Monday, August 1, 2016

Rachel Stark (Sky Pony Press): Editor Looking For Diversity


While we’ve been focused on agents so far, editors (the ones to whom agents - and writers and illustrators themselves - submit their work for consideration) are a huge part of how we can get more diversity in children’s and teen books. Today, I’m happy to share our first editor interview, with Rachel Stark, Assistant Editor at Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Editor Rachel Stark

Rachel's bio:

Rachel Stark is an Assistant Editor at Sky Pony Press, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. She began her career with a five-year stint in children’s book marketing at Simon & Schuster and Bloomsbury, and joined the editorial team at Sky Pony in 2015. She primarily edits middle grade and young adult fiction, and is actively seeking #ownvoices submissions and stories that reflect the diversity of the world we live in. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

And our interview:

Lee:  Hi Rachel!

Rachel: Hi, Lee! Thanks so much for having me.

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

Rachel: Of course! I'm so grateful to you for creating this platform for agents and editors. I'm excited to chat.

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?

Rachel: I'd say about a third, maybe two fifths of my submissions, involve some kind of diversity, whether it's the main character or a supporting character who's part of a marginalized group. Though, sadly, that number gets a lot smaller if we're restricting the question to main characters.

Lee: Does Skyhorse accept un-agented submissions? Are the numbers different for projects submitted via agents versus those coming in directly from writers and illustrators?

Rachel: We do accept un-agented submissions, and I use that as an opportunity not just to mine our slush pile for diverse projects, but also to participate in query contests like #DVpit, the contest hosted by the Writing from Color and Native Voices team, and so on. I don't have great numbers on Sky Pony's unsolicited submissions as a whole (there's just too much to keep track of that way), but based on what I've pulled out of our slush pile for further consideration, I definitely see more diversity there and in what I request from pitch contests—about three quarters of those submissions have at least some diverse themes. Granted, I am intentional about looking for diversity, so that biases the numbers a bit. But it does seem I have an easier time finding both writers and characters who represent marginalized groups when I turn to un-agented writers.

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

Rachel: Of the submissions I get that feature marginalized characters, protagonists of color are probably tied with mentally ill protagonists for the most common. But I still don't see as many of them as I'd like.

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

Rachel: I think people know me to be particularly interested in stories featuring complex women—and as a queer woman myself, I suppose that this is what I connect with most easily—so I have definitely received several submissions in the last year that featured lesbians. I do see gay characters relatively often. I've had a handful of submissions featuring trans* characters, and I've been pleased that those from the un-agented pile have featured trans* characters in stories other than coming out tales, which I think this industry sorely needs. I have seen one memorable submission with a genderfluid protagonist, but overall I would like to see more questioning, queer, and bisexual characters.

Lee: How about characters with disabilities?

Rachel: I can think of a handful of recent submissions that feature disabilities, but especially where physical disabilities are concerned, I notice that they tend to follow similar narratives in which the disability is a challenge to be overcome. I would love to see more submissions in which disability is one element of the character's everyday life. A great example of this is a book I acquired this year, Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners by Natalie Rompella. The main character, Ana, has obsessive compulsive disorder, and it certainly affects her everyday life and presents the occasional obstacle to her growth. But it isn't the source of all her problems.

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

Rachel: I don't see a ton of economic diversity in my submissions pile, and I would like to see more of it.

Lee: How about the creators? Are you seeing under-represented writers and illustrators submitting to you, either directly or via agents?

Rachel: I am trying to hold myself accountable to seeking out writers and illustrators from underrepresented groups, so I keep a pretty detailed log of this information. Not everyone self-identifies in their queries, so some of my numbers are based on guesswork and they likely erase the identities of some writers whose identities aren't visible or easily flagged, for which I'm sorry.

Based on what I've tracked, about 20% of the submissions I've considered since January have been written by people of color. 8% identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or pansexual. Around 3% identified as queer or trans. And 7% identified as somewhere on the disability spectrum, with the vast majority of those disabilities being neurological.

The majority of those writers, in every group mentioned but especially writers of color, were unagented.

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?

Rachel: I think Ellen Oh wrote a great response to this question back in February. Libba Bray's post in defense of Ellen did much of the good ally work I can imagine my role in this conversation encompassing. And Jennifer Laughran's post cautioning writers working outside their experience about the very real possibility that their work could cause harm really resonated with me.

As an industry, I think the fact that we keep finding ourselves having this conversation, of all the many conversations we could be having about lifting up and sharing the stories of marginalized people, says a lot about where we stand and how far we have to go. It's a conversation than inherently centers the needs and fears of the people who aren't marginalized.

I so appreciate the good work that writers, librarians, agents, and editors invested in seeing this industry change have done to answer this question—but I would love to see us move on from it. What's infinitely more important to me is asking how we can make it more possible for the people currently at the margins to tell their own stories and be welcomed by the industry.

