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Looking Past the Cover • Children's Book Publishing • Diversity and Race • Conversation
The blog of independent children's publishing company Lee & Low Books, The Open Book talks about publishing, books, library and school news, race and gender, discrimination and diversity, and more.
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Beloved poet and educator Francisco X. Alarcón passed away on January 15, 2016. Francisco was a prolific writer of poetry for children and adults. Born in California and raised in Mexico, Francisco’s poems explore his Chicano identity and celebrate the double joy of being a poet in two languages. His awards include multiple Pura Belpré Honors as well the Chicano Literary Prize and the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award. His passing is a great loss to the world of Latino literature.
We asked some of the authors and artists who knew Francisco to share their memories of him:
Jorge Argueta, Author
I met Francisco X. Alarcón in the early 80’s, shortly after I arrived to San Francisco from El Salvador. Panchito was already a well known poet. He was a member of the Roque Dalton Cultural Brigade along with other poets, Alejandro Murguia (founder of the Brigade and current Poet Laureate of San Francisco), the current Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Herrera, Jack Hirschman, Barbara Paschke and David Volpendesta.
I met Francisco at the place where most of us gathered, Café La Boheme in San Francisco’s Mission District. Francisco baptized this coffee house “The Cathredal of poetry.”
I traveled with Francisco four times to El Salvador, to participate in the Annual International Children’s Poetry Festival “Manyula.” Francisco was so happy to contribute. He shared with me the vision that through the gentle power of poetry we could help Salvadoran children and youth stay away from violence and have hope for a better future. Francisco did readings, lectures and poetry workshops for children, youth and teachers.
Years earlier he helped me organize the poems I would publish in my first children’s poetry book, A Movie in my Pillow. I will always be thankful to Francisco for his guidance and recommendations for this book. He truly loved El Salvador, its people, landscape and food.
One day on a break from the festival we walked the short distance from the library, where the festival is held to the San Salvador Cathedral to pay a visit to Monsignor Romero’s crypt (El Salvador’s beloved priest who was assassinated by right wing death squads in the 80’s). Francisco was deeply moved to see his tomb and wrote a poem about this special visit. He shed tears and said to me, “I understand why El Salvador must continue to struggle for justice.”
That evening a wonderful full moon shone in the Salvadoran sky. Francisco laughed with his loud magical smile and said, “Here even the moon is a pupusa*.”
*El Salvador’s most popular food – A round tortilla made with corn dough, stuffed with beans, cheese and other ingredients.
René Colato Laínez, Author
I first met Francisco X Alarcón through his children’s books in my bilingual classroom at Fernangeles Elementary School. All of my students were from Latino families. Most of them were born in the USA. The rest of the students were recent immigrants from Latin America. I loved to read Francisco’s books because in them my students could find their culture, traditions, and as Francisco said, “Their roots/ Sus raices.”
At that time, my students called me, “The Teacher Full of Stories/ El maestro lleno de cuentos”, because I was always telling stories and turning them into books for the classroom. Francisco’s books were a great inspiration to write my own stories.
I had the big opportunity to meet Francisco in person at the CABE Conference (California Association for Bilingual Education). I was so excited to meet him. He was my rock star writer! I shared with him and the other authors who were also signing books, Amada Irma
Perez and Juan Felipe Herrera, my desire to write books. Francisco told me to keep writing and one day perhaps I will be sitting and signing books with them too.
Those words inspired me to keep writing and submitting my manuscripts for publication. It was a challenge process to publish a book but I did it. Francisco was right! Now I was signing books next to him and other amazing authors.
In 2010 author Jorge Argueta funded a children poetry festival in my native country, El Salvador. As a Salvadoran children’s book author, Jorge invited me to participate in the poetry festival. Margarita Robleda and Francisco X Alarcón were the other two pillars for this amazing festival that we do every year in El Salvador. Many Salvadoran authors also joined us to create the International
Children’s Poetry Festival (Internacional Festival de Poesía Infantil).
Francisco loved El Salvador. During the civil war, he helped recent Salvadoran immigrants in San Francisco. Now, he was in El Salvador visiting and reading his books to children from different parts of the country.
We always had a great time in El Salvador reading our books, eating pupusas, taking pictures, walking around San Salvador, and swimming at the beach.
I will always remember him. Francisco X. Alarcón, descansa en paz amigo.
Maya Christina Gonzalez, Author and Illustrator
Maya wrote on her blog, “Francisco X. Alarcón let go of his body January 15. His passing is moving me very much. I am finishing drawings on our latest book together. A book of days. I look at spending the next few months very intimately sitting with Francisco as the arte unfolds. I am so sad.”
Watch Maya and Francisco talk about their work together:
Louise May, Editorial Director at Lee & Low
Francisco was a joyous force of nature with a generous spirit. His works for children radiate love and celebrate family, all kinds of families. I am always amazed at how his poems continue to delight and often catch you by surprise. We are proud to be the custodians of his children’s poetry collections so that generations to come may get to read his work. And I am honored to have had the opportunity to work with him. Always an experience!
Alto, allá arriba en los Andes brilla un bosque bordado de bromelias… High up in the Andes blooms a brilliant forest embroidered with bromeliads . . .
Set to be released this spring, ¡Olinguito, de la A a la Z! / Olinguito, from A to Z! : Descubriendo el bosque nublado / Unveiling the Cloud Foresttakes readers into the magical world of a cloud forest in the Andes of Ecuador. We discover the bounty of plants, animals, and other organisms that live there as we help a zoologist look for the elusive olinguito, the first new mammal species identified in the Americas since 1978. It has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews, which called it “a breath of fresh air in the too-often-contrived world of bilingual books.”
We asked Lulu to take us behind the scenes of her exquisite art process to make the cloud forest come alive:
I spent an average of ten days working from eight to ten hours per day creating each spread.
The first thing I did was to transfer the sketch to the Arches watercolor paper. Then I decided which areas would be collaged printed patterns and which would be painted in flat acrylic colors.
I prepared the patterned backgrounds pressing leaves gathered in the cloud forest dipped in ink and stamped onto rice paper.
With an X-Acto knife I cut out the shapes of texturized paper and pasted them into the background. I used archival glue and micro tweezers to affix the collage elements in their precise positions.
Next I prepared all the shades of acrylics that I would need for the spread and stored them in small clear jars. Each section of a color required several thin coats to achieve the rich look I was looking for.
Once the spread was entirely painted I had fun selecting pressed ferns from the forest to affix to the art. This was a delicate process as some of the pressed leaves and ferns are paper thin.
The last thing was to create the letters for the spread. I wanted a layered look, recreating the natural layers of flora in the forest, so I drew the letters on vellum paper and cut out them out. I taped the letters onto a vellum square and with careful precision affixed the letter in the spot it was intended to be.
Explain that the Chinese dragon represents strength and goodness. The dragon appears at the end of the New Year parade to wish everyone peace, wealth, and good luck. Have students draw a picture of a Chinese dragon and describe the dragon in a paragraph. Instruct students to draw the dragon so it has the features of several creatures. Chinese dragons often have the scales of a fish, the beard of a goat, the claws of an eagle, and the body of a snake. For an excellent and more detailed lesson on drawing a Chinese dragon, check out the Art Institute of Chicago.
Provide students with construction paper, tissue paper, colored cotton balls, crayons, safety scissors, glue, and other art supplies to make their own lanterns, masks, flags, and other items for a Chinese Lunar New Year Parade. Several students may even wish to work together to make a lion or a dragon. Let students carry their creations and hold their own parade. You may wish to download some Chinese music to play during the festivities.
For the New Year, Chinese children are given red envelopes with brand-new money inside. Make a solution of 1/2 cup white vinegar and 1/4 cup salt in a nonmetal bowl. Let students drop pennies into the solution, wait a few minutes, then remove and dry the coins with a paper towel. Students will have shiny “new” pennies to wrap in red paper and give as gifts to their friends and families.
The Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar as opposed to the solar calendar. Have students investigate the two calendars and compare them using a Venn diagram. Why does the Chinese New Year fall on a different date each year?
Encourage students to describe a New Year’s celebration that they spent with their families. What kind of activities took place? How did they celebrate?
Have students write an original story about a holiday they celebrate.
Many video clips of Chinese Lunar New Year parades are available online. One example is from the History Channel. If possible, let students view one or more of these to see a real parade. Have students describe the excitement, preparation, and festivities of the parade.
Teach students about the history of Chinese Americans. When did they first immigrate to the United States? What were the reasons they left their homeland? In which cities did they settle? What were the origins of Chinatowns? What challenges did Chinese people and Chinese Americans face in the United States? One place to learn more is the timeline of Chinese in America from the Museum of Chinese in America.
Have students locate China on a map or globe and tell students that China is one of the largest countries in the world. Have students mark the capital of China, as well as their location in the United States. On what continent is China? Which countries border China? What are some major rivers in China? What seas and ocean border China?
Students may enjoy learning how to write the Chinese characters for the numerals 1 through 10. Here are the characters for 1 through 10 from the BBC for students.
Write the Mandarin numbers, their pronunciations, and their numerical equivalents on the whiteboard. Have students practice saying the number words until they are familiar with their pronunciations and meanings. Then give students simple math problems to solve using these number words. For extra challenge, encourage students to write a simple math problem in Chinese and share with their peers to try.
SPOTLIGHT: The Magical Monkey King: Mischief in HeavenThis is an adaption perfect for elementary schools of one of China’s favorite classics, Journey to the West. This Monkey is arrogant, bold, clever, and hilarious.Every child in China grows up listening to stories of the irrepressible Monkey King. Join Monkey as he wins his title as King of the Monkeys, studies with a great sage to learn the secrets of immortality, and even takes on the job as a royal gardener in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Chinatown AdventureA young Chinese American girl is spending the day in Chinatown with her mother. With so many interesting things to buy, how will she spend her money?
Sam and the Lucky MoneySam can hardly wait to go shopping with his mom. It’s Chinese New Year’s day and his grandparents have given him the traditional gift of lucky money. Yet, Sam discovers that sometimes the best gifts come from the heart.
The Day the Dragon DancedSugar and her Grandma are going to the Chinese New Year’s Day parade, but Grandma is skeptical about New Year’s in February and scary dragons.
The Dragon Lover and Other Chinese ProverbsThese proverbs are used in everyday Chinese life to illustrate moments of humor or clarity in our actions. Each of the five stories collected here feature animals that help readers shed light on the truths of human nature.
The Monster in the MudballWhen Jin’s little brother is kidnapped by the monster Zilombo, Jin teams up with Chief Inspector of Ancient Artifacts Mizz Z on the streets of England to find him and defeat the monster.
The Wishing TreeEvery Lunar New Year, Ming and his grandmother visited the Wishing Tree. Grandmother warned him to wish carefully, and sure enough, Ming’s wishes always seemed to come true. But one year—when Ming made the most important wish of his life—the tree let him down.
(Download the full book list and activities as a PDF here).
Jill Eisenberg, our Senior Literacy Specialist, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language for second through sixth grade in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in the Bay Area, CA as a Teach for America corps member where she became passionate about best practices for supporting English Language Learners and parent engagement. In her column for Lee & Low’s The Open Book blog, she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators.
Now that we’ve revealed the cover for the amazing Perfect Liars by Kimberly Reid (coming in May!), let’s talk about the cover design process. As with Ink and Ashes last year by Valynne Maetani, Perfect Liars is a YA mystery title. How do you give a book that mysterious air you need? How do you tell readers, “This book is for YOU!”?
The challenge in all YA book design is to create a cover that looks like it belongs in the YA section, but doesn’t look too much like the rest of the YA section. And to do that, you need a good designer. We found that designer in Liz Casal, who’s also designed covers for Little, Brown and Soho Press. Looking at her portfolio, we knew she was just the designer for the job.
We always start with some comp designs, to figure out what direction we’ll want to go in. Liz gave us some really amazing options. Here are a few of my favorites (these aren’t all of them).
What I loved most about Liz’s designs is the care she put into finding photos of models who would look like the main character, Andrea Faraday, who is biracial (black and white). On top of that, her sense of contemporary design is just spot on. It was hard to choose which one we loved most!
We each loved multiple choices, so how could we narrow it down? I showed the potential covers to coworkers here at Lee & Low, to the author, and to her agent, soliciting opinions. We all had reasons for why we liked what we liked. But which direction was the best direction for this book?
There were some easy ones to rule out—the last one (with the girls in the hat) was a great picture, but didn’t convey the feeling we wanted to convey with this book cover. It was too convivial, not mysterious enough. As Kim put it, “I imagine totally loving this for some other book I’d write.” A couple others felt too much like other books, and we weren’t sure we liked the cropping of some others (we didn’t want to lose the character’s full face, even though that cropping created a great sense of mystery).
We all loved the red cover (upper left of the original design), but we felt very strongly that a silhouette wouldn’t be the right choice for a book starring a person of color—we didn’t want to obscure our character’s ethnicity, we wanted to celebrate it! However, that book had a very commercial feel to it. Could we tweak it so that it would clearly show that she’s a character of color?
We looked at a number of options for that cover direction, and in the meanwhile also explored a few other options. We narrowed our options down further, looking at filters and cropping, fonts and angles. And then we decided to go to the experts: teens.
We chose our three favorite covers (we were on about round 3 by now), and during a visit to our office by students from the Grace Church School (who were there to talk to Joseph Bruchac, author of Killer of Enemiesand Trail of the Dead), we asked students to tell us which book they most wanted to read.
