To Tom Low, with Sadness and Gratitude

I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing away of Tom Low, co-founder with Philip Lee of a little company with a big vision, back in 1991. Today, Lee & Low is the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the United States. Dedicated to diversity and inclusion, it remains one of the few minority-owned publishing companies in North America.

Lee & Low published a couple of my early picture books, when no one else quite knew what to do with my submissions. It’s safe to say that those early books helped me find a toehold on this writing cliff that has become my life.

During the 1990s, I had other titles picked up by Children’s Book Press, which was founded by Harriet Rohmer, another pioneer in the diversifying of our field. When their list was acquired by Lee & Low, it felt as if my books were coming home. Other titles found print with Bebop Books, the imprint launched (all of 20 years ago now!) under the leadership of publisher Craig Low, Tom’s son.

I didn’t know Tom Low personally, but I know very well what a tremendous impact the publishing house he founded has had over the years. And I am so very grateful for the vision that led him to start this company, which has encouraged the visions and supported the work of so many of us, over the years.

In sadness and gratitude, I’d like to share this excerpt from The Open Book Blog:

Because of the pandemic, there will be no memorial service at this time. Well-wishers are encouraged to send a donation to one of Tom’s favorite charities: The Fresh Air FundScenic Hudson, or North Shore Animal League America. Condolence cards can be sent to:

The Low Family
C/o Lee & Low Books
95 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016

Racism as a Covid-19 Side-effect, Part II: Paula Yoo on Vincent Chin and the Importance of Speaking Out Against Injustice

In early 2017, the name of a 27-year old Chinese American man in Detroit, Vincent Chin, made headlines. A rash of violent hate crimes aimed at Indian American men had just happened within weeks of each other. In February 2017, two Indian men, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, were shot in a bar outside of Kansas City after the shooter reportedly yelled, “Get out of my country.” Srinivas Kuchibhotla died in the hospital soon after he was shot. The suspect was charged with premeditated first-degree murder, and subsequently sentenced to life in prison in 2018. A month after the 2017 attack, Harnish Patel, an Indian man who had lived in the United States with his family for fourteen years, was shot and killed outside of his home in Lancaster, South Carolina.

Paula Yoo (author of Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank) sent me an excerpt from her YA nonfiction proposal for a book about Vincent Chin, currently under contract :

[Photo courtesy of Paula Yoo. Button ©InclusiveRandomness]

“Since the February death of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the first bias fatality of the Trump era, one question has been coursing through South Asian-American circles: was this hate-crime killing in Olathe, Kansas their ‘Vincent Chin moment’?” Arun Venugopal, a race reporter with WNYC and a contributor to NPR. “Chin was a Chinese-American in Detroit who was beaten to death by two white men in 1982. His death is credited with sparking a pan-Asian-American activist movement.”

That book is now due out in 2021 from W.W. Norton & Co.’s new children’s book imprint called Norton Young Readers. Paula writes:

Vincent Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white autoworkers in Detroit in 1982. Although the two men pled guilty to manslaughter, the judge gave them a fine of about $3000 and a sentence of three years probation. This shockingly lenient sentence angered the Asian American community in Detroit. Their anger led to activism as they joined forces to fight for Vincent’s justice, leading to the first federal civil rights trial for an Asian American. The first trial resulted in a guilty conviction for the killer (the man who held the bat) in 1984. But the killer never spent a day in jail because the conviction was appealed and overturned in 1986 due to a legal technicality.

Still, Vincent’s death was not in vain – he became a symbol of justice for the Asian American community. There have been two documentaries about this case, one of which was nominated for an Academy Award. In the almost 40 years since his death, Vincent Chin’s name is always mentioned whenever anti-Asian racism happens.

His name has been in the news this year ever since Trump insisted on referring to Covid-19 with the racist moniker, “The Chinese Virus,” at press briefings, which has led to a rise in almost 1,500 anti-Asian hate crimes being reported this year according to statistics from the FBI and the “Stop AAPI Hate” crime tracker provided by the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council. Although what happened to Vincent was tragic, his killing provided the spark which galvanized the Asian American movement and the #AAPI community. His name and his story remind us never to be complacent whenever we witness anti-Asian racism… that we must always speak out and fight back against injustice.

It’s happening right now. Again. When we talk about getting “back to normal,” after Covid-19 is behind us, we ought to think long and hard about what kind of normal we want.

The Planet’s Still Warming, Covid or Not

From an article by Bill McKibben, whose work I’ve been following ever since he founded 350.org and started writing the New Yorker’s Climate Crisis newsletter:

Seventh Generation, the recycled-paper-towel and household-products company, commissioned a survey, released in April. It showed that seventy-one per cent of millennials and sixty-seven per cent of Generation Z feel that climate change has negatively affected their mental health. How upset were they? Four in five people in the eighteen-to-twenty-three age cohort “aren’t planning—or didn’t want—to have children of their own as a result of climate change.” Even if the survey were off by fifty per cent, that would still be an astonishing number.

