Monday, March 2, 2015

Marietta Zacker (Nancy Gallt Literary Agency): Agent Looking For Diversity


That's the idea. And this series is an effort to do just that.

For now we're focusing on agents, and today's post features agent Marietta Zacker of the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency.

Agent Marietta Zacker

Here's her bio:

Marietta has experienced children’s books from every angle – teaching, marketing, publishing & bookselling. She thrives on working with authors who make readers feel their characters’ emotions & illustrators who add a different dimension to the story. Among other things, she is a proud Latina and the Agent Liaison for the We Need Diverse Books campaign.

Our interview:

Lee: Hi Marietta!

Marietta: Hi, Lee! Thanks for letting me shout from mountaintops ☺.

Lee: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk about your interest in Diversity in Children's and Teen Literature!

Marietta: I am thrilled that we are advertising the fact that we’re looking for more diversity. As individuals with varied experiences and backgrounds, we do so in our own ways, but Adriana, Danielle and you are completely right, a concerted effort is long overdue. Gracias por darme la oportunidad.

Lee: Sure! It's my pleasure. 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?

Marietta: I suspect that the number of submissions I receive of projects with diverse characters and themes skews higher than the average. Percentage-wise, though, the number is staggeringly low. I’ve never done actual calculations (although it would be interesting, for sure!), but there is no doubt that if my submissions inbox were a book, that book would not accurately reflect the world we live in. That is troubling.

Which means that we must ask ourselves: Why do some writers and illustrators not feel included in the conversation, why do some choose not to submit and why do others feel that in order to be published one needs to assimilate? What are we (as a publishing industry) not doing well enough to bring these stories to us? I was once on faculty at a conference in a city where the population is overwhelmingly People of Color. And yet, you could count on one hand the People of Color in the room. One hand! Don’t get me wrong, every writer and illustrator that was in the room was just as worthy and some were writing stories that reflected our world. Yet, it is OUR responsibility to say, “There’s something wrong with this picture; people are missing.” We can’t dismiss it by saying, but the conference is ‘open to all.’ As we look around the room it’s imperative that we admit that there is clearly a barrier to entry, even if the barrier is unintentional.

This series is one step, for sure – advertising the fact that we ARE more than happy to review projects that show the world as it is, with all its rich diversity. BRING THEM ON – I am as ready as ever to review stories and illustrations that represent those who are marginalized and that will make it possible for children and young adults to see themselves within the pages of books they read.

Lee: Yes! So well said it bears repeating: "there is clearly a barrier to entry, even if the barrier is unintentional."

Let's unpack your submissions a bit: Are you seeing many stories featuring protagonists of color?

Marietta: As I mentioned, I think I see more Protagonists of Color than others. (Protagonists of Color – Can we make that a thing?). Still, I am certain there are many who are not coming forward with their stories and illustrations. In looking at submissions that I do receive, over the years there has been an increase in inclusiveness, yet there’s still quite a bit of superficial representations of diversity – names of characters, foods they eat and possibly physical features as clues within illustrations (as an example, for Latino characters, that means names with a letter that includes an accent mark or tilde, eating arroz con frijoles and skin color described as café con leche and tinted in brown). Yet we know that a character is fully realized only when the writer or illustrator conscientiously and deliberately breaks the surface and goes much more than skin deep. I mean, if you remove the superficial qualities, does the character still add to the story? Because if the answer is ‘no,’ then you might be adding a diverse character, but not writing a story that includes diversity of thought, theme, feelings and experiences. The great news is that there are many authors and illustrators whose work can inspire a writer or illustrator to do just that – Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, Matt de la Peña, Jenny Han, Mitali Perkins, Yuyi Morales, Raúl Colón (I could go on!). This list, no doubt, brings up the topic of authenticity and who has ‘the right’ to write and illustrate these stories. I know we’ll get to that later! But yes, more Protagonists of Color are finding their way to the pages of our books; I would simply encourage us not to rest until the books we see as a whole accurately represent the world we live in. We’re not there yet.

Lee: How about LGBTQ characters, and please break that down - are you seeing lesbian characters? gay? bi? trans*? questioning? queer or gender non-conforming?

Marietta: I don’t think it would surprise anyone to hear that stories with gay and lesbian characters are more prevalent than bi, trans, questioning, queer or gender non-conforming. I see very few BTQI stories a year … certainly, not nearly enough. Truth is that it’s tough to tell stories from those perspectives when you feel others aren’t willing or ready to listen. So I get the hesitation, but I know those who identify as LGBTQ, or who are writing characters who do, are writing. Bring them on as well! We ARE listening.

Lee: How about characters with disabilities?

Marietta: Again, not as many. Like with the last two questions you asked, the barriers to entry are present even when we think the way is clear. What writers and illustrators should keep in mind is that the focus should always be to create a story that reflects the actual world we live in, not simply to put forth a diverse cast of characters. And if the characters you’ve labeled as ‘other’ represent those who are marginalized (i.e., unless otherwise indicated, your default character is the same one the media presents as the ‘standard person’) then you may want to go back to the drawing board. We really do come in all shapes and sizes with a range of strengths and abilities and with various beliefs and traditions. Let your stories and illustrations reflect that.

Lee: Are you seeing other types of diversity in the works submitted? - And please share any specific categories that spring to mind.

Marietta: I think we’re finally seeing more characters with mixed heritage which, to me, points to the fact that the message does get through. For years now, we’ve talked to writers and illustrators about digging deeper into their own backgrounds to see some of the diversity in their own lives (that is always where you start in any conversation about diversity). As people have searched for ways to define themselves in this world, it seems that this has seeped into the narratives, which is wonderful. Now, along with looking at yourself, you have to look beyond yourself.

