"why I wrote this" in a query letter

Hi Miss Snark,

I've written a YA mystery novel with an African-American narrator and takes place in an upper middle class setting. My impetus for writing this was noticing the lack of "fun" YA novels (i.e. Gossip Girl, Princess Diaries) with African-American characters. Most of the YA novels that focus on African-American characters concentrate on the lower end of the economic spectrum with plots revolving around growing up in foster care or having to deal with drug dealers. This is not to diminish those books but I feel there's also a need for lighter fare like the African-American version of Sweet Valley High. (Okay, go ahead and laugh but I and my friends spent a TON of money on those books 15-20 years ago.) (Miss Snark NEVER laughs when someone combines the phrase "I spent tons of money" with "book")

My question to you is whether this motivation has a role in the query letter I am preparing to send out to agents.

From your blog, I know you emphasize the writing of the submission over that of the query letter even though some of your colleagues feel differently. I wanted your thoughts on whether or not to mention the specific target audience, here the overlooked upper class African-Americans, in the query letter. Could it give me an extra hook that might set my submission apart for consideration? Or is it too much like pandering? Thanks in advance for your thoughts on the matter.

LOTS of people write "the novels they want to read". I hear that all the time. That's what you're doing. If anyone is stupid enough to think there is no market for this book you tell them to google Tonya Lewis Lee. Mentioning this is an underserved market is a good idea. I'm always looking for those.


Sue said...

As a person who subscribes to the theory that social divisions are more along economic lines than other*, I see nothing wrong with this premise for a wider audience. And, it could be educational for us as a culture. I had some great conversations with a gal with familial stories of the Harlem Yacht Club.

*Racism is a reality, but perhaps its roots lie in people trying to move from one economic strata to another and making excusing and blame apart from life or self for it not happening as they think it should.

Kimber Li said...

I applaud you! My young adult/science fiction novel is set in the 23rd century where I get to portray an optimistic view of this issue. My Irish American heroine, Junior, falls in love with her African American/Kenyan boyfriend, and their respective races are a total non-issue! And I get to write it that way too. There's power in our words, Oh Writeful One. You're using your power wisely.

Anonymous said...


I'm a buyer for a bookstore. I want this book! AND I'm sure that lots of other people will, too.

Light and candy-like and FUN ya romances with pretty clothes and sexy cars ... with characters that happen not to be white = Hooray! (Yeah, I loved Sweet Valley High, too.)

So. Make it good, because there are a lot of other ya series, so yours has to be special for more than just the character's color.

Then you have a niche-filler, and I don't think there is anything wrong with saying so. Sell it, baby!

Anonymous said...

Your audience is upper middle class African Americans? I wouldn't be so sure, and I don't know that I'd limit yourself like that. You don't have to identify with the social class to love the book. Sometimes, the fantasy in YA is entering another social class - higher or lower. But you do have to identify with the character, so this could appeal to all African Americans.

Anonymous said...

I think this is similar to what I'm writing for bisexual/lesbian girls. So much of the YA stuff for bi/lesbians is slit-your-wrist literary stuff. Coming out as a bi/lesbian girl in 2006 can actually be fun. You can see this in South of Nowhere on MTV's the N network in the US, and Sugar Rush on channel 4 in the UK, but this hasn't made it much to books yet.

Elektra said...

I'm afraid I don't get it. It's a book. Unless it's about racial issues, or touches on them, why is it such a big deal (to the point of mentioning it in a query) that the protag is black?

Kimber Li said...

Hmm, good point, Elektra, must ponder it. I don't mention it in my book because it's set in the 23rd century when it will be a non-issue.

HawkOwl said...

I would SO buy that. Even though I'm neither African nor American, much less a "young adult" in the marketing sense.

HawkOwl said...

Elektra - Black isn't just an genetic thing, it's a subculture. If the book was about Goths, one would want to know that. Likewise with black.

Anonymous said...

Well, Elektra...I don't think it's a bad idea to mention that the protagonist is black.

Why does a book have to touch on racial issues in order for a protag to be identified by race? Isn't race a part of everyone's identity, period?

I read a bunch of those Sweet Valley High books, and the first 5 pages of every single book in the series describes the blond-haired, blue-eyed California girls...right down to the mole on Elizabeth's shoulder.

And not many of those books had anything to do with racial issues.

I think it's dangerous to say that race is or will be a non-issue. It inches us closer to "color-blind racism". Maybe biologically race is not an issue, but socially, it still is.

Anonymous said...

You should know that there isn't as big of a void as you think. Very successful Black authors are writing for younger girls now.

Philana Marie Boles has written Little Divas for the upper middle class MULTIcultural audience, Tia Williams has a YA title on the way and Harlequine is even launching a YA line specifically for this audience. There are several others adn it is a growing market.

Be warned that despite a change in color and what the media would lend one to believe, Black girls are not totally defined by race. They face the exact same issues as say would a White teen. Write as if and be careful that your characters are not stereotypes.

Rei said...

[quote]Miss Snark NEVER laughs when someone combines the phrase "I spent tons of money" with "book"[/quote]

What if they combine "I spent tons of money" with "book I wrote"?

Anonymous said...

elektra said I'm afraid I don't get it. It's a book. Unless it's about racial issues, or touches on them, why is it such a big deal (to the point of mentioning it in a query) that the protag is black?

It sound like primarily a marketing issue in this case. With a black protagonist, the book appeals to an under-served niche. Otherwise, the market is highly competitive, if not saturated. I imagine that would factor into an agent's "Can I sell this" calculation.

