The Story Before the Story: Mark Karlins on Kiyoshi’s Walk, Part 2

Kiyoshi’s Walk by Mark Karlins, illustrated by Nicole Wong, is a meditative reflection on poetry and love, family and connection and the beauty around us. Earlier, Mark told me about his journey as he dreamed of this picture book. Here’s more from him now on the path by which the book grew into itself.

[Uma] You began this part of your reply to me with a question: Where do stories go when no one reads them? Where did this one go and what happened when you sent it out into the world?

[Mark] When I sent Kiyoshi’s Walk to publishers, no one wanted it. Difficulties, people say, make you stronger. Tell someone that when they’re in the middle of a difficulty. I didn’t touch the story for several years.

[Uma] But you also said there was a story before the story. So what was that?

[Mark] The arc of the writing of the story actually began before I wrote the story. Elements from my life that made their way into Kiyoshi’s Walk had been brewing for years.

The story begins with a reference to “the wise poet Eto.” When I was in college, I was searching for a mentor, a wise poet, someone like Eto. I remember the black and white photo of the poet, Robert Kelly, on the back cover of one of his books. He was walking out of a misty forest, his long beard flowing. At poetry readings, his voice was deep. I remember thinking of it as a river.

The grandson Kiyoshi is a central character in the story. Can writing spring from unknown desires? I wrote Kiyoshi’s Walk, a story that’s about a child learning how to write poetry and also about the relationship of a grandfather and grandson, years before Jesadha, my first grandchild, was born. Was I delving into and exploring a relationship I wish I had? Kiyoshi’s Walk is, among other things, a love story, a story about the love of a grandparent and a grandchild. Jesadha is now the center of my life. He makes me feel alive.

[Uma] And there’s no Basho now. No boats. How did that happen?

[Mark] Eventually, the story was picked up by Cheryl Klein at Lee & Low. Cheryl, a great editor, can make you see things in a different way. What, she wondered, would the book be like if it took place not in 17th century Japan but our contemporary world? She also discovered, during an editorial meeting, that Basho never had any children, let alone a grandchild.

I tried a new draft, placing the story in a contemporary city rather than in rural Japan. I thought about and tinkered with the two versions, showed them to Mary Lee and to my friend and colleague Uma…

[Uma] That would be me.

[Mark] …who said I should give the modern version a try. I sent both versions to Cheryl.

I asked her, “Would you just pick one of them for me?”

“No.”

By the time I had finished the “final” draft, there was no Basho, no river in Japan, no paper boats sailing towards the stars. Yet draft after draft, image after image, I still felt that the first story was there, a shadow story informing the versions. Now the story is contemporary and takes place in a small American city.

[Uma] Or a Canadian one–let’s say it looks like somewhere in exurban North America. But then the story changed some more?

[Mark] The story didn’t go where I had originally planned. It took on more of a life of its own, with the help of others. There were surprises in the writing. During the process I lived in ambiguity and uncertainty, which is an apt description of my creative act and its long arc.

After the book is published the arc continues.

When I read the published book out loud, when others read it, when children look at the illustrations, the story continues. What I wrote in a room by myself becomes a performance piece. It becomes interactive, child and adult sharing, each of them weaving the story, in some way, into their life.

[Uma] That’s the beauty of the picture book! Congratulations, Mark, on a joyful, lovingly crafted book.

See Caroline Starr Rose’s interview with Mark about Kiyoshi’s Walk.

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

Did I Get it Right?

asianFrom 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 Asian origin. 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.

Diversity 102: from the Lee and Low blog

Diversity in Publishing 2015 C

Graphics courtesy of Lee and Low Books

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.

The survey results are now out. They come as no surprise.

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.

Survey on Publisher Diversity

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.

Snippet:

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.