Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Feeding the Demand for More Diverse Books

An "It's Complicated!" post by literary agent Stefanie Sanchez Von Borstel

While on faculty at the National Latino Writers Conference last Thursday, a timely USA TODAY headline read:
For the first time in US history, more than half of all newborn babies born last year are minorities. The entire US population is 36% minority, and this milestone shows how swiftly our nation’s youth is diversifying. 
Yet a recent study by the SCBWI found that in 2010 more than 90 percent of children’s/young adult books published in the US featured white protagonists. As a literary agent, I’ve found it’s important to show publishers there is a demand, and in turn help them feel confident to publish even more diverse voices. As an author advocate, I believe it’s critical for writers of color to see their fellow writers succeed. As a mother, I know it’s urgent that we make sure young readers see themselves in the books they read.

The debut middle-grade novel by Diana Lopez, Confetti Girl (Little, Brown), is an example of a book filled with diversity that doesn’t focus on diversity but instead wraps diversity around a wonderful story. Apolina “Lina” Flores is a sock enthusiast, volleyball player and science lover looking for answers about her life. Filled with colorful Mexican-American cultural details such as dichos, confetti-filled cascarones and cumbia dances, the story struck a chord with middle-schoolers nationwide. 

I met Diana Lopez at the National Latino Writers Conference and from the first pages I knew it was special. Like many Latinos I grew up with cascarones, but I had never read about them in a novel. Author Diana Lopez writes from her own experiences growing up and teaching in south Texas. Just like the author, Diana’s characters speak some Spanish, eat french fries and papas con huevos, and celebrate the colorful diversity that surrounds them. Confetti Girl went on to sell well and was named a New York Public Library “100 Books for Reading & Sharing”. The Scholastic book club edition has sold extremely well and a Spanish-language edition is available.

In my experience as a literary agent, diverse voices often require a bit more discussion (more successes stories would help, too!). For example, Malin Alegria sent her editor pictures of flea markets, and mariachi festivals while writing her new teen series Border Town (Scholastic). For Confetti Girl, when editors asked what are cascarones? We sent photographs. We mailed cascarones, so they could crack them on their heads for good luck!

I’m open to finding diverse voices everywhere. The real spark comes when a writer pulls me into their world. When considering a manuscript, I look for characters with dialogue, diction, and actions that match their culture. An authentic voice shines through the story. On the other hand, a mismatch between voice and culture jars readers out of the story. When writing about any culture, it’s also important to include accurate details. In his beginning pages one writer lost credibility when he referred to one of the largest cities in Mexico as a “village”.

I’m delighted to share success stories like Confetti Girl to point to authors that come from within a culture and open their world to readers. I hope you’ll also share yours!


  1. Thanks, Stefanie, for your blog and it's great that as a literary agent you are open for Diversity YA ficton. People in Hollywood know that many movies make more money internationally than domestically. They also do co-production with foreign movie companies. Hence, when they make a movie they take in account the international market. I'm not sure that the Book pulishing Indutsry do the same. Let's take for example American Asians who are about 5% of the US population. While they are a minority in the US and therefore a book with an American Asian heroine will be classified as a Divresity fiction, in Asia they are the majority and a book with an Asian heroine will be a Regular book in Asia. Therefore, a Diversity fiction in the US will be viewed as a Regular fiction in other parts of the world. I'll appreciate if you can comment if you, and eventually the editor that you submit to, take into account the foreign market. Another issue is whether a Diversity fiction must be very authentic. I respectfully submit that it should not if you want to reach millions of American readers. American readers like to relate to the storyline and the characters and if it is too far away from their daily lives, their experience, their way of talking ect. they are unlikely to purchase the book. In YA fiction there are three well known best sellers: Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games. American young adults can relate to them. Presenting them with a Diversity YA fiction that is very different to them (because it is very authentic) will not make them feel connected. Therefore, I respectfully submit that if the CBC Diversity committee want to make an impact they should aim to promote first Diversity fiction that connect with all American YA readers, not just readers from the Diversity group taht the storyline is about. The CBC Diversity committee can make an impact by giving us a Best Seller in each Diversity category. One Diversity Best Seller like the three books above will make a greater impact than hundreds of Diversity novels that not many are reading.

    1. Hello Giora,

      We've seen the international market for young adult is very strong. It is growing for middle grade titles, and less active for picture books published in the US. Since there are so many territories to consider, each with their own special requirements and interests, we pursue international sales through our foreign rights co-agent when we hold translation rights on behalf of our authors. In addition to the characters, international publishers also look to themes, settings and other details that travel to their readers (for example, although an Asian character would be great for Asian markets, if the book is set in a very American setting, it may or may not translate into foreign sales).

      I certainly would love to see a diverse bestseller, with sales along the lines of the books you mention. We just never know exactly what is going to hit. I don't necessarily feel that an authentic book couldn't connect with American young adults. However, I do agree that we need to let all young adults know about the books that might be just outside their direct realm. I believe this is what the CBC Diversity committee hopes to do. Thanks again for your suggestions Giora---let's continue to all brainstorm ways we can do just that! --Stefanie

  2. Thank you, Stefanie! I'm a huge fan of Diana Lopez's Confetti Girl and highly recommend it.

    No doubt part of the solution is to offer up more, strong manuscripts from the writing community for consideration.