Every teen in the room pointed to the cover on the right, the one with the characters wearing sunglasses. We were a little surprised—we thought that opinions might at least be split, or possibly favor the cover we’d been continuing to try to tweak so it wasn’t strictly a silhouette.
Why, we asked, were they most interested in that book?
“Because she looks like she’s hiding something,” said one teen.
For them, those sunglasses meant a sense of mystery.
What do you think? Were our teen experts on to something? We think so!
By now it’s no secret that publishing suffers from a major lack of diversity problem. Thanks to years of research by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, we have ample data to confirm what many readers have always suspected: the number of diverse books published each year over the past twenty years has been stuck in neutral, never exceeding, on average, 10 percent.
Countless panels, articles, and even conferences have been dedicated to exploring the causes and effects of this lack of diversity. Yet one key piece of the puzzle remained a question mark: diversity among publishing staff. While the lack of diversity among publishing staff was often spoken about, there was very little hard data about who exactly works in publishing.
At the beginning of 2015 we decided to conduct a survey to establish a baseline that would measure the amount of diversity among publishing staff. We believed in the power of hard numbers to illuminate a problem that can otherwise be dismissed or swept under the rug. We felt that having hard numbers released publicly would help publishers take ownership of the problem and increase accountability. We also felt that a baseline was needed to measure whether or not initiatives to increase diversity among publishing staff were actually working.
Our Diversity Baseline Survey took a year to complete. The results include responses from 8 review journals and 34 publishers of all sizes from across North America. Here are the results:
Methodology and Response Rate
The Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS) was sent to 1,524 reviewer employees and 11,713 publishing employees for a total of 13,237 surveys deployed. The response rate was 25.8 percent. This is on par with the average for online surveys and actually a bit higher than the norm, given the sensitive nature of the questions.
In 2015, Publishers Weekly included some staff diversity questions in their annual Salary and Compensation Survey. They deployed their survey to 5,800 subscribers and had a response rate of 7.3 percent. Therefore, the DBS should yield a much more comprehensive picture of diversity in the publishing community.
The DBS was deployed directly from each publisher or review journal. A link was sent to all staff from a member of each publisher’s or reviewer journal’s human resources or executive team, often with an introduction explaining why the company was participating. Some companies even wanted to add additional questions to their surveys. The results provided here are only for questions that appeared in every survey.
The surveys were completely anonymous, and companies did not have direct access to the results. All data was analyzed and aggregated by Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen and Nicole Catlin of St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, to ensure anonymity for individual employees.
Although our response rate was good, we still wonder: who didn’t take the survey, and how might that influence the results? With a survey of this kind, there is most likely some degree of selection bias. In other words, people who self-identify as diverse may have been more likely to take the survey. If that was the case, it would mean that our results portray publishing as more diverse than it actually is.
No voluntary survey can ever be 100 percent accurate, and no survey that asks questions about personal identity can ever be anything but voluntary. Even so, the results of the DBS offer a strong snapshot of the makeup of the publishing industry.
Notes and Analysis: What the Numbers Tell Us
According to the survey, just under 80 percent of publishing staff and review journal staff are white. The rest are comprised of Asians/Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders (7.2 percent), Hispanics/Latinos/Mexicans (5.5 percent), Black/African Americans (3.5 percent), and biracial/multiracial people (2.7 percent). Native Americans (0.5 percent), and Middle Easterners (0.8 percent) of publishing staff.
While all racial/ethnic minorities are underrepresented when compared to the general US population, the numbers show that some groups, such as Black/African Americans, are more severely underrepresented. This mirrors trends among children’s book authors. In 2014, just 2 percent of the books tracked by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center were by black authors. Latinos were similarly underrepresented in both places.
Creating the list of ethnicities for a survey such as this was a real challenge. The racial breakdown we offered was based on the US census, with a few adjustments. For our first survey, we felt that this was the best way to break things down because it presented familiar categories that respondents had seen before.
But no list can accurately depict the complexity of this question. Within each category, there are so many different groups, and people self-identify in a wide variety of ways. The census groups White Americans, European Americans, and Middle Eastern Americans together. The census is not quite sure what to do with Latino and Hispanic people, who may or may not identify as white. And it certainly does not know how to handle the differences among Asians, Pacific Islanders, and South Asians.
We received more than 50 write-in comments for this question from people who did not feel that any of the options offered adequately represented them. Some identified as Jewish or European instead of white. Many specified that they were South Asian and didn’t feel that the overall Asian category was specific enough. And several simply called themselves “Human” and wondered why we cared so much about this. One block of data was compromised when the survey link was shared with outside spammers, which made a portion of the surveys ineligible for inclusion. These incidents and answers are all telling because they allude to the wide scope of attitudes toward this issue and how deeply the question of race resonates with people, in both positive and negative ways.
The survey reveals that publishing is about 78.2 percent women or cis-women and 20.6 percent men or cis-men. These numbers may help explain why some feel that children’s book publishing skews toward female readers. Among executive and board member positions this disparity evened out a bit, with approximately 40 percent of executives and board members identifying as men or cis-men. This reflects the reality that males still ascend to positions of power more often, even in female-dominated industries.
The gender question also reveals that about 98.7 percent of publishing staff identify as cis men or women. This means that they identify with the genders they were assigned at birth. How does this compare with the general population? We don’t really know. For many reasons, we don’t have a good count of the percentage of the general population that is transgender. That being said, the small number of transgender, gender-nonconforming, intersex, and other gender-fluid people in publishing points to the need for publishers to make sure that books on these topics are being examined for cultural and scientific accuracy by experts before they are published.
According to the survey, about 88.2 percent of publishing staff identify as straight or heterosexual. This may be the category in which publishing is most on par with the general population, though we can’t know for sure.
Beyond the labels we offered, many respondents added their own labels that they felt better represented them. Quite a few identified as “queer.” Others wanted to know why we were asking for such personal information at all. Overall, this question got one of the lowest response rates of the survey, an indication, perhaps, that many people did not feel comfortable sharing this information. We decided to include this question because we wanted to acknowledge this aspect of diversity, and if we didn’t include it, this segment of the workforce would remain uncounted and invisible.
The survey reveals that about 7.6 percent of publishing staff identify as having a disability. We defined disability broadly in the survey, so this does not give us an indication of the types of disabilities that are represented.
One interesting result: when broken down by department, design had a significantly higher average rate of disability (18 percent), followed by book reviewers (12 percent). Perhaps this is because there are more freelance design and reviewer jobs that can be done from home even when mobility is limited. Providing opportunities to people with disabilities may be an underappreciated benefit of creating more freelance positions in publishing.
The DBS results offer the opportunity to filter responses by department, giving a better picture of how diversity breaks out throughout an organization. More than one hundred thirty people wrote in comments for this question, listing departments or sub-departments beyond those listed in the survey. Because the survey was administered to companies ranging from just a few employees to several hundred or more, some departments or roles were left out. The next version of the survey will have an expanded list that is more inclusive to account for some of the staff who had to write in departments this time around.
An interesting result was the high response rate from editorial staff, who made up nearly 20 percent of survey respondents. This compares to less than 10 percent of respondents from marketing/publicity and 13.5 percent from sales. Since these ratios do not seem to match the overall breakdown by departments in publishing, we wonder if staff in some departments, such as editorial, were more likely than others to respond. If so, why? Are editorial staffs more on board with diversity initiatives than staff in other departments?
Here are the numbers:
Board Members and Executive Positions
Without a doubt, board members and those in executive positions make up the highest level of decision makers on the corporate ladder. Board members and executive positions are: 86 percent white, 59 percent cis-women, 89 percent heterosexual, and 96 percent able bodied/without a disability.
Editorial is the next most important department when it comes to the in-house staff closest to generating actual books. Editorial staff is: 82 percent white, 84 percent cis-women, 86 percent heterosexual, and 92 percent able bodied/without a disability.
Marketing and Publicity
These are the departments that promote the books. Staff members in marketing and publicity are: 77 percent white, 84 percent cis-women, 87 percent heterosexual, and 94 percent able bodied/without a disability.
Members of the sales team are the ones out there pounding the pavement and knocking on doors to sell front list and back list titles. Sales people are: 83 percent white, 77 percent cis-women, 90 percent heterosexual, and 94 percent able bodied/without a disability.
Reviewers often have a direct influence on what readers buy. Reviewers are: 89 percent white, 87 percent cis-women, 91 percent heterosexual, and 88 percent able bodied/without a disability.
Does the lack of diverse books closely correlate to the lack of diverse staff? The percentages, while not exact, are proportional to how the majority of books look nowadays—predominately white. Cultural fit would seem to be relevant here. Or at least in publishing’s case, what is at work is the tendency—conscious or unconscious—for executives, editors, marketers, sales people, and reviewers to work with, develop, and recommend books by and about people who are like them.
So, we have our baseline numbers. What are the next moves? In future posts we will discuss initiatives already in place that will hopefully move the needle toward more diversity. We will also look at a similar publishing diversity survey that was conducted in 2014 in the United Kingdom. And we will be working on designing DBS version 2.0, which we hope will include the publishers who either didn’t hear about the survey or opted out the first time.
We also hope that the DBS will lead to more “Diversity 102” conversations about what publishers can do, including improving retention and staff training. How can company cultures be more welcoming for diverse staff? Do diverse staff members feel comfortable voicing their opinions? Are systems in place to make sure all staff are trained and well versed in diversity issues?
Publishing is not alone when it comes to having a lack of diversity problem. All media, including film, television, and theater, are having similar conversations about diversity. It is plain to see that our society as a whole has a problem. We believe we are at a crucial time right now. We all have to decide if the country in which we live is better off if we conduct our lives separately or together. The diversity problem is not the responsibility of diverse people to solve. It is a problem for everyone to solve. Now that the Diversity Baseline Survey is completed, the real work toward changing the status quo begins. It is not going to be easy. Knowing where we stand and establishing a baseline was the first step. Knowing the baseline numbers gives us a way to measure progress going forward, but only our actions can change things for the better.
2016 is the second year in a row that all the 20 nominees in the acting categories for the Oscars are all white. This prompted the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite created by April Reign to resurface. While television has started to become more diverse, this still isn’t reflected other media.
While the news media may cover this year’s Oscars Diversity Gap as a new issue, the truth is that discrimination toward artists of color is as old as America. Historically, performers of color were often unable to find places in the United States to perform and hone their talent. Ultimately, many of these performers had to leave America in order to be able to perform, and often found great success and acclaim in Europe, Russia, and other parts of the world. Here are just a few:
Ira’s Shakespeare Dream, written by Glenda Armand and illustrated by Floyd Cooper – Ira Aldridge dreams of performing Shakespeare’s plays. He journeys to England to realize his dreams.
Ira Aldridge was born in New York in 1807. As a child, he attended the African Free School. While a teenager, he acted with the African Grove Theater, performing plays for mostly black audiences. At the time, black actors were not allowed to perform for white audiences onstage – or even to share the same theaters. Eventually, Ira traveled to England in order to pursue his dream to act in Shakespeare’s plays. Even in England, he encountered resistance from critics saying he shouldn’t play roles that were meant for white actors. Yet Ira persevered, and became the first black actor to play the coveted role of Othello on the English state. Ira traveled around Europe performing Shakespeare’s plays, and was especially well-received in Russia and Prussia, where he was knighted. Despite never being able to return to the United States, Ira would often preach about the evils of slavery after his plays and raise money for abolitionist causes.
Shining Shar: The Anna May Wong Story, written by Paula Yoo and illustrated by Lin Wang – The true story of Chinese American film star Anna May Wong, whose trail-blazing career in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s broke new ground for future generations of Asian American actors.
During the time that Anna May Wong rose to acting fame, most movies that portrayed Asian characters used white actors in yellowface. Anna May got her start as an extra in a film near where she lived. Later, Anna May was cast in many supporting roles where she caught the public eye. But even with fame and success, many of the roles offered to Anna May were racial stereotypes Chinese people. Tired of portraying stereotypes, Anna May journeyed to Europe, where she had supporting roles in films like Piccadilly. In 1935, Anna May lost the role of O-lan in The Good Earth to Luise Rainer. The United States had laws that would prevent Anna May from sharing an onscreen kiss with a white actor. Pearl S. Buck, the author of The Good Earth wanted the film to be cast with an all Chinese cast, but was told that American audiences weren’t ready for such a film.
Later, Anna May journeyed to China, and she vowed to never play another racial stereotype. In 1951, she starred in the first TV show to star an Asian American actor, The Gallery of Madam Liu-Tsong.
Unfortunately, stereotypes still permeate television and film. Many actors of color have had the experience of casting directors asking them to play up racial or ethnic stereotypes.
Other books about American performers who found success outside the US:
Give Me Wings, by Kathy Lowinger – After Ella Sheppard enters Fisk Free Colored School (later Fisk University), she becomes a founding member of the Jubilee Singers, in order to raise funds for the school. They traveled around the United States and Europe introducing audiences to spirituals.
Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, written by Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrated by Christian Robinson: This book follows the life of Josephine Baker, who was raised in the slums of St. Louis. Later, she found great success in Europe as a dancer and actress.
Please check out the following posts in the Ira’s Shakespeare Dream blog tour:
On Tuesday, January 26, 2016 we will release the results of the Diversity Baseline Survey, the first major study to look at diversity among publishing industry staff. The Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS) focuses on four different aspects of diversity: race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. The goal is to establish a baseline that shows where we are now as an industry, and that will help us measure progress moving forward.
