Monday, June 1, 2015

Joanna Volpe (New Leaf Literary and Media): 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 Joanna Volpe of New Leaf Literary and Media.

Agent Joanna Volpe
Joanna's bio:

Joanna Volpe is the president of New Leaf Literary & Media, as well as an active literary agent.  She represents books for all ages (picture books to adult), both fiction and non-fiction. Overall she's looking for books that feature under-represented characters and people.  More diversity, please! Follow her on twitterfacebookpinterest, or instagram.

And our interview...

Lee: Hi Joanna!

Joanna: Hi, Lee!

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

Joanna: Well, thanks for having me.

Lee: 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?

Joanna: This is very hard to say without going back through every submission (and there are thousands), but if I had to venture a guess based on memory, I'd say about 10-15% (though 15% might be generous). I did notice an increase of these submissions after #WeNeedDiverseBooks picked up steam, which is great. In previous years, that number was probably closer to 5%. So that means the campaign is working!

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

Joanna: In terms of the diversity represented, protagonists of color are the most prominently represented in that 15-20%. Most common being African American, Asian American and Indian American.

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

Joanna: I do see some stories featuring gay characters, but I don't even think I can give it a percentage – it's pretty infrequent. And even less frequent to see lesbian protagonists, bi, trans, or non-conforming. I don't get zero, but it's probably only a handful a year out of thousands of queries.

Lee: How about characters with disabilities?

Joanna: I get some of these, but most are of characters who are injured and became physically disabled – very few of characters born with a disability. And a fair number feature characters who are somewhere on the autism spectrum. Prior to working in publishing I worked in special education, so I'm particularly sensitive to how these characters are portrayed.

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

Joanna: I do see a lot of stories featuring characters from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, which is good. There was a time when I didn't see enough of that either, but my submissions have had more balance in that category is recent years. And I do see books that showcase a variety of religions as well.

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

Joanna: Yes, I do. This more so than the characters in the books, I think. Of course, I wish I saw more diversity in the authors and illustrators who submit to me. But most of the time I don't even know. Unless they specifically mention it in their query or their name gives a hint to their ethnicity, I wouldn't know unless I got to a deeper point of discussion in the submission process with them. That doesn't happen often in itself.

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?

Joanna: As long as an author treats an under-represented type of character with respect by doing the right research, then I don't see a problem with who writes the story.

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

Joanna: Sometimes. But mainly, I think the big struggle comes closer to publication-time, once we're dealing more with the sales and marketing process. Then I really have found myself having to work double or triple hard to "sell" the book. You'd think the hard part would be over once the book is sold to an editor, but that's not the case.

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?

Joanna: It's just always been something that's important to me. I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by people from all different backgrounds, sexual orientations, ethnicities, etc. My parents are very kind and thoughtful people who never (almost to a fault) judge anyone for anything. Ever. And that mindset has made its way down to me and my sister. But they also never made the world seem easy, so it's not like I looked at everything through rose-colored glasses. And I'm one of those people who is deeply affected by injustice of any kind – I literally can't sleep when I think about it. And let's face it: there is a lot of injustice going on every day.

Having grown up with such a rich exposure to the world, it's something I want to share with others, especially children. I know how much my experiences from childhood have shaped me – that's where it all begins!

In addition to the above, I mentioned that I worked in special education. I worked in this field for almost 5 years in one capacity or another, and it has definitely further influenced my desire to see more diversity in children's and teen's books.

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?

Joanna: Dizzy by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Sean Qualls. I love this book and how it tells the story of a little slice of history in such a fun, read-aloud kind of way.

Lee: Middle Grade?

Joanna: Oh, this one is tough since it's my favorite market of books! (I swear, I'm still an 11-year-old at heart.) Ok, I think I can narrow it down to three:

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin - I adore fantasy and folklore, and this one is particularly magical!

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron - Lucky comes from a very, very poor, tiny, tiny trailer park down. And yet her struggles with understanding the world around her were so relatable. I loved this book.

Out of my Mind by Sharon M. Draper - Well, this one just struck me right in the heart. The main character in this one goes to school and works in a classroom similar to one I used to work in myself. Such a wonderful book!

Lee: Young Adult?

Joanna: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills - This is about a transgender teen, born as Elizabeth, but moonlights as a disc-jockey named Gabe (his true self). I worked on this book as a second reader very early in my career (before I was representing anything), and I'm pretty sure it took the agent more than a few years to sell. At last year's ALA awards, I was there when it was given a Stonewall Book Award, and I think the whole auditorium heard me scream out loud!

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

Joanna: Well, anything like the above favorites. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is the exact kind of YA I'm looking for right now: character-driven books that tell me a new story, a coming-of-age from a different perspective.

Picture books that can really bring the art in to showcase a different culture that we don't see every day. I loved this past year's Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Cindy Trumbore and Susan L. Roth.

I've always had a fascination with world religions, so just putting that out there.

And really, any book in all 3 markets (picture book, middle grade and YA) that tells a good story from a fresh perspective--please think of me!

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?

Joanna: Our submission guidelines are here - remember to include my name in the subject line!

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!

Joanna: Here, here! Thanks so much for working to make things better yourself!

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

Illustrate and Write On!

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