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 Penny Moore of Fine Print Literary.
|Agent Penny Moore|
Penny Moore represents middle grade, young adult, and adult fiction. She’s also open to nonfiction projects in the realm of pop culture, humor, travel, food, and pets.
In MG and YA, she’s interested in all genres, and is seeking inventive works that combine well-defined voice, complex characters, and compelling plot lines. She also acquires select picture book projects on a referral basis.
While completing degrees in Linguistics and Japanese Language & Literature at the University of Georgia, she spent time studying comparative literature at top universities in Japan and South Korea. She then worked as a middle school TESOL teacher, a period during which she grew to love and understand the children’s book market. In 2013 she found her way to FinePrint as an intern, officially joining the agency in 2014, and has since been actively working to build her list with exceptionally talented clients.
And here's our interview:
Lee: Hi Penny!
Penny: Hi, Lee!
Lee: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk about your interest in Diversity in Children's and Teen Literature!
Penny: It’s my pleasure! I think the discussion about diversity in children’s book publishing on your blog is fantastic and a much needed one, so I feel honored to be included in it. Thank you!
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?
Penny: Honestly, it’s difficult to say. In the past year I’ve gotten countless submissions, which makes it impossible to give a concrete number. Though, I will say with confidence that diverse submissions are not the majority of what I usually get in my inbox unless I make an extra effort to seek them out. This is why I’ve been more active about it lately. For example, I held a query event for marginalized writers and participated in the DVpit on Twitter. The results have been amazing and I can say that 6 out of the 10 manuscripts I’ve requested in the last two months have been diverse. I know it’s not a large number in the grand scheme of things, but it gives me a lot of hope.
Lee: Let's unpack that a bit: Are you seeing many stories featuring protagonists of color?
Penny: Lately, I have. Again, I think it’s because I’ve been more active in seeking out diverse stories and very vocal about it on social media. So writers have been very forward in their query letters, letting me know if their MC is a POC, or if they themselves are POCs writing about POCs. I also think it doesn’t hurt that I’m a POC agent. They might be a little more comfortable with bluntly telling me this information.
Lee: LHow about LGBTQ characters, and please break that down - are you seeing lesbian characters? gay? bi? trans*? questioning? queer or gender non-conforming?
Penny: I do receive LGBTQ submissions, but not nearly as many as I’d like. Again, I can’t give specific numbers, but I can say I do receive more lesbian/gay characters than bi, trans, queer/gender non-conforming and questioning characters in my inbox. I have no idea why this is the case, but I would definitely love to see just as many BTQ submissions as I do LG.
Lee: How about characters with disabilities?
Penny: I rarely ever see characters with disabilities in my submissions and it makes me sad. And when I do, it’s usually a very inauthentic portrayal of them. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the super crip trope, but it’s what I’m usually stuck seeing when I do get submissions featuring characters with disabilities. A super crip is a disabled character who has magical powers to negate their disability, or they encounter a miracle that cures them of it. In real life, the vast majority of disabled people don’t get to experience this, and they just want others to accept their disabilities as a normal part of their identities. I wish I had more submissions that reflected this. We need to see more stories that send the message that disabled people don’t need to be fixed in order for us to find them interesting/important enough to read about.
Lee; Here! Here! Are you seeing other types of diversity in the works submitted? - And please share any specific categories that spring to mind.
Penny: I’ve been seeing diversity in the form of socioeconomics. Writers have been making it a point to let me know if their MCs face challenges due to socioeconomic discrimination, or if they themselves have faced such challenges. I think this is great because we tend to forget people living below the poverty line in underdeveloped areas are marginalized as well, and it’s not necessarily the color of their skin, sexuality, or religion that falls under the diversity umbrella.
I know this still falls under the POC category, but I’ve recently had a lot of submissions where writers are making it a point to tell me that their MC is biracial. I think it’s because I recently sold a YA story about a half Japanese and half Caucasian American girl, written my client who is of the same racial/ethnic background. I’m also half Asian and white, so I think writers are hoping to strike a chord with me by telling me this. Honestly, it can get frustrating at times. Some non-diverse writers think that a biracial character is an easy way for them to get in on the diversity ‘trend.’ If their MC has an Asian father and a Caucasian mother, they’ll say that the MC looks more like their dad but identifies with their mom so they can have a POC character without having to do the research that goes into accurately portraying them. I can see right through this. A lot of thought and personal experiences went into my client’s story, and I would hope that others would understand that the majority of biracial people do not automatically pick one part of their race/ethnicity as a default. We’re often caught in a liminal state where we do/want to connect and identify with both of our racial identities/cultures. I don’t think a writer has to be biracial to write biracial characters, but they need to do their research.
