Erin Murphy: A Most-Marvelous Kidlit Agent
Phil first reached out to me in late 2010, on referral from my client Chris Barton, and we signed together in early 2011. What was then called THE TRASHCAN WIZARD was one of the manuscripts he sent when he queried me.
What did you love about the manuscript--the writing, the main character, the narrative, the voice, the setting?
I loved the setting and learning about the real person the story focuses on, but in those days, the writing was quite different and the text quite long (about 1500 words), and it included a lot of stuff at the beginning about Cornelius as a child before we got to the part where he was the Trashcan Wizard. One of the things Phil and I worked on together early on was pushing his nonfiction, in general, to reflect more of his exuberant, dramatic personal voice, and to read more like story and less like reporting. The nonfiction market was changing in this direction at the time, and we’re seeing the full fruit of that in the dynamic nonfiction picture books hitting shelves now, for sure!
Phil and I focused on other projects for a stretch, and then in early 2012, he wrote to me that while visiting with the author-illustrator LeUyen Pham, they’d talked about this manuscript (which she’d seen in early draft), and she suggested taking it in a direction inspired by SONG AND DANCE MAN by Karen Ackerman (illustrated by Stephen Gammell). “The lightbulb went on,” Phil said. With that “fresh lens,” as he put it, he focused, revised, and gave it more rhythm and dance, and sent me a version that was closer to 600 words. When I read it, I knew he’d had a huge breakthrough. The writing just sparkled, and that’s my favorite part about this book now, that great tall-tale voice, the way the story sings.
Why did you choose to submit this manuscript to Melissa Manlove at Chronicle Books and why were you pleased she acquired it?
As Phil and I began working together, I reached out to many editors he knew from previous books and from publishing networking, in addition to introducing him to new ones. This submission was a little of both: He knew Ginee Seo, who had moved to Chronicle, and I sent it to her. Ginee suggested Melissa would be a perfect match for it, and it happened at the same time I was in the process of beginning to correspond and chat with Melissa, just getting to know her and her list and sending submissions her way. I sold Melissa Deborah Underwood’s INTERSTELLAR CINDERELLA about a month before she took Phil’s manuscript to an acquisitions meeting, and soon I was seeing the brilliance that is Melissa Manlove up close as she worked with both of these clients and their texts. She really is incredibly talented at what she does, and Chronicle has done an amazing job of marketing the book as well.
How pleased were you with the selection of John Parra as the book's illustrator?
I literally could not have been more pleased. I knew his work was going to be terrifically fun and folky, and reflect the spirit of the text I loved so much. It totally surpassed those expectations. (Yet another thing Melissa Manlove and the Chronicle team are brilliant with: Matching text and illustrators!)
Why would you like to see this book in the hands and hearts of countless children?
Oh, so many reasons! I think in the U.S., we tend to ignore or belittle the people who work mostly behind the scenes, when the truth is that we depend on those people for our safety and comfort. I love that we’re focusing on a garbage man here--a regular guy, doing his very best. I love that we get a glimpse of the person behind the role, and that he chose to make every day a celebration--something else that all of us could learn from. I love that he looks like a giant, with stars and rays behind him, on the cover of the book, shining as an example to all. I love that the story was born out of Phil’s volunteer efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, out of the personal connections he made there, out of Cornelius’s own resilience, and out of the good things that emerged after great tragedy. (I’m a huge believer in fostering resilience in children, and I think examples of others being resilient can be powerful.)
And as Phil has shared, I love that there are classroom connections to be made here, giving the book even more life--both in studying Katrina and in examining this book as an example of a tall tale, showing kids how to see stories in the everyday things around them. I hope it inspires many of them to value writing and story and perhaps grow up to be writers themselves…or at least live their lives in a way that notices the tiny moments that make up the flow of the years.
Erin Murphy founded her eponymous agency in Flagstaff in 1999. The focus at EMLA is not just on shepherding books to publication, but on building careers—and creating a sense of community, as well. Before becoming a literary agent, Erin was editor-in-chief at a Flagstaff (Arizona) publishing company that produced children’s books as well as adult lifestyle and art titles with a regional focus.