HarperCollins Editorial Assistant Stephanie Geurdan is on faculty for this year’s SCBWI-L.A. Working Writers Retreat (WWR). She came to HarperCollins in2017 following jobs at a literary agency and as a bookseller. Some of the titles she’s worked on include New York Times best-selling author Natalie Lloyd’s ProblimChildren trilogy, critically acclaimed author Tiffany D. Jackson’s sophomore novel Monday’s Not Coming, and The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, the sequel to the Stonewall Honor-winning The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee. She is interested primarily in middle grade and YA, especially in speculative genres and graphic novel formats, with a focus on inclusive stories from fresh voices. And she’s here today to share her insights and expertise!
SARAH PARKER LEE: We’re so excited you’re joining us for the WWR! At these kinds of events, what are editors hoping to accomplish? If you come away from them with a manuscript you want to acquire, what catches your eye first? STEPHANIE GUERDAN: I think these kinds of events are important because they give aspiring authors the chance to cut out all the gatekeepers between writer and editor. It’s really useful to have direct access to someone on the front lines of publishing who can speak to the trends of the industry and what is and isn’t working. Making industry connections is obviously important too — even if your book ends up not being for me.
In terms of manuscripts, a strong, catchy voice is so important! I can fall in love with pretty much anything if I feel like I’m invested in the characters. Coming into the industry I thought genre was going to play a lot bigger role in my preferences because I love fantasy so much, but then the universe proved me wrong — my first acquisition was a contemporary novel! And the reason it stuck with me is that I just couldn’t stop thinking about the protagonist’s voice. Another important point (that I’ll get to in more detail in later questions) is having a cast that reflects the real world. Representation is so important, and I believe that children’s authors especially have a responsibility to show kids the beauty of diversity.
SPL: You specialize in some really cool genres and voices! For those who don’t know, what qualifies as “speculative genres?” How does kid lit differ from adult literature in that area?
SG: Speculative is basically a trendy word for sci-fi/fantasy, although I like it because it includes more nebulous genres like urban/contemporary fantasy, magical realism, etc. and forces people to think of that kind of story as more than just the standard Star Trek vs Lord of the Ringsdichotomy. (No shade intended; I’m a huge fan of both Star Trek and LOTR.) I think kid lit is slightly different from adult in that there’s not as much of a hard line between contemporary and speculative publishing. For example, even mega-bestsellers like A Song of Ice and Fireare published by a specialized imprint that only does adult sf/f, while a given kid lit editor may have a broad mix of contemporary and speculative on their list at any given time. Even in bookstores, kids’ sf/f is shelved alongside contemporary, while adult is separated into two distinct sections. And also, while this is changing somewhat in our ever-more-geek-friendly culture, there’s not as much of a stigma on speculative kid lit or on kids reading fantasy as there is on adults doing the same. In fact, the kids’ books and series that dominate the NYT list all tend to have at least some speculative elements.
SPL: Graphic novels are often not on the “mainstream” kid lit radar, but they are very much on kids’ radar! Do they have to be full of superheroes and sci-fi? Have you ever read a manuscript and decided it needed to be a graphic novel instead? Why?
SG: They don’t! I am a strong advocate for the idea that graphic novel (like another oft-misunderstood medium, anime) is a medium and not a genre — it’s a way to tell stories, not a kind of story in and of itself. A story told in sequential art doesn’t have to star Iron Man or feature a lot of space ships, and as the love of, say, Raina Telgemeier shows, it doesn’t necessarily have to be speculative at all to make a big splash.
Hmm, while I’d love to see submissions of graphic novels, I think it would be tricky to ask a writer to turn their manuscript into a graphic novel because the formatting is so different! A graphic novel manuscript looks more like a television script, since what ends up on the page is mostly all dialogue and art direction for the illustrator. So it would be a huge ask to have a writer turn their novel manuscript into a graphic novel. That said, I’ve definitely read a novel or two where I thought the story would lend itself well to a more visual adaptation.
SPL: So many other forms of geekery, from cosplay and TV/Film to video games and role playing games, are embraced by kids, elementary through young adult and beyond. If a writer isn’t familiar with this world of worlds, or it isn’t their preferred genre, should they still check it out? Can you recommend some books or graphic novels that might ease them into it?
SG: There is so much to mine in the graphic novel space, and I think this is just the start of fantastic things to come. Also, let it be known that this was a dangerous question to ask that sent me down a rabbit hole into my Goodreads history for like an hour. I could talk about graphic novels forever!
- March: John Lewis’s three-volume memoir of his time with the Civil Rights movement
- Persepolis: Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution
- Maus: Featuring Jewish people as mice and the Nazis as cats, Art Spiegelman illustrates his father’s experience during the Holocaust
- Fun Home: Alison Bechdel’s memoir, which reckons with her own gay identity as well as the fact that her father, who died by likely suicide, was gay as well
- Spinning: Tillie Walden’s memoir of growing up in synchronized ice dancing and coming out
Middle grade (a mix of speculative and contemporary here):
- Drama: About hijinks and relationship drama in a middle school drama club
- Witch Boy: About a boy challenging the gendered magic in his family, where all women are witches and all men are shapeshifters
- How Mirka Got Her Sword: The tagline of this is “Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl,” which I think says it all
- Ms. Marvel: Kamala Khan is my personal hero and this series is fun and all-ages accessible, doesn’t require any real previous superhero knowledge, and deals with real-life issues in deft and nuanced ways
- DC Bombshells: A campy and fun reimagining of the DC heroines into an original story set during WWII, with the ladies taking the lead on the war effort in cool pinup inspired costumes. It’s got a lot of queer relationships and Nazi-punching so it’s a balm for my soul.
