Monday, May 4, 2015

Sarah Davies (Greenhouse 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 Sarah Davies of Greenhouse Literary Agency.

Agent Sarah Davies
Here's Sarah's bio:

Sarah was a senior publisher in London for many years before coming to the USA in 2007 and launching Greenhouse Literary, a transatlantic literary agency specializing in all genres of fiction (and a little non-fiction) for children and teens. As a publisher she worked with and helped to discover many well-known authors from both sides of the Pond, and as an agent she has shepherded many debut authors into deals and writing careers. Sarah is regularly in the top 3 of US agents representing MG and YA on Publishers Marketplace. She represents PBs when by existing clients she’s taken on for older fiction, but doesn’t seek debut PB texts. She loves the internationalism of today’s marketplace, but more than anything is excited to help new writers find their voice and their story. She says, “Everything I’d most like to tell you about Greenhouse is in its name – it’s where writers grow.”

And here's our interview:

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

Sarah: My pleasure, Lee. I’m honored that you want to interview me on this important subject.

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?

Sarah: I guess you could say there are three kinds of people who send me submissions/projects: 1) Those who’ve had no contact with the industry before 2) Those who are SCBWI-educated and pretty savvy and market-aware 3) Authors who are already clients. From the second two groups I’m seeing a growing number of manuscripts that include an element of diversity. In fact, I’m reading a manuscript right now that includes just about everything – a child with a disability, a lesbian partnership, racial diversity. (Oh, and there are also some quite good goats.) I feel that #WeNeedDiverseBooks has made more serious writers a lot more aware and that is reflected in the material I’ve seen over the last few months in particular.

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

Sarah: I’m definitely seeing some – and more than I used to. More usually they’re not the protagonist, but among the cast of characters. Of course racial diversity isn’t only about color. One of my clients is writing a humorous young novel about a boy who comes from an immigrant Polish family. I really like that.

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

Sarah: I’m certainly seeing characters who are gay and lesbian, and characters who are questioning. I’ve read a middle-grade manuscript recently that deals with a very young boy questioning himself and evidently different to those around him, and I really like that he doesn’t identify as gay – or any other label. He’s not sure what he is or if there’s a name for it; he just likes himself the way he is, though it causes him many problems.

Lee: How about characters with disabilities?

Sarah: I see a lot of stories about sick or depressed girls (and even more sick or depressed mothers; mothers in YA fiction tend to be a sadly bunch!), but not many involving physical disabilities – perhaps because writers don’t feel qualified to get into the head of young people suffering from something they’ve never themselves experienced.

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

Sarah: Not so much, though of course the precise racial background or orientation of submitters isn’t always clear. Occasionally a query does contain information about the author that is quite revealing about their experience, background or reasons for writing the story and I always read that with a lot of interest. It’s great when a story meshes perfectly with the personal experience of the author.
As an afterthought: the diversity issue we don’t always consider is why there are so many more women than men working in the children’s books business at every level (except, I suspect, in the board room). More women than men in publishing (or certainly editorial), and more writing. It would make everything more diverse if we simply had MORE MEN! And that’s true within the query inbox too.

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?

Sarah: It’s a tricky one and I’d want to judge every situation, author and story on its own merits. It seems wrong to me that you can only write about characters who are exactly like you. As things stand, won’t that lead us overwhelmingly to a world of white, middle-class, educated characters? Can I even depict a boy character if I’m a female writer? It seems crazy to have that kind of prohibition. But I do think that if you’re going to venture into a sensitive area, you’ve got to do it with the utmost respect and research, and find beta readers who have first-hand experience of what you’re writing. On a much less contentious level, I’ve read manuscripts set in cities or countries I know quite well, and have sometimes winced at how inaccurate or caricatured the portrayal feels. You can’t set in a book in a place you visited for a week’s vacation 20 years ago. Similarly, you can’t write about the profound experience of someone very different to you without a lot of work, insight and assistance.

Lee: Well said.

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

Sarah: I want to say “No”, but the real answer is “Sometimes”. I think editors are not only open but also eager now to see diverse characters and settings, as long as these brilliantly and naturally evolve from the storyline (rather than being grafted on because it’s the “right thing to do”). However, it’s a fine line between something richly diverse and a theme/setting that appears to limit the potential market – for example, perhaps, a story set within a very minority religious tradition. At the moment publishers want to push the envelope in terms of racial, sexual, disability diversity – but maybe not all forms of diversity are quite equal in market terms. However, I do generally believe that a fabulous story, fabulously told, will find its place. It’s just got to be THAT good.

Lee: "A fabulous story, fabulously told, will find its place." I want that on a t-shirt, too!

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?