    But given the reality of the diverse population, what other real challenges or misconceptions do you think make some publishers hesitate to purchase and/or heavily promote such stories?

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful post and excellent question, Cynthia!

      I hope editors or marketeers will pipe in with their thoughts on your question, since this is a difficult one to answer. Anyone? I’m not sure from my vantage point as an agent that I always know the true answer, but I do try to dig deeper when publishers hesitate to take on new projects with diverse viewpoints.

      Most often we receive positive responses from editors, even when they do pass on a project. While they like a unique character or untold story, this might also come with a "will have difficulty standing out in the tough XX book market" or “not confident we’d publish this successfully on our list”. I know it can be frustrating for writers to hear these mixed messages, when a pass seems more because of the publisher's sense of marketability. As writers, keep writing fabulous books! As agents and editors we can keep working hard to bring attention to our books. As readers, we can show publishers there is a demand. We can all write book reviews about books that feature with diverse characters, take part in important discussions like the valuable ones on this blog, and buy books by new writers from underrepresented communities.

  3. Thanks for this terrific post, Stefanie. I love the idea of sending cascarones to the editor! I'm curious if you are able to speak at all about the marketing of these two books? My guess is that you'd want to target both the Latino community/media and beyond, but I'd love to know if there was anything the publishing houses did (or Malin or Diana) that helped to spread the word across the board.

    Giora, thanks for your comment. I can't speak for the industry at large, but most editors I know definitely take into account the global market when acquiring a book. Assuming we have World Rights to a title, of course!

    1. For CONFETTI GIRL, Little Brown was very supportive. As a debut writer, Diana was sent to the Texas Library Association conference, as well as the larger national ALA conference. (Diana even brought cascarones, there are some fun photos of Connie Hsu and Diana Lopez cracking confetti-filled eggs with librarians from across the nation)! A discussion guide and author video later helped to spread the word, and as a former middle grade teacher Diana visited schools and book festivals getting out in front of students to promote her first book.

      Scholastic made a strong commitment to the BORDER TOWN series with four books scheduled to be published in both English and Spanish editions. (All you Sweet Valley High fans--I keep seeing mentioned on this blog--will enjoy this new series!) Malin is focusing her own efforts within the Latino community and the publisher is working on the more general promotion. Malin recently spoke at the Youth Mega Mashup Conference, which focuses on media for all youth demographics. The publisher featured on their popular "This Is Teen" website, teacher newsletters/websites, and Facebook promotions. At the same time, Malin is a popular speaker with high schools in Latino areas, and she tapped connections for a feature on NPR's Morning Edition speaking about growing up Latina in the US. Click here to listen:

      Everything adds up and both Malin and Diana have made much of their success by developing connections and getting out in front of *all* audiences! --Stefanie

  4. I had an "ah ha" recently while presenting my new picture book at a convention. Because I'm always excited when groups we haven't seen often appear in children's books, and spend a lot of time in communities that feel the same way, I introduced the book by saying, "it's about a Cambodian American family!" And I watched some people's faces glaze over.

    I'm always talking about the importance of "examining differences through the lens of commonality," starting with our core human connection, but here I was starting with difference, and in many cases it created a disconnect for people. I wish that everyone realized that a story about Cambodian Americans was a story for them, too, but at this point it's not the reality in America. (The more we're successful in the topics discussed here, the sooner that day comes.)

    I realized I'd be far more effective if I talked first about themes that everyone could relate to - the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter, family stories, special foods, journeys. I think what every reader is looking for is the sense that "this story is about you."

    We can help build the bridges to these titles by selling the universals - "You're going to love this book - it's about a girl who loves colorful socks and plays volleyball!"

    1. Hello Anne,

      This is exactly right! It's important to start with a wonderful universal story and then weave in all of the diverse cultural/religious/regional/etc details. As an agent, this is precisely how I present my projects to publishers. I completely agree with your "ah ha" moment, and authors should also keep this in mind as they present their stories to agents and editors. In a manuscripts, I prefer not to see immediate labels such a "Cambodian American" or "Peruvian American", rather I prefer to discover these details as I get to know the characters themselves.

      At the basis there needs to be a great story--that is how we connect with readers and build bridges. -- Stefanie

    2. Thanks, Stefanie.
      I'll be rethinking pitches for all my books - those in print and those in process - to focus on the themes that everyone can relate to. It's a good reminder for those of us passionate about this topic that we can broaden the circle - and our audiences- by focusing on universals.

    3. Connected to this, though, is to remember that when pitching to a publisher like mine, which focuses on multicultural literature, the diversity element *is* part of the hook in helping me to know as an editor whether it fits what I'm looking for. I can't tell you how often I have to go back to the agent and clarify--is the main character a person of color? Can you give me more information? I can't make a decision whether it's worth my time to read a book that sounds cool, but then I come to find out that the agent forgot our focus or thought that having a POC sidekick was enough diversity. (I'm all for more diversity in supporting characters, but our mission is to publish books that star main characters of color.)

