AGENTS AND EDITORS
NEED TO ADVERTISE THEIR INTEREST IN DIVERSITY
That's the idea. And this series is an ongoing effort to do just that.
For now, we're focusing on agents, and today's post features agent Maria Vicente of P.S. Literary Agency.
|Agent Maria Vicente|
Here's Maria's bio:
Maria Vicente is an associate literary agent at P.S. Literary Agency, providing support to her clients through all stages of the writing and publication process. Maria is dedicated to managing authors’ literary brands for the duration of their careers.
Her reading preferences vary across categories and genres, which is reflected in her client list. She is actively looking for literary fiction, young adult, middle grade, illustrated picture books, and nonfiction projects in the pop culture, design, and lifestyle categories. She has affinities for literary prose, strong character development, original storytelling formats, and anything geeky. Maria’s website, MariaVicente.com, includes articles about publishing and writing for current and potential clients. You can find more information about the categories Maria represents, as well as an up-to-date wish list, here.
And our interview:
Lee: Hi Maria!
Maria: Oh, hello!
Lee: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk about your interest in Diversity in Children's and Teen Literature!
Maria: Of course! Thank you for asking me to participate in this series. I’m really looking forward to this discussion.
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?
Maria: Very little, I’m afraid. At least that I’m aware of. Most of the queries I receive don’t specify the backgrounds of the characters. However, the trend is changing, slowly but surely, and I’m sure it’s because of initiatives like #WeNeedDiverseBooks. It’s nice to read that a character in a manuscript is from a diverse background (of any sort), but I understand that sometimes those details don’t fit into the query letter.
As for the amount of diversity in requested material, well, that’s a bit higher than the query inbox. It could be because I gravitate towards the queries that do mention why a story has a diverse perspective, but I’d say approximately half of my requested material feature diverse characters or themes. So diversity is definitely there in the stories, but the query letters aren’t always reflective of that diversity.
Lee: Let's unpack that a bit: Are you seeing many stories featuring protagonists of color?
Maria: Not many that make this information obvious. Mentioning physical characteristics is tricky, especially in queries and opening pages. It’s difficult to discuss a character’s background in a way that doesn’t feel like an information dump. A character’s background is so important in any story, and a lot of times (beginning) writers have trouble getting that information across to the reader in a natural way, so it’s often left out of the story completely.
Lee: How about LGBTQ characters, and please break that down - are you seeing lesbian characters? gay? bi? trans*? questioning? queer or gender non-conforming?
Maria: These are more common, but I’d still like to see more. I read more queries with lesbian characters than anything else. Trans* has been more common lately, as well as gender non-conforming. I’d particularly like to see more bi or queer characters. Many of the queries for LGBTQ characters are “issue” stories, and it would be great to see more children’s manuscripts with these diverse characters that don’t necessarily focus on sexual identity as a main plot point.
Lee: How about characters with disabilities?
Maria: Very, very few. Which is quite unfortunate.
Lee: Are you seeing other types of diversity in the works submitted? And please share any specific categories that spring to mind.
Maria: I’ve seen an increase in diverse settings for children’s books, which is fantastic. Not every story needs to be set in the USA. Younger books featuring characters with autism are also quite common in the slush pile.
Lee: How about the creators? Are you seeing under-represented writers and illustrators submitting to you?
Maria: To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure. When people talk about diverse books, it’s often brought up that agents need to represent more diverse authors. I agree. But it’s also difficult for agents to know if a submission is coming from an under-represented writer.
I don’t ask writers to identify themselves in any way. I don’t know where an author lives, or what an author’s background is like, unless it is included in their bio (either in a query letter or on a website). I usually don’t know what a writer looks like until after I sign them and they send me a professional photo. I am truly making decisions based solely on the query letters and the manuscripts I read. It’s all in the story.
I try to make clear, in as many places as possible, that I am willing and ready to represent diverse creators. I can only hope that they feel welcome to send me fantastic projects!
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?
Maria: I think that all writers are stepping into someone else’s shoes when they write a character. Regardless of the character’s background, it is a make believe person that is composed of many different parts (assuming, of course, that we are talking about fiction). It’s important to be aware of biases, to do a tremendous amount of research, and to have a firm sense of the end goal. Do I think a writer needs to be gay to write a gay character? No, I don’t… but I also don’t think every representation of gay characters should be written by straight writers (for example). We need diverse creators writing diverse stories. We need multiple stories about the same topic, the same race, the same sexuality, the same background. Limiting ourselves and the industry will not improve the quality of books.
Lee: When you're submitting projects to editors, do you think stories with under-represented characters take more 'selling' on your part?
Maria: Not at all. I think most editors are looking for under-represented characters. Those are the submissions that get requested the fastest and receive the most interest.
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?
Maria: I think my drive to see more diversity in children’s literature all goes back to that fear we feel as children, especially (for me) in middle school and high school. So many of us are afraid to be who we are, to stand up for what we believe in. It took me so many years to accept certain aspects of my own identity… and there are still some things that I struggle. I don’t think that fear ever goes away. I don’t think the desire to feel like we belong ever disappears. That’s why it’s so important to let young readers know that they are not alone, that there are other people out there in the world who know what they are going through and understand what it’s like to be labeled as “different” from those who do not understand.
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).
Maria: When it comes to diversity, I’m often inspired by media outside (and along with) books. Growing up, diverse characters on TV shows were more prevalent than in the books I read (another reason why I think diversifying children’s books is so important). Even now, I’m noticing more diverse representation on television, and even the music industry, than in the books that cross my desk.
That being said, here are some classic and newer books that have had a lasting impact:
Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle
Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
George by Alex Gino
Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christina Baldacchino (author) & Isabelle Malenfant (illustrator)
Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson (writer) & Adrian Alphona (artist)
One In Every Crowd by Ivan E. Coyote
Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed
Violet by Tania Duprey Stehlik (author) & Vanja Vuleta Jovanovic (illustrator)
Lee: Okay, here’s your wish list moment. What are you looking for? Put out the call...
Maria: I am mainly looking for debut middle grade and young adult writers. I am interested in every genre under the sun, with a strong love for horror, magical realism, and contemporary. I’m a big fantasy/science fiction fan, but it needs to have a fresh twist that I haven’t read somewhere else before. I am interested in characters with diverse backgrounds, especially when “being diverse” isn’t the focal point of the story. I want diverse characters that are well-developed and have a strong sense of identity paired with a complex, quick-paced plot. As for specific wish list items, I’d like to see more racially diverse characters in any category and more bisexual or asexual characters in YA manuscripts.
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?
Maria: You can send me a query by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The representation page on my website has a frequently updated wish list, in case you want to read more about what I’m looking for: http://mariavicente.com/representation
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!
Thanks, Maria! Look for another AGENT LOOKING FOR DIVERSITY interview on the first Monday of next month. Until then,
Illustrate and Write On!