Please welcome Joe Monti of BG Literary Agency!
Why diversity in YA is important -
Back in 1998 when I became the buyer in charge of young adult fiction at Barnes and Noble, Inc. YA the category was kinda pathetic, filled with series fiction with little veins of gold here or there in Blume, Cormier, and the like. This is back in the stone ages where a protagonist over twelve years of age, one that kisses, or any mention of puberty will place you in the realm of a work for a mature reader. I wanted to change that because that wasn’t the world I grew up in, and it certainly wasn’t the world teens were living in then, or now. I bought books with gay protagonists, one of the first was a little gem titled PETER by Kate Walker. Then when that worked, Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat compilation, DANGEROUS ANGELS, then BOY MEETS BOY by David Levithan, EMPRESS OF THE WORLD by Sara Ryan, LUNA by Julie Anne Peters and others. No one thought these books would sell, or reach an audience outside of pockets on the coasts. Yet they sold best in the midwest before the higher density coastal areas overtook those stores.
In summer 2009 incidents of whitewashing within YA literature were brought to light and discussed much online.
But look at this book cover for Angela Johnson’s FIRST PART LAST:
This adds the taboo of an African-American guy holding a baby. Sales wisdom will tell you that this book could not sell. It blew off the shelves. It was awarded The Michael L. Printz award and The Coretta Scott King award.
It worked, primarily because, let’s face it, that guy is hot. Like Lenny Kravitz in The Hunger Games hot. And he’s strong. It’s striking. Also, and in no small part, Johnson’s a wonderful writer.
There is only one thing that will hurt sales of a book: A bad cover. You can have a PoC on the cover and not sell because it’s a weak cover, not because of the ethnicity of the people on the cover. Ditto if you’re blonde or red haired girl.
Speaking of boys, who “don’t read past a certain age” dontchyaknow, they were the initial audience for Christopher Paolini’s ERAGON, which propelled it to #1. The girls started reading it later. The Alex Rider series of books by Anthony Horowitz are tremendous bestsellers, and they are largely read by boys.
Strong female protagonists are ubiquitous now in YA. Just fourteen years ago works like Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK and Tamora Pierce’s LADY KNIGHT were showcasing strong girls who knew how to fight back and find their voices. Where would Katniss or Katsa or Gemma or Tally or Clary be without them? Likely looking for boys to save them or make them whole.
Diversity in YA is important because all of these books above and the books to come are on a continuum. If you narrow the opportunity to allow one of these to succeed as they have, you whittle away the possibility of greatness and we are all diminished. As an agent, I hope to increase diversity with whom I represent and champion.
What diversity means to me?
It means I can say Lenny Kravitz is a beautiful man and not feel at all awkward about being a breeder. It means I can be a New York Yankees fan, yet dislike many Yankees fans for their attitude. It means I can look at the shelves of this teen literary category and see reflections of the people I know and love represented there. It means most of the other men in my family have green or hazel eyes and I don’t. (I’m not bitter!) It means that I can grow up the lower middle class son of a Latina immigrant from Argentina and an Italian immigrant in (still) racially segregated Yonkers, N.Y., a place I thought I could not escape, and meet a Chinese-American girl in high school whom I’ll, eventually, marry. It means my son is Quichua/Argentinian/Italian/Chinese and could actually find enough boxes to fill out on a form, or choose not to.
It means I’m Joe Monti.