Monday, February 1, 2016

Thao Le (Sandra Dijkstra & Associates Literary Agency): 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 Thao Le of the Sandra Dijkstra & Associates Literary Agency.

Agent Thao Le

Thao's bio:
THAO LE handles the financials and select contracts at the Dijkstra Agency. She is also an agent.
She is a graduate of the University of California, San Diego with a double major in Econ-Management Science and Chinese Studies. While interning at the agency during college, she realized where her true love lies — books — and joined the agency full-time in the spring of 2011.

Thao is currently looking for: Adult Sci-fi/Fantasy, Young Adult, Middle Grade, and is selectively open to Romance/New Adult, and Picture Books by authors who are also illustrators.
For Adult and YA SF/F, she enjoys stories rooted in mythology, fairytales, and legends with atmospheric settings and strong world building. For contemporary YA, she’s seeking witty, heartfelt writing with an authentic teen voice. Think Stephanie Perkins, Jenny Han, or Sarah Dessen. For Middle Grade, she’s looking for fantastic adventures and clever heroes/heroines the likes of Lemon Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, and Soman Chainani’s School of Good and Evil. She’s a fan of picture books by Jon Klassen, Kate Beaton, Cale Atkinson, and Liz Climo and would like to add picture books in the same vein to her list. For Romance and New Adult, she’s drawn to strong, memorable characters whose individual journeys brings them together. She’s particularly seeking unique historical romance and speculative romance similar to Gail Carrier’s Parasol Protectorate series. She also loves magic realism and beautiful literary writing with a commercial hook. She is always on the lookout for more diversity and LGBTQ stories.

And our interview:

Lee: Hi Thao!

Thao: Hi Lee!

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

Thao: I’m excited to be chatting with you! Diversity is an important and personal topic for me so I’m glad it’s gaining more attention.

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?

Thao: This is really difficult to accurately answer since I get so many submissions it’s hard to keep track of what is what and at what percentage. That said, I do believe that the number of submissions featuring diverse characters and themes are slowly rising. I think a lot of that is thanks to movements like #DiversityInYA and #WeNeedDiverseBooks. It also helps that I am getting more vocal about saying I want to see diverse stories, specifically making it one of my MSWL items, and I think being a POC myself makes me more approachable with these types of queries.

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

Thao: I am seeing a few, though I’m finding that the stories are often written by non-POC writers. Which is fine, but I’d love to see more from writers who come from different cultures. A lot of the stories I get that feature POC have a plot that deals with racism or discrimination directly. This can be done well, but I want POC writers and readers to know that they can have stories about romance, adventure, and magic too. I think it is important that POC authors feel like they can write stories beyond about being POC or POC issues and POC readers can see themselves reflected in all sorts of stories. I particularly want to see more SFF stories featuring diverse protagonists.

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

Thao: I’m definitely seeing more LGBTQ characters. This is probably the fastest growing group of diversity in fiction from what I can see. I get quite a few lesbian and gay submissions, but I notice very few bi or trans stories. Similar to what I said earlier about the POC topic, I’d like to see more stories featuring LGBTQ characters who go beyond dealing with their sexuality, beyond coming out or being confused. I want to see them go into space, I want to see them fight monsters, I want to see them compete in intense debate competitions and everything in between.

Lee: Oh, Space monsters! Awesome, yeah. I want to read that.

How about characters with disabilities?

Thao: Of the three, I’ve gotten this the least. I’ve received a small handful of queries about characters with mental disabilities, but not many about physical disabilities. One of the things I really like about the How To Train Your Dragon movies was that they dealt with physical disability in such a candid way. Does it affect the way the character lives his life? Sure, but I never felt like the character’s disability controlled the story. I’m always looking for stories that present new insight and new perspectives. Also Furiosa from the new Mad Max movie is my favorite. Bring on more badass ladies like her (prosthetic limbs and all)!

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

Thao: I’m seeing more combinations of diversity which is awesome. It’s great to see more than one diversity being represented in a character because that’s how it is in real life. People aren’t just one thing and no one thing defines them.

Lee: Wait! That's so important I have to call that out, so everyone hears that again:

"People aren't just one thing and no one thing defines them."

Thao: I want to see more characters who are POC, who are LGBTQ, who are disabled, who are a combination of all these things without the story being a big red arrow pointing at all these issues. I’m also seeing more stories featuring heroines who are plus size and stories that feel more feminist which makes me really happy.

