Monday, July 6, 2015

Bridget Smith (Dunham 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 Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, Inc.

Agent Bridget Smith

Here's Bridget's Bio:

Bridget Smith is an associate agent at Dunham Literary, Inc, where she's worked since June 2011. She represents middle grade, YA, and adult novels, with special interest in fantasy & science fiction, historical fiction, and women’s fiction. Her tastes run to literary and character-driven novels.

Previously, she was an intern at Don Congdon Associates, worked at a secondhand book store in Connecticut, and evaluated short story submissions for under Liz Gorinsky and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. She graduated from Brown University in 2010. While there, she studied anthropology and archaeology, worked as a radio DJ, fenced on the varsity team, and helped design an experiment that she later performed in microgravity at NASA. Currently she reads, runs, and watches more television than is probably good for her.

Our interview:

Lee: Hi Bridget!

Bridget: Hi Lee!

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

Bridget: Thanks for having me! I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this with 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?

Bridget: This is a really difficult question to answer, because I get so many submissions every month that it’s impossible to keep any sort of track. (I did once, for a conference panel, and it was so difficult and time-consuming that I vowed never to do it again.) Let’s estimate that I get about 9,000 queries in a year, including adult fiction. So I went and looked at the most recent 90 to get a very rough estimate. Of these, I found that 22 included diverse characters that were visible in the query. So approximately a quarter of my queries feature diversity, and it’s likely that more include diverse secondary characters. From this brief survey, I’d say the quality cross-section of those queries is roughly the same as the rest of my inbox: a few are intriguing and set aside for further consideration, a few are actively off-putting in some way, and the majority are simply not that interesting to me.

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

Bridget: I am, yes! I think this is the largest category, and it’s also the one talked about the most. I would still, however, love to see more: the discussion is warranted, as you can see by the CCBC stats.

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

Bridget: This is probably the fastest-growing category of diverse submissions that I get. I’m thrilled to see that increasing numbers of people are writing stories about LGBTQ characters that address more and more complex issues. Most of what I see, though, is gay boys. I don’t want fewer gay boys – but I’d like to see more bisexual boys, more girls of all stripes, more characters exploring the boundaries of gender and what it means to them personally. I want some characters who find immense satisfaction in knowing which label fits them, and some characters who prefer to eschew labels altogether!

Lee: Yup. Lables. That could be an entire other interview. We need more of it all! How about characters with disabilities?

Bridget: This is the smallest category that I see, and one of the hardest as well: very few people start a manuscript about, for example, a gay character with an explanation of what it means to be gay, but many of the characters with disabilities that I encounter spend more time focusing on the disability than on the story. I understand the urge! Writers want to make sure readers understand the character. And when you care about representing a particular disability well, you want it to be clear to the reader. But a disability, like any other facet of a character, needs to unfold within the story. Show me what it’s like to live with this disability rather than telling me all the symptoms. I’m particularly interested in the ways a disability can shape a person’s perception of the world and the stories that live within that space.

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

Bridget: I’m seeing a nice increase in socioeconomic diversity, as well. Class intersects with other kinds of diversity in important ways, and we’re still recovering from a recession that is the only reality most YA and MG readers have ever recognized. (Similar to how a current 14-year-old has only ever lived in a “post-9/11 world” and a United States that is at war, that same 14-year-old was 7 when the recession hit in 2008.) Most YA and MG readers are used to some form of austerity: whether their family is struggling from day to day, or there’s just some vague awareness that discounted clothes are preferable, they know that money matters. I’m seeing authors recognize and use this fact, and it’s appreciated.

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

Bridget: This is even harder to answer, because it’s entirely self-reported: barring a profile photo that shows up in Gmail, or a name whose background is easily recognizable, I only know as much about the writers as they choose to tell me. I’m sure there are more of them in my slush pile than I know about! I do see some, though, and I always welcome more. Would love to see more, in fact.

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?

Bridget: Honestly, I’m not sure I have the right to decide this! But my thoughts, in brief: I’d rather see a male author strive to include fully-formed female characters (even if he doesn’t always succeed) than write a world entirely without women. So I apply that feeling more broadly, with the understanding that other people’s thoughts may differ.

