Updated: May 25
In episode 2, Jeni and Melissa talk to Lara Lillibridge about queer and marginalized representation in children's literature.
Listen to the audio podcast here: EPISODE 2 - Queer & Marginalized Representation in Kidlit
Welcome to the new season of the Indie Chicks show! We are Melissa Koberlein, an author and professor of publishing and Jeni Chappelle, a freelance novel editor.
Indie Chicks celebrates and supports independent women in publishing. We’re a place for writers at all stages of the publishing process. So, whether you’re on the traditional route to publication or self-publishing, you’ve come to the right place for advice.
On this episode:
We’re talking about representation of queer and marginalized characters in children's literature
End with an author tip of the week
This week we’re joined by Lara Lillibridge. After publishing two memoirs and co-editing an anthology with indie presses, Lara decided to form a micro press dedicated to bringing more diverse books into the world. Lara holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College and is currently serving as a mentor for queer writers for AWP’s Writer to Writer program.
Here's the Q&A:
What made you decide to start a micropress?
As you said, I published 3 books with indie presses in the last two years. I gained a pretty good understanding of what place they served in the publishing world—what they could and couldn’t do compared with the Big 5. I love both of my presses, but there’s always a loss of control in traditional publishing. For example, with my memoirs, I don’t have paperbacks or audio books. I don’t fault my publisher at all—they made beautiful books, but I’m a control freak. I liked the idea of doing everything on my own, so I started exploring self-publishing.
Now, my personal history comes into play here—I’m pansexual and gender queer. My mother is a lesbian, and has been with my stepmother for over 40 years. The gay community have been my people since I was 3 or 4, but when my youngest kid came out to me, I became an even fiercer advocate, and I started reading every middle grade book I could find with queer characters to potentially recommend to my kid. There weren’t a ton. I started thinking, there are so many kids out there that have never seen themselves in books. Instead of griping about the lack of diversity in publishing, what if I became part of the solution? I was already doing the research for my own book. All that knowledge could then be used to publish someone else.
Here’s a thing about women—we might not be great advocates for ourselves. We’ve been conditioned to be modest, but women are the absolute best at advocating for others. I learned from working on the anthology that elevating another person’s voice is a really great feeling.
What was the process for starting your micropress? Any surprises?
I spent a year learning everything I could about the publishing side of things. I was already a member of SCBWI, and I joined ALLI. I read everything I could on the subject, and started assembling a team—beta readers—youth and adult, an editor, graphic designers. I knew who I wanted to design my covers and blurb my books months before I approached them. I figured out a marketing plan. I had a middle grade manuscript I had written, and I figured I’d use that as a test subject to make my mistakes on so I would do a better job for someone else. I never want to disappoint another writer. Your book is your dream, and it’s both a responsibility and privilege to help someone bring their dream to fruition.
One thing I learned was that I am in no way ready to publish a picture book. I had an author approach me with a manuscript that was really amazing, but I had to tell her that I’m not there yet. I’m still learning—I sat in on a picture book webinar last week—but I can’t hold another writer’s dream in my hands if I don’t have the skills to carry it to completion. Right now, picture books are above my skillset.
How has representation of diverse voices in children’s literature changed over time?
There is this book that changed my life, a YA novel called Exit Plans for Teenaged Freaks by Nathan Burgoine. It’s a time-travel adventure story that just happens to have a gay protagonist. I read that, and I was like, “that’s what I want to do, except in middle grade.”
YA leads all literature in diversity—their readers demand it. But middle grade lags due to gatekeepers, I think, not children’s interest. I value the coming out story—books like The Other Boy (M.G. Hennessy), Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World (Ashley Herring Blake), or of course, George by Alex Gino, but I want more than that. I want books that are fun and surprise—some people happen to be queer.
To me that is what representation looks like. I want gay detectives and explorers and astronauts. Don’t get me wrong—we need coming out stories too, but my dream is a world where a queer character is no big wow, as we used to say in the 80s. For example, in Dragon Pearl, Yoon Ha Lee has a genderqueer character. It’s not a major plot point, it’s just part of the culture of the world she created, which is a cool thing you can do in fantasy, by the way. You can make a diverse world without angst. If I can bring those stories into the world, well, that would be something to be proud of.
How can an author incorporate more diversity into their story?
One book I’m bat-shit over (can I say that?) is Extraordinary Birds by Sandy Stark-McGinnis, which I discovered on Net Galley. It’s this beautiful story of a girl in foster care, who happens to become friends with a trans girl. I want more of that. And what Stark-McGinnis did masterfully, is she made a three dimensional totally believable trans character, and as far as I know, she isn’t trans. She is a middle school teacher, and a keen observer. We need allies. We need supporting characters and visibility.
But you have to do your research. I’m a total cynic about queer lit and I read every book with a skeptical eye. But I also applaud writers who try to make their stories inclusive, even if they don’t quite hit their mark. I don’t want writers avoiding queer characters out of fear of messing it up. If you have a queer character, find a queer beta-reader. If you don’t know one, email me. I have a list. And if you are a queer reader and want to be on my list, email me as well.
Tip of the week: Cut yourself some slack. You might think that you should be getting more done especially if you’ve been homebound during this time. But you might not be in the right frame of mind. You might have a lot of stressful thoughts and fears because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s hard. Give yourself a break.
Thanks for joining us. You can find Lara at FurtiveGrunionBooks.com
On our next podcast, we are talking with Jessica Feinberg about Patreon and events for authors & artists. We will also have another Tip of the Week. And don’t forget where to find us! Find our podcast at indiechicks.net or follow us on Spotify or subscribe to Indie Chicks on Apple Podcasts. We also have the Indie Chicks channel on YouTube where you can subscribe. You can follow us on Twitter @Indie_Chicks or Facebook.com/TheIndieChicks.
So, remember, we’re all part of a publishing community, be kind and review your fellow authors’ books! Thanks for joining us!
Indie Chicks out.