Remember me? It’s been ages. You might wonder where I’ve been. Well, I’ve been off launching my debut nonfiction picture book, WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane (illustrated by Tracy Subisak), which came out in February from Calkins Creek.
But I haven’t forgotten about Sub It Club. After all, it was the query letter for this book that landed me my agent and led to my first publishing contract.
So without further ado, let’s dissect my perfectly average query letter. (My comments in italics.)
I am querying you because of your interest in “lyrical, non-institutional picture book biographies” and your recent sales of Debbie Levy’s I DISSENT and Sarah Jane Marsh’s THOMAS PAINE AND THE DANGEROUS WORD.
[KWL: In this introductory paragraph, I show I’ve done my homework. I have studied the agent’s website to see what books she’s seeking, and I know what she’s recently sold, because I researched her deals on Publishers Marketplace. When I was querying, I paid for a one-month subscription to Publishers Marketplace for $25 and did all my research before canceling.]
I’m pleased to offer you my 850-word picture book biography of the first woman airplane designer, titled EMMA LILIAN TODD WOULD NOT GIVE UP. Even as a young girl, Emma Lilian Todd itched to transform tin, wire, and wood into her own inventions. When Lilian sees a crow circling overhead one day, she hatches a plan to build a bird-like airplane. In a time when men — and only men — are still learning the science of flight, Lilian hitches up her skirts and rolls up her sleeves, overcoming constant crashes and engine trouble until her airplane — and her dreams — soar. This book will appeal to fans of Barb Rosenstock’s meticulously researched picture book biographies, as well as ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER, a fiction picture book, which inspired this story.
[KWL: Instead of separating my “hook” and “book” paragraph (which I recommend BTW), I mushed them all together into one overly long paragraph. I made a mistake, and guess what, it was ok. The important information was there — word count (within range for a PB bio), as well as the genre/category. I also included a comp author and title, so the agent would understand the spirit of my work.]
I have additional nonfiction and fiction picture books available upon request, as well as a chapter book with STEM tie-ins.
[KWL: This is standard for a picture book. You query one PB at a time, but let the agent know you have other work available. If the agent likes the first manuscript, they will ask to see more, typically two more manuscripts. So don’t query until you have at least three perfectly polished PB manuscripts.]
I spent six years at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) before turning to children’s writing. I’ve written almost 20 books for the school and library market, nine of which will appear this year. I’m a member of SCBWI — Los Angeles.
[KWL: Because my book was about aviation, I wanted to include my connection to the topic, which is why I mentioned my career at NASA. I also cited my school and library nonfiction work. That experience, while not necessary to land a PB agent, shows that I’m used to working with editors, taking feedback, and meeting editorial deadlines. Finally, I noted my SCBWI membership to show my commitment to a career in children’s publishing. I also include a shoutout to my alma mater, which I deleted here, since I knew the agent and I went to the same college.]
I’ve attached my full manuscript below. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you. [KWL: I followed the submission directions!]
So how did I do with this query letter? I got really, really lucky. I was querying a women-in-STEM bio at a time the market was very hot. I sent this query to six agents over a couple of years, while simultaneously sending a STEM fiction PB to several more. This required I keep meticulous records in a spreadsheet so I knew which agent had which manuscript.
The first time I queried WOOD, WIRE, WINGS in 2014, my work was far from ready. I sent two agent queries and got one rejection and one non-response.
In 2016, my writing was much improved. I sent this query to four more agents. I got one rejection (on the query letter alone; the agent didn’t want the MS at first) and one “send me more work.” The senior agent I sent more work to decided she had too many similar clients and asked if she could refer me to an associate agent at the same agency who was building her list. Of course, I said yes!
When I received an offer of rep, I nudged all the agents who had either of my manuscripts. I didn’t hear back from most of them, but I did get a second offer.
So, the bottom line: I covered the basics in my query letter, but it really wasn’t magical. I had the right book at the right time. As long as you are following submission guidelines, paying attention to what agents want, and doing your best, small mistakes won’t sink you. Especially with picture books, agents will skim your query and maybe even read your manuscript first. Making sure your work is polished and ready to query is the most important thing.
WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane written by Kirsten Williams Larsen and illustrated by Tracy Subisak, is published by Penguin Random House.