The DBS was inspired by a similar movement in the technology industry, led by Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou. Tracy pointed to tech’s lack of diversity—and lack of data—and was able to galvanize the entire industry to release staff diversity figures in 2014. We posted a study on our blog called The Diversity Gap in Silicon Valley that breaks down the problem and the responses. After the tech industry released their statistics, several new initiatives were announced to encourage recruitment and retaining of diverse new talent. We wondered, could publishing do the same?
Reviewers and Independents Lead the Charge
We began by discussing the idea of creating a baseline with people at a few major review journals. School Library Journal Editor Kiera Parrott was one of the first to say yes. “Since SLJ reviews over 6,000 materials every year, that puts us in a privileged and powerful position; our reviews help determine what books and materials librarians purchase—or not,” she said. “We are gatekeepers, of a sort. When Jason Low asked me what our reviewers looked like, in terms of their diversity, I had no idea. It was a question that had never been asked in SLJ’s more that 60-year history. Participating in the survey was the first concrete and actionable thing I could do to be part of the solution.”
Most of the reviewer journals we spoke to felt the same way as School Library Journal about the survey and promised their support. Eventually we lined up eight review journals that agreed to survey their reviewers.
We then started recruiting publishers. We approached small publishers first, for the simple reason that their hierarchy is not as deep and it was easier to communicate directly with decision makers. It is also worth noting that historically, small presses have a reputation for being strong supporters of diversity long before it became trendy. The reception was enthusiastic. Charlesbridge, an independent children’s book publisher, signed on immediately. “When we decided to participate in the DBS, we hoped to look at ourselves and at what we’re doing well and where we need work, as well as to join the ranks of people standing up and saying let’s embrace change,” said Donna Spurlock, Director of Marketing at Charlesbridge.
Arte Público Press also joined early on. “It’s pretty basic: the shockingly small number of children’s books published each year by (or even about) diverse authors. It seems clear that for those numbers to increase, there have to be diverse people working in publishing,” said Marina Tristán, Assistant Director at Arte Público. “And the first step towards making change is exposing the problem.”
Roadblocks Force Change
When we started approaching mid-size publishers, progress stalled. Many publishers flat out turned us down, concerned about transparency. Originally we had asked each publisher to release their own numbers, as many tech companies had. But many publishers felt that this could reflect poorly on their companies. HR representatives were also concerned with the content of the survey itself, which asked about some very personal things, including gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability. Many state laws prevent employers from asking their employees about these matters.
We considered setting aside gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability and focusing on race alone. But we felt that these aspects of diversity were also essential to a healthy and inclusive publishing ecosystem. While we understood the sensitive nature of the questions, eliminating these questions on the survey would render these diverse populations invisible. However, one thing became clear: if we wanted to measure these aspects of diversity, we would need to find a way to protect employee privacy and make sure that respondents’ answers remained absolutely anonymous.
We consulted with lawyers and evaluation specialists who helped us move to an aggregate model that would protect the privacy of individuals and ease the fears of Human Resources Directors. We hoped that even in aggregate form, study results would encourage a feeling of transparency and accountability in the industry. For the aggregate model to work, it was also imperative that actual data not reside with any individual publisher or reviewer. So we partnered with Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen at St. Catherine University in Minnesota, who took on the job of housing and administering the survey as well as parsing the data. Meanwhile, we solicited feedback from experts who helped us tweak the wording and format of the survey itself.
Mid-size Publishers Join In
Progress was slow. As we made updates, I circled back to publishers that had initially turned us down. Gradually the list of participants grew, and as the size of participating publishers got bigger, more publishers signed on. When Chronicle Books and Candlewick joined us, we knew we had hit a turning point. Emily Marchand, Vice President of Human Resources at Candlewick, said, “We think the survey is a great step in creating a snapshot of what is currently going on within our industry, and from that baseline of improved understanding, we believe we will all be better equipped to improve the diversity of both staffing and publishing across the industry as a whole. Deciding to complete the DBS was also consistent with our longstanding commitment as a publisher to attract and retain staff whose diverse viewpoints and perspectives will improve how our company and our publishing represent, reflect, and speak to all people.”
Big Publishers Show Support
As we worked, each objection raised helped us refine the survey, reasoning, and message. Over time, the vetting process became faster and easier. There were no longer any new questions, objections, or arguments that we had not faced before. The survey picked up some momentum when Scholastic joined. It made our day when Big-Five publisher Macmillan to joined us, followed by Penguin Random House. Paige McInerney, Vice President of Human Resources at Penguin Random House, said, “By participating in the DBS, we wanted to contribute to the industry’s efforts to be more transparent in this area. We also want to use it as an opportunity to continue the dialogue among all of us around how we can work together to find the most meaningful and productive ways forward. We know what our own company’s employment statistics are in some of the survey categories, and expect that the other participating companies’ results would closely mirror our own. We thought those combined results would be a good starting point for further discussions and actions by the publishing community.”
While we communicated directly with individual publishers, we also started a petition on change.org to try to garner public support for diverse books and diverse staffing in publishing. We felt it was important to give readers a space to weigh in. The petition received more than 2,000 signatures from all around the world, and the comments were especially moving to read.
All of the outreach was done one-on-one, via email and phone conversations. On our own we reached out to forty-seven publishers and nine reviewer journals. Articles were written about the survey in School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, The Horn Book, Book Riot, and Publishers Weekly. The distributor Publishers Group West lent a hand by inviting the one hundred ninety-two independent publishers they represent to participate, which brought in a few more publishing houses.
In the end, 34 publishers and eight reviewers agreed to participate. The final list of companies provides a strong cross-section of the industry:
Review Journals Bayviews
Booklist Foreword Reviews The Horn Book Kirkus Reviews Library Journal Publishers Weekly School Library Journal
Arte Publico Press
Cinco Puntos Press
Dancing Lemur Press, L.L.C.
Fitzhenry & Whiteside
Hachette Book Group
Just Us Books
Kids Can Press
Lee & Low Books
Lerner Publishing Group
Penguin Random House
Second Story Press
Tilbury House Publishers
The DBS was created in SurveyMonkey in an account to which only Dr. Dahlen had access. For most companies, Dr. Dahlen shared a link to the survey with one company representative who sent the link on to all staff. Employees were given two to three weeks to complete the survey, with at least one reminder. Because the survey was anonymous, it also had to be voluntary. But we encouraged survey distributors to include an introductory letter that would let employees know why the company was participating and encourage staff members to take the survey.
Before the survey was formalized in SurveyMonkey, some publishers and review journals conducted similar surveys on their own. In those cases, Dr. Dahlen worked to align their data to the Survey Monkey results. The data was parsed and aggregated by Dr. Dahlen and her graduate assistant, Nicole Catlin. Once it was in aggregate form, the data was passed on to us at Lee & Low so we could analyze the results further and release them publicly.
The survey took almost a year to complete from inception to finish. Stay tuned as we release the results on Tuesday, January 26, 2016.
New York, NY—January 15, 2015—LEE & LOW BOOKS is proud to announce that Lisa Brathwaite of Stone Mountain, Georgia, is the winner of the company’s sixteenth annual New Voices Award. Her manuscript, Show and Tell: The Story of Eunice Johnson and the Ebony Fashion Fair, is a picture book biography of Eunice Johnson, African American publishing executive and founder of the Ebony Fashion Fair. Since childhood, Eunice had a passion for fashion. She enjoyed sewing her own clothes and took pride in her original style and immaculate technique. As an adult, she and her husband founded Ebony, a magazine that celebrates African American life and culture. And in 1958, Eunice created the Ebony Fashion Fair, a fund-raising event that quickly evolved into a nationwide tour that showcased high fashion for the African American audience and challenged accepted standards to embrace beauty in all forms.
Lisa Brathwaite is a cultural engagement advisor with Welcoming America and a volunteer with Dress for Success Atlanta. As a young girl, Lisa was interested in fashion and found Ebony a source of encouragement and confidence. She became enamored with Eunice Johnson’s journey and was inspired to write about this great businesswoman and fashion icon. Lisa will receive a prize of $1,000 and a publication contract.
LEE & LOW BOOKS is also proud to announce that Li Yun Alvarado of Long Beach, California, has been chosen as the New Voices Honor winner for her manuscript A Star Named Rosita: The Rita Moreno Story, a picture book biography of film and theater star Rita Moreno. A native of Puerto Rico, Rita immigrated in 1936 to the United States, where she discovered her talent for performing. She rose to Hollywood stardom and became a pioneer for Latina women, overcoming barriers and stereotypes to win an Academy Award for her role in the musical West Side Story (1961). As a young Puerto Rican performing arts student in New York City, Li Yun Alvarado was deeply affected by Rita Moreno’s story and was motivated to write about Rita’s inspirational work for a new generation of readers and performers. Li Yun will receive a prize of $500.
Congratulations to Lisa Brathwaite and Li Yun Alvarado!
ABOUT THE AWARD: Established in 2000, the New Voices Award is an annual award given by LEE & LOW BOOKS to an unpublished author of color for a picture book manuscript. Past winners include It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Drawby Don Tate, winner of the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award Honor, Birdby Zetta Elliott, an ALA Notable Book, and, most recently, Juna’s Jarby Jane Bahk, a Spring 2015 Junior Library Guild selection.
The award was established to combat the low numbers of authors of color in children’s book publishing and to help new authors break into the field. LEE & LOW BOOKS is committed to nurturing new authors. The company has introduced more than one hundred new authors and illustrators to the children’s book world and 68% of authors and illustrators published by LEE & LOW BOOKS are people of color. For more information, visit our New Voices Award page.
Authors of color who write for older readers are encouraged to learn about our New Visions Award for middle grade and young adult manuscripts as well.
We were so sorry to hear about the recent passing of beloved children’s book author Andrea Cheng. Cheng passed away on December 26, 2015 at the age of 58 following a long illness. Born in El Paso, Texas to Hungarian immigrants (including a Holocaust survivor), Cheng was the versatile author of over 20 books for young readers as well as the director of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at Cincinnati State Technical and and Community College.
In 2000 LEE & LOW had the honor of publishing Ms. Cheng’s very first book, Grandfather Counts, a story inspired by her husband’s childhood experience growing up without being able to communicate with his Chinese relatives. The book was chosen as a Reading Rainbow Selection for its sensitive portrayal of a multigenerational immigrant family. Cheng followed Grandfather Counts with the picture book Goldfish and Chrysanthemums, an honest look at a grandmother’s homesickness when she leaves China to live with her children in America.
Through her stories, Cheng explored both the challenges and joys of immigrant families as they navigate multiple cultures–and sometimes make hard decisions. In her chapter book Only One Year, Cheng portrayed the custom of immigrant parents who send their young children to live with family in their home countries for a year or two. In the afterword, she wrote, “The idea behind this story may seem unusual, but it is not as uncommon as you may think. Some parents in the United States might find it hard to imagine being separated from their young children, but attitudes about raising children are sometimes quite different in other countries, especially Asia and Africa.”
Cheng’s books are notable for their honesty and sensitivity; while they do not shy away from the painful aspects of immigration, they are buoyed by the deep love that keeps immigrant families close even in challenging times.
Perhaps nowhere is that honesty and sensitivity more powerful than in Cheng’s book Etched in Clay, a biography in verse of Dave, an enslaved potter and poet who lived in South Carolina in the early 1800s. Etched in Clay, which received the Lee Bennett Hopkins Award for Children’s Poetry, is a masterwork in empathy, featuring poems not just from the perspective of Dave himself but also from his wife, owners, and even a member of the South Carolina General Assembly. “When I worked on this book, I spent a lot of time feeling choked up and I couldn’t talk, or if the phone rang, I choked up,” Cheng told School Library Journalin an interview. “It was the separation, the scenes where people are separated from people they love.”
Our Editorial Director Louise May worked closely with Cheng for many years. Here is how she remembers her:
Andrea Cheng was a dear friend and cherished Lee & Low author. Our relationship began in March 1999, when I acquired the manuscript that became her first published children’s book, Grandfather Counts. It was also the first project I acquired at Lee & Low, having joined the company just two months earlier. So, together we both began new chapters in our careers. We went on to collaborate on five books ranging from picture books to a novel in verse. One incident that remains fondly in mind occurred when we were working on our second book, about a Chinese American family. The main character and her grandmother are preparing dinner. I suggested omitting the word “the” in a sentence that reads, “I stood next to her, washing the rice.” “No,” Andrea pointed out. “In Chinese families, it is always ‘the rice.’” And now it always is for me too. Andrea and I bonded over other areas of our lives as well. We found out that we both attended the same university (although ten years apart!), and we faced personal challenges at the same time in our lives. We visited each others homes and shared our family stories. She welcomed everyone she cared about into her own family, and I am honored to have have been one of those people. Andrea was a multitalented writer deeply committed to building stories around diverse characters and experiences, and a caring and loving human being. I am honored to have known her and worked with her for so many years. She will be missed.
Cheng will be missed by all of us at LEE & LOW who loved working with her–in addition to being a talented author, she was a truly warm person who made answering her phone calls and emails a pleasure. Even business emails from Cheng often ended with phrases like “Hope your summer is going well!” or “Thank you so much for sharing this with me.”