Let us think about the children. Please.

In The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, children have been enfeebled by an unnamed disaster, Japan has been sealed off from the rest of the world, and language has begun to vanish. The elderly remain curiously strong as everyone contemplates a reality in which children will not make it to adulthood.

There’s a kind of frail beauty in the book, and I was especially fascinated by the course of the shifting of language–Tawada herself writes in both Japanese and German–and in the horror of the young Mumei’s growing inevitably sicker.

There was a time when a novel like this would have been thought-provoking but safely in the realm of fiction. These days, not so much. We’re living in a dystopia, and storytelling’s not going to be enough to get us out of it. As McKibben puts it, One Crisis Doesn’t Stop Because Another Starts:

For perspective, April was the four hundred and twenty-fourth consecutive month with temperatures above the twentieth-century average, meaning that, if you’re under thirty-five, you’ve never lived through a cooler-than-usual month.

Is there any good news on this front? Paradoxically, McKibben writes:

…a burst of installation of new solar and wind power last year meant that, for roughly forty straight days this spring, the United States produced more electricity from wind, water, and sun than it did from coal.

All right, hold that thought, and let your elected representatives know it matters, for the sake of young people.

Racism as a Covid-19 Side-effect, Part I: Bao Phi on Sustaining Community

The pandemic has unfortunately caused hate incidents against Asian Americans to rise across the United States. Asian Canadians too report incidents of abuse. I asked spoken word artist and writer Bao Phi: How are you sustaining yourself in these circumstances?

He writes:

I alternate between being enraged and being depressed. Of course, this is nothing new – the color of my skin and the shape of my features has marked me as an enemy my entire life. Racist xenophobia, informed by militaristic, colonialist imperialism, is nothing new to Asians. But it is certainly magnified now. My former partner once observed that Asian Americans are positioned to be victims of vigilante violence – we saw this after 9-11, towards Arabs, South Asians, and anyone who presented as Middle Eastern – and of course Japanese Americans were wrongly incarcerated after Pearl Harbor. It’s happening again now.

How do you maintain stability yourself?

To be honest, I am unwell, and when I am unwell, I find it very difficult to concentrate on my own craft. I am constantly alternating between rage, to being on edge, to fear, to sadness. I should also mention that I am a single co-parent, and doing my best to be honest with my child about the happenings in the world without filling her full of despair and fear. She already has a heightened sensitivity to danger. It takes all my energy and will to hold things together while I’m with her. 

Bao’s efforts are leaning toward sustaining community.

Instead of focusing on my own craft, I am trying to encourage other Asian Americans to share their stories at the collective Asian American social justice website, www.unmargin.org. I am also doing a lot of reading. And for my work at the Loft, I am working both behind the desk and in front of it as we pivot towards online events. 

If humankind could only take this as a point of reflection and not an opportunity to turn on one another….but I think Bao’s right, this is nothing new.

More on this subject soon from writer Paula Yoo.

Names, Naming, and The Ministry of Grace

Tara Beagan’s play, The Ministry of Grace, which I was lucky to see a few months ago, when theaters were still open and social distancing hadn’t yet transformed our lives, is about power and race and the scars of a not-so-distant past that continue to haunt the present. Toronto director and playwright Tara Beagan, who is of Ntlakapamux and Irish Canadian descent, has based this story loosely on her grandmother’s time in California working for a traveling evangelical minister in 1950.

Beagan reportedly worked on the play for ten years, something my slow-writer self can relate to. I found myself drawn into the play’s slow build, reflective characterization and eventual undertows of emotion. PJ Prudat played a sensitive Mary with many layers, from her yearning for the children taken from her and sent to boarding school to the fierceness with which she resists the obnoxious con man who goes by the moniker of Brother Cain.

The whole issue of names rang bells for me. Cain (now there’s a name with echoes to it!) has dreamed up stage names for his workhand Joseph and for Mary, whom he dubs Grace. Such arrogance, right, to expunge the identities if other human beings and rename them to play assigned roles. The strength of the play is in how the indigenous characters rise beyond their manipulated, performative roles, refusing in the end to abandon humanity, kindness, and yes, grace.

More about The Ministry of Grace from an early post from Article 11: Indigenous Activist Arts.

Process Notes: Garret Weyr on Choosing Magic

I’ll admit, a good storytelling voice is my ticket to happiness. Garret Weyr’s middle grade novel, The Language of Spells, had me firmly in the grip of its dragon paws from the start. Read this little passage:

From The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr

By the time Grisha’s shape had been rudely shifted, I was a willing collaborator in the business of creating mental images that we call reading. No wonder the Kirkus reviewer called this book “extraordinary–not to be missed.”

