If you’ve been in any way following the children’s book market, you’ll have (hopefully!) noticed an increase in the number of people talking about diversity. You might have seen tweets where writers talk about their work being #ownvoices. You might have read some of the recent CILIP Reflecting Realities report, with its worryingly low figures. You might even have participated in twitter events such as #DivPit, for diverse authors and illustrators. But even with all this, you might not know what we mean.
When the Darley Anderson Children’s Book Agency ran its access month last year, we left our DMs open for questions. We thought we’d get a wide variety of questions, and we did, but we also got many variations on one theme:
What are diverse voices? What stories can I write? Am I diverse enough? Do I count?
Because it’s a minefield, isn’t it? And there’s only so much you can suss out from a bit of online stalking. With so many terms floating around and so many editors and agents calling out for this, we thought it would be helpful to clarify what we actually mean, clear up a few myths, and hopefully encourage you to keep working, writing and submitting.
Firstly, a quick note on terms. As an agency, we’ve largely used the term under-represented. We want to use a term that’s open and reflective of a wide variety of experiences, but this won’t be the only term you encounter. Some things are more focused on a specific area – for example, the CILIP report focusses on BAME representation – so it’s always worth checking if an opportunity is aimed at a certain group, or at underrepresented voices more widely.
So what’s an under-represented voice? We use the term under-represented to refer to any creators who feel that they’re underserved in the industry. Take a look at your bookshelf – do you see yourself reflected in the stories there? If not, you might be an under-represented voice.
People who are under-represented might feel like they align themselves with one of these social groups:
- Black, Asian, or other ethnic minority groups
- People who identify as LGBTQ+
- People from a working-class background
- People with a disability
- People from a religious minority
- People who suffer from mental health issues
- Immigrants, refugees and second-generation/culture people
You might identify with one or many of these groups – but you might not. You don’t have to fit neatly into a box to have something to say, and those boxless people are often ones who have been overlooked in books so far. If you feel that your story is yet to be told, if you fit somewhere outside the straight, white, middle-class space that characters (and authors, and editors, and agents) often fit into, then you’re an under-represented voice, and we’re looking for you.
I think I am an under-represented voice, so what should I be writing? This is a question that comes up a lot, and for us, it’s where the biggest myths are. Here’s the secret:
You can, and should, be writing the story you want to read.
That might mean a story that involves some of the issues that come with being in a minority – but it might not. There are plenty of stories out there that are about being Black, or poor, or gay, and there’s a place for that, but those aren’t the only stories to tell. We believe that every child deserves to see themselves represented in the stories they read, across all stories. That means we want comedy, fantasy, sci-fi, romance, things that are serious and things that are silly, things that make us snort with laughter or burst into tears. When one of our agents puts out a wishlist, we’ll detail different types of stories that we’re looking for, and it’s safe to say that we’d love for any of those to be by an underrepresented writer.
Does this mean I can write about anything at all? Within reason, the answer to this is ‘Yes’. That being said, there’s one more thing to consider. Are you the right person to be telling this story?
Being from one under-represented community doesn’t mean that you can speak for all under-represented people. This applies in a general sense (being gay doesn’t mean you have the same experience as people across all minorities) but also in a more localized one (being gay doesn’t mean you know what it’s like for everyone who’s gay). Think about the specifics of what your experience can bring to your characters, and recognize that you’re only bringing one viewpoint to the table. You will never speak for everyone, so just try to speak for yourself.
Hang on, so are you saying I can only write my own story? I thought fiction was making things up! The argument that ‘fiction is making things up’ is one that we hear a lot. And that’s because there’s a lot of truth to it – fiction is about making things up, being creative, and telling stories. But there’s also a responsibility to tell your stories right.
As an under-represented writer, you’ve already got a window to a world that’s outside of what’s normally seen in books, and you might have seen that world represented badly. Without direct experience, it’s easy to fall into the traps of stereotypes and to make mistakes.
Writing about an experience you directly understand is what we would call Own Voices – that’s when a character shares the same background you do and where you bring something of yourself into your work. Writing about a character outside of your experience can be done, but it needs to be carefully researched. This can work if it’s something you’ve got an understanding of and it’s well-researched (and by well-researched I mean speaking to real people rather than just checking in a book) but if you don’t understand it, it’s dangerous to add it in. We don’t want to add to misrepresentation, and we’ll avoid any stories that feel tokenistic or overly simplified.
A note on sensitivity readers. If you’ve been following discussions around diversity, you might have heard some people mention sensitivity readers. These are people who come from a background that you’re writing about, but don’t have direct experience of. They’ll read through your work and point out areas that don’t ring true for them, or where you’ve not got something quite right.
Sensitivity readers can be useful, but we’re wary of authors who overly rely on them. If you’ve got one little thing that needs checking then go for it, but if you find that you couldn’t write your book without them or that they’re flagging up a lot that needs changing, you should think carefully about whether or not this is the right story to tell.
I’ve followed your advice, I’ve written a story that only I could tell, and I think it’s exactly what you’re looking for. What now? Now’s your time to get submitting! If you look elsewhere on this blog, you’ll find tons of general advice for new authors and illustrators. All of this applies to you too. Read, revise, re-write, make it brilliant, and then send it to agents following the instructions they lay out on their websites.
If you’re comfortable with it, and it’s relevant to your work, you can also use the hashtag #diversevoices in the subject line of your email when you’re submitting to us. That will let us know that you consider yourself an under-represented writer, and it means that we’ll take that into consideration when we look at your submission. This isn’t compulsory, and there’s no pressure to reveal anything to us you don’t want to, but it might help us see your work in the context of your background.
I want more! Where else can I go?
There are some fantastic publishers and initiatives that are being set up to look for, publish and support under-represented writers. Here are some of the people doing a brilliant job of bringing more diversity to the industry:
- CILIP. You might have heard the stats on their Reflecting Realities report, but we’d encourage everyone to read the full report. It focusses on the quality of representation as much as the prevalence of it, and should be required reading for anyone trying to improve BAME representation in the industry.
- Knights Of bill themselves as an inclusive publisher – they only work with under-represented creators and they have a diverse team too. You can support them by buying their books or even pitching to them yourself through their innovative DM-based pitching system.
- Round Table Books. Based in Brixton, the retail arm of Knights Of have an incredible shop stocked with titles from under-represented creators. Have a browse, find a new favourite, and get inspired for your own work.
- WriteNow is a writing initiative run by Puffin, which looks to find, mentor and publish more diverse creators. Our own author Rashmi Sirdeshpande is a WriteNow superstar! They’re taking a fallow year this year but it’s worth looking out for their submissions when they re-open, as their mentoring scheme is invaluable.
- Pathways. While WriteNow is focused on authors, Pathways is where to look if you’re an illustrator looking for mentorship. It’s a two-year program for under-represented illustrators and it’s in partnership with 22 publishers and universities. It’s new and rigorous, and could be a wonderful challenge.
- The FAB Prize is run by Faber in partnership with the Andlyn Agency and is open every year for BAME writers and illustrators. They’ve had a lot of success and several past winners are now published by Faber.
And finally, you can come back to us. We know that publishing is a strange old industry, and it feels like a lot of it is hidden behind some big, impenetrable doors. We want to yank those doors open and make things clearer, so if you have questions about any aspects of this industry, do let us know. We’ll try to answer them in future posts, and you might also find some useful advice in our previous posts.
A massive thank you to Eishar Brar from Knights Of for helping out with this post!