Monday, April 6, 2015

Tina Wexler (ICM Partners): 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 Tina Wexler of ICM Partners.

Agent Tina Wexler

Here's Tina's bio:

Tina Wexler is an agent at ICM Partners, focused on middle grade and young adult fiction and non-fiction. She is particularly interested in modern folklore, non-linear storytelling, magical realism, humor, weepies, and most anything with a feminist slant. Current and forthcoming titles include Teddy Mars, Almost a World Record Breaker by Molly Burnham, Nightbird by Alice Hoffman, The Cost of All Things by Maggie Lehrman, and Bone Gap by Laura Ruby. She holds an MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College and is the mother of two boys. @tina_wexler

Our interview:

Lee: Hi Tina!

Tina: Hi, Lee! Great to see you at #NY15SCBWI, and thanks again for organizing the LGBTQ Q&A.

Lee: Of course - it's really one of the highlights of the SCBWI conferences for me - and these conversations feel very much an extension of those Q&A sessions - letting people know not just that it's okay to write diversity but that it's wanted. And I really appreciate your doing this interview, to talk on this larger stage about your interest in Diversity in Children's and Teen Literature!

Tina: Thank YOU for including me in the conversation.

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?

Tina: By submissions, you mean queries, correct? If so, it’s a relatively small percentage, if I’m only counting those queries that speak specifically about diversity. But that percentage is steadily growing. And indeed, I like to think the percentage is already far higher than it may seem. Like if I get this pitch: “Two teens are forced to decide what and how much they’re willing to sacrifice when their families forbid them from pursuing a relationship.” I could assume that, because it’s not stated otherwise, the two characters are a boy and a girl, white, middle class, Christian---and in most instances when I’ve requested the manuscript, I’d have been right to assume so ---but I don’t want to make those kinds of assumptions. I prefer to hope.

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

Tina: I am, but not nearly as many as I'd like. That’s a real hole on my list. Queriers, please help me remedy that!

Lee: You heard it here!

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

Tina: The majority of queries that mention LGBTQ characters cast those characters as friends/best friends, enemies-turned-allies, siblings, or adult neighbors, which is great, but I’d love to see more LGBTQ characters in the role of protagonist. As of now, I only have two forthcoming titles with LGBTQ characters as protagonists: a middle grade novel told from the dual points of view of a transgender girl and a bi-polar boy, written by Donna Gephart, and from Brandy Colbert, the author of POINTE, a YA novel with a protagonist who is questioning if she’s bisexual, to be published by Little, Brown. Certainly, there is room on my list for much more.

Lee: How about characters with disabilities?

Tina: I represent Shane Burcaw’s YA memoir, LAUGHING AT MY NIGHTMARE, about his life with spinal muscular atrophy. The book was a finalist for ALA's Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, and Shane’s tremendously active on Tumblr, with over 500,000 followers. Perhaps because of the book’s success and his visibility online, I’ve been receiving more queries about characters with disabilities than I have in past years, where the numbers had hovered just above 1%. I’m really happy about that increase and hope it continues.

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

Tina: I've long been vocal about wanting to see more socioeconomic diversity in kid’s books. More stories where the kids babysit or have a job at the DQ or struggle to complete their homework while putting dinner together because both parents (or the remaining parent) work outside the home, overworked, underpaid and put on wonky shifts that aren’t conducive to helping with homework or making a wholesome dinner (or any dinner) at night. Stories with kids who order off a menu by looking at the price, should they get to go out to eat in the first place. Anna Breslaw’s upcoming debut with Razorbill is a great example of what I’m after here.

Other things I’d love to see more of: diversity of religion. I'm part of an interfaith family, and perhaps because of that, the richness---and complications---its brought to my life, I'm very interested in religion and faith and their depiction/exploration in children's literature.

I also represent a number of authors who are not American (and authors who are American but who write characters who are not). I receive a good deal of queries from and about other nationalities, and I’d like to see more.

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

Tina: Lee! I’ll leave the profiling to TSA. ; )

Lee: (laughing) Okay! 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?

Tina: This post by Skila Brown puts into words how I feel far better than I can.

Lee: Thanks for that link! [Goes off to read it, comes back.] "Are you brave enough to try?" Yes. Yes!

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

Tina: No. I tend to submit and sell to like-minded people, editors who are also intent on changing the status quo so that the marketplace more accurately reflects the richness of our world.

Lee: I love hearing that!

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?

Tina: I was raised in a household with an alcoholic, and like many kids in that environment, I carried with me a lot of secrets and unnecessary shame. Secrets, shame and silence---constant companions to most kids who have lived with a feeling of "otherness." Books were safe spaces, and I want books to be safe spaces for all kids, where they can see themselves represented in respectful and authentic ways, and where they can learn how to feel and express empathy for one another.

Lee: Thank you for sharing that. 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?

Tina: BIG RED LOLLIPOP written by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
A SNOWY DAY by Ezra Jack Keats
MONDAY IS ONE DAY by Arthur A. Levine, illustrated by Julian Hector

Lee: Middle Grade?

Tina: BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson
EL DEAFO by Cece Bell

Lee: Young Adult?

Tina: I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson
ORCHARDS by Holly Thompson

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

Tina: I'm looking for middle grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction. I’m here, on this site, because I want more diverse voices, diverse in all the ways named above. I have a fondness for characters with a sharp wit who don’t always have a ready comeback, characters who feel things deeply but are often oblivious to the world around them. I like contradictions. I like unreliable narrators. I like ambitious story structures and stories that reward me for paying close attention. I want to laugh. Most of all, I want the story only you can tell---whoever YOU are.

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?

Tina: They can send a query to twexler[at]icmpartners[dot]com with the first five pages of the manuscript pasted below the query. Please, no active links or attachments, as they tend to get caught in SPAM.

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!

Tina: Thank you for providing the opportunity. It’s very much appreciated.

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

Illustrate and Write On!


Joanna said...

Lee, this is a great new initiative on your blog and very needed. Thanks for the interview, Tina! I am spreading the word about this.

Holly Thompson said...

Excellent interview, Lee! So pleased to see this series. And thank you to Tina for the ORCHARDS shout-out!

Wild About Words said...

I love Tina and am very proud of the projects/clients she represents. Thanks, Lee, for an insightful interview!

Tina Wexler said...

Tina here. I've been thinking about some of my answers and wanted to amend them. I hope that's okay. First, I should have said "a boy with bipolar disorder," not "a bipolar boy." Every time I read that, I cringe. I'm sorry. Second, I think the jobs I've mentioned as evidence of socioeconomic diversity are more indicative of my middle class upbringing than anything else. I also fear my response to Lee's question about the creators reads as an endorsement of a "colorblind" worldview (which really just defaults to white/cisgender/ableist etc thinking) and that is not a position I support. Lastly, I wish I'd taken the opportunity to express my interest in MG and YA that features protagonists who are not neurotypical, like Anne Ursu's THE REAL BOY. If there's anything else that raised a flag for you, please speak up if you're inclined. And thanks so much for giving me the chance to jump back into this conversation.