      I suppose mine is an isolated case--there are few editors out there specifically looking to showcase only characters of color; most are looking for diversity within a larger list. But for authors and agents, I think it's important that this be a consideration at the end of the pitch when the case warrants it.

      Then, when reading, I look for exactly this kind of approach, though--getting to know the character as an individual first, and learning about *all* the things, both universal and specific, that make this person who he or she is.

    4. Hi Stacy,

      Excellent point. I should clarify that I do like a description of the main character in a cover note or query letter, but not in the *manuscript* itself.

      In manuscript submissions, I tend to see lots of first-person confessional narratives that tell me "who" the character is in the first couple of pages. I prefer to uncover those details more organically by getting to know the characters as I read. I think this follows Anne's process when she is sharing her actual stories with young readers.

      Look forward to hearing more about your books, Anne!


  5. Thanks, Nancy. I read that you are the Chair of the CBC Diversity Committee, so let me suggest some actions. A huge Best Seller, like the three novels in my previous post, opens the door to other authors to write similar books, opens the minds of readers to seek similar books and opens the minds of literary agents/editors/book publishers to seek similar books. Let's take The Hunger Games. Katniss is a straight young woman in a love triangle with two young men. But the main story is not her love orientation, but the action of the hunger games. What if Suzanne Collins will write The Hunger Games with the same action, but with Katniss being a young lesbian woman in a love triangle with two young women. Will The Hunger Games will not be a best seller? It probably will be, but maybe not so big. But we will have a Diversity Best Seller that will open the doors and minds for more book with a lesbian heroine.
    Now for suggesting action for CBC committee. It will be useful to make a survey among hundreds of teens, boys and girls, and ask them on a scale of 1 to 10 how much (if any) they are less likely to like The Hunger Games if Katniss was a lesbian. Their response might provide useful clues.
    Lastly, it's good to approach a very famous American author who supports Diversity and ask her or him to write a novel (that hopefully will become a best seller) with a Diverse heroine/hero but appealing to most readers. That book might open the doors of Diversity for everyone. Best wishes.

  6. With the recent statistical data to prove the population is diversifying even more (36%), maybe we'll begin to see more diversification in books. More awareness usually brings more results.

    You still have to write the stories that come from the heart but knowing there are children out there who need someone to write their story may push us as authors to dig deeper and imagine wider beyond our borders.

    I think of Jessica Lee Anderson's YA novel BORDER CROSSING as an example where the diversity of the character is just part of the story, the real story lies within the struggles of the character and how he faces his illness.

    Great post, Stefanie. Thanks for sharing! I have not read CONFETTI GIRL. Looking forward to it now!

  7. As someone representing a minority, I can testify it's tricky to incorporate that into our writing. It gives us a unique opportunity for expression, but at the same time it makes it more difficult to get heard.

    So the question is, in our effort to fit in, do we conform (thought doing so puts us right in the middle of the already fierce competition with the majority), or do we take the plunge.

    I, for one, am taking my chances. My latest MG novel includes characters that reflect on my Bulgarian origin, French background and American newcomer experiences. I hope America is ready for it.

    And Ms. Borstel, thank you for being an advocate for diverse characters-they, too, need their voices heard. Cynthia, thank you, as well.

    Rosie Pova

  8. I do research on students' responses to multicultural literature, and have found lots of resistance on the part of white students in talking about present day racial inequities, and especially on the topic of their own racially privileged status. I believe that we need to think more about this with young adults and with our population in general. Thanks for this important blog!

    Marianne Modica

    1. Amen, Marianne.

      I read a recent news report in The Nation of a poll that found that a majority of white young adults 18-30 believed that "the government paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities," and an even larger majority believed that "discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities." The reporter surmised that one of the causes was the silence around race and privilege, and the emphasis on colorblindness, which left white young people to reach their own conclusions. (More here: with a link to the report)

      Literature offers wonderful opportunities for lifelong conversations about our differences, from toddlers to teenagers, by inviting children into the lives of others and connecting heart-to-heart.

    2. Thanks for sharing Marianne,

      I hope you'll read BORDER TOWN and CONFETTI GIRL and see that these stories, and others mentioned in this blog series, are not at all about racial inequalities. They are about characters, that are a certain race or live in a certain place, with experiences like first love or peer pressure that a character of any race would experience.

      And to think, we haven't even touched on all of the biracial or multiracial children out there! One in seven new marriages is between spouses of different races or ethnicities. Monica Brown's MARISOL MCDONALD DOESN'T MATCH illustrated by Sara Palacios is the first-ever biracial lead character for picture book readers! (A second Marisol McDonald book is in the works, yay!). I'd love to see more books that explore being mixed race. Some good reading in this NYT article "More Young Americans Identifying as Mixed Race"

      Yes, its a complicated and exciting time!