Lee: When you're submitting projects you’ve fallen in love with to your publisher (and/or to your acquisitions team) do you think stories with under-represented characters take more 'selling' on your part?

Rachel: I think the efforts of the We Need Diverse Books team, along with the many other individuals and groups doing this work, have caused a vital shift in this conversation. I've watched the conversation at sales conferences shift, over the past few years, from downplaying aspects of stories that highlight diversity to calling them out as a selling point. I hope that lasts; it certainly helps me to buy the books I want to acquire! I also hope that, as an industry, my colleagues and I can push ourselves to treat that diversity with care, and be mindful of the need to avoid tokenism and stereotypes.

I think what's been slower to change is the perception of diversity as being a book's most defining trait. I worry about diverse books being perceived as inherently alike in a way that books about the dominant populations aren't. That kind of thinking really limits how much support I can get for diverse stories in house.

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?

Rachel: I first recognized that feeling of being othered when I discovered feminism in college—or at least, that's when I first began to put language to it, because I had certainly marginalized before I understood where it came from. And as a queer woman, I come up against a few key intersections of inequality in my daily life. But being queer and a woman has also given me access to these incredible, supportive, vibrant communities that have developed in large part as a response to marginalization. There is a culture to being a woman, to being queer, that is worth preserving and is worthy of attention. There is so much that deserves to be celebrated in every community that's fought to be seen, and that motivates me as much as empathy does to play a part in publishing the stories of marginalized people.

But honestly, for all that I try, I've not always been such a great ally to people whose inequality doesn't look like mine, and I'd be lying if I said some of my attempts to diversify publishing weren't driven by guilt! Beyond that, though, I really believe in the power of media to empower people and to change minds. And when I look at the people I see suffering right now, whether it's because of the increasingly immediate threat of racist or homophobic violence, or because of the slow war waged by structural inequality, it seems like that empowerment and change is the most important work I can be doing with the skills I have.

Lee: Tell us about some books that highlighted or included diversity that you loved and that inspired you (maybe even ones you wish you’d edited and published). What’s a Picture Book favorite?

Rachel: I love Giant Steps to Change the World by Spike and Tonya Lewis Lee, illustrated by Sean Qualls. I appreciate its call to activism, and everything Sean Qualls touches just turns to gold. My former colleagues Namrata Tripathi (now at Dial) and Sylvie Frank (at Paula Wiseman Books) both have fabulous eyes for diverse picture books; I love just about everything they edit.

Lee: Middle Grade?

Rachel: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin gave me one of the most delightful reading experiences I can remember having. I am an avid fan of the Lumberjanes comics and I'd kill to edit such a fun, diverse, zany group of girls, whether in novel or comic form. And I'm eagerly anticipating the conclusion to Laurie Halse Anderson's Seeds of America trilogy after loving Chains.

Lee: Young Adult?

Rachel: I've always wanted to edit a book that does for teens what Octavia Butler's Kindred does for adults; I'm halfway through Zetta Elliot's A Wish After Midnight right now, and I suspect this book has beaten me to the punch. I loved A.S. King's Ask the Passengers and hope to someday work on a book with such a precocious, earnest, and sincere questioning character. Sherman Alexie's penchant for blending the tragic and hilarious is unmatched, and so of course I loved Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Both Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely feel like essential reading right now. I really appreciated the questions of gender and sexuality that David Levithan's Every Day explored, and Hilary T. Smith's Wild Awake gave me so many feels. I adored Shannon Hale's Dangerous, and every time I think about intersecting diversities, her Maisie Danger Brown comes to mind.

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

Rachel: I am looking for young adult and middle grade novels and graphic novels, as well as the occasional, very special picture book and/or nonfiction project. I find myself particularly drawn to stories that feature complex female characters with deep, well-articulated inner worlds; the occasional male-driven story that subverts gendered tropes and expectations; themes of friendship, sacrifice, and wonder at life; genre stories (especially fantasy) that use the conventions of their genre to critique, subvert, or illuminate a truth about our world; stories in any genre that reflect the diversity of the world we live in and speak to oppressed communities directly; and of course an unforgettable, authentic voice—my taste tends towards more literary than commercial writing. I am adamantly and enthusiastically seeking non-white, LGBTQAI+, disabled, neurodiverse, or otherwise marginalized authors for my list. I've already said I want a book that explores the questions Kindred asks, but in a teen-focused way; I am also eager to read a "factionalized" story about teenage Claudette Colvin, as written by a feminist woman of color.

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?

Rachel: Agented writers, have your agent submit to me. Unagented writers, please submit to and include my name as well as a reference to this blog in your pitch.

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

Rachel: I'm sure I'll think of something the day after this post goes live.

Lee: Ha! That's a great reminder that it's really an ongoing conversation we need to keep having. 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!

Rachel: I so agree. Thank you for the work you're doing!

Thanks, Rachel. Look for another Editor or Agent Looking For Diversity Interview the first Monday of next month! Until then,

Illustrate and Write On!

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