- The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: A hilarious revival of an unlikely heroine as she balances being a computer science major and being a superhero with the proportional powers of a squirrel
- Saga: THE series of my heart, Sagais a brilliant epic about a couple from warring planets as they try to protect their illegally-born daughter from the armies of both their people.
- Bitch Planet: In a distant future, any women deemed “non-compliant” (read: too outspoken, too fat, too queer, too brown, etc.) are sent away to a prison planet known colloquially as “Bitch Planet”. This is a brilliant send up of prison exploitation movies and is a fiercely, intersectionally feminist read.
- ODY-C: A retelling of the Odyssey, but in space with an entirely female cast and gorgeous, psychedelic artwork
- The Wicked + The Divine: Every ninety years, 12 gods reincarnate into 12 teenagers. Two years later, they die. The modern coming of these deities is of course mobbed by fan culture and painstakingly documented on social media as the teen immortals clash, plot, and tryst together as they try to break the millennia-long cycle.
- My Brother’s Husband: A bittersweet and heartwarming story about a Japanese man who must examine his own prejudices about homosexuality after his estranged gay brother dies and his white Canadian brother-in-law moves to Japan to stay with him.
SPL: You come from a religious background and are a bi-sexual, outspoken feminist. (Readers: see Lady Saika on Lady Geek Girl and Friends.) How do you see these intersecting in kid lit? Any good reads to recommend?
SG:I was raised Catholic and went to very small private Catholic schools K-12 (my graduating class was 33 people!), so religion was a huge part of my life growing up. I’m white, and my elementary and high schools were majority white as well, so it wasn’t really until college that I experienced the world as it is rather than as it was presented in my privileged little corner of western Pennsylvania. The more I learned about intersectional feminism, the more value I saw in it, and it was impossible to separate my consumption of media I loved, from Marvel movies to YA novels to goofy fighting anime, from the messages about women and minorities that I was consuming. Writing for Lady Geek Girl and Friends was especially a learning experience for me as we always tried to do due diligence in researching the issues we talked about and stayed open to discussing topics from a religious perspective, which a lot of feminist blogs don’t always do.
While I’m not that religious any more, I think that being raised religious has given me context for and empathy toward people of other religions. Knowing the history of the Catholic church, for example, I know that it is possible for even huge monolithic structures like the Church to be changed and challenged from within. And coming from such a conservative background and growing into my feminism over time has definitely given me insight and empathy into how the other side thinks — because I used to be on it.
In terms of recommended reads, there is one book that is unfair of me to promote because it’s not out yet. But if you want to see how religion and feminism and queerness and activism can combine, you should definitely read Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry, which is about a group of misfits at a Catholic high school, which comes out in July. I read a galley on vacation and had not really understood the concept of “feeling seen” by media until that book.
SPL: As an advocate for representation, any advice for writers who want to be inclusive without risking cultural appropriation or co-opting someone else’s story?
SG: Do your research!! In any other aspect of writing, there’s a tendency to obsess over the believability of small details — see the small universe of jokes about what a writer’s Google search history looks like! If you’re writing outside your experience, you should be doing the same level of research you would for any other part of your book.
Don’t be afraid to screw up, either. Even if you do do tons of research, there’s still the possibility that you’ll get something wrong, and the important thing is to be gracious about accepting that criticism. Being afraid of getting called out isn’t an excuse for writing a book full of white, cisgenderstraight people.
And finally, if you are writing from a privileged perspective, it’s important to take a step back and ask if your voice will be adding anything to the conversation. Are you writing a story with a diverse cast or a story about being a marginalized identity you don’t identify with? If the latter, it might be a good idea to think long and hard about why you want to or feel qualified to tell that story, and see if you can’t boost marginalized creators instead. The Lee and Low statistics for diversity in children’s books from last year are a harsh window into how homogenous the industry still is in regards to diversity among authors, even as it feels like publishing is more diverse than ever.
SPL: Finally, in addition to our WWR, do you have any other appearances or projects to share with us?
SG: I’ll be attending NYC’s FlameCon in August, and New York Comic Con in October if anyone wants to hang out! I’ll also be attending the SCBWI NJ Avalon Writer’s Retreat in September of next year.
Thanks for being with us, Stephanie!
Registration for the WWR opened on July 1stand fills up fast, so sign up now or get on the waiting list!
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Sarah Parker-Lee is a Los Angeles Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators board member & the Managing Editor of Kite Tales, a book reviewer for Dwarf+Giant, a content creator for non-profits fighting injustice all over the interwebs, & is available to edit your writerly endeavors. She writes YA alt. history, sci-fi, & is the creator of Dogs & Zombies: Dog’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. Twitterings: @SarahSoNovel, @DogsAndZombies
Images provided by Stephanie Guerdan, Top Shelf Productions, Marvel Comics, Image Comics, Lee and Low