Monday, March 7, 2016

Laura Zats (Red Sofa Literary): 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 Laura Zats of Red Sofa Literary.

Agent Laura Zats

Here's Laura's bio:

Laura Zats graduated from Grinnell College with degrees in English and anthropology. While completing her studies, she took advantage of her love of Young Adult literature and wrote a thesis on identity formation in YA. She’s been working as an editor since 2011 and has held positions at companies in both the US and the UK. In 2013, Laura joined Team Red Sofa as Associate Agent.

Even though she loved YA books first, titles that are Middle Grade, romance, and Sci-fi/Fantasy have been slowly taking hold. Picking a favorite genre now would be like choosing between puppies and kittens. In her free time, Laura likes to craft, swing dance, bake, and binge on Netflix marathons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who.

And here's our interview:

Lee: Hi Laura!

Laura: Hello! Thanks fo much for having me!

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

Laura: You are most welcome! Look at us! So full of enthusiasm and exclamation marks!

Lee: Ha! (Oh gosh, there's another one.) 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?

Laura: Well, my experience might not be a 100% accurate one, as I have had a standing request for diverse submissions for quite a while, but I'd say that in total, my submissions are comprised of maybe 30% diverse books. If you section out twitter competitions or #MSWL submissions, you'll land closer in the 70% range. Of course, I'm not just talking racial diversity. I am considering also religious, socio-economic, neuro, gender, sexuality, ability, and size diversity.

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

Laura: Many but not enough! I am seeing much more mixed-race protagonists than any other type, because I think for white authors, it seems a bit "easier" to write about that liminal state, although I don't think that the experiences of mixed individuals are easier to understand or relate with than others. The next most prevalent is black protagonists, followed by latino (they all seem to be Puerto Rican, for some reason though). I'd love to see more representation from the Mid-East and Eastern countries!

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

Laura: Oh man! Well that is really two different questions--one about sexuality, and one about gender expression and identity.

Lee: I appreciate you breaking it down like that. Go on...

Laura: On sexuality, I am seeing more lesbian characters than gay characters, especially in SFF. I'm missing books with bi characters (especially bi men!), and completely missing books with questioning characters (although that might be because of my disinterest in repping a coming-out story).

As for gender identity, I am seeing a very small amount of trans characters, but they're almost all books about the coming out and the transitioning process. There is a huge proportion of the trans community that aren't transitioning, or never plan to, and I'd love to see their stories. There is a fair amount of books hinting at a character being gender-queer, but not a lot of gender non-conforming, and I'd break my first love YA ban to see a gender non-conforming protagonist be a lead in one!

Lee: I kind of love that you have a "ban" and that you're willing to break it!

How about characters with disabilities?

Laura: As always, we get a lot of limping/wheelchair-bound protagonists (always paraplegic, never quad). There's often lots of supporting characters with degenerative diseases as well, but not a ton of anything else. Except for YA romances with deaf protagonists. That is also a thing.

A new exciting area that has been getting a lot of attention though is neurodiversity, usually in terms of a TBI or an autism-spectrum disorder. I'm super excited about that, but I sometimes think that some authors treat autism in books as just a disorder they can attach to their MC's quirky sidekick, and that doesn't do much as far as representation goes.

Lee: Agreed. We need diversity to go beyond the sidekicks, to the stars of the story!

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

Laura: I'm seeing some socio-economic diversity, but especially in the given political climate in the US, I'd LOVE to see more religious diversity, and, relatedly, cultural diversity. Today, I put out a call for more Muslim characters, especially as romantic leads!

Lee: Nice. I'd read that.

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

Laura: You know, I rarely even read author names/do author research until I am really far into their book--even sending requests, typing the name is so automatic, 30 seconds later I couldn't tell you what I typed--there's no time for me to race anyone! I only know if someone is under-represented if they say so in their query or in our phone call.

When I answer queries or read manuscripts, story is king. Being diverse doesn't increase your chances of me wanting to work with you, but my commitment to diversity in subject is represented in what books I request, and my commitment to diversity in authorship is reflected in my social media presence and my continuous call for diverse authors--but they still have to come to me and go through the same process.

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?

Laura: I think that books with under-represented characters are a good thing. Full stop. I do not think that you necessarily have to be in that minority to write a book about a character, because I do not believe that an individual's experience can or should speak for an entire group. I also believe that literature represents the world around us, and it's silly to expect a white, straight, cisgender male to only write about people who resemble him.

What I will say though is that every author, but ESPECIALLY a non-minority author, has the responsibility to make sure that their story is as close to accurate as possible when it comes to the experiences of the characters therein. This means doing research. This means having beta readers of people in that group. It means that you should want them to call out when you do/say something wrong. It WILL happen, and it should happen, and you should fix it and learn from it. That's what being a good ally is.

I don't, however, think that making the writing of non-minority authors more diverse should give people an excuse to avoid reading books by marginalized groups. These books should just add to the pile, not edge out others. And I think this is the responsibility of people like me (agents), publishers, and also of readers to make sure that we acknowledge both diversity of character and diversity of author.

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

Laura: No. I don't. But that might be because I am known to the editors I work with as "that agent who does feminism and diversity." The agents I sell to care about these things as much as I do, and know to expect it from me.

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?

Laura: Sure! Well, to start off with, I was raised Jewish, and I'm a woman, and the bulk of my upper schooling has been very racially mixed. I also come from a feminist queer family, and as a heterosexual in that environment, have experienced an interesting blend of being othered myself and of seeing what is my norm be othered in the larger world. It has made me largely aware of the different labels humans place upon themselves and others.

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?

Laura: Last Stop on Market Street! Agent Carly Watters just told me about it, and it's lovely! A great depiction of class and racial differences.

[note: About a month after this interview happened, Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson, won the Newbery Medal.]

Lee: Middle Grade?

Laura: Well, I just read a great book (it's not out yet, but will be in the next year or so) from #pitchwars, and right now it's called Alan Kim is Not a Coward. The main character is Korean, gay, and the son of immigrants. It made me cry.

Lee: I want to read that.

Laura: I also really loved El Deafo. I read that recently!

Lee: Young Adult?

Laura: Oh man. Eleanor & Park for sure, if I'm keeping with the theme of Diverse Books That Made Laura Cry. And, obviously, many of the books on my list! I've got a book in development now with my author Lisa Sills that is about a boy's coming-of-age post-transition. It's not a coming-out book, but more of a book about how, after this guy can be who he really is, he then gets to figure out who he wants to be!

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

Laura: Well, my ultimate diverse #MSWL is for an anti-coming-out YA story, where the MC is coming to terms with their straightness in a queer community. I want it to be about how they're both othered and not, and them figuring out who they are and where they belong.

Other than that, I want it all. With two caveats: I do not want coming-out books, and I don't want problems disguised as people (so, no books teaching lessons).

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?

Laura: Send a query to laura (at) redsofaliterary (dot) com!

Lee: Anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to add?

Laura: I think we just about covered it! If you have any more questions, just ask me on twitter @LZats!

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!

Laura: And thanks for having me!

Thanks Laura! 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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