In an interview several years ago, Cheng wrote, “My main hope is that people who read my books are moved by them, affected by them. I hope that they will think about the characters and events long after they have finished reading or listening to the stories.” Here’s an excerpt from one of Cheng’s poems in Etched in Clay that we think says it best:
Someday the world will read
my word etched in clay
on the side of this jar
and know about the shackles
around our legs
and the whips
upon our backs.
I am not afraid
to write on a jar
and fire it hot
so my word
can never be erased.
And if some day
this jar cracks,
my word will stay
etched in shards.
A few of our favorite interviews with Andrea Cheng:
We are thrilled to share that two LEE & LOW titles have been selected for the 2016 Literature Award given by the Asian Pacific American Library Association (APALA). Congratulations to Juna’s Jar, winner in the Picture Book category, and Ink and Ashes, honor in the Young Adult category!
Here’s the full list of winners from APALA’s press release:
* Winner: Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press)
Viet Than Nguyen weaves a compelling story of a Vietnamese double agent in his debut novel The Sympathizer. The novel brings humor and a critical eye to the Vietnam War and narratives of Vietnamese refugees.
* Honor: Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy (Bloomsbury USA)
Sandip Roy blends family secrets, arranged marriages, and culture clash in his debut novel, Don’t Let Him Know. From the new bride Romola who arrives in the United States to her only child Amit, who discovers a family secret, readers will be fascinated with the interconnected stories about family, friendship, and culture.
* Winner: The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee (Simon and Schuster)
Dr. Erica Lee, University of Minnesota History Faculty & Immigration History Research Center Director, compiled an astounding 17 chapter single volume of research which falls on the 50th anniversary of the commemoration of the United States Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Lee’s significant centennial plus documentation includes and describes some of the most important annals of Asian American history in the areas of immigration, assimilation, civil rights as well as noteworthy contributions and strides made to the American landscape attributed to Americans of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino Vietnamese, Cambodian, Sikh, Hindu and other Asian ancestry and heritage.
* Honor: Canton Restaurant to Panda Express by Haiming Liu (Rutgers University Press)
To the Chinese people, food is the aggregator of warm social interaction. Haiming Liu in this new title has documented the story of the social history of a transcultural people by weaving the history of the early Chinese settlers, their assimilation into their adopted American culture with the story of their continually adaptive cuisine which includes the present-day fusion and fast food industry. This intriguing title examines the developmental history of the Chinese up from the mid 1800’s and their commitment to American society while retaining their own unique brand of what it means to have Chinese ancestry.
* Honor: The Good Immigrant: How the yellow peril became the model minority by Madilyn Y. Hsu (Princeton University Press)
The Good Immigrant stands out as an impeccable study which fills a critical void in the literature of Asian America. Its focused research reveals discoveries about a unique group of immigrant whose history has been generally overlooked. It explores into the past and more recent immigration from Asia, such as transnational immigrant student, the intellectual, the entrepreneurial businessman, and etc., which garnered notice of the growing influence of Asian Americans. Until Hsu’s articulate and scholarly endeavor few have found cause to investigate.
* Winner: P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
PS I Still Love You was a contemporary and relatable story to many teens that we as a committee even wished we had a book like this to read and refer to during our teenage years. Furthermore, Han is able to depict Lara Jean, the protagonist in a very positive and relatable light for not only for other Asians but people in general as well. Lara Jean is able to be both Korean and “normal,” and avoids being typecasted into certain tropes.
* Honor: Ink and Ashes by Valynne E. Maetani (Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books)
Ink and Ashes was very interesting and different than what we had read. It was contemporary, but yet the readers will learn a lot about the Japanese histories and superstitions through Claire and her research into her family history which contains links to the Yakuza – the Japanese Mafia. With suspense, mystery, and a dash of romance, this book has teen appeal and would be suitable for a movie adaptation.
* Winner: Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton (Dial Books/Penguin Random House)
The committee was especially impressed with Full Cicada Moon, praising Hilton’s engaging examination of racial (and particularly, biracial), gender, and social issues, as well as the powerful verse in which it was elegantly told. The portrayal of the remarkable Mimi—a strong protagonist whose memorable journey is both stirringly and gracefully developed.
* Honor: Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly (Green Willow Books/Harper Collins)
Kelly’s entertaining and refreshing debut novel was enjoyed by the committee. Of one particular note was the sensitive development of its believable protagonist, the smooth detailing of Apple’s ethnic heritage and her struggles to embrace it, and overall, the hopeful yet not overly didactic message it presents on exploring one’s identity and the adolescent experience.
* Winner: Juna’s Jar by Jane Bahk, illustrated by Felicia Hoshino (Lee & Low Books)
Juna’s Jar celebrates imagination, while also showcasing cross-racial best friends in modern day Los Angeles. It charmingly captures the adventures and heartache of a little girl—who just happens to be a Korean American.
* Honor: Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers)
Millo Castro Zaldarriaga is a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who dreamed of drumming at a time when only boys were allowed to drum. Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music celebrates music, culture, gender, and the right to dream.
The winners will each receive an award plaque and an award seal on their book at the APALA Award Ceremony on Saturday, June 25, 2016 during the ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL.
We’re so excited to introduce readers to our new early chapter books! Two new chapter book series in our DIVE INTO READING line will help you find the perfect book to support children in each stage of their reading development. These books will be available February 2016.
Confetti Kids Series
Follow a diverse cast of characters living in a friendly city neighborhood! Approachable, realistic stories are at the right level for children to star reading independently.
Lily moves from a quiet suburb to an apartment on a busy street in the city. Lily worries that she’ll never fit in. As she and her parents explore their new, multicultural neighborhood, Lily discovers that sometimes change can be a good thing!
It’s a warm, sunny day, and the gang heads to the neighborhood playground to play. What should they play? Pablo comes up with a great idea: to play pretend. It’s a game that everyone can do easily. They can pretend to be archaeologists, astronauts, and explorers. There’s no limit to what they imagine they can be!
Rafi and Rosi Series
Now back in print, this beloved chapter book series follows two Puerto Rican tree frog siblings as they explore their surroundings and learn about the traditions, animals, and environment of Puerto Rico. The series is available in both English and Spanish.
Rafi amazes Rosi with the magic he finds everywhere. He can move sand with his magic fingers and shoot stars from the sky. After Rafi’s pet hermit crab runs away, it’s now Rosi’s turn to show that she knows where to look for magic too. Can she find the crab in time for them to watch it shed its shell?
It’s time for Carnival! Puerto Rico’s joyous holiday is full of sights and sounds to explore. Rosi is determined to show Rafi the best way to enjoy the parade, while Rafi has a plan to make his sister queen for a day.But when Rafi scares Rosi with his terrible vejigante mask, Rosi decides it’s time to teach her brother a lesson. This little sister has a few tricks up her sleeve too!
In honor of tonight’s release of Star Wars: Episode VII, we thought we’d revisit our Diversity Gap Study on sci-fi and fantasy blockbusters. Star Wars is shaping up to be not only one of the biggest movies of the year but also potentially one of the biggest movies of all time, with ticket sales already shattering records.
For Star Wars fans, there is much to celebrate. And for fans of diversity in Hollywood, even more so: the film features British-Nigerian actor John Boyega as one of the leads. Boyega has been getting a lot of buzz since his role was announced (along with some racist comments from the Dark Side – par for the course when it comes to diverse casting of franchises, it seems), and is joined by Guatamalan-American actor Oscar Isaac, who also plays a major role. Lupita N’yongo will also star as an alien pirate, though we won’t see her face.
Director JJ Abrams acknowledged the importance of casting diversely, telling 60 Minutes, “When we started casting the movie, it felt incredibly important to me that the movie look like the world in which this movie is being released.”
Given some of the great diversity in TV and films over the last year, the casting of Star Wars may not seem revolutionary. But historically, in the context of the top-grossing sci-fi movies of all time, it is still huge. Take a look:
Here are some key statistics based on the top 100 domestic grossing sci-fi and fantasy movies:
• 8% of films star a protagonist of color
• Of the 8 protagonists of color, all are men; 6 are played by Will Smith and 1 is a cartoon character (Aladdin)
• 0% of protagonists are women of color and just 14% of protagonists are women
• 0% of protagonists are LGBTQ
• 2% of protagonists are people with a disability
If Star Wars becomes one of the top-grossing movies in this genre of all time–which it is certainly on track to do–it could put a dent in some of these numbers. And just as importantly, it will give Hollywood yet more proof that audiences are ready and willing to see great blockbusters with diverse leads. Star Wars, all we can say is: May the force be with you.
Last month, we were excited to announce the establishment of the Lee & Low and Friends Scholarship in conjunction with Simmons College. This scholarship will provide opportunities for students of color to enroll in the Simmons College graduate program in children’s literature, one of the country’s finest.
In this interview, we talk to two of the key players behind the new scholarship. Cathryn M. Mercier, PhD is the Director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College and the director of the center’s M.A. and M.F.A. programs. Jason Low is the Publisher/Co-owner of LEE & LOW BOOKS.
Specifically, who will the scholarship help in terms of preparing for a career in publishing?
Cathryn M. Mercier: Our graduate programs attract students from a wide range of professional interests. They can be writers enrolled in an MFA program who are in graduate seminars with students intending to pursue careers as librarians or teachers; with students who want to pursue doctoral studies where they can focus on literature for young people; with reviewers or booksellers or rare book dealers; with others seeking careers in children’s book publishing – in editorial, marketing, design. The cross-professionalism of a graduate program in children’s literature that itself embraces the cross-disciplinarity and multi-vocality of the field appeals to students who share the belief that books change lives.
While there are always slight shifts in the student’s professional interests, the past ten years have seen a steady increase in the number of students wanting to enter publishing. Yet, we consistently find that doors to the field are very hard to open. Writers in the program find it difficult to get their work read by either editorial departments or by literary agents. As the competition to be read increases, writers of color struggle to find their way into publishing venues.
Similarly, internships – often operating as volunteer positions and once considered a version of career exploration – have become a necessary apprenticeship. Yet, many many students need to work during the summers; they simply cannot afford to take on a volunteer internship. Even a stipended internship might help to pay the rent, but it may not go much further than that.
First-generation college students – of which I am one – find it very hard to enter publishing partly because they just don’t “know the ropes” and need mentoring; and, again I speak from experience, they find it financially challenging to give up summer earnings for an internship when those earnings are needed elsewhere.
I do believe that this scholarship will make accessible a whole range of publishing arenas – writing, marketing, editing, agency, publicity – to students who have been otherwise disadvantaged, discouraged, or simply excluded from those fields. The scholarship might go to a student in the writing program to alleviate tuition costs; it might go to a student in the form of a stipend to support internship work; it might go to a student seeking to complete a nonfiction (or fiction!) manuscript and needing to complete research. Yes, I am looking at the scholarship as a way to diversify our student body and I hope that this opportunity for scholarship consideration will appeal to prospective students of color.
How will the scholarship help bring equity to publishing?
CMM: In one sense, this scholarship will first change the pipeline of those entering the study of literature for children and young adults. Our program’s commitment to diversity and inclusion means that all students are engaged in thinking about who is and is not included in literature; about the terms of inclusion; about the authority and authenticity of representations of diverse experiences. I mention this because equity comes from changing who works in publishing and from changing how anyone who works in publishing thinks about diversity and inclusion – of what they publish and to whom they sell what they publish.
Jason Low: If the scholarship can lessen the economic burden of obtaining an advanced degree from Simmons, we may be able to contribute to diversifying future publishing staffs. Simmons graduates go on to become librarians who influence collection development and serve on award committees. They also become reviewers who are the tastemakers of the industry. And many Simmons alumni become editors who are responsible for acquiring stories that may inspire children for generations to come. These are all key positions that make up the publishing ecosystem, and currently these roles are overwhelming white.
Cathryn, what gave you the idea to create a publishing scholarship?
CMM: Our program has a number of scholarships for students and students across the spectrum of professional careers as well as students from diverse backgrounds have always been considered for all scholarships. However, as I heard more and more students wanting to enter publishing, as I saw the need for more books by writers of color, and as I saw the movement from an internship as an optional experience to an apprenticeship, I became quite interested in addressing this specific set of needs. The program had an alumna who wanted to commit to increasing diversity in the student body and found motivation in the current student interest in publishing as well as the need to diversify publishing.
Cathryn, what are some of the challenges you faced in establishing this scholarship, and how did you overcome them?
CMM: The primary challenge was in getting to the goal of $100,000 so that the fund could be named. Again, we had an alumna donor wanting to make a significant gift and we had Lee & Low’s significant gift, but still we were not at the naming level. Naming is important for a whole range of reasons – not the last of which is that a named scholarship helps with recruitment and a student who is awarded a named scholarship gets to wear that banner throughout their career. Our alumna donor was so excited about the Lee & Low interest that she asked if we might be able to name the scholarship “Lee & Low…and Friends.” In addition, when she saw that we were close, but not close enough, she earmarked part of her gift as a challenge grant to the entire alumni body of the children’s literature programs. Within months, and through the generosity of many donors, we reached the goal.
Of course, we do hope that the fund will continue to grow. Just because we reached our goal does not mean that we’ve closed the book on this one! I know that a scholarship dedicated to diversifying our student body will continue to be a compelling one for alumni – and hopefully for others in publishing who wish to effect necessary change.
Why did Lee & Low Books partner with Simmons College to establish a scholarship?
JL: Inequality pervades almost every aspect of life, from the films and TV shows we watch, to the books we read, to the people we call our neighbors. To believe that the lack of representation in the workplace does not in some way greatly influence the kinds of books published and how they are marketed, sold, and reviewed is naïve at best and willfully ignorant at worst.
