A Cafe Chat with Literary Agent Kelly Dyksterhouse, by Berrie Torgan-Randall, and a Critique Giveaway (manuscript or illustration)

Our “Meet the Agency” webinar series, featuring Raven Quill Literary, begins this week and runs through the month of April. We’ll have four webinars led by four different agents from Raven Quill, and at the end of the series we’ll host a live virtual “Pitch Parlor” with the agents. For more information, including how to register for the webinars and sign up for a pitch session, go to https://epa.scbwi.org/events/webinar-series-meet-the-agency-rqla/.

Today on the EasternPennPoints blog, Berrie Torgan-Randall interviews our third presenter in the “Meet the Agency” webinar series, literary agent Kelly Dyksterhouse. Kelly will be presenting “Do You Feel What I See? An In-Depth Look at First Person Point-of-View” on April 21, 2022 at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time. We are also giving away a free critique for manuscript pages or illustrations by Kelly to one lucky reader, so be sure to check out the details at the end of this interview!

A Café Chat with Literary Agent Kelly Dyksterhouse

Berrie: Ahoy, Kelly! Welcome to the EasternPennPoints Café Chat. Today we will be paddling in a canoe—I noticed on your website that you love being on the water. I’ll steer since I’m going to be asking you questions, and you can paddle and enjoy the view. I have a bunch of cheesy water/sailing references in my interview—please forgive me. 

Kelly: Ah, I do love a good extended metaphor, particularly if it involves boats or water, so let’s set sail!

Berrie: In your Manuscript Wish List profile, it says you are hungry for author-illustrators. What would an author-illustrator such as myself need in a website or query letter that would make you “sail and then drop anchor” and what would make you “jump ship”? 

Kelly: Great question! If you’re an illustrator, I will absolutely want to see a link to your website in your query. I will always visit and poke around a bit, and hope to see something that causes me to linger and want to return. I think the best websites showcase a diverse portfolio—I want to see how an artist depicts people, settings, and animals. Given that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and that it’s an illustrator’s job to tell a story, that’s what I’m looking for—images that tell a story. Is there action, and if so, is it multilayered? Meaning, are the characters clearly depicted, and is there a hint of continuation/reaction—something that could carry over to another page? If it’s a closeup of a single person or an animal, I want information as to their personality, but I also want my curiosity stirred—What emotion are they feeling and why? What are they thinking? Something that makes me think I’d turn the page with them. If it’s of a setting, again, I want my curiosity stirred. I want to be invited in to explore. What’s down the path? Around the corner? Through the door? Or is it a place that stimulates the senses and makes me want to just sit and absorb the richness? If these things aren’t there, I move on.

Berrie: I noticed in your bio that you are attracted to nonfiction books that are connected to the natural world—bears seem to be your favorite animal in your PB examples. If you could go “forest bathing” anywhere in the world, where would it be, and why do you think being in nature is good for writing for children and young adults?  

Kelly: Bears! That’s so funny, but it caused me to look at my shelves, and you’re right. Lots of bear books. And dogs, and quite a few cats. Why aren’t there more foxes? We need more foxes. 

But, to your question, I love unplugged walks in the woods, and the importance of time outside is one of my most valuable takeaways from those early, isolating months of the pandemic. I also think time outside is absolutely integral to the creative process. It teaches us all—kids and adults—important things. It teaches us to observe, listen, and smell and gives us time to pause and process and question. As a society, we are so overcommitted and programmed to multitask. But when we give our minds the freedom to wander, it’s amazing the things we discover—about ourselves, the world, our friends and family, our characters, and our stories. I’m also a big fan of the afternoon coffee-nap.

Berrie: In your bio on your website, you talk about giving hope to a reader through stories. If you look through your spyglass, what does hope look and sound like to you in a PB, MG, YA, or a graphic novel? Given the slow nature of the publishing world, where books take a couple of years to get published, how can someone write about an event that demonstrates hope and that has a universal appeal. 

Kelly: I think we could all do with a little extra dose of hope right now. When I talk about the need for hope in children’s books, I usually mention one of my favorite quotes by C. S. Lewis, who said, “Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” 

One of life’s few guarantees is that there will be hardship, pain, and disappointment. I know it’s our instinct to want to protect our children from this, but the reality is that we can’t, so instead, we should be more focused on preparing them—giving them the tools to deal with dark times. It seems to me that hope is the confidence that we can survive hardships—physical, emotional, spiritual—and what better way to teach this than through story? 

In all books, I think this is done by creating characters who kids can see themselves in. And books don’t have to be all about struggle or darkness or have endings that wrap up all neat and tidy to show glimpses of hope. Hopeful stories can be filled with joy and celebrate strengths and identity. I think the big thing is introducing kids to complex characters who grow and who kids can identify with.

And I think that is the answer to the second part of your question, as well. No matter what the subject matter or the setting (current events, historical fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, etc.), the way to keep a book relevant is to create characters who readers can identify with and understand. 

Berrie: On your blog, you talk about the query letter as being similar to a job interview. Can you give an example of a book you acquired that had an amazing elevator pitch that was so well written that you immediately wanted to call that person and say, “Here is your contract”? 

