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Writer’s Digest magazine: “We want diverse books”

IAMJazzIf you’re aiming to write for kids and/or teens and you follow the increasingly popular Manuscript Wish List (#mswl) feed on Twitter, you’ve likely noticed some common threads in what agents are currently seeing a demand for.

• “Stories with diverse and LGBTQ main characters (PB, MG, YA)!” tweets Christa Heschke, of McIntosh & Otis.
• “I still want more LGBT YA. Esp if you have a trans protagonist,” shares Jessica Sinsheimer of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency.
• “Would love LGBT YA realistic sports fiction ‘for tween boys’ with gritty, raw and honest depiction of LGBT teen athletes today,” tweets agent Saritza Hernandez of the Corvisiero Literary Agency.

When I reached out to Heschke, she said that the demand is not a flashin-the-pan trend—it’s a shift in thinking.

“Part of my job is regularly meeting with editors to see what they’re looking for,” she says. “Overall, there’s been a lack of diverse characters in children’s literature and many editors and agents are looking to change that.”

Currently among Amazon’s bestsellers are a number of picture books aimed at children who are growing up with same-sex parents—in particular, the titles Mommy, Mama and Me and Daddy, Papa and Me, both by Leslea Newman. If that doesn’t seem remarkable, consider that just 10 years ago a picture book about two male penguins who were given an egg to hatch at the Central Park Zoo (based on a true story) caused much controversy as parents tried to ban it from school libraries. In spite of (or perhaps, in part, because of) the opposition, And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell shot up Amazon’s Best Sellers list after the American Library Association named it the “most challenged book” of 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010 (in 2009 it was the second most challenged).

Annie Bomke, who owns Annie Bomke Literary Agency in California, says these books are important because we as a society have come to acknowledge that many children know from a young age that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

“I think the books are not so much to be informative, but to give children who might be leaning in that direction a sense that this is normal, they’re not alone,” she says. “Also, it’s good for [heterosexual kids] to see a diverse range of people so that they can recognize it as not them, but still normal and OK.”

While YA books about coming out of the closet are not new—2011’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for three weeks and sold more than a million copies—their growing success is still opening doors for other authors to explore related topics. More recent years have seen the publication of works of literature that reflect the experiences of young readers who do not identify with their gender.

Last fall brought two such noteworthy titles to the shelves: Rainbow List selection and Amazon bestseller I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, a picture book for 4- to 8-year-olds about a transgender child based on Jennings’ true story; and Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky, a middle-grade novel about a sixth-grader who changes gender.

Meanwhile, books about intersex protagonists—who are born with both male and female genital organs—have begun appearing for YA readers. None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio, a novel about a high school student who realizes that something is different about her when she has sex for the first time, was released last April, and Double Exposure by Bridget Birdsall, the story of a 15-year-old with ambiguous sexual organs who has to prove that she is a girl to save her basketball team from being disqualified from championships, came out in November.

But more universal themes can benefit from the inclusion of LGBT characters, as well.

“Publishers are always looking for what feels fresh,” Bomke says. “If everything about [two stories] was the same, the [one] with LGBT characters would be more likely to be accepted [for publication].”

Among 2015’s New York Times Notable Books is the MG novel Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle, about a 13-year-old boy who escapes to New York City to try out for a Broadway play and begins exploring his sexuality. Another new release, George by Alex Gino—about a boy who wants to play a girl’s part in a school play—was featured in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, The Guardian and on NPR.

Brent Taylor, a literary agent with the Triada US Literary Agency, says that the boom in books focused on LGBT characters is happening, in part, because more schools and libraries are making a conscious effort to purchase them. “When I was growing up as a gay kid, there weren’t as many books that reflected my experiences,” he says. “They weren’t books you would find in the middle school library.”

Bomke agrees that the shift isn’t just about the market—it’s about reaching readers and making a positive difference. “I just think that we as a culture have seen a big change lately with LGBT rights and it becoming more and more part of the culture,” she says. “I think that’s why we’re seeing so much of it in children’s books. … People are recognizing that children do know from a young age and that’s why they want to be supportive of that and give them a book that looks like them, that reminds them of [themselves].”

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