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

Thao: Not enough! For picture books, I actually chase illustrators whose work I’ve discovered through etsy, tumblr, etc. Many of whom are from cultural diverse backgrounds or based overseas. My agency works with a lot of international authors. On the novel side of things, I think diverse writers should feel they can write about things beyond their own culture. For instance, a Hispanic author should feel okay writing about non-Hispanic people and not feel pigeon-holed into just writing just Hispanic stories. I think the important thing is when writing about a culture that is not your own, do it respectfully. Don’t just add a flat token character in there to call your book diverse.

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?

Thao: I don’t think there is one “right” way to tell any story. No group of people have a single formulaic cookie-cutter type of experience. To say there is only one right way to experience something would be to stereotype it. I identify as Vietnamese-American, but I was born in Vietnam before I became a citizen of the United States. That makes my experience immediately different from another Vietnamese-American who was born in the United States. Furthermore, the fact that I live in California makes my experience different from someone who lives in say… Texas or New York. Everyone’s experience is different and yet authentic and genuine to themselves. I think it’s important to keep an open mind and accept these different experiences. That’s the definition of diversity after all. If someone is writing about characters outside of their experience then again, be respectful, research, do it right. Don’t fall prey to the stereotypes just because it’s easy. People are always going to have their opinions, but I think it’s better to try and include diversity rather than not doing anything about it at all because you’re afraid of the backlash. If everyone was afraid then we would get nowhere.

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

Thao: With book editors, I feel like a lot of them are becoming much more open to diverse stories. I have several who, knowing my list, have explicitly told me they want diversity. With Hollywood, however, I am still hearing things from our film agents or scouts saying, “Oh this story has a lesbian romance? That’ll be a hard sell.” Or things like, “The cast in this story is too Asian, no one is going to do an all Asian cast.” Which is definitely disheartening, but I’m hoping it’ll change as more people clamor for more diversity.

Lee: We'll keep working towards that!

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?

Thao: It’s personal for me. I know first-hand how it feels to grow up never seeing someone like myself in books or TV. I recall being really jealous of my classmate’s long blonde hair and blue eyes when I was in the 2nd grade and I remember wishing I could look like her because she was so popular and everyone wanted to be her friend. It made me want to turn against my own culture. I remember telling my mom I wanted to eat hamburger instead rice and crying about it because Vietnamese food was lame. Thinking back on this now I regret feeling ashamed about my own culture and I don’t want future generations to feel that way. I do believe that books can change the world. That they can shape our society. So if I am in a position to help more diverse books come to life, to get into the right hands, then it’s my duty to do it.

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?

Thao: I really love Kate Beaton’s The Princess and the Pony. It’s hilarious, charming, and totally blows all the stereotypes about warriors and princesses (and ponies) out of the water.

Lee: Middle Grade?

Thao: Wonder by R.J. Palacio broke my heart. I’m also super excited to represent Kathryn Tanquary’s The Night Parade, which stars a Japanese heroine in a Miyazaki-esque fantasy.

Lee: Young Adult?

Thao: To shamelessly plug more of my authors… I’m super stoked for Roshani Chokshi’s The Star Touched Queen which is an epic Indian fantasy, and Emily Skrutskie’s The Abyss Surrounds Us because POC queer girls and sea monsters are AWESOME. Plugging done, I’m also very much in love with The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh and Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed.

Lee: Queer girls and sea monsters??? Very cool.

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

Thao: I have so many! Jenny Han style contemporary YA with diverse cast of characters. More POC and diverse fantasy and science fiction. Queer romances. Stories with disabled characters that go beyond the disability. I could go on and on. I would highly suggest you follow me on twitter for more wish list items (I use the #mswl tag).

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?

Thao: Definitely follow me on twitter (@thaole8) for updates. I’m also on tumblr ( I post my #mswl’s on both of these sites fairly often. To submit, email your query letter, short synopsis, bio, and the first 10-15 pages of your manuscript (all copy-and-pasted in the body of the email) to thao (at) dijkstraagency (dot) com. Here’s a tip, if you are emailing and your manuscript matches one of my #mswl items please put MSWL somewhere in your subject line.

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

Thao: I think my biggest advice to those who want to see more diverse stories is to write it, to read it, to spread the word. Remember to support diverse authors. Buy more diverse books, tell your friends about it. If more people clamor for it then change will happen. We’re gaining traction, but don’t stop yet. We have to keep it up because in the end it’s all business. Supply and demand. So demand more diversity!

Lee: Yes! 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!

Thao: Thanks so much for interviewing me! 

Thanks again, Thao! 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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