I do prefer to see stories that are written by people with that background, not simply because it’s more likely to be “authentic” or respectful, but because they are more steeped in the variety of experiences associated with an identity and can thus write it in more varied, more intersectional ways. But I also think talented writers can and should look beyond their own background to create characters. Do the research, talk to willing members of that group, stretch your empathy muscles, know that you will get something wrong, and be ready to learn from criticism – polite or not.

The opposite side of this coin, of course, is that if you’re a member of a marginalized group, you don’t have to tell that story. You are never required to be an advocate. If you want to write straightforward escapism about a ragtag group of space adventurers or a charming and low-stakes YA romance (though, of course, both of those can effectively include diversity), I’d still love to see that!

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

Bridget: Honestly, most of the editors I know are looking for diversity in submissions. They want to find really good books that feature under-represented characters and their experiences, and they tell me this frequently. The intention is there! I think it can sometimes be hard for individual manuscripts to break through, especially when editors (like agents) know that they’re going to reject most of what they read and thus are looking to be blown away. I’ve recognized this pattern in my own reading and am trying to pay more attention to whether I’m not connecting with a manuscript because of a real mismatch or simply because it’s written from a point-of-view that’s different from mine.

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?

Bridget: I could talk here about empathy and self-recognition, about the value of seeing yourself in books and the importance of seeing others from the inside. I could talk about how certain books, read at the right moment, fixed something inside of me that I knew was broken but didn’t know how to name, and about how I want other children and teenagers to have those moments too. And all of that is true! But in the end, I must admit my driving reason is rather selfish: I think it makes for more interesting stories. I want more variety in my books, more voices and experiences brought to vivid breathing life. There are so many people with so many different stories in the world: how could I not want to hear as many of them as possible?

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?

Bridget: Here’s where I have to acknowledge that I’m not really a picture book reader. I moved past them very quickly as a kid, and I’m not looking for them as an agent, so I can’t name a favorite. I do think Lee & Low does some really wonderful diverse (and intersectional) picture books, so I recommend checking out their catalogue.

Lee: Middle Grade?

Bridget: Like everyone else, I think THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie is fabulous. HOLES by Louis Sachar is also a little older, but it’s been a lifelong favorite and inspiration. Tim Federle’s BETTER NATE THAN EVER is a delight. Brian Selznick’s WONDERSTRUCK uses its medium very cleverly to depict a deaf character. And I have to put in a plug for one of my boss’s clients: WAITING FOR NORMAL by Leslie Connor (which won the Schneider Family Award in 2009) is a beautiful depiction of a girl living in poverty with her neglectful, possibly bipolar mother and surviving through sheer optimism and tenacity.

Lee: Young Adult?

Bridget: Among others, I love ASK THE PASSENGERS by A.S. King, WILD AWAKE by Hilary T. Smith, THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST by emily m. danforth, 17 & GONE by Nova Ren Suma, THE SUMMER PRINCE by Alaya Dawn Johnson, and UNSPOKEN by Sarah Rees Brennan. All really beautiful, compelling books that explore a variety of issues, some at the center of the story and some not. All of these are also, not coincidentally, really wonderful feminist books as well.

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

Bridget: I’d love to see some diverse fantasies, whether they draw on non-Western cultures from our world or create something entirely new. For example, a recent wish was for something akin to the Black City from Tamora Pierce’s ALANNA. I love those books dearly, but I would have loved to see the Nameless Ones vanquished by a teenage Bazhir girl who had grown up knowing and fearing the legend. Send me things like that, where the culture shapes the story. I’m also interested in cheerful, optimistic, contemporary YA with diverse characters: so much of the time, the diversity discussion calls to mind heavy, serious books, and while those matter, I think it’s equally worthwhile to include diversity in pleasure reading!

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?

Bridget: Please send me a query and the first five pages of your manuscript at! I’d love to know if you found me through this interview, too. As a reminder, I’m mostly looking for MG and YA in all genres, plus upmarket women’s fiction and SFF for adults.

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

Bridget: It’s impossible to cover everything in a discussion like this, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten something. This isn’t a comprehensive list of the kinds of diversity I’m looking for: please do send me anything and everything! I’m always interested in intersectional diversity, too, as well as feminist and/or girl-driven books.

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!

Bridget: Thanks so much for having me here, and I look forward to reading some great books!

Thanks Bridget! 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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