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.
From time to time, I get asked to read work in progress set in India or within an Indian expat community, to see if the writer “got it right.” I used to consult on quite a few of these at one time. I’d get requests from writers and from publishers. There haven’t been as many lately. That could be because they were taking over my desk, and I began pleading lack of time.
I’ve begun to realize lately that there’s a whole new bunch of writers and illustrators of South Asianorigin. Well, new for an old bird like me! At one time you could count us on your fingers, all five of us in the US and Canada. Maybe 7 if you counted the UK!
So I’m betting I’m not the only one fielding these requests now. Which is great, because honestly, it was never my favorite kind of teaching activity!
But here are some questions I’ve found helpful when reading what I will call an outsider manuscript:
What cultural borders does the work cross? Are those natural to the story or do they feel forced or imposed?
Does the source culture feel real? Not in an abstract way, not like a tourist video, but real from the viewpoint of the story? This means the details and their physicality–what things are called, how they are used. Clothes, shoes, utensils, the materials of which each of these is made. That’s the heart of getting it right and it’s tricky because you can’t get all of it from Google. You need to dig deeper, if it’s not something you know.
Is the author’s awareness of the target audience too overwhelming? What’s the writer’s stance? Does the story keep stopping with a lurch so the writer can step out of it to explain some cultural quirk or idiom or gesture or situation? What is that saying about the writer’s comfort? What is it saying about assumptions of readership? How would a kid from the culture concerned feel?
Do the large story decisions carry resonance for me? Or do they feel as if they too are imposed by an overly mainstream sensibility, or by false assumptions about the people the writer is trying to create?
How is language used in narrative? What are the rhetorical choices? Is the idiomatic mix enough to convey flavor, but not so much as to caricature? (E.g., Is the river called by its local name, Ganga, or has the author turned it into “Mother Ganges”in a clumsy attempt at translation?)
Are the cultural depictions specific to the particular region of the subcontinent? Would someone with ties to the region recognize them? Does the writer avoid using pan-Indian conflations? Or does s/he treat all of the region as much the same, and all its people? Are the religions conflated? Do the names reflect intentional cultural fusion or is that juxtaposition of Hindu and Muslim first and last names purely a mistake?
Is there a story beyond the greatness or the despair or the problems of the culture and place and people in question? Or is the story just a vehicle for what I call the 3 Fs (Food, Flowers, Festivals)?
Keep in mind that “getting it right” is a subjective judgment. But if you’ve been asked to deliver your assessment, take a stand that is fair and thoughtful. Give the writer the benefit of the doubt. When I read someone else’s work in progress it behooves me to remember that every book may contain flaws, and that includes my own.
For years, the number of diverse books in American children’s and YA publishing has remained stuck at about 10%, according to data gathered by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Could the backgrounds of the decision-makers in our field–publishing executives, editors, sales reps, marketing and publicity people, reviewers–have anything to do with this? It is after all surprising to find such a gap between the representation of diversity in children’s and YA books and comparable demographics in the general population?
Who works in publishing? This was the simple question that led to the 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey, although the conversation itself has been going on for much longer. As Jason Low writes:
While the lack of diversity among publishing staff was often spoken about, there was very little hard data about who exactly works in publishing.
I’m happy to say that two of my publishers are involved with the survey. Lee & Low, of course, with the intrepid Jason Low at the helm of this effort. And Groundwood Books, another North American pioneer in bringing underrepresented books to the market. But Simon and Schuster? Did I miss them somehow? Nope. Not there.
So the question remains, what happens next? And whatever happens, how can we learn to talk about it and move on? This survey feels like a giant step in the right direction. So, for that matter, does this year’s Newbery Award.
Here it is, the sadly still needed conversation, focusing this time on a proposed survey of publishing houses and review journals. Kathy Ishizuka raises many questions, and the discussion carries on.
So the great majority of children’s books are by white authors about white characters, that much we know. But what can be done to address that trend in an industry that remains, itself, largely homogeneous? You have to assess the problem first, according to Jason Low, publisher of Lee & Low Books, which has launched a diversity survey to gather data on book publishing staff and reviewers.
Twelve publishers and four review journals have committed to participate in the “Diversity Baseline Survey.”The publishers are: Albert Whitman, Annick Press, Arte Público Press, Charlesbridge, Cinco Puntos Press, Groundwood, Holiday House, Just Us Books, Lee & Low Books, Peachtree Publishers, Second Story Press, and Tradewind Books.
The “Big Five”–Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster–haven’t as yet agreed to participate.