Kelly: I don’t know that a query letter ever made me want to offer a person representation, but there have been some that absolutely made me request the full manuscript and to prioritize its read once it came in. 

My client, Kellye Crocker’s, query was that good. Polished, professional, and filled with the same amazing voice that permeates her book. I had a great sense right away of the sweet, funny, and beautifully flawed protagonist, Ava, and a solid picture of what she was up against in her story and the major themes the book incorporated. All from just a few sentences. The level of professionalism and polish in the query gave me confidence that the manuscript would also be polished, and it was. And from the voice of the query, I knew immediately that I was in for a funny ride with a character who was so very likeable—someone who I wanted to root for. The book is Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties, and it will be out in September 2022 from Albert Whitman & Co. Be on the lookout! 

Berrie: You have a lot of great quotes on your website. One quote that I keep tacked on my fridge is, “Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone” from Neale Donald Walsch. For me this means to always be open to trying something new, even if you think you won’t be good at it. Are there quotes that you live by? 

Kelly: That is a great quote! I may have to steal it. One quote I have taped above my computer is, “Only wish as hard as you’re willing to work,” from Rita Mae Brown. I think a lot of people fall into writing for children without fully understanding what it takes to do it well. (I know I did, way back when.) Maybe they buy into a sense of romanticism that we tend to build around beloved children’s books. But writing for children demands constant learning and devotion to craft, and that never goes away, no matter how many books you’ve written. Which flows into another of my favorite sayings, “Trust the process.” Each book is different, and therefore each book teaches you how to write it (hence the constant learning). The successful author is a person who strives after craft and humbly learns from each project.

Berrie: Okay, we have made it to the dock. While I’m tying the canoe, here is a lightning round of questions: 

Red sky at night or red sky in morning? Night!—Sailor’s delight. 

Low tide or high tide? Low—I love seeing the secrets the ocean has left behind.

Clam chowder—cream or red broth? Cream 100%. 

Walk on the beach or walk in the woods? Hmmmm. That’s tough. I live in the woods, so I get that all the time, which makes a beach much more novel. Here at the end of winter, I’ll say that a beach sounds pretty nice!

Berrie: Thank you, Kelly, for joining me on this cruise around the lake and for answering my questions. I look forward to one day having further industry-related conversations instead of being like two ships who met in the night.

Kelly: Thanks so much for having me! This was lots of fun, and I’m looking forward to seeing all the beautiful illustrations that come from EPA SCBWI artists!


Kelly Dyksterhouse grew up with a book always in her hands and a story always in her head. The important role that books played in her early years developed into a passion for children’s literature in her adult life. Kelly holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and got her start in agenting by working as an editorial reader and assistant at leading literary agencies. She considers the opportunity to help bring books into existence to be a great honor, and it is a particular joy for her to work alongside authors as they develop their project from idea to polished manuscript. The best feeling of all is when those manuscripts end up as books in the hands of children. Kelly will consider picture books (author-illustrators only), middle grade, and young adult, both fiction and nonfiction.


Webinar Information

April 21, 2022 at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time

DO YOU FEEL WHAT I SEE? An in-depth look at first person point-of-view with literary agent Kelly Dyksterhouse

First person point-of-view has become the predominant POV of choice in young adult novels and increasingly common in middle grade novels. It’s easy to understand its lure: writing directly from your character’s point of view can create a sense of intimacy and immediacy that invites the reader into the story world. However, writing in first person POV is not as simple as successful writers make it seem. In this talk, I’ll consider the pros and cons of first person POV, discuss pitfalls to avoid, and practical tips to employ to help you write a compelling and emotionally engaging story.

To register, please visit our registration page at https://epa.scbwi.org/events/webinar-series-meet-the-agency-rqla/.

Critique Giveaway

Eastern PA SCBWI is giving away a free written critique (middle grade, young adult, or illustration) with literary agent Kelly Dyksterhouse to one lucky Eastern PA SCBWI member! For MG or YA manuscripts, Kelly will critique up to 10 pages of your manuscript, plus a one-page single-spaced synopsis in the same document. For illustrations, Kelly will critique six or fewer portfolio-ready illustrations/sketches, medium resolution JPG.

To enter, please comment on this blog post before 9:00 p.m. Eastern time on Friday, April 8. We will choose the winner at random from those who comment. Must be a current Eastern PA SCBWI member to be eligible. Please include your full name as it appears in your SCBWI membership. If you’d like to comment on this blog post but not be entered to win (e.g., if you are not an Eastern PA SCBWI member or if you are not interested in a critique), simply state that along with your comment. Materials for the critique are due Friday April 22, 2022. The winner will be announced in the comments section of this blog post, so check back after the deadline to see if you’re our winner! Instructions for submitting materials will be sent to the winner. 

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4 Responses to A Cafe Chat with Literary Agent Kelly Dyksterhouse, by Berrie Torgan-Randall, and a Critique Giveaway (manuscript or illustration)

  1. Maria says:

    Thank you for sharing this and running this program!

  2. Melissa says:

    Thank you so much, Berrie and Kelly! I firmly believe in that C.S. Lewis quote, too!

  3. Dionna says:

    Great interview! Insightful and fun! Thanks for sharing, Kelly.

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