Sarah: For me, the question “Do you want to see more diversity?” could be translated, “Do you want to see more books about people?” To which I can only answer, “Um, obviously yes.” I don’t feel I need a particular driver for this because it seems so self-evidently necessary. As a Londoner for most of my life, I come from one of the most racially diverse cities on earth. My sons went to schools where white kids were often in a minority and there was a huge racial mix. They had friends from all over the world, many were from first or second generation immigrant families, and my sons’ circles included Hindu, Muslim and Jewish children/teens. However, a lot of these children were pushed hard towards sciences rather than arts and sometimes there was a feeling that reading, music, theatre were a bit of a distraction from the main event – getting an education that would give you a solid career in later life. Though understandable, I thought this was quite sad. I volunteered once to take part in a careers evening at school – back when I was a publisher – and not a single teen boy (of any color) came to hear what I had to say about the books industry. It just wasn’t seen as desirable. I think there’s a whole circular thing here about encouragement to read, inspirational teachers, relatable fiction (which is where the hashtag comes in), and education systems that value personal and cultural enrichment not just exam success. We need to get books into children’s hands, and books that reflect their real lives and context – whatever that may be. When you read a book that speaks to you, it is transformative in how you see yourself and your place in the world. Isn’t that what we’re after?

Lee: Yes!

Tell us about some books that highlighted or included diversity that you loved and that inspired you.

Sarah: I’d love to tell you about a few that I represent because they’ll show you some of the stories that I fell in love with.

SKINNY by Donna Cooner is a YA novel about a girl who weighs 300 pounds and can’t escape the viciously negative voice in her head that constantly condemns her. As she moves towards the huge step of gastric-band surgery, she begins to find her own voice (including her singing voice) and to deal with the inner demons that tell her she’s fat, ugly and useless. I love this book because it is so warm, insightful and charming, as well as being extremely poignant.

SAVAGE FORTRESS by Sarwat Chadda could hardly be more different! It’s a thrill-ride of a middle-grade adventure about a London boy who returns to his roots in India and finds himself confronting terrifying demons. The book brilliantly brings India and Hindu mythology to life – and I don’t think anyone’s done that before. You can practically smell the air and the heat it’s all so vividly realized.

FAR FROM YOU by Tess Sharpe is different again. It’s a YA mystery told through a really clever time structure, and about a love triangle that you don’t see coming. The protagonist is a girl disabled from an accident who walks with difficulty, and the reader gradually realizes that this girl was actually in love with her best friend who was murdered – and not that girl’s brother as you expect. It is beautifully written, surprising and yes, you will cry. It’s about love rather than labels.
The hallmark of all these books is terrific writing and a unique hook. You never feel the authors are trying to be “diverse” – they are just telling great stories and telling them very well.

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

Sarah: It’s always all about the concept and crafting of the story, not the “issue”. I love adventurous middle grade (preferably with both girl and boy characters) – maybe fantasy, maybe a quest; perhaps really funny. I also adore that timeless, wonderfully crafted middle grade that is compelling, has a great sense of place and characters, and leaves you richer and wiser after you’ve turned the last page. 

In YA I never tire of a fabulously intense and intriguing premise that keeps me on the edge of my seat as the tension rises. I’d love to find a great YA fantasy novel and a great romantic contemporary – but this has to have a really strong and unique hook. I’d love to find a rich and sumptuous historical novel that nevertheless in its themes speaks to our modern sensibilities. I’m also very interested in stories set in other countries, perhaps touching on world politics, big themes – but this has to feel extremely authentic. Whatever the genre, I’m keen to see diverse characters and settings of all kinds, though every character has to spring naturally from the storyline and sense of place.

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?

Sarah: Our submission details are on our website and it’s easiest to point you there as they change from time to time:

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

Sarah: As well as diverse characters, I keep coming back to wanting more diverse authors. And especially, more diverse voices. Where’s the author who could write a contemporary Nordic Noir for me? Or the fabulous epic historical YA set in the French Revolution, which I’ve longed to find for several years. Or the story about a gay kid growing up in Syria that feels so real you can taste the dust. All these stories require a strong voice, particular knowledge as well as fiction-writing craft. Is there anyone out there who can bring them to life? These are specific examples but really, I’m after any new voice that’s authentic and shows me something new about the world. Never feel that your writing has to be cookie-cutter in tone and based on what you see selling or published. Bring what you have that is distinct and unique to you. We’re all hungry to see that.

Lee: Great advice, that I have to repeat: "Bring what you have that is distinct and unique to you."

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!

Sarah: Thank you, Lee, for the interview – and for your dedication in highlighting one of the biggest literary issues of our time.

Thanks Sarah! Look for another AGENT LOOKING FOR DIVERSITY interview on the first Monday of next month. Until then,

Illustrate and Write On!


Michael G-G said...

Love this interview.

One of my favorite books about disability is Sharon Draper's OUT OF MY MIND. Talk about immersing oneself in a completely different experience of the world!

I also like to read (and want more of!)books which feature economic diversity. Poverty and homelessness afflict great numbers of our youth. Here, I particularly enjoyed Barbara O'Connor's HOW TO STEAL A DOG, and Joan Bauer's ALMOST HOME. (Both novels coincidentally feature dogs!)

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

Great interview. Thank you, Lee and Sarah
Susa from Pen and Ink