Monday, August 3, 2015

Heather Alexander (Pippin Properties): Agent Looking For Diversity

AGENTS AND EDITORS
NEED TO ADVERTISE THEIR INTEREST IN 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 Heather Alexander of Pippin Properties.


Agent Heather Alexander

Here's Heather's bio:

After six years in editorial, Heather Alexander made the move across the desk to Pippin. As an agent, she works with all ages of kids’ books, including graphic novels, and represents both authors and illustrators. She’s especially keen on unique voices and underdogs.

And here's our interview:

Lee: Hi Heather!

Heather: Hi Lee! So happy to be here. You know, cyber-here.

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

Heather: I’m pretty much always talking about teen literature, so I’m happy to have a willing audience!

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?

Heather: Hmm, great question. Some, like in picture books, aren’t specified or could be animals. So taking those out of the equation, I’d say a hair under half? Between a third and half.

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

Heather: A few, but not many, and I rarely get manuscripts where the majority of characters are of color, not just the protagonist.

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

Heather: I do see a lot of gay and trans stories, which is wonderful. I have seen one gender non-conforming manuscript this year. But I also specifically ask for these. I’m pretty public about wanting them, so I may get more than your average bear. Oddly, I get more gay male characters than lesbians. Very few bi-characters, which surprises me, too. Could someone out there please send me a YA Orlando?

Lee: I'd read that! How about characters with disabilities?

Heather: I have seen one query since I started agenting nearly a year ago featuring a girl with a physical disability. Only one! So definitely not enough. I’d like to see more learning disabilities, too. This is a category that is rich with new understandings of the world, so why not tackle it in a bigger way?

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

Heather: I’ve seen fewer than a handful of manuscripts with characters on the autism spectrum. I don’t see many books set in other cultures. (You know, I’d love a middle-grade or YA version of The Namesake.) I do see quite a bit of economic diversity, which is nice. I’d like to see more physical diversity, not just in terms of race. For example, if a character is big, the story is often centered on weight issues or eating disorders. And popular girl characters fit a certain stereotypical look. Why can’t a popular girl ever have short hair or glasses? These are just two examples that come to mind, but I could give you a million. There’s lots of room to shake up physicality.

Lee: Yes! Good advice. How about the creators? Are you seeing under-represented writers and illustrators submitting to you?

Heather: Well, I can’t know for sure, since they don’t normally send photos, and don’t always say in their queries. But the ones who tell me probably make up 15 percent of my total queries. So I’m sure in reality it’s higher than that, but maybe not by a lot.

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?

Heather: My take is “write what you know." I think Erin Dionne did a great job with her half-Vietnamese character Ollie in the Moxie series, and she is neither Vietnamese nor a boy. But she drew on her experiences as a human, and was able to tell Ollie’s story from a believable place. She wrote a great piece about what that experience was like for her. You can read it here:

Lee: Ooh, just back from reading it. I like Erin's honesty and determination to include more diversity in her books.

Heather: It can be difficult to write from the place of a culture different than your own, but I don’t think it’s impossible in all cases. Writers tend to be a tuned-in and sensitive bunch of people, at least the ones I know. Sure, there will be some attempts that don’t work so well, but that’s how we learn.

Lee: And as Erin says, "taking the risk is worth it."

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

Heather: Thanks in part to the awareness the We Need Diverse Books campaign has raised, no. It seems to me that everyone is looking for underrepresented characters. And that’s a big YAY for publishing in general.

Lee: Agreed! 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?

Heather: One thing it seems to me all teens have in common are feelings of not belonging, or of not knowing how to deal with things, or how to be the person they want to be. There are many core emotions that go along with teenager-ness which are relatable no matter what the story. So those central feelings are a great anchor, allowing all kinds of readers to relate to many kinds of different stories.

I have an intense curiosity about cultures and situations and families and relationships different than what exists in my personal world. You can’t just step into someone’s life, so books are those portals we need to get inside those experiences we’ll never live ourselves. Doing so makes the world bigger and smaller at the same time. Reading expands our range of knowledge, emotional and otherwise, but also helps us relate to things that were previously foreign, bringing them closer. That’s what drives me to see more diversity.

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?

Heather: Well, Corduroy has always been a favorite. And Joone by Emily Kate Moon is super darling. The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman is pretty encyclopedic in its examples.

Lee: Middle Grade?

Heather: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang and El Deafo by Cece Bell were life-changing. Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky is really sweet and powerful. I devoured The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (who didn’t?).

Lee: Young Adult?

Heather: Paul Griffin writes incredible books about underrepresented New York teens. I loved The Orange Houses and cried my guts out at Stay With Me. Antony John’s The Five Flavors of Dumb is a favorite, and of course, Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. I wish Hassan from An Abundance of Katherines had his own book. And Jason Reynolds is an incredible talent and a major force. Everything he writes changes the way I see things.

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

Heather: I’d love to see characters with disabilities, where the story isn’t about that character having a disability. I want YA that makes me think about the world in a different way and makes me hopeful for humanity. I want characters who are smarter than I am and I want characters who are struggling with something other than death. I’d love to see some middle-grade where a kid has to take on something too big for a middle-grade kid to take on. I have a weakness for liars and cheats and pranksters and people who love to get away with something.

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?

Heather: Our website says it better than I can, so here’s a link to our submission guidelines:
http://www.pippinproperties.com/submissions/

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!

Heather: The world is enormous, and I am so excited so many people want to help tell all the different kinds of stories. I will use my powers only for good. Thanks for getting the word out, Lee!

And thank you, Heather! Look for another AGENT LOOKING FOR DIVERSITY interview on the first Monday of next month. Until then,

Illustrate and Write On!
Lee

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