So I asked Garret if she’d “explain the Where, the When, the How Come, and the How Long” behind the narrative voice that drives, modulates, lifts, whispers, sings, and quickens this elegantly crafted, yet completely child-aware story. Here is her reply:

Well, you have asked the question that sings my song.  As a writer, point of view is everything to me.  Who is telling the story, why are they telling it, when are they telling it, and where are they as they tell it?

Normally the process of answering those questions can take me half a draft and/or many many months. 

But this novel was always a story being told by a voice that knew about magic, dragons, and the cost of knowing both.  There are two reasons for this. 

The easiest comes from the rainy afternoon when I ducked into a junk shop and encountered a small china teapot in the shape of a dragon.  The dragon and I looked at each other.  I wondered how the dragon had gotten in there and the dragon, I suspect, wondered if I could figure it out.  So, I bought the little teapot and took it home.

Garret Weyr’s teapot

I should confess that my history with dragons goes all the way back to my childhood. Perhaps even to my father’s childhood. He grew up in Austria, specifically the city of Vienna and had to flee the city when he was eleven and the Nazis were about to march in.

He spent the second world war in England and the US and although he eventually became a US citizen, Vienna still beckoned.  As children, we went with him to visit every year and he kept an apartment there that seemed like our second home. 

My sisters and I liked a bedtime story and he liked to tell them.  Our favorite was about a dragon who lived in a castle on the Danube.  Now my father likes a sword fight, and so his dragon was forever running into battle with mayhem in his wake. 

Inside scoop: Garret’s late beloved dog Henry inspired Grisha the dragon in The Language of Spells.

To this day, my sisters and I are uneasy sleepers.   But we know dragons.  And Vienna.  More importantly, we know how refugees cling to stories of the world they once lived in but no longer do. 

And her imperious cat Dorcas inspired the magical cats

And that is my second reason for this novel being a story told.  My dragons had lost their home. Like large numbers of people who survived WWII, the dragons were refugees.  They had stories to tell. 

Uma: Maybe this is why I found this story so compelling. Because the dragons. struggling to live outside their lost homes, echo the feelings of so many millions of people who are forcibly displaced in our all-too-real world. The UNHCR puts the number at 70.8 million this year, one person forcibly displaced every 2 seconds. Garret continues:

I should add that I thought this would be a picture book.  It turns out, I am not a picture book writer.   I should have known that a book largely set in a hotel bar was not going to loan itself to that format. 

Live and learn.  

Indeed. Thank you, Garret Weyr. I wish you a richness of warm courtesies and the best dragon magic.

On Earth Day: Reading Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson

Under the Sea-Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life was a masterpiece of vision and heart, published in 1941, and overshadowed by the events of World War II. Knowing of Carson’s life and work, it’s possible to see a parallel between that largely unsung book launch and today’s pendemic overshadowing the earth and its crisis of climate.

Under the Sea-Wind was the first book by a genius whose life was too short.n It’s the tender, minutely detailed chronicling of a coastline and the lives it nourishes.

I looked at how the opening and ending speak to one another. Here’s the first paragraph:

The island lay in shadows only a little deeper than those that were swiftly stealing across the sound from the east. On its western shore the wet sand of the narrow beach caught the same reflection of palely gleaming sky that laid a bright path across the water from island beach to horizon. Both water and sand were the color of steel overlaid with the sheen of silver, so that it was hard to say where water ended and land began.

It places readers at the shoreline, making us suddenly aware of an unknown landscape coexisting with our own. That landscape, we know from the beginning, lives by its own rules. If we cannot even see where water ends and land begins, how will we step wisely?

The ending, too, makes us feel our proper size in the bigger scheme of things:

As the waiting of the eels off the mouth of the bay was only an interlude in a long life filled with constant change, so the relation of sea and coast and mountain ranges was that of a moment in geologic time. For once more the mountains would be worn away by the endless erosion of water and carried in silt to the sea, and once more all the coast would be water again, and the places of its cities and towns would belong to the sea.

A moment in geologic time. That’s the span we occupy. In the end, the earth will keep turning, the mountains eroding, the shoreline shifting. We have seen already what happens (fake news notwithstanding) when we remove our clumsy selves from city streets–or is it at least in part that when we’re not rushing around, we have time to pay attention?

When we are through the pandemic, we will have to think about what kind of tomorrow we want. While everyone longs nostagically to get back to normal, we will need to understand that there will be no going back. Carson’s book is about time as much as place, and time will keep on moving, whether we take helpful actions or harmful ones.

Yvonne Ventresca on Pandemics Real and Imagined

Here we are, in the grip of a pandemic. The illness (and the measures we take to cope) are affecting millions of people, laying low heads of state, intensifying inequality, stranding some, internally displacing others, and keeping 1.5 billion of the world’s children out of school. But VCFA MFA-CYA student Yvonne Ventresca wrote a novel titled Pandemic at a time when none of this was on the horizon. I asked Yvonne what led her to write this novel.