Since Lee & Low is an employer of people who work in publishing, we have seen a good many resumes come across our desks over the years. Many of the most qualified candidates went to Simmons College, so a partnership with Simmons represents an important piece of the puzzle.
Jason, why do you think it is the responsibility of publishers to offer opportunities like this? What would you say to other publishers who have been approached to help sponsor similar programs?
JL: Quite simply the push has to come from publishers; they need to make a definitive statement that the industry wants to change. In the scheme of things, the Lee & Low and Friends Scholarship is just the beginning. For this scholarship to be successful, it has to grow and remain active for many consecutive years for it to make a dent in publishing’s diversity deficit. Lee & Low cannot do it alone. We need other publishers to step up and replicate this scholarship at other colleges with publishing and librarianship programs.
Recruitment is one key part of diversifying the industry; retainment is another. What steps does Simmons take to ensure that diverse students feel welcome at Simmons once they are accepted?
CMM: Graduate students attend orientation and School (we are in the School of Library and Information Science) has a wide range of student groups – many of them affinity groups – that students join. Nonetheless, a few days ago I met with the graduate program’s student advisory board to solicit their help and insight about increasing facets of diversity and inclusion throughout our graduate programs. They suggested extending the kind of mentoring work that we do with MFA candidates, thesis writers, and independent projects to diverse students. MFA, etc., students are placed with individual mentors to work on creative or scholarly projects. I’m interested in how we might develop such a mentoring program for diverse students.
What are some of the benefits for all students of a more diverse student body?
CMM: What aren’t the benefits? The best graduate seminar discussions come for the widest range of possible experiences and insights. Some of our assignments require collaboration, and successful collaboration means working within and across differences. In a graduate classroom, we look at the ways in which one’s culture matters in a book and to do that best, we need to have cultural diversity and multiple voices in all our conversations. The more diverse the student body, the more voices we have from all elements of our complex society, the better we become at unpacking our differences and shaping a shared future.
Jason, how diverse is the staff of Lee & Low Books?
JL: Lee & Low is one of the few minority-owned publishers. Overall, our staff is reflective of this with 69% of our staff consisting of people of color.
What are some of the economic benefits of a more diverse work staff?
JL: Different perspectives help grow a business in ways that management could never predict or come up with on its own. Our staff is an integral part of what has helped Lee & Low become a stronger company and we value our staff by listening to them. Our diverse staff (in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender) puts Lee & Low in a unique position to act on a mission that has evolved. When Lee & Low was first founded in 1991, our mission was to publish multicultural books. Over time, we added stories with characters with disabilities and LGBTQAI themes. Who knows how the mission will expand next. Publishing books is a quietly passionate business. Having staff of all backgrounds who are deeply invested in diverse books matters. So are there economic benefits to hiring diversely? Yes, there are.
You have said that this scholarship is one way to address the “pipeline” problem in which publishers struggle to find qualified diverse candidates for positions. What are some other ways the industry can address this problem?
JL: When we are looking at entry-level candidates to hire, we often look for some relevant experience, usually in the form of publishing internships. Recently, we converted our internship program to accept diverse candidates only. We also made our internships paid, since many college kids cannot afford to serve in unpaid internships.
When publishers are looking to fill positions they may try to expand their search to colleges outside of their normal circles. Sending representatives to colleges to talk about careers in publishing is the kind of outreach that may be necessary to inform people that publishing is a rewarding career that is worth serious consideration. I have been to schools where students were unaware of our industry, but after I finished my presentation, they were interested.
Finally, once diverse staff is hired, mentorships should be provided. Being the only African American person in a department can be a challenge. Empathy and clear support from the top goes a long way. The only way the industry will become more diverse is by retaining the diverse candidates who decide to choose publishing as a career. Retention is crucial.
Want to inspire future poets, writers, and dreamers? One elementary school in San Francisco did just that with an author study of U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.
Lorraine Orlandi, Community School Coordinator, shared with us the goals, preparation, and impact of their Latino Heritage Celebration.
With National Hispanic Heritage Month in the fall, Paul Revere School K-8 selected Juan Felipe Herrera to study and honor for Herrera’s activism and body of work, as well as his ties to San Francisco.
When do your school make time for artist studies?
“We have three major cultural celebrations each school year: for Latino heritage, African American heritage and Asian-Pacific Islander heritage. For each, we have an intensive artists residency of about six weeks to prepare students to perform in school-wide assemblies and at an evening event for the entire community.”
Why choose author Juan Felipe Herrera?
“We have struggled to connect the history and values being taught through these artists’ residencies with our day-to-day classroom teaching and learning. Juan Felipe Herrera’s work provided the perfect vehicle for our school, which includes a Spanish Immersion strand in addition to the general English strand. Students in all classes could access the work and it provided a unifying element for the learning and celebration. The project fit within our school-wide literacy goals. It was a breakthrough that we hope to be able to extend to all of our cultural celebrations in the future.”
What kind of work is involved for staff?
“Preparation included teacher training around materials — we bought a bunch of books, found videos and teaching guides online. Teachers had an opportunity to meet all together and in grade-level groups to discuss how to use the materials. As you know, some of the work was eventually posted for colleagues and families to see.”
How does the program pair the content with literacy?
“In our school-wide project for grades K-8, students across grade levels responded to the work of Juan Felipe Herrera as a way to learn about and celebrate Latino heritage and consider their own identities within our diverse school population. The books and poetry gave teachers wonderful tools for strengthening our commitment to using culturally responsive materials in the classroom, and to connect students’ learning to their own experiences.”
How do teachers incorporate Juan Felipe Herrera’s work into their curricula?
Two fifth-grade classes worked with a teaching artist to learn the poems “Laughing out Loud, I Fly” (Harper Collins) and the poem “(Vamonos La Kiva Casa Libre)” (from 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border, City Lights) and choreograph movements to the poems. They read the poems and performed the dances at the assemblies and evening event.
Our sixth-graders presented the poetry they had written in response to “Quien Quiere Correr Conmigo?”.
Jill Eisenberg, our Senior Literacy Specialist, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language for second through sixth grade in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in the Bay Area, CA as a Teach for America corps member where she became passionate about best practices for supporting English Language Learners and parent engagement. In her column for Lee & Low’s The Open Book blog, she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators.
Today is Human Rights Day. It commemorates the day in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists basic rights and freedoms that every person should get, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender.
Books are a great way for readers to learn about history and culture, and develop empathy for other people.
Our Human Rights collection explores the issues of human rights around the world and in the United States, and the great leaders who have fought to protect those rights:
Twenty-two Cents: Growing up in Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus witnessed extreme poverty. He later founded Grameen Bank, a bank which uses microcredit, lending small amounts of money, to help lift people out of poverty. In 2006, Dr. Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Brothers in Hope: Thousands of boys from southern Sudan walk hundreds of miles to seek safety, from Ethiopia to Kenya. This inspiring story is based on the true events of the Lost Boys of Sudan.
When the Horses Ride By: These poems from the point of view of children during times of war let readers experience the resilience and optimism that children who go through these situations experience.
Irena’s Jars of Secrets: Irena Sendler, a social worker born to a Polish Catholic family, smuggled clothing and medicine into jewish ghettos during WWII and then started to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghettos. Hoping to reunite them with their families, Irena kept lists of children’s names in jars.
John Lewis in the Lead: After high school, John Lewis joined Dr. King and other civil rights leaders to peacefully protest and fight against segregation. In 1986, John Lewis was elected to represent Georgia in Congress, where he continues to serve today.
A Place Where Sunflowers Grow: This bilingual Japanese-English picture book depicts life in a Japanese interment camp inspired by author Amy Lee-Tai’s family’s experiences during WWII. Young Mari wonders if she’ll be able to come up with anything to draw in a place where nothing beautiful grows.
Seeds of Change: As a young girl, Wangari Maathai was taught to respect nature and people. She excelled in science and later studied abroad in the United States. When she returned home, she helped promote the rights of women and also began to plant trees to replace those that had been cut down. Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace prize in 2004.
Etched in Clay: This biography in verse follows the life of Dave the Potter, an enslaved young man in South Carolina who engraved poems into the pots he sculpted despite the harsh anti-literacy laws of the time.
Yasmin’s Hammer: Yasmin and her family are refugees in Bangladesh. Young Yasmin works at a brick yard to help her family out, but she longs for the day when she can attend school.
A Song for Cambodia: This the inspirational true story of Arn Chorn-Pond, who was sent to a work camp by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. His heartfelt music created beauty in a time of darkness and turned tragedy into healing.
The Mangrove Tree: Dr. Gordon Sato, himself a survivor of a Japanese Internment Camp, travels to an impoverished village in Eritrea and plants mangrove trees to help the village of Harigogo become a self-sufficient community.
Want to own this book list? Purchase the whole collection here.
In an effort to hear more from education students and first-year teachers as they begin their educational careers, LEE & LOW launched the Teacher Voices series. In the first post of this series, Lindsay Panko, a recent graduate and first year special education sixth-grade teacher, shares her experience and discusses what is important in creating a supportive classroom community.
As a recent graduate and first year sixth-grade teacher, I was eager to get my classroom organized. Desks were arranged to support cooperative learning structures. Anchor charts were prepped and ready to be hung around the room. The classroom library was arranged by Lexile level and genre. I felt ready because my room was finally coming together, but I knew there was much more work that needed to be done.
Successful and enriched classrooms have a soul and spirit, and that is where creating a classroom community comes into play. Helping make the classroom a positive and safe space is one of the most critical components when students are developing skills like cooperation, communication, and positive interdependence.
Here are the top 3 ways you can begin to structure a community that can grow:
Establish a behavior system. For me, this step was simple. My school uses a positive behavior incentive system (PBIS) called STARS. Through STARS, students and teachers are assessed in areas like Self-control (S), Trust (T), Accountability (A) and Respect (R). When all of these components are working together, a person can achieve the final “S”: success. When creating a behavior system, students NEED to see themselves as valuable to their classroom and school community. Self-management should also be emphasized so students understand that they are responsible for their actions, whether they lead to rewards or consequences.
Have some fun and get to know one another. Once students understand the classroom rules and your expectations, have some fun getting to know your students and learning about their personal interests. This helps create positive relationships, makes them feel important, and can inform your instruction. Learning surveys and ice-breaker games are a quick and easy way to learn about what your students enjoy and how they learn best. For example, I created “Facebook” profile pages for my students to share their likes, dislikes, hobbies, and talents. You can even have students complete reflective or narrative writing samples to learn about each other and use as an assessment.
Display! Display! Display! Students’ work should be shared, celebrated, and displayed. This allows students to have their voices heard and for their work to be appreciated. It also gives students an opportunity to see how hard work is meaningful and self-rewarding.
For example, my science students participated in a jigsaw activity during which each group researched a particular cell part and completed a brief project write up. We created a “gallery walk” where group work was displayed around the classroom. Students were given post-it notes and were instructed to write “glows” and “grows” for each group. “Glows” comments were positive, praising efforts, illustrations, and information while “grows” comments served as constructive criticisms to the groups. My students loved to admire each other’s efforts while reflecting on the feedback from their classmates.
The biggest takeaway is that after each student is valued as an individual, the structure of a classroom community is ready to be built. By building up from the individual to evolving as a team, we emphasized the importance of creating a classroom that would have shared power and responsibilities in order to maximize learning and enjoyment.
How do you create a community in your classroom?
Lindsay is a recent graduate from Mount Saint Mary College and is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Literacy Education. She currently holds New York State certifications for childhood (1-6) and students with disabilities (1-6). Lindsay is a first year teacher in the Bronx working as a sixth grade special education teacher. She enjoys hiking throughout the Hudson Valley and baking during her free time.
Now that December is upon us, many people start to stress about gift giving. What will they like? How can I give a great gift, but not break the bank? Never fear! LEE & LOW BOOKS is here to save the holidays!
We’ve compiled a list of LEE & LOW titles that’ll be sure to please everyone, from the science lover to the musician!
For the animal lover
Parrots Over Puerto RicoWith striking collage illustrations, a unique format, and engaging storytelling, this book invites readers to witness the amazing recovery efforts that have enabled Puerto Rican parrots to fly over their island once again.
Adventures Around the World series From Caldecott Honor-winning authors Ted and Betsy Lewin, readers can visit India, Uganda, Botswana, Mongolia, Iceland, and Australia in these delightful nonfiction books.
Cat Girl’s Day Off In this hilarious YA novel, Nat Ng comes from a family of the super-Talented: levitation, lie-detecting, chameleon-like blending into one’s surroundings. Her own power? Talking to cats. But when a celebrity blogger is kidnapped, it’s only Nat who can see the true story.
Poems in the Attic Master poet Nikki Grimes creates a tender intergenerational story about growing up in a military family that speaks to every child’s need to hold onto special memories of home, no matter where that place might be.
How Far Do You Love Me? Based on a bedtime game author/illustrator Lulu Delacre played with her young daughters, How Far Do You Love Me? is an “I love you” book with a twist.
For the musician
Finding the Music/En pos de la música When Reyna accidentally breaks Abuelito’s vihuela—a small guitar-like instrument—she ventures out into the neighborhood determined to find someone who can help her repair it.
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone Brimming with ebullience and the joy of making music, Little Melba and Her Big Trombone is a fitting tribute to a trailblazing musician and a great unsung hero of jazz.
