AGENTS AND EDITORS NEED TO ADVERTISE THEIR INTEREST IN DIVERSITY
That's the brilliant idea. (And I wish it was mine, but full credit to literary agent Adriana Dominguez (Full Circle Literary), who brought this up in discussion with me and my agent, Danielle Smith (Red Fox Literary) at the LGBTQ Chat at SCBWI's 2014 Summer Conference in Los Angeles.
To achieve more diversity in the world of Children's and Teen literature (a goal so many of us believe in - cue the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement), publishing gatekeepers (agents and editors and art directors and publishers) need to do more than just be 'open' to diverse characters and themes, authors and illustrators. They need to get the word out that they are looking for, and want, diverse stories and creators.
This series is an effort to do just that.
For now, we’re focusing on agents, because to get more diverse books published, editors need to get more diverse books submitted to them by agents. And to have more diverse books to submit to editors, agents need to see more diversity in the submissions they get from writers and illustrators.
I'll interview each literary agent about their take on and interest in diversity in children's and teen literature, and they'll get to share what they love, what they're looking for, and why diversity in children's and teen literature is important to them.
Today's post features agent Jennifer Laughran of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
|Agent Jennifer Laughran|
Here's her bio:
Jennifer Laughran is a Senior Agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She began her career as a long-time children's bookseller, event coordinator and buyer for one of the largest independent bookstores in the country, and joined Andrea Brown Literary Agency in 2007. She splits her time between NYC and the Hudson Valley of New York, where she resides in a book-stuffed cottage run by a fiendishly clever corgi.
And our interview:
Lee: Hi Jennifer!
Jennifer: Ahoy, Lee!
Lee: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk about your interest in Diversity in Children's and Teen Literature!
Jennifer: No no thank YOU.
Lee: There's been growing discussion about how the 5,000 or so traditionally published books a year don't reflect the actual diversity of our world, including the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement and the stunningly low numbers of representation revealed in "Children's Books by and about People of Color Published in the United States," put out by the CCBC (The Cooperative Children's Book Center)
To start us off, of the submissions you get, let's say in the past year, how many of those projects included some kind of diversity of characters or theme?
Jennifer: Maybe... 5%? I'm guessing. I can say that since the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign there's been an uptick, but diverse queries still represent a relatively tiny percentage of my queries, and many of the queries that claim "diverse" status are really for stories with only peripheral diversity.
I'm actively looking for diversity in both the stories and authors I read and represent. Writers from marginalized groups are encouraged to query. Diversity is hugely important to me, and I really want to have a list that reflects ALL kinds of perspectives. That means (and I'm gonna go ahead and put this in bold too):
I am MUCH more likely to read further, to spend more time, and really to give a story more of a chance to wow me if it has diverse themes.
Despite that -- I still don't see nearly enough stories that are both diverse (yay!), and also that resonate with me and I feel like I have to make them one of the 3-4 new authors I take on a year. That isn't because those stories aren't out there, btw! I think part of it may be, writers from marginalized groups might be most likely to "self reject" - perhaps they aren't querying agents at all, or they just aren't querying ME. Maybe they'll start?
The other thing, too, is -- just cause I am begging for diverse books, that doesn't mean that I am going to TAKE ON everything diverse I am sent. People get mad at me sometimes, like "Hey, you asked for diversity, and I sent it to you, and you rejected me!"-- but real talk: 8,000+ queries a year vs 3/4 new clients a year? I reject MOST things. I'm going to continue to reject most things. But I'd love a wider, deeper and even more interesting pool to choose from. And my rejecting something doesn't mean it sucks... it just means I don't have the time or energy (or the passion to MAKE the time or energy) to deal with it, or I don't see a clear way that I can be useful to the author.
Err... tl;dr: I don't know, but I'd say approximately 5%
Lee: I loved that answer - passionate and real. I read it all! But let's unpack that a bit: Are you seeing many stories featuring protagonists of color?
Jennifer: Some, but not nearly enough. I am much more likely to get a PoC from the "white friend" perspective -- for example, I have had several recent queries about subjects like school integration from the perspective of a white child witnessing the issue. I definitely don't want to tell people that that is a BAD thing to want to write about, or that their perspective isn't valid... it's just a perspective I've read a lot before.
I also see a lot of what I'd consider surface level explorations of kinda tired tropes, like "high achieving Asian teen with super overbearing mother" -- that isn't to say that those teens (and those moms!) aren't out there - but again, it's a familiar story and doesn't quite stand out if there isn't more to it than that. I'm more likely to be interested if the book has a super-fun or compelling hook that takes reader expectations and flips them, or comes at an already well-explored theme or subject from an entirely fresh angle.
A few of my favorite authors of color: On the realistic side, Kekla Magoon, Coe Booth, Rita Williams-Garcia are great examples; on the fantasy side, Malinda Lo and Nnedi Okorafor, if that gives you the sense of the level of writing I'm talking about wanting to see.
Lee: How about LGBTQ characters, and please break that down - are you seeing lesbian characters? gay? bi? trans*? questioning? queer or gender non-conforming?
Jennifer: Maybe a few LGB a month, though I see VERY little on the "T-Q-I" part of the spectrum - maybe a few a year.
The majority of LGBTQI queries I get are from the perspective of the straight girl best friend with a sassy gay boy sidekick, or are extremely depressing or very brutal coming out/bashing stories, and/or they are set in the late 80's/early 90's, probably reflecting the age of the author. I can sympathize, that's how old I am, too! But I'm sorry to say that many of these narratives feel dated and stale. Whenever I see something that is LGBTQI-but not-any-of-these, I definitely perk right up!