[Yvonne] One source of inspiration for Pandemic was my own concern after Swine Flu (H1N1) in 2009-2010. At one point during that pandemic, the vaccine became available for children in my suburban town. Public health officers organized its free distribution at the local middle school after class ended for the day. The line extended for blocks. While I waited with a mom who had a son the same age as mine, the boys ran off to play nearby while we chatted. At first, it was a relatively pleasant afternoon.

But the mood became ugly when they announced that there weren’t enough vaccinations for all the children waiting. Kids with health conditions that could make the flu more dangerous were to be vaccinated first. The families at the end of the line were told to go home until the next (unscheduled) distribution. I had arrived early, and we were within the cutoff as angry parents verbally accosted the public health officials who tried to keep order. Bear in mind that the swine flu was nothing like COVID-19. Waiting to get the vaccine was more of an inconvenience than a danger.

The high emotion that surfaced that afternoon stayed with me. Later, I found myself imagining how things could have gone horribly wrong if the outbreak had been more deadly. I interviewed the head of my local public health department about lessons they learned, and the more I researched emerging infectious diseases, the more the idea stuck with me for a story about teenagers working together to survive.

[Uma] What was your first thought when COVID-19 began to overtake the news?

[Yvonne] There was a progression of emotion for me as the news worsened. I remember thinking at first that we would have to shelter-in-place for two weeks. I bought enough supplies for at least fourteen days and refilled our family’s prescriptions, just in case. The stores weren’t crowded then—there was plenty of Lysol, but I did not predict the upcoming toilet paper shortage. I was nervous, but I naively felt ready.

As the situation became more dire, I felt a strange sense of surrealness. Years ago, when researching Pandemic, I had found the New Jersey emergency preparedness plans online, and they helped fuel my imagination for the story. I wrote about tents used as pop-up hospital facilities when capacity was exceeded, I invented newscaster dialogue about shortage of medical supplies and how limited provisions might be distributed (in my fictional world it was Tamiflu, not PPE), and I included refrigerated trucks as temporary morgues. There is still a bizarre feeling for me that this is fiction and cannot be happening. But in some ways, writing the novel helped me emotionally prepare for the horrors that have emerged.

[Uma] In your novel, Lily’s friend Jay says, “Portico will be a different place for a while.” In the real world, every place now is a different place and we don’t know how long “a while” could be. Do you think there’s something about fiction that can teach us about life? About ourselves? That can maybe lead us to become our better selves, during “a while” and after it’s past? 

Fiction, for a writer or a reader, gives us a way to process our worries through a controlled, imaginary world. We can analyze a character’s response in troubled times (Is it courageous? selfish? terrified?) and think about how we might react. We can judge a character’s actions and compare them to what we expect of ourselves. Would we do better? Can we actually do better now? Fiction allows us to hold our fears and our values up to the light and examine them in a safe space.

Fiction, perhaps, can also tell larger truths through an imagined world, especially one that is drawn from extrapolations of our own. The fictional pandemic in this novel, like the real one today, becomes a test of the characters’ humanity. Its dilemmas are not so different from ours, as we navigate the surreal real and experience its swirling news cycles, composed as they are of difficult truths and dangerous lies. Thanks, Yvonne! Be well, stay safe. Keep writing.

Too Much Light

When my picture book, Bright Sky, Starry City was published in 2015, it was a love-note to dark skies. I saw it as my contribution to a movement that would inevitably lead to consensus. How could it not? How could humans simply refuse to see that the sky was a natural treasure?

I never imagined we’d still be fighting light pollution in the second decade of the 21st century!

Today, according to this BioScience article, our lights are among other threats to a little insect that is universally admired yet largely unnoticed–the firefly. Habitat loss, artificial light, and pesticide use were identified in a survey as the three most serious threats when scores were averaged across the eight regions studied: North America, Central America, South America, the United Kingdom and Europe, East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Australia.

In my memory there flickers a picture book about fireflies that speaks volumes about this crisis we’re in. A child goes out to collect fireflies. He returns triumphant, only to realize that the beautiful insects, trapped in his jar, are dying. They need to be out there in the night, where they belong. He releases them, and we settle into the sighing happy ending that is the hallmark of the most wondrous picture books.

Only today maybe we are the fireflies in the jar, blinded by the blue light of our screens, unable to change the lifestyles that are choking our planet. Reading Julie Brinckloe’s simple, direct prose today, the weight of the decades shifts the images:

I shut my eyes tight and put the pillow over my head. They were my fireflies. I caught them. They made moonlight in my jar. But the jar was nearly dark.

I flung off the covers. I went to the window, opened the jar, and aimed it at the stars. “Fly!”

What will that moment of awakening be, I wonder, in our collective history?