Lee: How about the creators? Are you seeing under-represented writers and illustrators submitting to you?
Penny: I only take picture book submissions on referral, so the answer for this is no. I rarely take on picture book projects, so I’m probably not the best agent to ask about this. I would hope to see under-represented creators if I did start to accept unsolicited PB submissions though!
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?
Penny: I believe we all have the right to tell the story that we want, and it’s wrong to try and sensor anyone. However, I do feel that writers have a responsibility to be mindful and do their research before trying to write outside of their own diverse experiences. I always tell writers to enlist multiple beta readers of the background that they want to write about, and to really listen to what they say. When they don’t do their research, their characters can come across as inauthentic and possibly offensive, which can do greater harm than good, especially among younger readers who are still in the middle of shaping their own identities.
I will say that I think own voice projects are very important, and a big priority for me when it comes to submissions. Successful, diverse authors are so few and far between, so I think it’s important for us to keep encouraging them, to let them know that some us are really listening, and to make it clear that they deserve to be heard just as much as writers from non diverse backgrounds.
Lee: When you're submitting projects to editors, do you think stories with under-represented characters take more 'selling' on your part?
Penny: No. I don’t think so. It’s a very good time to be in children’s publishing right now. Many editors have joined in on the diversity discussion. I’ve actually had some pretty great conversations where they’ve specifically told me they really want more diversity on their lists!
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?
Penny: For me it’s a very personal thing. Being half Korean and half Irish American, and growing up in Georgia, I really know what it’s like to be in the minority. I was never ever able to see myself racially represented in any book until Eleanor & Park, with Park also being half Korean and half Irish American. The first time I read this book I cried because of it. I wish I had had it when I was younger. Additionally, being one of few Asian/mixed Asians at my school in Georgia really made me feel like an outsider, which is why I buried myself in books and music while growing up. On a more personal level, I also had a disability when I was younger, and had corrective surgery for it. It’s no longer visible (though I still suffer from some internal symptoms), but there was a time when I was severely picked on for it. All of those experiences have really contributed to my desire to see a larger number of diverse books in the children’s lit market, and why I’m so vocal about it.
Lee: Thank you for sharing that, Penny.
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?
Penny: I love The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi. It’s such a sweet story that might teach early readers empathy for immigrant children who are trying to adapt once they come here.
I also love Taye Diggs’s Mixed Me, a book that shows mixed children to embrace their beauty.
Lee: Middle Grade?
Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog.
R.J. Palacio’s Wonder
Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water; A Single Shard
Lee: Young Adult?
Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I Loved Before duology
Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl
Lamar Giles’s Endangered
Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park
I'm also going to shameless plug my client's new contemporary YA due out in Fall 2017, Akemi Dawn Bowman's Starfish
Lee: Okay, here’s your wish list moment. What are you looking for? Put out the call...
Penny: I’m pretty much looking for anything and everything diverse in MG and YA, as long as it’s not paranormal romance or urban fantasy. I really am dying for a sweet contemporary romance a la Jenny Han with an authentic voice and juicy hook. I’m also on the look out for my first LGBTQ project! Send me yours! And as always, I’m a big sci-fi/fantasy girl, so anything that’s inspired by cultures outside of Europe would be fantastic!
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?
Penny: Writers can submit to me per my query guidelines that are on the FinePrint website. They're also welcome to let me know if their story is diverse. As for illustrators, I only take PB submissions on referral.
Lee: Anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to add?
Penny: Let's keep fighting the good fight and remember we're all in it together!
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!
Penny: You're very welcome! It's been a blast!
Also, thank you for all the work you've done to keep the discussion on diversity going!
Thanks, Penny! Look for another Agent Looking For Diversity interview on the first Monday of next month. Until then,
Illustrate and Write On!