Hello, friends! Welcome to a new feature here at GayYA! Every Thursday for the next couple of months, we’ll have an interview with an agent about LGBTQIA+ books they’re reading, ones they rep, what they want in their inbox, and where they see LGBTQIA+ YA and MG going in the next few years.

I’m THRILLED to kick off this interview series with Jennifer Johnson-Blalock with Liza Dawson Associates.

Jennifer Johnson-Blalock, agent with Liza Dawson Associates

Jennifer Johnson-Blalock, agent with Liza Dawson Associates

1. Hi, Jennifer! Thank you for participating in our Agent Spotlight series! We’re excited to have you. Can you tell us how you got started agenting?

So happy to be here; thank you for having me! I had a somewhat unusual background in that I didn’t get started in publishing until I was nearly 30–before that I practiced entertainment law briefly and then taught high school English and debate. Once I moved to New York to pursue publishing, though, my path was pretty straightforward. I took a class at NYU, which helped me land an internship as the Young Adult Editor at a startup called Riffle. That led to an internship with Liza Dawson Associates. I then worked as an assistant to John Silbersack at Trident Media Group for about a year and returned to Liza as an associate agent in April 2015. Now I’m just working on building my client list and selling books! (For the very long answer to this question and a bit about breaking into publishing, you can read my interview on Jessie Devine’s blog: https://jessiedevine.wordpress.com/2016/08/17/a-long-road-jennifer-johnson-blalocks-journey-to-becoming-an-agent/)
2. We’re a site highlighting LGBTQIA+ YA (and increasingly, and excitingly, middle grade!). Can you tell us a recent LGBTQIA+ book you read and enjoyed? 
I read two YAs this summer that I completely loved. The first is Robin Talley’s LIES WE TELL OURSELVES about a developing f/f romance in 1959 Virginia between two girls on opposite sides of the battle to integrate an all-white high school. The historical context added richness and tension, and the characters had such depth. The second is YOU KNOW ME WELL by Nina LaCour and David Levithan. That novel tells of the meeting and growing friendship between Mark and Kate during San Francisco Pride and alternates in perspective between Kate, who’s scared to meet in person the girl she’s loved from a distance, and Mark, who has a complicated relationship with his best friend, Ryan. With the Pride setting, the book is so atmospheric, and it just left me brimming over with love and hope.
3. Do you currently represent any LGBTQIA+ YA or MG? Anything should we be putting on our radars? 
 
The first book I sold is a YA forthcoming from HarperTeen next summer, Rebecca Barrow’s YOU DON’T KNOW ME BUT I KNOW YOU. The couple at the center of the novel is heterosexual, but Rose, the MC’s best friend, is bi, and she has a really beautifully developing relationship with another character. I completely acknowledge the problem with the “gay best friend” trope across art forms, and I’d of course love to see more LGBTQIA+ MCs, but in this instance, Rose truly does have a narrative and character arc all her own. Rebecca actually went through versions of the novel where Rose was the MC.
I also signed a project during #DVPit (I highly encourage aspiring writers to participate in the next event for that on October 5 and 6) that I just sent out on submission to editors–fingers crossed! It’s a debut historical YA from Nicole Melleby, set in Regency England, about a headstrong young woman who falls in love with her suitor’s sister. The short pitch would be “gay Jane Austen,” and what’s not to love about that?
4. Why do you think it’s important for LGBTQIA+ youth to be represented in their literature?
 
Publishing and New York are so liberal; I think it’s easy for us to forget that LGBTQIA+ youth aren’t accepted and treated with kindness everywhere. On the extreme end of things, gay conversion camps still exist. And on the day to day, I was chastised at an independent school I taught at in Texas for wanting to teach a short story about a teenage girl questioning her sexuality. Particularly if you’re in an environment where people don’t want to recognize and honor who you are, books can be an incredible source of support. And even in an ideal environment, I think it’s valuable for every young person to be able to see themselves in the books they read; that’s part of how we figure out our place in the world.
5. What trends in LGBTQIA+ YA are you seeing? What would you love to see in your inbox? And, if you’re open to queries, how can someone query you? 
 
I think we’re seeing an expansion of LGBTQIA+ characters–the m/m relationship was probably the most common one to start in YA, and it’s diversified from there. Recently, there have been prominent books with transgender MCs, for instance, such as Meredith Russo’s IF I WAS YOUR GIRL. While I’m always happy to see any inclusion of LGBTQIA+ characters and themes in my query inbox, I’d love something that pushes at the boundaries of what’s currently available. And I have yet to sign a MG project, which I’d really like to do; I’d love to see LGBTQIA+ inclusion there as well. To learn more about my taste, you can check out the LDA website (http://www.lizadawsonassociates.com/staff/jennifer-johnson-blalock.html) and my MSWL (http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/mswl-post/jennifer-johnson-blalock/), or if you already know you have just the thing for me, feel free to send a query letter (just the letter to start) to queryjennifer [at] lizadawson [dot] com.
Thanks, Jennifer!