THEIR INTEREST IN DIVERSITY
This month's interview is with Jennifer Udden, Agent at Barry Goldblatt Literary.
|Agent Jennifer Udden|
Jennifer Udden was born in Houston, TX, and spent many of her formative years hiding books under tables while she was meant to be paying attention to something else. She has a BA from Mount Holyoke College, and graduated in 2008 with a major in Politics, a minor in Chinese, and honors thesis work on anxiety in British detective fiction of the early 20th century. She has worked in fundraising for an off-Broadway theater company and joined the publishing industry in 2010 at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. She is the co-host of the podcast Shipping & Handling (shippingandhandlingpodcast.com) with Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, Inc. She blogs at www.jenniferudden.com and jenniferudden.wordpress.com
Lee: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk about your interest in Diversity in Children's and Teen Literature, Jennifer. 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: I don’t have a specific percentage off the top of my head, but I would say that in the last year maybe 5-15% have specifically highlighted some aspect of diversity in their query or in their novel.
Lee: Let's unpack that a bit: Are you seeing many stories featuring protagonists of color?
Jennifer: Yes! Definitely more than I saw at the beginning of my career. I would say that of the percentage I saw before, more than half of those highlight that their protagonist is a person of color.
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: Yes - because I represent m/m romance I tend to see a lot of queries in that genre (gay romance), but I don’t tend to see as many lesbian, bi, or trans queries. There are a few, but not that many.
Lee: How about characters with disabilities?
Jennifer: I’ve seen a few, definitely!
Lee: Are you seeing other types of diversity in the works submitted? - And please share any specific categories that spring to mind.
Jennifer: I am seeing quite a few queries from authors who live in areas other than the US and Europe - it’s awesome!
Lee: How about the creators? Are you seeing under-represented writers and illustrators submitting to you?
Jennifer: I know that the idea of creators identifying themselves as being from an under-represented group is a bit fraught, but I have seen more authors specifically identifying themselves, or providing links to blogs or social media that has more information about how they identify, and I really appreciate that!
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: I definitely think that I prioritize #ownvoices stories more than a similar story that might be told by a writer from a more privileged group, because I feel personally that we have had many of those kinds of books already. I think that any writer can write a story set in a culture not their own, but when they do so they ought to take into account the feedback of people from that culture. The pushback against critiques of cultural appropriation seems to me to be a case of writers who want the privilege of writing another culture, but don’t want to hear feedback from members of that culture or group when it is offered to them.
Lee: When you're submitting projects to editors, do you think stories with under-represented characters take more 'selling' on your part?
Jennifer: These days when I go out with a project with characters from under-represented groups I highlight that aspect in the pitch to editors - I don’t want to hide or minimize it for fear of editors not being interested. And I think the response has been pretty good- many editors are also looking to diversify their lists, as well!
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?
Jennifer: Boredom, honestly! Diversity makes things more interesting. It’s literally just bringing in new stories or different stories than what we’ve seen published before.
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 Young Adult favorite?
Jennifer: Two come to mind: first, SUMMER PRINCE by Alaya Dawn Johnson, which is set in futuristic Brazil, with a POC protagonist and cast. It’s one of my favorite books and is such a fun read. The second is DUMPLIN’ by Julie Murphy, which is the story of a fat protagonist in small-town Texas. I think this was one of the first books I’d read with a fat protagonist where their journey wasn’t about losing weight, and as someone who has struggled with weight and self-image before, this was such a joy to read.
Lee: Okay, here’s your wish list moment. What are you looking for? Put out the call…
Jennifer: I would love to see a fantasy (YA or adult) inspired by the world of Beyonce’s LEMONADE visual album or a scifi (again, YA or adult) inspired by Janelle Monae’s TheArchAndroid. I want romance in any category with POC protagonists. I’d like to see POC protagonists or authors in any of the genres I represent, as well as LGBT protagonists and authors from underrepresented groups.
Lee: And for writers 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: My submission guidelines are on the website! send the first five pages, query letter, and synopsis to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Look for another Agent or Editor Looking For Diversity interview the first Monday of next month! Until then,
Illustrate and Write On!