Deirdre Power, Assistant Agent for Caroline Walsh of David Higham Associates, set and judged the April 2024 Slush Pile Challenge.


 Deirdre Power


Deirdre’s challenge was that she wanted to see the “First chapter, pitch and synopsis for tween/early teen novels in any genre, aimed at a core readership of 10 to 14-year-olds. I’d especially love to see contemporary/realistic fiction but am open to anything aimed specifically at this age group.”



We received 24 entries from members across the British Isles and Europe for this competition. Deirdre read all of the submissions. This is what Deirdre told us when announcing the results:



“After an incredibly tough decision, the winner I’ve chosen is Nightingale Academy by Rebecca Rouillard. I was hugely impressed by the pitch and the author’s positioning of the work in between two prominent authors working in the same space – one slightly younger and one older, so this emerged as a really obvious bridge for them, which is a really clever way to pitch a book, and gave me such a clear sense of the author’s vision for this story.


As an opening, it’s really strong – it sets up a lot of intrigue, even parts of life that seem normal to the protagonist are interesting enough to raise a lot of questions in the reader and I really wanted to keep reading to get a better sense of this world and how it works, which is a great achievement for an opening chapter. I really liked how full this world felt, how rich and detailed, and I could already see the rest of the world unfolding alongside the plot, which is a great thing to be able to see for the first chapter. I love murder mysteries, especially for this age group and I think the tone is important in setting the stage for them – it’s so clear that the author has a really solid idea of where they want to go and what they want to convey.


There’s also a lot of focus on friendships and relationships, and how these change as we move into our teen years – I think for me, that’s a huge aspect for writing for this tween group, and I love that the author has worked it in without sacrificing the plot and its momentum. I also really admire the work that’s gone into making this an organically inclusive and diverse text.


All in all, my philosophy is that the job of the first chapter is to make the reader want to keep reading. I think this had so much detail that I wanted to know more about and I found it so easy to be in the protagonist’s head.


My runner-up was Doodle Squad by Louise Scott-McKie. I really enjoyed the pitch of this – the vision for it is clear right from the beginning, and it feels like a fresh take on something more traditional, being the pain of growing up and those awkward in-between years. It combines that with a great sense of humour and a slight wackiness in how the story is set up.


The voice is also so accessible and easy to read; I really felt like I was in a teenager’s head, and it was so easy to care about the main character. There was the perfect balance of angst and humour in the voice, and this really lovely sense of pace and atmosphere rolled into it. A great pitch with a really strong sense of the tone and the beginnings of the chaos that’s about to ensue is dropped in with care and nuance, displaying a really good handle on the craft. This was a really polished package that I flew through.


Notes on the submissions – most of these were impressive, so I was keen to pick an entry that I felt was working more in that tween space specifically. For me, what sets these apart from middle-grade stories is the incorporation of growing up and the process of ordinary life looking different as well as the main adventure. Some of them did this really well and had a great way of blending this into the backdrop of the main characters’ lives. Some felt to be much more core middle grade, and while they were really strong in terms of premise and writing, I couldn’t see why I would be positioning them that bit older. Despite this, I thought a lot of the submissions showed a really strong understanding of the age group they were writing about, had really tapped into something about being that age – which is really difficult to pull off – and I was hugely impressed by the effort that went into that. I also loved the wide range of locations and time periods that I got to read, which was hugely exciting.


As I’ve said, I think the main job of the first chapter is to give the reader just enough to make them want to keep going, so first chapters that are heavy on information and require a lot of processing for the reader can sometimes seem less accessible; don’t be afraid to hold back some info until it’s really effective to drop it in. With voice, the main thing for me is to be consistent and allow the personality to shine through – everything from cadence and rhythm to word choice can be so important, and the strongest submissions have clearly thought about that and worked on their craft to get that across.”



Congratulations to Rebecca Rouillard from all of us at Words & Pictures. We hope you are well on your way towards getting your writing published.


Well done to Louise Scott-McKie for being placed as a runner-up.


Thanks to everyone who entered. Keep writing and we hope you will be encouraged to try your hand at appropriate competitions.



Deirdre Power started her career at Curtis Brown as an assistant, and since then she’s worked in children’s editorial at Simon & Schuster and Usborne Publishing. She joined David Higham Associates in January 2023 to assist Caroline Walsh on her phenomenal list. Prior to working in publishing, Deirdre attended Trinity College Dublin for a BA in English Studies and an MPhil in Children’s Literature.


David Higham Associates is one of the leading agencies for writers in the world, managing the careers of authors and screenwriters across all genres in all markets. They have nearly 50 staff working in their modern Soho office across the main departments of Books, Film, TV & Stage, Translation Rights and Accounts.




Elaine Cline has been a SCBWI member for over eight years and loves to write picture books, chapter books and middle-grade. She loves writing about food. She lives by the sea and has a dog and a cat. Elaine is a member of the Words & Pictures' editorial team, managing The Slush Pile Challenge for writers. Connect with Elaine on Twitter: @elaineccline


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