Success Story Interview - Karen Leigh Ansberry

An Interview with Karen Leigh Ansberry (kazoo66 on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Zoe Sandler of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Karen Leigh Ansberry:
My book was inspired by the true story of a circus elephant named Tillie, who lived in a suburb of my hometown of Cincinnati. After the circus was sold, Tillie remained in a barn on the property until her death in 1932. I started to write a picture book about her, but I realized it was not a very happy story. I thought, what if Tillie were alive today, and she had the opportunity to live out her golden years in a sanctuary? That would be a happy ending! So I wrote a middle grade novel about a shy girl named Willa Magill who discovers an ailing elephant hidden in the barn of her grandmother's mysterious neighbor. She must find her voice and the courage to save it before the elephant's condition gets any worse.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Karen Leigh Ansberry:
I've been a nonfiction writer for 20 years, co-writing a series of books for teachers published by the National Science Teaching Association Press (Picture-Perfect STEM Lessons: Using Children's Books to Inspire STEM Learning). I did not yet have an agent when I published my first picture book, Nature Did It First: Engineering Through Biomimicry (Dawn/Sourcebooks Kids, 2020).
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Karen Leigh Ansberry:
I started in the fall of 2020, during the pandemic. I began querying in January of 2023.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Karen Leigh Ansberry:
I never felt like giving up on my book. I knew that if I didn't publish traditionally that I would either find a small press or self-publish. But there were certainly times I wanted to give up on querying! What I found helpful was to send another small batch each time I received a few rejections, and to celebrate every single request. Querying is a roller coaster for sure.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Karen Leigh Ansberry:
I majored in biology, so I didn't have any formal writing training beyond lab reports and research papers— unless you count all those book reports and acrostic poems I did in grade school :)
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Karen Leigh Ansberry:
I have four kids and another job, so that doesn't leave much room for a routine. I write whenever I can. I did buy a nice stadium seat with a back which came in handy for writing during the long downtimes at swim meets and gymnastics competitions.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Karen Leigh Ansberry:
Too many to count!
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Karen Leigh Ansberry:
I definitely wouldn't try to publish a book without beta readers. I am in a middle grade critique group which has been awesome. I traded critiques with other writers that I found in Facebook groups and used a teen beta reader from I also asked some of my teacher friends to share early drafts with their students, which was super helpful.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Karen Leigh Ansberry:
My manuscript began as a picture book, so I already had a solid beginning, middle, and end. When I switched to middle grade I had a lot of filling in to do! In general, I am more of a pantser than a plotter.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Karen Leigh Ansberry:
I queried a few different versions of my middle grade manuscript for 12 months before I had my first agent call. I also queried a couple of picture books during the same time period.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Karen Leigh Ansberry:
I cast my net wide! According to my QT stats I sent out over 130 queries (but it felt like a thousand). I had 19 requests total for the various iterations of my book and I celebrated each and every one of them. I also had one R&R which led to my first offer.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Karen Leigh Ansberry:
The first thing I did was to make sure they were taking middle grade submissions. The dropdown menu on QT was very helpful for that. (Seriously, don't waste your time filling out the top of the QT form before you check the dropdown!) Then I looked at their MSWL's to see if my book aligned with what they were looking for.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Karen Leigh Ansberry:
When I started querying, I would begin each letter by mentioning how my book fit the agent's MSWL. Partway through the process I gave up on that, and it didn't seem to make much of a difference. I have a feeling agents read so many query letters that they tend to skip the fluff at the beginning and go straight to genre and word count. If I were starting over, I probably wouldn't worry as much about the personalization part. Just be sure to get the agent's name and preferred title correct!
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Karen Leigh Ansberry:
My advice for querying writers:
1. Get involved with the wonderful writing community.
2. Use beta readers and make sure your MS is polished before querying.
3. Use QueryTracker and query in batches.
4. Consider using any personalized feedback you get from rejections to strengthen your manuscript as you go.
5. Take care of yourself and keep on writing!

Query Letter:

WELCOME HOME, WILLA MAGILL is a 53,000-word middle grade contemporary novel inspired by a real-life circus elephant who lived in a Cincinnati neighborhood. It will appeal to readers who enjoy animal rescue stories such as Wildoak and The One and Only Ruby.

Eleven-year-old Willa’s anxiety and extraordinary shyness make ordinary life hard—and life after her parents’ divorce even harder. She copes by keeping her head in a book to avoid unfamiliar people and places, until her mother gets a new job halfway across the country. Willa, her mother, her sister, and her nonspeaking autistic brother travel to live with her grandmother in Ohio, and Willa is forced to face her greatest fear as she becomes the new kid at school. But the day before school starts, a homesick Willa makes a remarkable discovery: a lonely elephant hidden in the barn of Gran’s mysterious neighbor.

Willa learns that the elephant, a former circus performer named Hattie, is in poor health due to a lifetime of captivity. Sanctuary is Hattie’s only hope, but standing up to a disagreeable old man is not exactly in Willa’s playbook. And even if she found her voice to do that, she’d have to find an even louder voice to rally her community and raise the money for Hattie’s transport—before the elephant's condition becomes even worse.

After completing my biology degree, I interned at the Cincinnati Zoo, worked as a veterinary assistant, led children’s nature camps, earned a master’s in science education, taught elementary school, developed science curricula, and wrote for Science and Children magazine. I currently co-write a best-selling series for NSTA Press called Picture-Perfect STEM Lessons. My first picture book, Nature Did It First: Engineering Through Biomimicry (published by Dawn/Sourcebooks Kids), is a 2021 Skipping Stones Honor Award winner.

Thank you very much for your consideration.