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 Jen Rofé of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
|Agent Jen Rofé|
Here's Jennifer's short bio:
Jennifer Rofé has been an agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency for nine years. She represents picture book through young adult with a special love for middle grade and author-illustrators.
And here's our interview:
Lee: Hi Jen!
Jennifer: Hi, Lee!
Lee: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk about your interest in Diversity in Children's and Teen Literature!
Jennifer: Thank you for your continued efforts to bring diversity in children's literature to the forefront of 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?
Jennifer: The numbers in the CCBC report are indeed low, and also depressing. The conversation to be had overwhelms, but I am encouraged that we are having the conversation and that concerted efforts are being made by the industry to change these numbers.
As for your question, I receive many queries that include some kind of diversity, but "many" is likely still below 15%. To have a clearer picture, though, we also need to consider how many queries I receive for picture book texts featuring characters who could be illustrated as diverse. Then there are the queries I receive for picture books texts featuring animals. If you eliminate those queries from the calculation, then the statistic is higher.
Lee: Let's unpack that a bit more: Are you seeing many stories featuring protagonists of color?
Jennifer: Many? No. More than I used to, yes.
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: I see some but not many queries with LGBTQ characters or storylines. I've seen more trans characters recently. However, I mostly work in middle grade and picture book where sexuality and gender identity isn't covered to the same extent as in YA. I anticipate -- and hope! -- that my colleagues who focus more intently on YA are having a different experience.
Lee: How about characters with disabilities?
Jennifer: I often receive queries featuring characters with disabilities — physical and/or emotional — but they are so often "issue" books and not mainstream stories featuring a character with a disability and his/her journey.
Lee: Are you seeing other types of diversity in the works submitted? - And please share any specific categories that spring to mind.
Jennifer: I see the most diversity in queries for historical fiction middle grade, especially as many of these stories deal with race relations and tensions during those periods.
Something else I'm seeing more of, now that there is greater focus on diversity in children's literature, is what I consider forced diversity -- where it's clear a writer has made a character a different race in order to have wider appeal, but the representation of the race is superficial, incomplete, inaccurate. Hopefully over time diverse characters and themes will be integrated into all kinds of stories in a natural way.
Lee: How about the creators? Are you seeing under-represented writers and illustrators submitting to you?
Jennifer: Certainly, but writers may not point out their race or ethnicity in a query, nor are they expected to do so. There may be more than I realize or fewer than I hope.
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: This is a challenging question. But no matter what, it is important — crucial, even — to accurately and sensitively portray stories. I have clients who, when they are writing a character outside of their experience, will share their work with a trusted colleague of that experience to be sure that the depiction is authentic and avoids stereotypes.
Lee: When you're submitting projects to editors, do you think stories with under-represented characters take more 'selling' on your part?
Jennifer: In my recent experience, no.
But earlier in my career, I did have a few experiences of pitching mainstream manuscripts featuring diverse protagonists and race was as much an issue in the stories as you being tall and me being short matters to this interview.
Lee: Not much! What happened?
Jennifer: These books went on to sell, but there were other interested editors who liked the manuscripts but who longed to see race play a bigger role in the plots. I personally have seen fewer revision requests of this direction and more support for mainstream commercial stories featuring characters of diverse backgrounds.
Lee: I do think that's a sign of progress!
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: My mother is a Cuban-Jew who escaped the country with her family when she was 12, and my father is an Eastern-European Jew who was born outside of a displaced persons camp his parents lived in after they were liberated from the concentration camps. I grew up in a family rich with history and tradition. I also grew up in Los Angeles, where I went to public school with children of all races, ethnicities, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds; where I could (and still do) eat the foods and shop the markets of various cultures and ethnicities; where I can direct you to synagogues, churches, Buddhist temples, mosques. I have been surrounded by diversity and "otherness" my entire life — it is a part of my fabric. Which is probably why I went on to minor in Social and Ethnic Relations with a focus on multicultural literature, and have been seeking out and selling diverse children's literature since I began working as an agent nine years ago.
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: A few books that immediately come to mind: THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET by Sandra Cisneros; THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P. Jones; THE WOMAN WARRIOR by Maxine Hong Kingston; THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME by Mark Haddon; HARD LOVE by Ellen Wittlinger.
Also, I have a slew of diverse books on my list, including the hilarious middle grade HOW LAMAR'S BAD PRANK WON A BUBBA-SIZED TROPHY by Crystal Allen and the 2014 Pura Belpré winner YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS, and I have more forthcoming, including
Mango, Abuela, and Me, a picture book by Meg Medina about a girl learning to communicate with her abuela (grandma) through the help of a parrot named Mango. (Candlewick)
The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown, the first in a middle grade series by Crystal Allen, which is about a young African-American girl who is excited to spend Spirit Week partnered up with her megapopular best friend, but then she is paired with the biggest bully in school.... (HarperCollins)
Moving Target by Christina Diaz Gonzalez, which is the action-packed start to a duology about a Cuban-American girl studying abroad in Rome, where she discovers her secret ancient bloodline, and now the fate of the world rests in her hands. (Scholastic)
Lee: Okay, here’s your wish list moment. What are you looking for? Put out the call...
Jennifer: I am always looking for illustrators and author-illustrators; middle grade of all genres; and big-world YA or cringe-worthy YA romance. Also, I recently traveled to Brazil and was taken by the favelas. I would love a story set in a favela, something like CITY OF GOD, but maybe with less violence and more hope. And I am always, always looking for the book version of my favorite movie, DIRTY DANCING.
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: Please see the submission guidelines at www.andreabrownlit.com.
Lee: Anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to add?
Jennifer: The direction children's literature is heading is exciting. I'm proud that the industry is listening and that they are making the effort. I hope next up is reaching out to the multicultural communities and inspiring children and young adults to write from their perspective and to consider jobs in editorial.
Also, I hope that Hollywood gets on board with us. Every great thing we do, they follow, so....
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!