Drummer Boy of John John Musical text and sun-drenched paintings joyously transport readers to the Caribbean, and to this exuberant story inspired by the early life of Winston “Spree” Simon, a pioneer in the development of the steel drum.
For the crafter
Maya’s Blanket/La manta de Maya Inspired by the traditional Yiddish folk song “Hob Ikh Mir a Mantl” (“I Had a Little Coat”), this delightful bilingual story puts a child-focused, Latino spin on the tale of an item that is made into smaller and smaller items.
Sunday Shopping Overflowing with whimsy and a sweet grandmother-granddaughter relationship, Sunday Shopping is a fun-filled celebration of imagination and family love.
Etched in Clay This moving, award-winning novel in verse explores the life of Dave the Potter, an enslaved young man who created beautiful pottery etched with sayings and poems that reflected his daily life and experiences. In simple, powerful words, including some of Dave’s original writings, we learn his extraordinary story of courage, creative inspiration, and triumph.
For the aspiring actor or actress
Ira’s Shakespeare DreamThis book is a captivating tribute to the inspiring life of actor Ira Aldridge, and to the renowned works of William Shakespeare which he brought to life onstage.
Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story Anna May Wong—the first Chinese American movie star—was a pioneer of the cinema. Her spirited determination in the face of discrimination is an inspiration to all who must overcome obstacles so that their dreams may come true.
Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights Up the Stage Baby Flo went on to become an international superstar during the Harlem Renaissance—but first she had to overcome a case of stage fright and discover that winning wasn’t everything.
living in 1492 Spain, who can weasel out of any problem with a good story. But when he finds himself on Columbus’s ship to America, he may be in trouble that even he can’t talk his way out of.
Seven Miles to Freedom This book is the compelling account of the daring escape of Robert Smalls, an enslaved steamboat wheelman from South Carolina who became one of the Civil War’s greatest heroes.
Irena’s Jars of Secrets Motivated by conscience and armed with compassion and a belief in human dignity, Irena Sendler confronted an enormous moral challenge and proved to the world that an ordinary person can accomplish deeds of extraordinary courage by helping the sick and starving Jews who were imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto.
In Maya’s Blanket/La Manta de Maya, written by Monica Brown and illustrated by David Diaz, Maya takes an old blanket that her abuela sewed for her and turns it into many different things. Her blanket turns into a dress, then a skirt, then a rebozo, a scarf, a headband and even a bookmark! Maya teaches us that something old can be turned into a new and beautiful something else.
In this season of crazed holiday shopping, sometimes it can seem like nothing’s worth having unless it is brand new. But creating DIY projects–either for yourself or as gifts–can often be more meaningful, and it is also much more Earth-friendly!
DIY means “do it yourself.” This means you’re making, building, or repairing something without professional help. People who DIY are known as “DIYers.”
Here are some great DIY projects you can do with items from around your house:
We at LEE & LOW BOOKS believe that high-quality bilingual books help build a solid foundation to achieve literacy in any language while affirming and validating a child’s identity, culture, and home language. We are so excited and honored to share this one educator’s example of why books featuring characters like her students belong in her classroom and curriculum.
In this guest post, Sandra L. Osorio describes using books that captured her students’ bilingual and bicultural experiences. An elementary bilingual teacher for eight years, Osorio is now an assistant professor at Illinois State University. This article originally appeared in Rethinking Schools magazine, and is cross-posted here with permission. Article is also available in Spanish from Rethinking Schools.
BY SANDRA L. OSORIO
I was sitting around a kidney-shaped table with Alejandra, Juliana, and Lucia, 2nd graders who had chosen to read Del Norte al Sur (From North to South) by René Colato Laínez. I read the book’s introduction out loud, which included the word deportado (deported). I asked my students: “¿Qué es deportar? ¿Ustedes saben qué significa?” (What is deported? Do you know what it means?) Lucia looked straight at me and said, “Como a mi tío lo deportaron”. (Like my uncle, they deported him.)
Our class was part of a developmental bilingual program with all native Spanish speakers. I had introduced literature discussions the previous year when I had the same students in 1st grade, but now I was carefully choosing books with themes I thought would resonate with my students’ lives, including the complexities of being bilingual and bicultural. In Del Norte al Sur, José desperately misses his mother, who has been deported to Tijuana because she doesn’t have the right papers to be in the United States. I knew that some of my students were also missing members of their families. One student’s father had been deported back to Mexico and he had not seen him in years. Another student’s father had separated from her mother and moved to a city more than three hours away. I hoped these two students would connect with José’s problems and begin to talk about their feelings. I soon learned that many other students shared similar feelings and experiences.
Although immigration is passionately debated in the media, it is an issue often ignored in schools, even though it’s central to the lived experiences of Latina/o children—even those born in the United States. This was something I didn’t realize until I created space for students’ lives in the curriculum.
I originally decided to teach bilingual students because of the struggles I had faced as a bilingual child myself. I attended a bilingual (Spanish-English) preschool, but when my parents enrolled me in a private, English-only kindergarten, they were told to immediately stop speaking Spanish to me because it would “confuse me.” This was surprising to my parents—I had not even entered the classroom yet. My parents made the decision to continue to speak Spanish in our household; they wanted me to be able to communicate with our extended family in Colombia. I am grateful for this decision because it allowed me to grow up bilingual and maintain ties to my bicultural heritage.
At school, I don’t remember ever reading a story with a main character who was bilingual or bicultural. Because Latina/o culture and people were invisible in the curriculum, I felt I had to keep my Spanish language knowledge at home and hidden from my teachers and classmates.
I did not want another generation of students to feel like I did. I wanted to help students build and nurture their cultural and linguistic pride. I wanted to make sure that bilingual students were held to the same high expectations as other students. And I wanted them to understand that they did not have to give up their home language to be successful.
So I fulfilled my dream and became a teacher. All of my students were emergent bilinguals who spoke Spanish as their home language and were born in the United States, many in the same town where our school is located. Of my 20 students, 16 were of Mexican descent, three were Guatemalan, and one child had one Guatemalan parent and one Mexican parent.
Bilingual Isn’t Necessarily Bicultural
Our program was supposed to be one of academic enrichment, using both the students’ native language and English for academic instruction. The primary goal was development of biliteracy. In 2nd grade, 70 percent of the school day was to be in Spanish and 30 percent in English. But since 3rd graders in the program were not “making benchmark” on state tests, I was pressured to introduce more English in my 2nd-grade classroom.
For the first couple of years I was a rule follower. I implemented the exact curriculum passed down from the administration without question, including the required language arts curriculum. It was a scripted basal reader program—the exact same one used by the non-bilingual classrooms—only it had been translated into Spanish. Each week we read a story from an anthology and worked on the particular reading skill dictated by the manual.
This was convenient for me as a beginning teacher because it is challenging to find quality texts in Spanish. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, of an estimated 5,000 children’s books published in the United States in 2014, only 66 were about Latinas/os. At least, I told myself, my students were reading in their native language on a daily basis.
Yet I began noticing that my students were not seeing themselves in the stories we read. The basal reader had more than 20 different stories, but only one that included a Latina/o-looking individual, and nowhere in the story did it talk about any of the complexities of being a bilingual or bicultural child.
My students were learning to read in Spanish that had been translated from the English, with texts that were Latina/o-culture free. The basal reader conveyed a clear message: Diverse experiences don’t matter. Every student was treated the same, given the same story to read, and taught the same skills. There was no differentiation. There was no mirror. There was no joy.
I began to question whether what I was doing was in the best interests of my students. I realized that I had to be the one to advocate for them.
I decided to bring in more literature written by Latina/o authors about Latina/o children. I began to compile a list of books by award-winning authors on such lists as the Pura Belpré, the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, and the Américas Award. I also looked for additional books by authors I already knew: Alma Flor Ada, Gloria Anzaldúa, and René Colato Laínez. In addition to Del Norte al Sur, the books I chose included La superniña del cilantro, by Juan Felipe Herrera; Esperando a Papá, by René Colato Laínez; Prietita y la llorona, by Gloria Anzaldúa; and Pepita habla dos veces, by Ofelia Dumas Lachtman.
The greatest challenge I faced was getting multiple copies of the books I wanted my students to read in small groups. To clear this roadblock, I applied for and received a grant to purchase books. I also borrowed copies from colleagues and scoured the shelves of multiple public libraries around the area. One way or the other, I was able to get four to five copies of each book.
I centered the literature discussion groups around four themes: Family, Cultural Stories, Language, and English. For each theme, I gave students four or five titles to choose from. I started each unit by giving a book talk in which I shared a few passages from each of the book choices. Then I gave students time to browse through the books and fill out a ballot ranking their top choices. Each group of literature discussions was five days long, including two days of preparation and three days of group discussion that I facilitated. Students prepared for discussions by reading the story and marking the book with sticky notes. They used the sticky notes so they would remember what they wanted to say in the discussion group. To help with that process, I gave them a sheet with sentence starters.
When our classroom shifted from basal-based reading instruction to literature-based discussions, I noticed an immediate change in my students. They were more engaged in the stories. Through the personal connections they shared, I learned new things about them and their families. Our literature discussion groups became a place where we came together and shared our joys and the difficulties we were going through. It became a place where we learned that we were not alone, and that the curriculum could be a space for reflecting and holding our own experiences. Students who had been labeled with “low proficiency” in reading on the benchmark test at the beginning of the school year were often the ones talking the most during the discussions. Our conversations helped them feel more comfortable, see themselves in the curriculum, and explore their multiple identities. They were acquiring the tools and space to unpack complex issues in their lives.
Making Space for Students’ Fears
In Del Norte al Sur, one of the books in our Family theme, we read about José going with his father to Tijuana to visit his mother, who is staying in a women’s shelter while she tries to assemble the documents to return to the United States. José, who lives in San Diego, is able to go visit his mother on the weekends and help her with the garden at the shelter; his father pays for a lawyer to process the paperwork. Although the situation is challenging for José and his parents, it is far milder than the reality of most individuals who are deported. Most children are not able to see members of their families who have been deported for extended periods of time. Many who are deported are never able to return to the United States.
Even though the story wasn’t a perfect match to my students’ own experiences, they started making personal connections to the text. When Lucia shared that her uncle had been deported, I asked her to explain what that meant. “Es cuando la policía para a una persona y les toman los fingerprintes y después se fija en una máquina si los deportan o no, pero deportar significa que los van a mandar a México”. (It’s when the police stop someone, take their fingerprints, and look on a machine to see if they will deport them or not, but deporting means they send them to Mexico.)
Although I was excited that my students were discussing this topic and I asked questions to further the conversation, I wanted to make sure I didn’t push them into an uncomfortable or upsetting space. I paid close attention to everyone, looking for cues about how they were feeling. My ultimate goal in the introduction of these literature discussions was to get my students to develop their critical thinking skills, but first I had to make sure they felt safe enough to share their stories. Before we began the literature discussions, we had developed community norms. Two of our norms were “we feel safe” and “we respect and listen to others.” When we created and reviewed the norms, my students and I talked about not making fun of each other, not laughing at individuals who were sharing, and not interrupting.
When Lucia shared her uncle’s story, it opened up a group discussion. Alejandra told us about a time her father was stopped by the police while they were driving to a nearby city. She also told us about a time her family was driving and her mother spotted a police officer. Her mother said, “Bájense porque ahí está la policía y qué tal si nos detiene”. (Get down because the police are there and what if they stop us.) Alejandra demonstrated how she slouched down in her chair. Her mother told Alejandra and her sisters, “No escuchen lo que está diciendo el policía”. (Don’t listen to what the police officer says.) Alejandra said, “Entonces no escuchamos”. (So we didn’t listen.) As Alejandra talked, we just listened. I made sure not to ask questions because I wanted to allow Alejandra the opportunity to share just as much as she wanted to.
Staying silent took lots of practice. I was so accustomed to jumping in and guiding my students in a particular direction. The pressures I felt to cover the curriculum and raise test scores made me want to push my students along at a faster pace. I had to change that mentality. I wanted my students to do most of the talking because I wanted to open up space for their lives. I didn’t want them to feel judged. I wanted our discussions to be a place where they felt safe discussing any topic. Too often, I found my students waiting for me to speak so they could agree and repeat what I said. I wanted to move away from the idea that teachers were the only ones with answers. My students had important things to share. I wanted them to realize that their experiences could help us understand each other and the book.
Alejandra finished her story by saying that the police officer followed them home and talked again to her father when they arrived. She explained that she and her younger sister were born in the United States, so they are allowed to stay, but her parents and older sister don’t have this advantage. If they are stopped again by the police or ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), her family might be split apart. I had never seen her so vulnerable.
I turned to Juliana and asked if she had anything she wanted to share, or if she knew anyone who had been deported. She fidgeted with her hands, staring at the table, before looking up and saying “Sí, mi papá”. (Yes, my dad.) Lucia nodded. “Oh, sí, ella ya nos contó la historia”. (Oh, yes, she already told us the story.)
Taking Time to Listen
At one point in our discussions Lucia announced, “No me gustan los Estados Unidos para nada.” (I don’t like the United States at all.)
This caught me off guard. “¿Por qué?” (Why?)
Lucia said that here in the United Stated she felt enclosed, but in Mexico she was free to go outside every day.
Alejandra added, “Mi mamá dice que no le gusta aquí”. (My mom says she doesn’t like it here.) She told us about a lady who helped her mother fill out some paperwork and told her mom to call her if she ever got stopped by the police. The lady told Alejandra’s mom that the police had gotten harder and that they didn’t want people from Mexico. They wanted to deport everyone.