A recently sold book is GEORGE, an absolutely AMAZING middle grade I am so beyond thrilled about, I can't wait to share it with the world. GEORGE is about a girl whom the world identifies as a boy, but who decides she needs to tell the truth about herself when she loses out on the role of Charlotte in her fourth-grade production of Charlottes Web. GEORGE will be coming out (so to speak) in Fall 2015, from Scholastic. The author Alex Gino worked on this for years, and I personally went back and forth with them working on the book for another whole year, but the end result was well worth the time and hard work on their part. I sold the book within 12 hours of sending it out, and the publisher is very excited about it!
Lee: How about characters with disabilities?
Jennifer: Again... not nearly enough! My favorite book that I didn't rep (though my agency colleague Caryn Wiseman did) last year was EL DEAFO -- that's a great example of the kind of book I love, where disability is certainly important (hell, it's in the title) -- but it is never condescending or didactic feeling at all.
I do see lots of manuscripts with characters on the Autism spectrum or with diagnoses like Bipolar disorder; far fewer with characters that have physical disabilities. Like.... virtually none that I can think of in recent years, actually. (I'm sure there have been some! Just few enough that I can't remember.)
Lee: How about the creators? Are you seeing under-represented writers and illustrators submitting to you?
Jennifer: I couldn't say, of course, I don't make people take a survey or anything when they query me. But based on the query letters alone and what authors choose to disclose to me, and just sort of somewhat-educated guessing, I'd say that probably at least half of the already VERY small number of diverse narratives I see are not written by people who share the diversity of their manuscript, shall we say.
Lee: There's a lot of discussion about who has the 'right' to tell the story of an under-represented type of character. What's your take?
Jennifer: I would hate to tell anyone they don't have the RIGHT to tell a story from a point of view not their own. I mean, hello, we wouldn't have MOST great books if the authors didn't stretch out of their own lives for their subject matter. Authors need to write the stories that compel them. That said, if they are writing outside their own experience, they'd damn sure better do plenty of research, listening, and have their empathy powers on full blast.
Lee: Empathy powers on full blast - I want that on a T-shirt! When you're submitting projects to editors, do you think stories with under-represented characters take more 'selling' on your part?
Jennifer: I think that most editors of my acquaintance are, like myself, very much seeking diverse storylines, especially as the "We Need Diverse Books" movement has really started to take root. I mean... don't get me wrong - ALL books take a fair amount of work to sell. But my list-of-diverse-titles and my list-of books-that-took-a-long-time-to sell don't seem to overlap too much.
Lee: I often feel the sense of ‘otherness’ is transferable. That from my own experiences being marginalized (for being Gay, being ill as a teen, being Jewish, being an Atheist, etc…) I feel tremendous empathy for people who are marginalized for other kinds of ‘otherness’ as well.
Can you share what’s driving your desire to see more diversity in Children’s and Teen books?
Jennifer: I'd like the books on the shelves to more accurately reflect the beauty of the world. We don't live in Leave It To Beaver-land, and I wouldn't want to. Stories are a huge way that kids learn both who THEY are, and how to have empathy for others. As Mitali Perkins talked about in her memorable BEA speech - books can act as both Mirrors and Windows. If we don't have books that both reflect the readers own experience AND allow the reader to experience what the world is like for people who are different then them, we fail.
Lee: Tell us about some books that highlighted or included diversity that you loved and that inspired you (maybe even ones you wish you represented).
Jennifer: OK - I'll stick to ones I DON'T rep:
Lee: What’s a Picture Book favorite?
Jennifer: ALL THE WORLD by Scanlon and Frazee. It's just a beautiful, perfect book.
Lee: Middle Grade?
Jennifer: ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams-Garcia.
Lee: Young Adult?
Jennifer: TWO BOYS KISSING by David Levithan.
Lee: Okay, here’s your wish list moment. What are you looking for? Put out the call...
Jennifer: As I kinda mentioned above, I LOVE an outsider perspective. I LOVE a point of view character I haven't heard from before. I LOVE new and unexpected stories. I'm not a fan of cliche.
I'd love a book set in the world of drag balls, like, the Paris is Burning of YA novels. (I'm seriously not even sure how that would be possible, but hey.) I'd love a YA novel that captured the spirit of something like IN THE HEIGHTS. I'd love to see a YA Bollywood story.
I do love a great big sprawling laugh-and-cry-and-re-read love story, and I'd love to see an epic romance featuring a F/F or M/M couple - maybe a huge fantasy or historical, even. Like a YA Sarah Waters (dare to dream!). Or, a contemporary book that really feels contemporary. Or just something... different? Like a weird creepy literary early-Jeannette Winterson style YA?
Mostly... I want to be surprised.
Lee: And for writers and/or illustrators reading this who feel a resonance with what you’ve shared and who want to submit to you, how should they go about that?
Jennifer: Visit our website at www.andreabrownlit.com and follow the query guidelines.
Lee: Anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to add?
Jennifer: No, I think this was pretty comprehensive.
Lee: Getting the world of Children’s literature to better reflect the diversity of our world -- the world kids today are growing up in -- is so important. Thank you so much for working to make things better!
Jennifer: Thank YOU, Lee!
Thanks, Jennifer! Look for another AGENT LOOKING FOR DIVERSITY interview on the first Monday of next month. Until then,
Illustrate and Write On!