AGENTS AND EDITORS NEED TO ADVERTISE
THEIR INTEREST IN DIVERSITY
This month's interview is with Tanusri Prasanna, Agent at Hannigan Salky Gatzler (HSG) Agency.
|Agent Tanusri Prasanna (photo by Michael Soluri)|
Tanusri Prasanna is an agent at Hannigan Salky Getzler (HSG) Agency. Tanusri joined HSG in 2015 and is actively building her list. She is interested in kidlit ranging from picture books to middle-grade and young adult fiction and has a special interest in stories featuring diverse protagonists and settings. Tanusri is a lawyer by training and holds a PhD in jurisprudence and human rights law from Oxford and a Master’s degree from Harvard Law School. Her love for children’s books motivated her transition into publishing and before joining HSG she gained valuable experience at Knopf Young Readers and Foundry Literary+ Media. You can follow her on twitter at @tanusriprasanna.
Lee: Hi Tanusri!
Tanusri: Hello, Lee! I'm thrilled to be here.
Lee: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk about your interest in Diversity in Children's and Teen Literature! 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 http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp )
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?
Tanusri: I joined HSG two years ago and have started taking on my own projects for about a year now. Initially the number of diverse queries that I saw personally or in general was extremely low but they have started picking up in the last few months. I am trying to put the word out through conferences and social media that I'm looking for diverse voices, stories and protagonists and I definitely see that exposure having an effect on my queries. About a third of the queries I get have some aspect of diversity to them and I'm hoping that increases significantly in the near future.
Lee: Let's unpack that a bit: Are you seeing many stories featuring protagonists of color?
Tanusri: I am definitely getting more queries featuring protagonists of color, although typically the ethnicity or religion in question tends to be in the region of my own cultural and geographical upbringing - so lots of Asian protagonists!
Lee: That's the point of this series - otherwise, how do people know a particular agents is interested in diverse stories beyond that agent's cultural and geographic upbringing?
How about LGBTQ characters, and please break that down - are you seeing lesbian characters? gay? bi? trans*? questioning? queer or gender non-conforming?
Tanusri: I'm getting a few queries with LGBTQ characters, mostly lesbian or gay but those are a very small percentage compared to diverse queries featuring race or religion. I have had only one query featuring a trans character in the past 6 months and I lost it to another agent in the end! I would love to see a John Hughes style teen angsty/funny romance featuring an LGBTQ character.
Lee: How about characters with disabilities?
Tanusri: Almost never unfortunately. I've wondered whether that is because people tend to associate my personal background with only certain specific types of diversity and I am trying to make more of an effort to indicate that I would love to represent books featuring characters who are not mainstream in some way. It doesn't matter what that identifier is.
Lee: Hurrah! Are you seeing other types of diversity in the works submitted? - And please share any specific categories that spring to mind.
Tanusri: I think this may be covered when you talk of "protagonists of color" but I am getting a lot of religious diversity, particularly with Muslim protagonists and in my view that may also be the result of having a specialized imprint like Salaam Reads out there. It provides a great opportunity for writers who might not have thought there was a good medium for their work before.
Lee: How about the creators? Are you seeing under-represented writers and illustrators submitting to you?
Tanusri: About half of the diverse queries I'm getting tend to be "own voice" which I love!
Lee: Great segue... 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?
Tanusri: As I mentioned above, there is something special about under-represented "own voice" stories and I am hoping to get a lot more of those. But I certainly wouldn't rule out writing diverse characters if you don't share that experience. The bar is really high and I prefer it if those characters are incidentally diverse. If a book is going to delve into an underlying socio-political issue that faces a particular community of people, it gets tough when the writer hasn't had that experience. Of course there are always exceptions but they tend to be authors who have gained a reputation for a deep and specialized knowledge of the issue, meticulous and long-term research and numerous sensitivity reads.
Lee: When you're submitting projects to editors, do you think stories with under-represented characters take more 'selling' on your part?
Tanusri: I think the hard part is pitching a book that has no real comp titles in the market because the story or character is so under-represented. So you have to find an editor who's willing to take leap of faith in a story with protagonists whose experiences are unfamiliar, or a writer whose voice doesn't quite fit the paradigm. That is the challenge we face as agents as well, I believe as an agent looking for diversity I need to be very clear on what it is that I am not connecting with before passing on a diverse query. Of course the bar is very high in terms of the quality of writing, but both agents and editors have to keep in mind that what defines "quality" writing is both subjective and dominated by a certain type of voice. So we need to make sure not to treat an unfamiliar voice as if it were the same as sub-par writing, simply by virtue of that unfamiliar quality, when considering an underrepresented voice or character.
Lee: Well said. 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?
Tanusri: Intellectually speaking I believe diversity is important both to give children an interesting medium to learn about other types of people and communities and to feel in turn, that their stories are reflected in the literature--for books to be "mirrors and windows". But more personally, I'm definitely driven by the fact that I'm raising my children in a bi-religious, multi-lingual family and I would love to see more books out there that reflect their identities and experiences and where they can see characters that look like them.
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?
Tanusri: My absolute favorite picture book to read over and over is called "So Much" by Trish Cooke. It's about a baby who's waiting for his father to come home for a surprise birthday party and as he's waiting with his mother, all his relatives come in one by one and tell him how much they love him in different ways. My heart feels full every time I read it and I'm welling up as I type! This isn't typical for me as I usually don't go in for the very sentimental type of picture book but the love and joy in this book make it irresistible. I also love "Big Red Lollipop" by Rukhsana Khan, which is a great sibling story. I think both of these books are perfect examples of incidental diversity done really well.
Lee: Middle Grade?
Tanusri: Too many to choose from but if I had to, I'd pick Pam Munoz Ryan's "Esperanza Rising" both because I love reading about immigrant experiences but also for its beautifully crafted plot and great voice.
Lee: Young Adult?
Tanusri: My current favorite is Becky Albertalli's "Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda." I am a sucker for a good love story and this was one of the best, funny and tender and I couldn't put it down from start to finish. It definitely falls in the "wish I'd represented" category.
Lee:Okay, here’s your wish list moment. What are you looking for? Put out the call...
Tanusri: I am looking for kidlit ranging from picture books through middle grade and YA. I'd particularly love voices and characters who are not mainstream and are under-represented. In terms of theme, I'd be excited to see high-concept picture books or lyrical, meaningful ones that aren't however, too "sweet" or sentimental. In middle-grade, mysteries, puzzle-solving, sibling stories, interesting neighborhoods, school stories, fantasies based on mythologies from different cultures and countries. And in YA, I'd love to see issue-based novels that reach deeply into themes concerning gender, race, sexuality, anything with socio-political complexity and on the other side of that, high-chemistry romance with a twist, funny romantic comedies, coming of age stories and psychological suspense/mystery.
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?
Tanusri: Please email me your query and the first five pages (if picture book, then the whole text) in the body of the email, to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can reference Lee's website in the subject line.
Lee: Thanks, Tanusri. 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.
Look for another Agent or Editor Looking For Diversity interview the first Monday of next month! Until then,
Illustrate and Write On!