pretty important as it’s the first opportunity we have to experience the author’s narrative voice, we’ll likely meet our first character, and discover the first few bread crumbs of plot that are going to make us want to turn over to page two. But I’ve never been so put off by a first page that I have immediately put the submission down and not picked it back up again. A first page is like a front cover, you might think a book is for you because you’re drawn to the colour of the typography, love the illustration, and are intrigued by a review quote from another author you like, but you’ll still need to read it to know for certain.
Any synopsis tips?
Give me ALL the spoilers! I think sometimes people view their synopsis as more of a pitch or blurb for their book – they don’t want to ruin the surprise or any shocking plot twists, so they hold things back to keep the mystery going. But I absolutely need to know if aliens are going to take over the school or if the evil twin turns out not to be so evil after all, so please, please, please tell me everything in your synopsis and keep the suspense and teasing for your manuscript. Also keep the major beats of your narrative front of mind when writing your synopsis – there might be a really lovely secondary narrative with the family dog swallowing Nan’s false teeth, but if you find yourself getting too bogged down in the details of your plot, it might be time to trim down and prioritise the details. Visualising this often helps, so try plotting a map or chart of your key action/emotional plot beats or any big twists and character reveals, and check to see if they have all made it into your synopsis.
How important is the title?
It’s pretty important in the sense that it’s the very first thing about your MS that a reader will ever see and often form their first impressions on. A title can tell me what your book might be about (The House With Chicken Legs), or entice me to want read more if it’s a mysterious title (The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day), and even better if it does both (The Girl Who Speaks Bear). I’m also a BIG fan of a title pun (Peril en Pointe). BUT, I always tell the authors I represent to never get too attached to a title because it can always change, and often does! I’m sure Emma Read won’t mind me sharing that her BCNA shortlisted debut started out life as Milton Hits The Headlines, before he transformed into Milton The Mighty.
You’re a fan of ‘books with heart’ – can you break that down?
I’ll do my best – for me, a book with heart is a book that manages to find a way to stay with you after you’ve finished it. They pack big emotional punches, alongside moments of laugh out loud silliness or breath stealing wonder. They aren’t afraid to tackle difficult themes or hold up a mirror to the reader that makes them question the world around them. It might be a particular character, a form of magic, a changed opinion, or a recurring smile at a funny scene, but something from that book has worked its way into your heart and is staying there.
What books have made you cry or belly laugh?
Anything that Louise Rennison has ever written will always have me belly laughing in an instant. I genuinely believe she plagiarised my teenage life in Angus Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging. Georgia is a character that will forever have a place in my heart and I really, really hope that somewhere out there she is still wearing really big knickers, snogging sex gods and laughing like a loon on loon tablets.
I also recently read I Am Thunder by Muhammad Kahn and was blown away by the protagonist Muzna. She is a complex, warm, messy, thunderstorm of teenage angst – she feels smothered by her parents and invisible to the rest of the world. She’s searching for her identity against a backdrop of racism and radicalization, and it’s a powerful coming of age story driven by a call for hope and standing up for your beliefs. I laughed, cried and rooted for Muzna from the first page and it’s stayed with me for a long time – completely electric.
How do you feel about Junior Judges choosing the shortlist?
I feel so excited about the Junior Judges choosing the shortlist – it’s one of the most brilliant things about the BCNA. As much as I love reading children’s fiction and think I know what a young reader will like, it’s been a long time since I was in their shoes. With so many adult gatekeepers in the industry, I think it’s really important that we remember who exactly we’re writing and publishing books for and ask young readers what they want from a book, rather than making those decisions for them. I can’t wait to read the Junior Judges feedback on their shortlisted manuscripts and have them tell me what they loved – I’m excited to learn from them.
Tell us about your (children’s fiction) client list…
I represent authors from young fiction through to Teen/YA and I have a particular soft spot for MG and Teen. My list is quite varied; you’ll find everything from sky pirates and tiny spider warriors, to superheroes, demi-gods and a teenage witch or two.
At first glance, I think the authors and books on my list look very different, but when you read them understand that they all have similar threads running through them – you can see the humour and heart, a focus on family and friendships, strong, high concept ideas, and an awareness of real world concerns and issues.
How hands on are you editorially?
I am very hands on editorially, it’s without a doubt the thing I love most about agenting and I consider it to be one of the most important parts of my working relationship with an author. For me to be able to go out there and represent their MS to a publisher, I need to know the bones of it inside and out, have conversations in my head with the characters in the same way that my author does, and have fallen in and out of love with it several times over.
There’s no one size fits all rule for the draft to submission process, but usually we’ll go through two drafts and a final line edit before pitching to publishers. Sometimes manuscripts don’t do what you tell them to or life happens, so it’s always about what works best for the MS and for the author. I’ve also been known to supply Mini Eggs and Haribo to enable a tricky edit to come in on time – sugar makes everything better and hands type faster.
You represent four Bath Children’s Novel Award shortlisted authors – can you say a little about why you signed them?
I’m so lucky to have had the opportunity to meet and now represent four amazing BCNA shortlistees.
I signed the brilliant Emma Read (and Milton), because they both completely stole my heart from the very first page, if you want to read a book with heart, then Milton the Mighty is absolutely it! You’ll laugh and cry and laugh some more and you’ll never, ever squash a spider ever again, just in case it’s your own friendly, eight-legged superhero!
Reading about a teenage boy having to extract a Sainsbury’s carrier bag from his dog’s bum in front of the girl he has the BIGGEST crush on might be an odd thing to say is the reason you signed someone, but as soon as I’d stopped laughing I knew that I wanted to represent the hilarious Tasha Harrison and her teen comedic hero Rolo. Tasha’s comedic timing is flawless and reminded me instantly of the great Sue Townsend and her own awkward hero Adrian Mole.
I remember reading the elevator pitch for E.J Whiston’s Me Two and being so struck by the concept of one girl inhabiting two bodies in different timezones, that I couldn’t wait to read the MS in full. It was no surprise to find out that the author Elizabeth used to work in advertising – she has an uncanny ability to craft an entire world around a high concept twist and make it so believable, that you genuinely can’t tell fact from fiction.
My nephew is obsessed with Minecraft and also loves to read – I was looking for an author that could combine the gaming tech and language with the action and epic world building. Luckily for me Scott Bain was thinking exactly along those lines and his book Bright Targets is going to appeal to boys and girls who love the world of gaming, but place them in the centre of the action in a young Jack Reacher high stakes adventure.
Any other advice for entrants?
Take the plunge and actually submit, nothing bad is going to happen from you sending your entry in. It might feel like the most terrifying thing in the world but it’s such a good first step to take. Even if you don’t place, you’ve still prepared a submission package, spoken about your MS out loud, and pushed yourself to commit to taking that first step. That’s a huge achievement in itself and one you should be proud of.
Interview: Caroline Ambrose, June 2019
The Bath Children’s Novel Award 2019 is open for entries from 17 June until 17 November, full details here