Friday, April 13, 2012

What Diversity Means to Me - Featuring Joe Monti

Today I'm very very happy to bring you an agent's perspective on diversity. My amazing agent, Joe Monti, took time out of his crazy busy schedule to talk about what diversity means to him and give us his perspective as an industry insider. I'm so excited and pleased to turn over the blog to Joe today!

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:

The First Part Last
Here’s a book that breaks two perceived guidelines of sales and marketing: That books with a person of color will largely only sell to that ethnicity, and that books for boys don’t sell, so placing a boy on the cover of a YA is a sales blocker.

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.



Natalie Aguirre said...

I love this post Joe. It's so true and I'm glad you're looking to promote diversity.

My daughter is adopted from China and my husband is Hispanic. She's a teenager and I wish there were more books with diverse characters like her in the YA books she reads. And that movies wouldn't be afraid to use actors and actresses of the same race as in the books that do show diversity. She's been really disappointed with that at times. And it's a sad message the movie industry (and publishing at times with wrong covers) tells our minority kids when they don't get it right.

Unknown said...

I'm a fan of diverse protagonists--and I think most young readers fall into this category as well. But it's more than just saying I like them. I have to put my money where my mouth is, right? I just read TRASH by Andy Mulligan about three boys in the slums of the Phillipines. It was FANTASTIC, and it broke a lot of "rules." I love the cover too (I like what you had to say about covers because sometimes it deters me from buying OR if I do buy, I hide the slipcover somewhere). So glad you're doing your part, making way for well-written and representative novels. There's certainly an audience for them!

Kwana said...

Wonderful post. Thanks so much for this Joe. As an author writing multi-cultural characters I've come across the no box to put the in problem so this was great to read this morning.

Bish Denham said...

It's hard to understand, in this day and age, why there isn't more diversity. Great post. Thanks for continuing the discussion, Joe and Ellen.

Ani Louise said...

Great post Joe! Interesting to hear about your experiences and about Barnes & Noble, and it's so true that a good cover makes a big difference.

E.C. Myers said...

Joe, thanks for giving a great snapshot of how YA has evolved over the years, and how we can continue to change it for the better. Also, I had no idea you had also escaped from Yonkers!

Gilly said...

What a fabulous post! I particularly love this line: 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.

YES! This is already the case for many people and hopefully it will be more and more prevalent. And we will (I believe) one day live in a world where we don't have to persuade people that this is the case, where we don't assume that race or ethnicity or anything else is the reason something is overlooked by consumer - because that assumption is just as anti-diverse as the thing it assumes!

Danette Vigilante said...

Awesome post, Joe. Thanks for sharing with us.

Shveta Thakrar said...

Excellent, excellent post. I'm so glad more and more people realize how important having true diversity, especially in YA literature, is!

Rebecca Barrow said...

Such a great post! Loved it.

G.M. said...

Thanks, Joe Monti, for promoting diversity as an agent and previously as a buyer. If you think that Harper Collins or other book publishers are ready for a YA set mainly in China, feel free to leave a note her. Diversity is not only about sexuality and ethnic group, but also about the location of the storyline. Thanks and Best wishes.

crobbins said...

First Joe, it's nice to see you! Second, great opinions here. When I was selling YA books in NYC I noticed when you give kids the power to choose books, they always migrate to the really good books, which at the time was not the "common wisdom." Diversity has never been more important.

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