I was looking over the list of my past and upcoming projects, and I realized that a very good chunk of them fit into at least one and sometimes more of these subject categories:
Fairy Tales: The Legend of the Wandering King; A Curse Dark as Gold; Heartsinger; The Red Bird; The Pirate Princess and Other Fairy Tales
Religion, Religious Faith, or Religious Questions: The Book of Everything; The Light of the World: The Life of Jesus for Children; Marcelo in the Real World; Crossing to Paradise; The Pirate Princess and Other Fairy Tales; Eighth-Grade Superzero (by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, forthcoming Spring 2010); The Last Summer of the Death Warriors (by Francisco X. Stork, Spring 2010); StarCrossed (by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Fall 2010)
Activism on Behalf of Others: Marcelo in the Real World; Operation Yes (by Sara Lewis Holmes, Fall 2009); Eighth-Grade Superzero; The Light of the World: The Life of Jesus for Children; My Senator and Me: A Dog's Eye View of Washington, D.C.
School Stories: Operation Yes; Eighth-Grade Superzero; Happy School Year!; Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) (by Lisa Yee, with illustrations by Dan Santat, Fall 2009); Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time
Uptight Young Women Who Learn to Loosen Up: Millicent Min, Girl Genius; A Curse Dark as Gold; The Singer of All Songs; Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit; Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness; I Now Pronounce You Someone Else (by Erin McCahan, Summer 2010); The Young Anthropologist's Guide to High School (working title; by Joanna Pearson, Spring 2011)
This is by no means all of the books I've edited (and even this list here is out of date), and many of those not listed above fall far from these categories. . . . Fast Food, for instance, is just pure veggie fun. But I will admit that those categories are a pretty good representation of subjects I love and think about a lot, or that resonate with my own life experience: stories, especially love stories, and how they are told; the power of religion and religious faith, for both good and ill; the responsibilities we as human beings have to one another, and the way we can make a difference in each other's lives; school as a setting; and -- yeah, being uptight and learning to relax. (I suppose if I made it "Uptight Young People," Marcelo might go in there too, sort of.)
This would mostly be a curiosity for me -- "Hey, look, it's my brain, as seen in my list!" -- but I'm sharing it here because I think this is one dimension of what we editors mean when we tell agents and writers to look at our list and see if their mss. are right for us. . . . We're encouraging them to look for these thematic patterns in what we publish, and, if their work fits into one of those patterns, to share it with us. This is absolutely NOT entirely or exclusively what we mean or want to see: We generally mean for writers to look more at the literary style of the list, at the sorts of writing and illustration we publish, and to try to judge whether their work fits into that. The fact that stories about uptight young women resonate with my personal experience does not mean I don't want to acquire another terrific middle-grade from a male point of view, because I really, really do; and it doesn't mean I wouldn't be a good editor for such a middle-grade, because I think I have been and would be again.
But those thematic patterns, if you can figure them out, allow you a way to fine-tune your submission to certain editors -- to say, "I notice from Book X and Book Y and Book Z that you seem to love stories set in South America; here's my picture book ms. about Venezuela," and perhaps then to make a stronger connection than you would have with just a general query. When Olugbemisola queried me about Eighth-Grade Superzero, for instance, she praised Millicent Min as "painfully funny," which meant a lot to me because it meant she hadn't just read Millie and thought "ha ha" at the character's cluelessness; she got the deeper level of pain there, and she valued it too, which meant that she shared my interest in emotional depth and realistic complication. Superzero reflects that general literary interest as well as all the subject interests listed above (as well as being great in numerous other ways I will talk about in coming months).
With that said, this is a strategy that is somewhat prone to pitfalls, because:
- Not everything an editor edits is his or her choice to do so, so if Books X, Y, and Z were all assigned or inherited from another editor, or done for reasons besides editorial passion, the editor in question might shout, "ANOTHER South American story? HEAVEN GRANT ME PATIENCE!" and reject it summarily;
- Your speculations could be wrong, in which case the editor would think you're a nutjob for discerning such a "pattern";
- Just because an editor has published books about Subject Q does not mean they'll like your ms. about Subject Q. Or the last book they published on Subject Q might not have done so well, or they may have three more books loosely tied to Subject Q lined up in the near future (For instance, at this point, I am clearly well provided for uptight-young-women manuscripts; I could use a cheerful hoyden or two, like Maybe from the eponymous Absolutely.);
- These subjects are all hugely general (The Book of Everything is the most atheistic text I ever expect to see in a children's book, at least until Christopher Hitchens writes one, while The Light of the World is a biography of Jesus, but they both fall under Religion), and
- The patterns can be hard to figure out anyway, unless you're the editor in question.