Lee: How about the creators? Are you seeing under-represented writers and illustrators submitting to you?

Marietta: I mentioned before that there is no doubt in my mind that there are many writers and illustrators who are not submitting their work. Some are skeptical, feeling that the industry wouldn’t welcome them, so they may be hesitant to put pen to paper or brush to canvas. Some, we are not reaching at all. If you’re marginalized and reading this, I can assure you … I want to see your work. I know I’m not the only one and I recognize that each of us can only represent a small number of clients to begin with, but don’t let the hurdles and barriers stop you. If you have a story to tell and you do so from the heart, you will find your champions.

Lee: I want that on a T-shirt:

"If you have a story to tell and you do so from the heart, you will find your champions."  


As you mentioned earlier, this question comes up in nearly every conversation I have about diversity in kid lit: who has the 'right' to tell the story of an under-represented type of character. What's your take?

Marietta: I don’t believe that any one person owns the ‘right’ to tell these stories, but I will say this … if it has taken you your entire life to gain enough knowledge about yourself to be able to write about someone like you, then the same criteria should apply if you choose to write about someone whose background is different from yours. It’s not enough to say that you’ve done research and you’ve observed (or even that you’ve had personal interactions) because that can lead to superficial and general conclusions. Having the ‘credentials’ to write about under-represented characters means you’ve experienced something at a deep enough level to understand how someone would think, react, feel, express themselves and how their background affects who they are as people in this world.

Lee: When you're submitting projects to editors, do you think stories with under-represented characters take more 'selling' on your part?

Marietta: I don’t, but I think every step the manuscript takes toward publication means one step away from those who understand and champion the story the most. That is the same for any book, but it’s especially problematic for books with under-represented characters. Remember, there’s a reason they’re under-represented in the first place and our society plays a role in this! With that said, walking into an editor’s or art director’s office, the worry is never ‘will this project be a harder sell?’ In the end, a story I know I can champion and an editor and art director wants to work on is one which strongly, accurately and effectively expresses the human experience. Period. Are there hurdles? No doubt about it. As I said, there are a ton of people that have a hand in publishing a book, and despite everyone’s best intentions, there are some within the process who put up those hurdles and barriers. We’re fighting every day to remove those hurdles and knock down those barriers, we can only do so with work that represents our world.

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?

Marietta: Being marginalized sucks. I feel I’ve spent my whole life trying to shake that feeling and at times, I wonder if I ever will. It fuels me to think that I can have a hand in helping young children and young adults feel less marginalized.

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).

What’s a Picture Book favorite?

Marietta: THE RED LOLLIPOP by Rukhsana Khan and Sophie Blackall, RAISING DRAGONS by Jerdine Nolen and Elise Primavera, ONE HOT SUMMER DAY by Nina Crews, any book by Kadir Nelson, any book by Gary Soto (picture book or otherwise!), THE CASE FOR LOVING by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls (and I’ll sneak in an early reader: LING & TING by Grace Lin)

Lee: Middle Grade?

Marietta: Any book by Pam Muñoz Ryan, THE MISADVENTURES OF THE FAMILY FLETCHER by Dana Alison Levy, THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (Oh, who am I kidding? Any book by Curtis), THE VINE BASKET by Josanne La Valley, CONFETTI GIRL by Diana López, THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander (for the record, called it BEFORE 2015!)

Lee: Young Adult?

Marietta: Any book by Matt de la Peña, IF YOU COULD BE MINE by Sara Farizan, THE QUEEN OF WATER by Laura Resau and Maria Virginia Farinango, FAT ANGIE by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, any book by Rita Williams-García, SHABANU by Suzanne Fisher Staples. To be published in 2016: TOYA (tentative title!) by Randi Pink

Lee: Okay, here’s your wish list moment. What are you looking for? Put out the call...

Marietta: If you’ve dug deep, your story has a unique perspective and you present children & young adults with stories that speak to them and characters with whom they can identify, send your work way my way.

If you think We Need Diverse Books is a necessity rather than a mere trend and if you believe in its mission wholeheartedly and you’ve been working toward that end (even if you didn’t know it!), send your work my way.

If your characters feel marginalized (even if those particular feelings are not the focus of the story), send your work my way.

If you look at your portfolio and it reflects the world we live in, then send your work my way.

¡Y, Latinos, se que están escribiendo e ilustrando, mándenme sus cuentos y sus dibujos!

Lee: Nice! 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?

Marietta: All instructions are on our website, on the submissions page. I will say this, if you write and illustrate with some of the same beliefs and thoughts I’ve shared with you, chances are that your submission will stand out for me. Feel free to add that you read this interview with Lee Wind as an answer to the question ‘How did you hear about us?’

Lee: Anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to add?

Marietta: Diversity in our world is a fact, not a trend. So while you need to be true to yourself and your characters, as a writer or illustrator, also remember that you owe the most to the readers who will be picking up your books hoping to see themselves, so that then they can see beyond themselves. Pick up your pens, pencil, brushes and laptops with that in mind.

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!

Marietta: It does take a village, doesn’t it? … a village with a good marketing plan in place now ☺. Thank YOU, Lee.

Thanks Marietta! Look for another AGENT LOOKING FOR DIVERSITY interview on the first Monday of next month. Until then,

Illustrate and Write On!


Dina von Lowenkraft said...

Fabulous interview with a fabulous agent!
Thank you, Lee!

Heather Rhodes said...

Loved reading this! Thank you for this insite. I think I will finally submit my work now. :)