Today I am pleased to welcome Alvina Ling, Editorial Director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, to Diversity in YA. Founded in 1837, Little, Brown is now a division of Hachette Book Group, one of the world’s largest publishers. LBYR is the publisher of many internationally bestselling books, including the Twilight and Gossip Girl series, as well as award-winning books about people of color and LGBT characters, including Grace Lin’s Newbery Honor book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (edited by Alvina Ling) and Julie Anne Peters’ National Book Award Finalist Luna. (Full disclosure: I am also published by Little, Brown, but Alvina is not my editor.)
I asked Alvina about her thoughts on the state of diversity in publishing children’s and young adult books.
Malinda Lo: This is a question I also posed to Stacy Whitman, Editorial Director at Tu Books. While there have been New York Times children’s bestsellers that feature main characters of color (e.g., Rick Riordan’s Red Pyramid and Simone Elkeles’ Perfect Chemistry series), I think there is still a perception that books about minorities are a tough sell to New York publishing companies. What do you think?
Alvina Ling: Well, I think there’s a huge range between “a tough sell” and “a NY Times bestseller”! Plenty of books about and by minorities are profitable, although I do agree that there needs to be more on the NY Times bestseller list! I can’t speak for other publishers, but at LBYR, I’ve never heard this perception verbalized, and minority protagonists have never been a reason for turning a project down. In fact, I feel lucky to work at a company where books featuring a main character of color would actually be considered a selling handle.
But in general, the books I get on submission that feature minority main characters don’t tend to be the most commercial conceptually—they tend to be more “edgy” or issue-driven, or “quiet literary” books. They’re rarely the paranormal romances or MG action-adventure mysteries that are selling right now, and this may play a role in the perception that these books don’t sell. But, of course, it’s hard to say what the causal relationship is, if any. Regardless, I’d like to work towards eliminating this perception.
ML: There is also a perception out there that putting people of color on the cover of a book leads to lower sales, which implies that books about minorities are a tough sell to readers. What do you think?
AL: Covers are tough no matter what, and there are so many factors involved in publishing that it’s hard to say what makes a book not “work.” There are plenty of books with white people on the cover that also don’t sell!
I do think that the recent “whitewashing of covers” controversy has been productive in terms of opening up honest dialogue within the Design, Editorial, Marketing, Publicity, and Sales departments, and more. I believe this perception is already changing, and I think we’re going to see more and more people of color on books covers in the future.
In fact, for the upcoming YA novel Boy21 by Matthew Quick, the face of a black teen is featured prominently on the cover. There are two protagonists in the book, one white and one black, and the narrator of the book is white, and yet when two versions of the cover were shown at our jacket meeting, one with a white teen, the other with a black, it was the black teen that was unanimously chosen. I found that heartening.
ML: As Editorial Director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, you are one of the most prominent women of color working in children’s publishing today. How has your background influenced the way you acquire books, both in the past and now in your role of shaping the L,B list?
AL: Am I? Wow, I don’t know if anyone has stated my role this way before!
I think that every editor’s background influences the way the acquire books. Editors from the south are drawn to southern settings. Editors who grew up playing sports are more likely to be drawn to sport books. And editors who live in fantasy worlds (ha!) will be drawn to fantasy books. I’m drawn to books that reflect my experiences.
When I was first trying to break into the publishing industry, part of the reason I was interested in working in children’s publishing specifically was because children’s books were such an important part of my life, and also because I did feel that there was a lack of diversity in the books I was reading. I very very rarely saw Asian Americans in children’s literature, and the depictions I did see were mostly telling the immigrant story, which was not my experience.
Although it wasn’t my primary goal, I did want to acquire books that featured underrepresented characters. I wanted to acquire the type of books I wished had existed when I was a child, the type of books I thought other children would wish for. And I’m proud that I’ve been able to do just that so far! I’m proud of my diverse list.
As for how this influences me in my current role of helping shape the L,B MG and YA list, that remains to be seen! I’m still new to the position, but I do know that diversity is supremely important to me and to others at LBYR, and will no doubt inform how we do our jobs.
ML: Are there a few new/upcoming Little, Brown middle grade or young adult novels that feature diverse characters that you’d like to tell us about?
AL: I edited a debut YA coming out in February called DJ Rising by Love Maia. It’s about a half black, half Puerto Rican teen boy who dreams of becoming a professional DJ. It’s a wonderful, heartwarming read, by an author of color who I hope will have a bright future writing YA.
And as I mentioned above, Matthew Quick’s second YA novel, Boy21, is about the unlikely friendship of two teen boys, one black and one white.
Grace Lin has two MG novels coming out next year. Dumpling Days will be published in January—it’s a continuation of her books Year of the Dog and Year of the Rat. In this book, Pacy and her family travel to Taiwan for a month. Her second novel is Starry River of the Sky, and is a companion novel to her Newbery Honor-winning Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.
And, of course, your new novel, Adaptation, will be out next fall!
ML: Where do you see the children’s and young adult book market going in the future with regard to multicultural and/or LGBT titles?
AL: I hope to see more books featuring diverse characters covering a diverse range of genres. I’d like to see more books like yours where the protagonist’s background does not inform the plot, necessarily. Books that feature diverse characters that are not simply about their diversity. The demographics of our country are rapidly changing—we are becoming a more multicultural population, and therefore I believe that books featuring multicultural and LGBT characters will continue to grow. We still have a long way to go before the media reflects our reality, but we’re making progress. I’m hopeful for the future!