Lucia jumped in. “Sí, están mostrando mucho de eso en Primer Impacto, que tratan de sacar a los mexicanos”. (Yes, on First Impact, they are showing lots of that, that they are trying to get rid of the Mexicans.) Primer Impacto is a popular Spanish-language, daily news program. My students were watching the media alongside their parents. This is where they were getting a lot of their information about the current political context in the United States, including hostility toward immigrants, harsh deportation policies, and family separations.
Although I felt pressure to keep the students reading and to move things along so that they could answer specific questions about the text, I resisted the temptation and asked, “¿Cómo se sienten ustedes con eso, ustedes siendo mexicanos y americanos?” (How do you feel about this, being both Mexican and American?)
Alejandra answered: “Yo me siento mal ser mexicana y americana porque mi mamá dice que si la van a deportar que no sabe a quién llevarse, porque le toca llevarse a Perla pero puede dejar a mi hermana y a mí. Y dice mi mamá que si llegan a pararla, que puede que ya nunca la veamos”. (I feel bad being Mexican and American because my mom says that if they are going to deport her, she won’t know who to take because she’ll have to take Perla, but can leave my sister and me. And my mom says if they stop her, we might never see her again.)
Hearing Alejandra talk this way made me extremely sad. Why did a child this young have to deal with issues normally reserved for adults? When I was growing up, I didn’t realize my parents were undocumented. They had overstayed the tourist visas they used to enter the United States, but I only learned about it when I was 10 years old and my parents became U.S. citizens. Both of my parents were given amnesty under the Immigrant Reform and Control Act of 1986 signed by President Reagan. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to worry about my parents possibly not coming home.
My students’ narratives shed light on the complex lived experiences they navigate on a daily basis. On the one hand, they want to be in Mexico or Guatemala with their extended families; on the other hand, they know how hard their parents are working to stay here. As a child, I had many of the same contradictory feelings. My entire family, other than my parents and brother, were in Colombia. I felt like I didn’t belong here in the United States. At the end of one trip to Colombia, I cried and begged my father to leave me there to continue school. He said no, that there were more opportunities for me in the United States, but I’m not sure he realized the impact of the fact that none of my teachers or classmates acknowledged the difficulty of being in a learning environment that ignored and devalued my language and culture.
While Lucia, Juliana, and Alejandra were reading Del Norte al Sur, the other literature groups were reading La superniña del cilantro and Esperando a Papá. (So many students wanted to read La superniña del cilantro, we ended up with two groups working with that book.) Both of these books also raised issues of family separation and the border.
Students in the group reading Esperando a Papá told personal stories about family members crossing the border. One day, I explained that, according to the U.S. government, it’s against the law to cross the border without the right documents. I asked them what they thought about that—was it a fair law? Was it OK to break that law? Camila said, “Mi mamá y mi papá nomás cruzaron, porque querían a lo mejor ver lo que estaba aquí, pero si tú matas a alguien y te vas entonces eso es como no seguir la ley”. (My mom and dad only crossed because maybe they wanted to see what was over here, but if you kill someone and then you leave, then that’s not following the law.) Camila was talking back to the dominant discourse that says it is “wrong” to cross the border without papers and expressing a more complex view of the moral issues involved.
When I brought up the same question to the whole class, the children saw both positive and negative aspects to crossing the border illegally. In terms of positive aspects, they knew and retold stories about family members coming over to find a better life or get a better job. But many of them experienced the constant fear of family members being deported, and they had heard stories about hardships in crossing the border. For example, one child said her female cousin had to cut her hair like a boy for fear of being hurt as she tried to cross over. When Eduardo talked about how hard it was for his dad to climb over the fence, Carlos looked confused. I pulled out my iPad and showed the class pictures of the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Together, we read stories about immigrants to the United States from other parts of the world and the difficulties they faced, including In English, of Course, by Josephine Nobisso;I Hate English!, by Ellen Levine; and No English, by Jacqueline Jules. I wanted my students to understand that they shared experiences with people from other cultures, places, and times. I wanted them to see the injustices and prejudice they faced as part of a bigger pattern of power and marginalization. I tried to help them better understand these aspects by connecting them directly to the stories they shared.
For example, one day Camila told us about a conflict she and Lucia had during recess with English-speaking students from another class. Camila and Lucia were playing on top of the play structure when two girls started pushing them and calling them names. Camila said she told them “That’s not right,” but they continued. Then, Camila told us, “Yo le dije a Lucia en español que mejor nos vayamos de ahí y nos fuimos.” (I told Lucia, in Spanish, that it would be better if we left and we did.) After we gave Lucia and Camila support, we talked about the lack of integration between the bilingual students and non-bilingual students at the school. We discussed what they could do to make friends from other classrooms.
Soon these conversations influenced my planning across content areas. I realized I had to make space for students’ stories beyond literature discussions—in writing, math, and social studies. In social studies, for example, students and their parents became experts as we studied their home countries.
My students’ stories were different from my own. Lucia’s, Juliana’s, Alejandra’s, Eduardo’s, and Camila’s stories have similarities, but also differences. I realized the importance of not grouping all Latina/o narratives into one stereotypical box. Giving my students voice and exposing them to a range of multicultural literature gave us the opportunity to dig deeper and see broader vistas.
As our readers know, LEE & LOW BOOKS focuses on publishing books that are about everyone, for everyone. Our books feature a diverse range of characters and cultures, and we strive to work with and publish authors of color with our New Voices Award and New Visions Award.
This is why we’re very excited to announce a new partnership with Simmons College. We have teamed up with The Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College and established a scholarship to increase diversity in the world of children’s literature. The new Lee & Low and Friends Scholarship will provide opportunities for students of color to enroll in the most prestigious children’s literature graduate program in the United States.
The scholarship initiative is a partnership between two organizations committed to diversity in children’s literature. LEE & LOW BOOKS is the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the country and a leader in the movement for more diversity in the publishing industry. The graduate programs in children’s literature at Simmons College are dedicated to bringing a wide range of voices into books for children and young adults, and to providing students access to careers that diversify the field of children’s literature.
“Lee & Low is excited to be partnering with Simmons College to provide a meaningful way to address one of the most challenging obstacles in bringing more equity to publishing: the pipeline problem,” says Jason Low, publisher of LEE & LOW BOOKS.
Unpaid internships and costly graduate programs, combined with low entry-level salaries, are significant barriers for many hoping to work in publishing. The Lee & Low and Friends Scholarship will support students for whom the traditional entrances to publishing remain closed, and thus create a pathway for diverse graduate students to positions in which they can influence what and how children’s literature is created.
The $100,000 scholarship fund was created through donations from LEE & LOW BOOKS and Simmons College alumni. The first recipients will be chosen for fall 2016. “Children’s Literature at Simmons welcomes this collaboration with Lee & Low as we team up to create venues of access that lead to lasting change,” says Cathryn M. Mercier, Director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT THE CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE AT SIMMONS COLLEGE: Established in 1977, the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature supports the advancement of the study of children’s and young adult literature through nationally recognized partnerships and graduate programs, including the nation’s
first Master of Arts in Children’s Literature and Master of Fine Arts: Writing for Children, as well as several innovative dual degree options. To learn more, visit simmons.edu/academics/graduate-programs/childrens-literature-ma.
ABOUT LEE & LOW BOOKS: Established in 1991, LEE & LOW BOOKS is the largest children’s book publisher in the United States specializing in diversity. Under several imprints, the company provides a comprehensive range of notable diverse books for beginning readers through young adults. Visit leeandlow.com to learn more.
Recently, we sent a number of LEE & LOW staff members from different departments to an “Undoing Racism” workshop, held by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. The People’s Institute is an organization that “is a national and international collective of anti-racist, multicultural community organizers and educators dedicated to building an effective movement for social transformation.” The workshop, jointly taught by a white leader and a leader of color, was a three-day intensive that covered everything from a history of race and racism to the power dynamics at play today in various systems. Participants were encouraged to reflect on their own experiences and identities, as well as to listen deeply as others shared.
We decided to do this workshop because even with LEE & LOW’s focus on diverse books, we felt that our staff would benefit from specific training in anti-racism concepts. “Even though Lee & Low’s mission is to address the lack of representation of marginalized groups through publishing diverse books, the workshop hammers home how deep institutional racism goes,” said publisher Jason Low. “The intimate setting also makes issues of racism more personal. Instead of reading about racism in the paper or online you are hearing firsthand experiences, from a person sitting three feet from where you are sitting.”
The recent problems found in books like A Fine Dessert and The Hired Girl, along with long-standing problems in publishing in general, indicate that now more than ever, publishing staffs need diversity training. While the burden of mistakes can be placed on the author and illustrator, in truth publishers share an equal part of the responsibility in making sure that the books they produce are accurate and do not reinforce harmful stereotypes.
Racial insensitivity and stereotypes making it past the editorial process are expensive mistakes–in terms of both cost and impact–but they are avoidable. Below is our staff’s reaction to the workshop, plus a follow-up meeting we held in-house. Our plan is to hold monthly meetings on racism and diversity moving forward. (Note: Answers have been condensed and edited for length.)
1. What did you learn that you did not know before attending the workshop?
Stacy Whitman, Editorial: I didn’t know some of the history before. For example, I knew about indentured servitude (I actually had a couple ancestors who were indentured), but I didn’t realize the way that indentured labor and slavery were wedged against each other, and the way whiteness was created out of that time period. I had known that church had been used as a way to keep slaves in line, and I had known about slave rebellions, but hadn’t realized how those pieces fit together with indentured servitude and creation of a status of whiteness.
Jessica Echeverria, Editorial: One of the biggest takeaways was how the deeply-entrenched history of racism in this country is never really taught in school. This was clear from some of the participants’ reaction in learning that race was a social construct. I think back to my own education growing up in Florida, and the topics of race and racism were not examined until I was in college. And even then, they were courses I elected to take and not required for all students. So yes, racism stems from ignorance, but we should be aware that this ignorance was purposeful.
Hannah Ehrlich, Marketing: One of the main things that the workshop showed me was that having open conversations about race is just really, really hard – and rarely do we white people get it right the first time. While I had thought about white privilege before, I hadn’t really thought much about the internalized superiority that white people have absorbed over generations and generations. Because of that, even when we want to be allies, often racial conversations end up with us in a defensive stance, trying to define why we are “good” white people instead of accepting our own complicity in an unfair system and spending our time listening. Conversations that center whiteness are the default, and it takes a lot of hard work to move past that. It was moving to see this play out over the course of three days, and definitely made me more aware of how, as a white person invested in racial justice, I can be a better ally by letting go of the need to define myself as “not racist.”
Louise May, Editorial: There was a good presentation of theories on the origins of institutional racism. I had not before seen the information put together this way. It was quite impactful.
Jill Eisenberg, Literacy & Sales: The workshop and follow-up discussions with my colleagues have encouraged me to examine how adults present history and historical people/groups to children. Much of the workshop was spent exposing the historical narrative of America as racist and capitalistic. I was particularly disturbed about the lack of recognition and respect Native peoples had (and have). Our presenters showed us that this explicit invisibility is even written into our Constitution (Article 1, Section 2).
Rebecca Garcia, Marketing: The facilitators asked the group how many of us were gatekeepers. I had to think about it for a moment before I raised my hand. Having never thought of myself as a person with power, it was shocking to discover that I am a gatekeeper. Before that, I thought of editors as gatekeepers. After all, they’re the ones who decide what books to acquire. But since I regularly disseminate all kinds of information through social media, of course I’m a gatekeeper. Information is power.
Veronica Schneider, Literacy & Sales: Being in literacy & sales and working at a diverse children’s publisher, I think I was aware of my role as a gatekeeper. Reflecting in the workshop, however, showed me just how strong of a gatekeeper position I maintain. I choose what kind of information reaches others-from educators to children-as I develop questions and activities for our teacher guides and carefully align Lee & Low books to schools’ curricula. Conversations with educators may begin with them sharing their needs in terms of thematic units or student reading levels, but then I take that information and decide which books would ultimately work best for various academic and social-emotional reasons. Diversity is certainly an issue that is close to our hearts here at Lee & Low, but how we approach and communicate this information to others is different based on your department and on an individual basis.
Additionally, the systemic nature of racism is a powerful concept that although I was aware of, is all the more apparent once analyzed in depth. Tracing the roots of racism to highlight the gaping holes in our knowledge in history was both eye opening and frustrating. Why aren’t we being taught this in schools? Why aren’t we openly having these discussions?
Keilin Huang, Marketing: The idea of being a “gatekeeper” really resonated with me. The LEE & LOW Facebook page has over 7,300+ likes, and whenever I post anything, I’m choosing and determining what those 7,300+ people will see. It was a realization of power that I had never thought about in-depth, and it’s a tool to use in the undoing of racism.
2. How will you apply what you have learned from the workshop to your job at Lee & Low?
Stacy, Editorial: Editorially, I’m continuing to interrogate my biases and assumptions. Thinking about further ways I can include voices of color in the projects I work on, and continuing to seek out more authors of color. Thinking about how I contribute to systemic bias, and how I can counteract it.
Jessica, Editorial: Further inspired by the workshop, I plan to continue working on books that will hopefully fill in the gaps of what’s not being taught in school. I keep thinking about Texas and the new textbooks that have whitewashed parts of US history.