Kathleen said...

why is it such a big deal (to the point of mentioning it in a query) that the protag is black?

if it isn't a big deal, why aren't there a lot of books of this type out there?

Diana Peterfreund said...

Anonymous bookstore buyer:

Keep your peepers out for SO NOT THE DRAMA, by Paula Chase: http://www.paulachasehyman.com/

Coming out from Kensington next spring.

Oh, and I hear Kensington is looking for multicultural YA in a big way, so perhaps today's poster might think about submitting there.

Anonymous said...

I think your idea is a great one. Look at how well Emperor of Ocean Park did....

there is so little written about affluent AA's.

Anonymous said...

Many readers, particularily younger ones, like reading characters who have some resemblance to themselves. Minorities, by race or other reasons, read, watch, listen to material that while relatable, isn't often directed at them. It's a pretty big deal, especially for that age I would think, when you finally encounter a character is even explicitely not white. It was for me anyway, and they weren't even character's who were my "race" per se, but just acknowledged different types. And it doesn't even have to affect the actual story. While it's nice to imagine a time and place where it's completely immaterial, a reader in the here and now might get something out of that identification.

Kimber Li said...

One of you mentioned that the big issue here isn't skin color. It's culture. Absolutely! Now, that hits the nail on the head for me. Thanks.

Elektra said...

I'm still in the dark in this particular instance. If I were writing a query for SVH, I wouldn't mention that the girls were blond. Nor do I think that the books would be inherently better or worse, or aimed at a different market, were you to go through and replace every description with that of African American girls.

I just don't agree with the idea that "Many readers, particularily younger ones, like reading characters who have some resemblance to themselves." Shouldn't the resemblence come through empathy with the character, and not superficially, through the character's appearance? I despised SWV, despite being a blue-eyed blond myself. My favorites were books like Trumpet of the Swan, A Little Princess, and Where the Red Fern Grows. Books with timeless characters that reach out to you no matter what their race, gender, or species.

I guess I'm just a little confused because the question seemed to imply that African American girls would relate to the characters solely because they're black, rather than because the characters are relatable in and of themselves.

Literaticat said...

Diana P:

SO NOT THE DRAMA is so on the radar, no worries.

And I don't know why I was anonymous - I didn't mean to be. Not enough coffee this morning.

Anonymous said...

Definitely put that information in your query letter. When I subbed to agents, three years ago, the fact that my YA novel would fill a void in the market took a prominent spot in my query. I'm certain this was often the reason a partial was requested.

I too write multi-culti YA fiction with the central characters being African American and for the same reason as this snarkling.

Prepare to see an increase in these types of book over the next year. In part due to Kensington books launching a YA line specifically focused on this type of book.

But also, because, overall, the publishing industry is finally starting to realize that black teens actually want to see themselves portrayed in books other than:
1. historical fiction
2. urban lit
3. lesson/message oriented

They're late, but better late than never!

Michael Reynolds said...

First of all, don't diss Sweet Valley -- they're crap but they paid our bills for a while.

Second, Regina Brooks at Serendipty Agency handles a lot of African American themed kid's stuff. And she seems like a sweetheart.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... I'm already concerned. You are identifying your book based upon the race of the characters?!?!? If you were writing a YA about white teens would you say "I'm writing a book about white teens?" NO. You would say I'm writing a YA and focus on the story, no?

Character defines race. Race does NOT define character.

The fact that you are using race to define your characters, not the plot or the type of personalities, signifies a warning to me that you have to make sure you're not going to perpetuate stereotypes.

Anonymous said...

You’re right. You wouldn’t have to say “I’m writing a book about white teens”. And that’s likely because many (not ALL, but a lot) of people would ASSUME you’re writing about white teens. Perhaps it’s unpopular to say it, but, part of the reason why “whiteness” doesn’t have to be defined is because it’s the default.

I remember seeing a documentary on PBS, about a sociology professor who, on the first day of class asked students to list 5 characteristics of themselves. Then, a couple of months later, when they got to the chapter on race and ethnicity in the class, he asked them to refer back to that list and see what they wrote. Almost all of the racial minority students included their race on their lists, while almost none of the white students did.

Sure some of the white students might have put their nationality…Italian, German, Scottish…but that’s not RACE.

Aries said...

I'm the snarkling who submitted the original question to Miss Snark. I appreciate her publishing the question as well as all of your comments. I just wanted to clarify that my novel isn't solely about race. In fact, it has little to do with the plot, which is focused on what my narrator may or may not have seen in her neighbor's apartment while spying through a telescope. I wanted to know if I should mention race in my query letters because it is one way my novel might stand out in a crowded field.

One poster said that most AA teens care about the same things that most teens care about, clothes, boys, etc. I totally agree and there should be more books out there that reflect that. It's good to hear that more YA novels about mult-cultural teens are coming out that are not street lit, historical, or lesson/message oriented. We are just as shallow and materialistic as the teens on 'Laguna Beach'. (At least I was, except add a few more brain cells because I was a bit of a nerd who stressed about grades and the SAT.)

So I guess it begs the question of why add another YA novel to the overcrowded pack? I feel very strongly that there should be representation of diverse points of view and that that of AA teens shouldn't be limited to street lit, historical, or problem novels the way they mostly are now. I hope the poster with the novel about the non-suicidal bisexual teen also publishes her novel, because I think that POV is needed in the marketplace too. While I know economics dictate the type of novels that are published, I think there is a sizeable market of teens who would either like to read books about characters unlike themselves or teens who want to buy a novel with characters with whom they can identify.