Monday, September 5, 2016

Ayanna Coleman (Quill Shift Literary Agency): Agent Looking For Diversity

**UPDATE: JULY 2018 - Ayanna has transitioned Quill Shift from an agency to a consultancy, and as such is no longer acting as a literary agent.**


This month's interview is with Ayanna Coleman, Agent and Founder of Quill Shift Literary Agency.

Agent Ayanna Coleman

Ayanna's bio:

Ayanna Coleman founded Quill Shift Literary Agency in 2013. With an educational background in marketing and English, Ayanna has worked within the publishing industry at a publishing house, literary agencies, as a book reviewer, programming and event director, and many years as a children’s librarian. She also earned a Master of Science degree in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, currently the top program in the nation.

As a child, and later as a librarian, Ayanna noticed that the books that could capture a child’s imagination and create a lifelong reader were not getting into children’s hands. Children (and their parents, teachers, and librarians) weren’t discovering the right books…or they hadn’t been created yet. With that in mind, Ayanna created Quill Shift Literary Agency to not only help usher books worthy of inspiring a passion for reading in children, but also books that represent all children's realities.

Ayanna is looking for middle grade and young adult fiction in all genres. Bring her stories with plucky, realistic characters that represent our multicultural society who grow throughout an engrossing plot in a setting that sucks the reader in.

And our interview...

Lee: Hi Ayanna!

Ayanna: Hi Lee!

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

Ayanna: Oh, my pleasure. It's one of my favorite things to do.

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?

Ayanna: My agency's entire mission is focused on representing authors who are from under-represented backgrounds or are crafting stories with strong diverse characters. That said, probably about 80% have some kind of inclusive element.

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

Ayanna: Yes, about 50% are protagonists of color.

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

Ayanna: I'd say 20%. I've seen a fair amount of queer, lesbian, and gay characters. Of those, mostly gay and lesbian leaning a little more towards lesbian. Not too many trans at this point, but a few questioning as well.

Lee: How about characters with disabilities?

Ayanna: Probably around 5-10%. There have been a few characters with disabilities, but many of them weren't born with those disabilities, which is what I'd really like to see more of. I have a brother with several disabilities and grew up around lots of kids who were living their lives with capabilities different than mine. I'd love to see more kids' minds opened up.

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

Ayanna: I've seen manuscripts showcasing different religions, and a few that focus on socioeconomic and geographic diversity, but mostly the diversity that comes across my desk focuses on race or sexuality.

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

Ayanna: Yes I am, again because of the mission of my agency, but I'd love to see more. I'd say the the submissions I get come from about 40% under-represented writers.

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?

Ayanna: I just did a talk at GrubStreet's Muse and the Marketplace conference in May about this. Basically, I talked about fear, and how as a writer you must work on overcoming your fear so you can tell your best story. That best story, if you're trying to be true to real life, is most likely an inclusive one and you're doing a disservice to your story if you don't recognize that.

I think everyone has the 'right' to tell whatever story they want, but it's a privilege to walk in someone else's shoes and tell their story. If you don't do it with empathy and as much understanding as you can through research (primary and secondary), discussion and feedback, and an open mind, then you don't deserve to write the story.

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

Ayanna: Simple answer? I do. Right now it looks as if editors are very excited to see something "diverse" come through their inbox but I've still found it challenging to place stories that don't focus on issues or historical figures, to find a home with editors who say they want diversity. Those everyday stories that under-represented kids definitely do have, they aren't all in urban settings struggling to survive for example, seem to have a hard place in the market because there are so few of them, which seems to be the perfect reason why we should add more.

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?

Ayanna: I'm African American and growing up as a huge bookworm, I had very few books with protagonists that looked like me or had a life resembling mine--very middle America, solidly middle class. There were no drugs, no missing mothers, I wasn't a slave, I didn't use Ebonics, etc. I played tennis, I danced ballet, I read all the time, I loved to cook. Where were stories with girls who looked like me? Why couldn't I solve mysteries or have adventures? It was like my life/world didn't matter. The fact that these stories--that representation--is still very much missing from children's literature is upsetting to say the least.

I crave for there to be more books celebrating the every day parts of kids' lives and not focusing on the problems--and we very much still are--that come with race, religion, sexual orientation, ability, etc. With my marketing and librarianship background, acting as liaison for the CBC Diversity Committee during its first three years, and my experience not seeing myself in books growing up, I knew that I had the tools to help others create those stories. How could I not put myself in the position to help representative books find their way into the hands of today's kids?

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?

Ayanna: I loved Wait, Skates! by Mildred Johnson and The Rough-Faced Girl by Rafe Martin. I read both so many times growing up. Wait, Skates! was pure fun and something that I could totally relate to as a child and The Rough-Faced Girl is a take on the Cinderella tale in the most beautiful way. It spoke to my heart and soul; it was a book I saw myself in.

Lee: Middle Grade?

Ayanna: Yolanda's Genius by Carol Fenner was a huge favorite of mine. The main character has a brother who is on the spectrum and is an amazing harmonica player. She started off by resenting having to take care of him and his way of communication but realized what an amazing person he was with his differences and she looked up to him for his ability. I believe reading that book helped me see my brother in a new light and appreciate him more.

Lee: Young Adult?

Ayanna: I was so thrilled to read Bad Kitty by Michele Jaffe in grad school. It was exactly what I would have loved as a teen. The main character is biracial, it's fluffy and fun, but there's wit and adventure and hijinks. I hadn't encountered books with protagonists of color that had all of those things before and I wanted to see more.

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

Ayanna: I'm always looking to support more authors from under-represented backgrounds who have well-crafted stories of their truths that have yet to be told. I'm looking for more books featuring physical disabilities where the kids were born with their ability, not through some tragic accident. I'm looking for fantasy and science fiction where the main character is a kid of color. I'm looking for great horror and thrillers with a diverse cast of characters that doesn't have the African American kid die at the end. I'm looking for stories that take place in other countries, and I'm always looking for more stories that have under-represented kids and teens as the main character where the conflict is not about their skin color, or their religion, or their class, or ability. I want it to be an undeniable part of the story and inform the character's identity, but I want their "problem" to be something else entirely and see how all of the things that make them who they are--which is not just their skin color or socioeconomic status--come together to help them on their journey.

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?

Ayanna: They can submit through the agency website's submission form here.

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

Ayanna: I think we covered quite a bit! One thing that I wish more people would say to under-represented writers is that you don't have to write minority characters if you don't want to. Write what you want to write. Write what feels good and natural and right to you. I hate feeling like I'm "carrying the flag" in a meeting because I'm the only representative voice in the room. It's not fair and I shouldn't feel like I have to do it, but sometimes I do. I'd like to put out there to writers that you don't have to write your background if you don't want to. We definitely need more insider voices uplifted, but we also need more under-represented writers writing everything.

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!

Ayanna: Thanks so much for taking the time to do these interviews and showcase all of those in publishing who really care about representation so that more aspiring authors from all backgrounds know that there is a place for them and their creations.

Thanks, Ayanna!

Look for another Agent or Editor Looking For Diversity interview the first Monday of next month! Until then,

Illustrate and Write On!

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