Hannah, Marketing: The workshop has definitely made me more aware of my own whiteness, and how that affects the dynamics among our staff, with our authors and illustrators, and with other people we work with. It has encouraged me to examine my own culture and the lens through which I see the world – what am I missing? What am I not getting? Because I work in marketing and publicity, a big part of my job involves communication, and it’s worth exploring how racial dynamics affect that communication. Are we using language that reinforces institutionalized racism? Am I being a good ally personally, and is Lee & Low being a good ally as a company? These are all things that are important for us to consider in our work.
Louise, Editorial: The workshop reinforced my commitment to the need to acquire diverse stories that accurately represent stories from an insider point of view.
Jill, Literacy Specialist: We at Lee & Low Books publish and offer many books by and about Native peoples. It is critical to show that Native peoples aren’t just “were,” but also “are.” Our students need to read stories about and by Native peoples in recent times, not just suspended in a simplistic time capsule whether a folktale without additional background knowledge and proper context or a “by the way” side blurb in a history textbook. As I work closely with schools and organizations serving children, I want to make sure that the books we do have get in front of students before they internalize and perpetuate racist views on American history. These topics need to start early and often.
Veronica, Literacy & Sales: When speaking to schools, educators, teachers, nonprofits, and other organizations, we need to make sure to not only consider their requests and needs but to be clear/open about the different ways in which our titles can enrich + open their world. I need to keep stressing the importance of windows + mirrors concept in my work. This means showing non-diverse (mostly white) schools that diverse books have a place there, too.
Keilin, Marketing: One of the leaders said that as advocates of eradicating racism, everyone needs to constantly question the institution of racism. Even with little or no knowledge of something, supporters of undoing racism seek out information and learn as much as they can about a certain institution. They ask questions. They listen. As someone who works in children’s book publishing and has a means of reaching thousands of people every day, this really struck a chord with me. People who want to undo racism don’t always claim to be experts, rather they are proactive in their fight. They don’t stand off to the side and hope that things will magically be fixed. It takes effort, as all of us at LEE & LOW know, and that is something I will continue to strive to do both at work and personally.
3. What do you hope to continue to learn about and explore in post-workshop meetings with fellow Lee & Low staff?
Stacy, Editorial: How to know what I don’t know, and how to share that knowledge with others in a way that they’ll listen. I guess this has been my quest, editorially, all along, but the process of the workshop in particular was interesting because while it was emotionally draining, everyone in the room was listening. Everyone was participating (even the slightly weird woman who wouldn’t shut up) and working through their resistance. There was a range of resistance, of course, but the process worked to get people talking and listening.
This applies to how marketing is already thinking about audience with social media and other sales channels—who we need to discuss the importance of diversity with before introducing our books.
Jessica, Editorial: I’m excited to see how our discussion will produce new and valuable content for our readers.
Hannah, Marketing: I look forward to talking more in the future with staff members about challenges we face in our respective departments. How does editorial handle a historical manuscript that uses language we deem problematic? How does sales handle administrators who don’t think their students would be interested in diverse books? Discussing these challenges as a company will help make us stronger and more aware of the issues that we face in our work, and it will allow us to develop company-wide policies to address difficult questions.
Louise, Editorial: It would be interesting to discuss what we can do to move ourselves further to toward being a “Fully Inclusive” institution.
Veronica, Literacy & Sales: Increase the sharing of articles and books about racism. Come up with ways to address problems that are occurring in the news/present day and how Lee & Low can be part of the solution.
Has your company undergone staff diversity training? If so, we’d love to hear about what worked and what didn’t in the comments section below.
In The Story I’ll Tell a young child asks where he came from. His mother tells him fantastical tales with a kernel of truth that piece together his journey across a wide ocean to his new family. The Story I’ll Tell was released this month and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly which called it “an unabashed love letter. . . [that] many families will treasure.” In this guest post, author Nancy Tupper Ling discusses where the idea for The Story I’ll Tell came from.
I have binders that are two or three inches thick for many of my stories. They are picture book manuscripts, under 1000 words, and yet the binders are full of revision after revision of those few words. And then there are those rare stories that come to me like a gift. My poem, White Birch, was like that, and it became the winner of the Writer’s Digest Grand Prize out of 18,000 entries. Published this month by Lee & Low, The Story I’ll Tell had a similar beginning. It was a gift.
The story idea came to me in the form of a question as I was driving down the highway one day. If a baby landed on someone’s doorstep in the hills of Appalachia, what kind of story would the parents tell their child about how he/she came into their lives? The story sounded like a poem to me, as I wrote a number of far-fetched scenarios in my head. Still, there was one line that pivoted the story, and that’s my favorite line in the book today: “. . .there are times when I think I will tell you the truth, for the truth is a beautiful story too.”
With that line I came to a realization. There would be a nugget of truth in each of the fantastical stories that the parent would tell her child, and this patchwork of truths would be stitched together to reveal the most beautiful story in the end.
Somewhere along the way I began to think of The Story I’ll Tell as an adoption story. I am not an adoptive parent, but I am a parent who waited years for her first child. I know the ache and the longing that many parents experience while waiting for a child to enter their lives. My husband and I had filled out all the paperwork in order to adopt a child from Korea when we learned that I was pregnant with our first daughter, and this experience certainly influenced my story.
That said, I have several friends who had a tremendous influence on my story as well. One couple has ten children who came into their lives through domestic and international adoption. Another friend adopted her daughter through the foster care system. As The Story I’ll Tell was coming together I thought of their stories, all of which were unique, and how the parents would reveal them to their children in due time.
Certainly adoption stories include heartache as well. It was important for me to touch upon this sentiment, without making it overwhelming. One of the last lines in the story is “When we brought you home in dawn’s early light, you cried for things lost and new.” One mother’s loss is another mother’s gain. The child feels this, too. An adoption story has both longing and love. Hopefully this leads to a forever home where the child is treasured beyond compare.
In the end, it was Lee & Low who asked me to focus on a certain country of origin for the character, and since my husband is Chinese-American, I gravitated toward that heritage. As Eurasians, my own children know the push and pull of looking like one culture, and blending in as Americans. Jessica Lanan brought all these threads together with her gorgeous illustrations, so that the reader, like the child, feels the warmth of a new home and the reminder that she, too, has a story to tell.
Nancy Tupper Ling is the winner of the Writer’s Digest Grand Prize and the Pat Parnell Poetry Award, and is the founder of Fine Line Poets, a website for poets who live in New England. She was inspired to write The Story I’ll Tell by the multicultural background of her own family and the experiences of friends who have adopted children from all over the world. Ling resides in Walpole, Massachusetts, with her husband and their two young daughters.
We’re excited to share that we will be partnering with local businesses, organizations, and community members for a bone marrow donor registry drive this Saturday, November 21 from 2pm to 4 pm at La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem, New York City.
The drive will highlight an issue of major importance within the multiracial community: the lack of bone marrow donor matches. For patients diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma and other life-threatening diseases, a bone marrow transplant may be their best or only hope for a cure. Yet 70% of patients who need a transplant to do not have a matched donor in their family, and for multiracial people, finding a match can be especially hard.
That’s because bone marrow donors must be extremely genetically similar to recipients. As this Time Magazine article explains,
Compared to organ transplants, bone marrow donations need to be even more genetically similar to their recipients. Though there are exceptions, the vast majority of successful matches take place between donors and patients of the same ethnic background. Since all the immune system’s cells come from bone marrow, a transplant essentially introduces a new immune system to a person. Without genetic similarity between the donor and the patient, the new white blood cells will attack the host body. In an organ transplant, the body can reject the organ, but with marrow, the new immune system can reject the whole body.
Because Caucasians make up the majority of people in the donor registry, Caucasian patients often have the best chance of finding a match. Chances for patients from other ethnicities can be as low as one in four. But chances for multiracial patients are often the lowest of all, with only 3% of registered donors self-identifying as multiracial or mixed race.
Becoming a potential bone marrow donor is quick and easy: all it involves is a simple cheek swab. Donors are then added to the bone marrow registry database–the larger the database, the more likely that every patient can find a match.
If you’re in or near New York City, we hope you will come out and join us! Here are the details:
Saturday, November 21, 2015
2pm – 4 pm
WHERE: La Casa Azul Bookstore 143 E. 103rd Street New York, NY 10029
The first 50 donors will receive a multiracial crayon pack in appreciation for their support!
About the Sponsors:
Be the Match has a registry of nearly 12.5 million volunteers ready to be life-saving bone marrow donors. Because there are patients who can’t find a match, Be the Match encourages more people to join the registry and to be there when they are called as a match.
Project RACE advocates for multiracial children, multiracial adults, and their families primarily through education and community awareness. It supports policies that make a positive impact on people of multiracial heritage at local, state, and national levels. Project RACE is active in the effort to find bone marrow donors for multiracial people and sponsors countless donor registry drives throughout the United States.
La Casa Azul Bookstore is an independent community bookstore located in East Harlem that seeks to raise community awareness and political consciousness on issues affecting East Harlem residents.
Lee & Low Books is the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the country. It is also one of the few minority-owned publishing companies in the United States.
Alex Barnett is a comic and writer from New York City. He also is the host of the podcast Multiracial Family Man that explores issues of concern to multiracial people and families.
Today is Isamu Noguchi’s birthday and we’d like to take a moment to celebrate one of the twentieth century’s most important and critically acclaimed sculptors.
According to the Noguchi Museum’s website, Noguchi was born in Los Angeles, California, to an American mother and a Japanese father, Noguchi lived in Japan until the age of thirteen, when he moved to Indiana. While studying pre-medicine at Columbia University, he took evening sculpture classes on New York’s Lower East Side, mentoring with the sculptor Onorio Ruotolo. He soon left the University to become an academic sculptor.
Noguchi’s work was not recognized in the United States until 1938, when he completed a large-scale sculpture symbolizing the freedom of the press, which was commissioned for the Associated Press building in Rockefeller Center, New York City. This was the first of what would become numerous celebrated public works worldwide, ranging from playgrounds to plazas, gardens to fountains, all reflecting his belief in the social significance sculpture.
In 1985 Noguchi opened The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (now known as The Noguchi Museum), in Long Island City, New York. The Museum, established and designed by the artist, marked the culmination of his commitment to public spaces.
Noguchi received the Edward MacDowell Medal for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to the Arts in 1982; the Kyoto Prize in Arts in 1986; the National Medal of Arts in 1987; and the Order of Sacred Treasure from the Japanese government in 1988. He died in New York City in 1988.
The East-West Houseis a tribute to the artistic beginnings of this pioneering modern sculptor and designer. Written and illustrated by Christy Hale, the book tells the story of the boy who grew up to be the multifaceted artist Isamu Noguchi. Guided by his desire to enrich everyday life with art while bringing together Eastern and Western influences, Noguchi created a vast array of innovative sculptures, stage sets, furniture, and public spaces.
Our new children’s book, Ira’s Shakespeare Dream, tells the incredible story of Ira Aldridge. When we’ve shown this book to readers, we get one of two responses:
1) “I’ve never heard of Ira Aldridge.”
2) “You have a book about Ira Aldridge??! That’s so wonderful!”
The truth is, bringing Ira’s story to new readers is one of our great joys as a publisher. His is a story of phenomenal talent and determination, of someone who was truly born to do what he did. Too often, history has let the achievements of black people fall through the cracks–especially when they take place outside the narrative of slavery and civil rights. If you look at the African American biographies that appear most often, so many of them are focused on names we already know: Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass. While it is important to remember these people and their achievements, acknowledging the contributions of black people in other arenas–art, music, science, and in this case, Shakespearean acting–is equally important.
So: who was Ira Aldridge?
Ira Aldridge was born July 27, 1807, in New York City. As a child, he attended the African Free School, a school established for the children of free African Americans and slaves. During that time, Aldrige would observe plays from high up in the balcony of the Park Theatre.
Ira always loved Shakespeare. His acting career began in his teens, where he acted at the African Grove Theatre, the first resident African American theatre in the United States. Ira dreamed of performing Shakespeare one day on the stage of the Park Theatre. But black actors were not welcome there.
Ira’s father, a church minister, tried to dissuade his son from pursuing acting. He encouraged him to become a minister or teacher, but Ira was determined to pursue his dream. At the age of 17, Ira headed to England as a valet for another actor to try his hand at acting. There, he found work running errands for small theaters and became an understudy for other actors.
When Ira finally got his chance to debut, his performance was met with mixed reviews. While some praised his acting, others did not like seeing a black actor onstage playing “white roles.” But Ira was not discouraged. He worked hard, studied acting, and gradually became known for his talented performances in a variety of roles. Later on, he toured United Kingdom, spending many years performing the lead roles in Othello, Macbeth and Richard III. Ira was most famous for his role as the titular Othello, which he first played at the age of 26. He was the first black actor to play Othello on the English stage.
Despite the fame he gained, Ira never forgot the plight of the enslaved African Americans in the United States. He would sometimes come out at the close of his performances to sit on the edge of the stage, preaching to the audience about the injustice of slavery. He used his performances to raise money to send to abolitionists fighting to end slavery in the United States.
Ira Aldridge toured around Europe and earned great acclaim for his performances. In 1858, the duke of Saxe-Meiningen granted him knighthood. He is the only African American actor listed among the 33 actors honored with plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. The theater at Howard University in Washington, DC is named after him.
Learn more about Ira Aldridge inIra’s Shakespeare Dream, written by Glenda Armand and illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Additional resources: