An assistantship with The Center for Children’s Books (CCB) during her time at GSLIS at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagin provided Ayanna Coleman with the knowledge and skills she needs to navigate the publishing world, and this past December she used that knowledge to launched her own literary agency, Quill Shift Literary Agency. Quill Shift Literary Agency handles all the traditional duties of a literary agency while embracing new technologies and spheres to empower readers to join in on the publishing process, providing further foundation for writers’ success. The agency’s hallmark services are editorial guidance, pre-publication and audience buzz creation and author care and advocacy.
Today, Ayanna describes what brought her to where she is today.
The Diversity in Kid Lit Dream
I am a dreamer. It’s actually quite strange how often my mind wanders blissfully into REM and produces fantastic scenarios for my unconscious self to battle. The thing is, dreams so often just live in your head. It’s what you do with the dreams, make them realities or dismiss them as frivolities, that matters.
I do not wish to keep my dreams of a world where there is full diversity in children’s literature inside my mind any longer. I want this dream to become a reality through a vision that creates evolutionary action in the book industry; an evolution that will consider diversity an essential dimension to broaden and shape young minds through the provision of equitable views and examples in their reading experiences. I believe the following would be appropriate starting points:
1) Greater diversity in the kid lit industry
2) Greater diversity of talent creation and being promoted by their publishers
3) More contemporary, “just happens to be stories” with diverse protagonists
4) Better collaboration and support between all parties involved in this journey to equity in children’s literature
Diversity in the Industry
Yes, everyone’s been talking about the lack of diversity in publishing and that does need to change, but I’d also love to see more diversity in youth and teen services librarians, more diversity in teachers promoting literature to our kids, and more diversity in booksellers hand-selling books to families. All of these people are just as important as the editors, marketing and publicity managers, sales force, designers, and agents who touch the books during production. Everyone has a part to play. Some books have become a phenomenon from the frenzy of librarians. If teachers put a book on the curriculum, that’s guaranteed sales for the next 5 years. By booksellers hand-selling, they are giving these books an extra push to become great.
If people in these positions don’t reflect the many cultures in our society, the likelihood of understanding the necessity to continually advocate for and promote different cultures decreases. People with shared and different life experiences from varied backgrounds must work in the industry of storytelling so that all stories have the opportunity to be understood and passed on.
Diversity of Creators
We’ve all seen the numbers, out of 3,200 children’s books surveyed by the CCBC in 2013, only 67 of them were written by African Americans. That’s abysmal. Look, I don’t care if you write outside your culture, but I want to see stories by and about people from all backgrounds.
Working in a library gives one a great perspective and, for the past 5 years while working in children’s libraries, I have had over 1,500 books per year travel across my desk. Out of those 1,500 books, perhaps 15 make me excited. That’s not to say that the other 1,485 aren’t phenomenal, but let’s be real. If you are a librarian, reviewer, bookseller, you’ll hear a lot of buzz about a lot of books that don’t necessarily deserve it. Why can’t some of that buzz be pushed towards books with authors who don’t all look like they’ve strolled out of on one of Junot Diaz’s MFA programs? I think Noah Berlatsky said it perfectly in his article, Diversity in Children’s Lit: Mediocrity Matters as Much as Masterpieces:
“Mediocre-to-decent books with white protagonists regularly get massive marketing pushes and dutifully race up the bestseller lists, where they become the thing to talk about just because everyone else is talking about them. And, of course, when those books with white protagonists flop, nobody says, well, no more books with white protagonists—they just find the next one and promote that. Why shouldn’t mediocre-to-decent books with diverse protagonists have the same opportunity?”
Just Happens To Be
I truly believe that children’s literature can change the world and imaginative, thought-provoking, boundary-pushing diverse represented picture books, middle grade, and young adult stories are the means in which we can help mold the minds of our future leaders. Kids need to see that they can be whoever they want, do anything they can dream up, and love anyone whom they meet. If there are more ducks in picture books than Asian boys, that’s a problem. It’s also a problem that certain ethnicities are pigeon-holed into the same old stories. Do editors and librarians actually think that African American teens are overjoyed when they see another slavery book hit the shelves? That’s not their reality, and it’s getting passed off as “fiction just for them”. What a shame when historical fiction for others looks like steampunk murder mysteries. All kids should have the opportunity to see themselves in fiction and one characteristic like ethnicity, or ability, or sexual orientation should not define the story a character stars in or the role in the story a character plays.
I launched Quill Shift Literary Agency in 2013 because, as a an avid reader who never saw herself in books—a middle class black girl living a “normal teenage life”—and still see few examples in today’s books, it was time to stop huffing and puffing at the books crossing my desk and step up to try and help make change. This is not the journey of one individual. I cannot make things change alone. I would be privileged to work with the many tireless individuals who have been speaking up about diversity in children’s literature for years. Collaboration only works, however, if people are willing to work with each other–old voices and new voices, loud voices and subtle voices, full inclusion for inclusion.
How do I make all these parts come together?
• I add to the industry by becoming one of the voices that seek, applaud, and promote like hell books created by and featuringpeople from different cultures—a young, hungry, Black agent who is, and will always be, a librarian.
• Once a project comes across my desk that I know will connect with kids (but I also know the industry will have a hard time swallowing) I will take it on, becoming a knowledgeable, motivated advocate for the author and their work.
• I will showcase manuscripts and expose them to those who matter–the end consumers–the parents, teachers, librarians, people in the industry, and teenagers to read sneak peek portions and give me their thoughts. If they want to see it published, they can make their voices heard through minimal donations, aka market muscle, to illustrate to the publishing industry that these stories do have marketable value. I call these people Shifters. All proceeds earned through this market-testing will be put back into the continued promotion and support of underrepresented diverse works.
Books that haven’t been published yet, that are going through the scrutiny and rejection now, are the ones that need the most support to change what’s on the bookshelves a year from now. Quill Shift Literary Agency is providing a platform to empower people to realize the dream of diversifying bookshelves in our libraries, schools, and homes.
To be honest, my vision doesn’t matter. It’s society’s collective vision that will make a difference.
Do I hope that my vision will become society’s vision? Of course! More importantly, I’m hoping that someday I’ll wake up, go to work, start cataloging books and see more of the diversity I pass on the streets during the New York rush hour represented on the covers and within the content of future Kid Lit. I’ll pinch myself and realize it’s not a dream. Then, just maybe, I’ll allow myself a second to think that I may have had a lil’ something to do with it.