From Sea to Sea to Sea: Celebrating Indigenous Picture Books

I began reading this newsletter from IBBY Canada with interest. I noted titles to pass along to students in the winter/spring 2019 VCFA picture book intensive. I read about authors and illustrators. And then, to my delight, I began to recognize names and titles and to find my own connections.

mancalledraven-233x300First, this passage on Tlicho First Nation writer Richard Van Camp‘s books. The story of Children’s Book Press and of Harriet Rohmer’s mission to give voice to many cultures and peoples is part of the history of children’s books in the United States. Two of my own picture books have remained in print thanks to Lee and Low’s acquisition of CBP’s list. But back to Richard Van Camp. Look at this account of what ensued when Harriet called Richard asking if he had anything to send her:

Richard said: “Yes, I do have something …” and pulled out the manuscript for The Man Called Raven, which he had written at a workshop. Richard sent it down to San Francisco page by page from the fax machine at Home Hardware in Fort Smith — at a cost of $4.20.

Page by page. A fax machine. Richard’s creative response to Harriet’s next invitation is well worth reading as well.  Laughter and inventiveness surely lead to the building of bridges.

In comments reported from Project Co-Chair & Author Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis (Nipissing First Nation) I found yet another connection:

One of the first children’s books that Jenny remembers liking in her early days as an educator was Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2000), published in the US. Jingle Dancer is about a young girl who wants to dance in the upcoming powwow, and how the strong women in her life — her aunt, her neighbour, her cousin and her grandmother — each contribute a row of jingles to her dress. Jenny says about the book: “The imagery and lessons of Jingle Dancer showed the dignity of the characters — and really portrayed a positive community experience. It was a story that I often shared with young people whose history was fractured due to acts of colonization. This story offered children an opportunity to reflect on history and begin their own journey to heal and reclaim their culture.”

It has been my delight over many years to cross writing and teaching paths with the multi-talented Cynthia Leitich Smith who has been my writing and teaching colleague for years and whose work has shaped our field in important ways.

From board books to picture books for older readers, From Sea to Sea to Sea is a catalogue of 100 of the best picture books created over the past 25 years by Indigenous authors. The full catalogue is available here. What an opportunity for young readers everywhere to find and make connections.

 

Supriya Kelkar on Research and Family History in Ahimsa

new-visions-award-winner.pngWinner of the New Winner Award from Tu Books/Lee and Low, Supriya Kelkar‘s debut middle grade novel, Ahimsa, takes place in 1940s India, against the backdrop of a nation struggling to unite even as its people fight for independence from British rule. Ten-year-old Anjali is the protagonist, thrown into the reality of a swiftly changing world when her mother announces that she has quit her job to follow Mahatma Gandhi and become a freedom fighter. I corresponded with Supriya in anticipation of her novel’s release on October 2, which is, appropriately enough, Gandhi’s birth anniversary. 
[Uma] What came first for you with this story–the history, the character, an idea, an era, or something else? Talk about what led you to think about writing this book. 
 
IMG_6435 (2).JPG[Supriya] It started with the thought of my great-grandmother, Anasuyabai Kale, a Gandhian freedom fighter in India who was jailed for her role in the movement. I was fascinated by the idea of a strong, sometimes flawed female leader in the early 1900s. As a screenwriter, I thought the story would make a great biopic. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t figure out how to write it as an interesting screenplay. I then thought about making it a fictional story, where the character based on my great-grandmother was not the protagonist, but rather, the mother of the protagonist. But again, I struggled to make it work. Then I had the brilliant idea to write it as a novel to work out the story beats, and then go back and write a screenplay with the solutions I had discovered in the process. Clearly, I had no clue what I was doing because it turned out writing a novel was not a quick and easy task!
 
[Uma] What sources, personal and research, did you tap while you were writing Ahimsa? 
 

Gandhi's letter to Anasuyabai  Kale.jpg

Letter from Mahatma Gandhi to the writer’s great-grandmother. Used by permission of Supriya Kelkar

[Supriya] My great-grandfather had written a biography of my great-grandmother. That book was a great resource. It showed me how life was at the time. The freedom movement could be very small-scale at times, with individuals doing their part to make a difference for a few other people in their area through protests and letter writing campaigns. It also showed how those changes could inspire greater changes in the country. I also used Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, an academic website on Dr. Ambedkar, and old newspapers for research. For personal sources, I spoke to several family members and friends to make sure I was representing the time accurately, including my parents. Since my great-grandmother and grandparents had all passed away, I relied a lot on my great-aunt. She was able to fill in a lot of details about her mother’s story and the time period for me.

 
Ahimsa-cover-revised3 FINAL.jpg[Uma] I find as a writer that every book teaches me something. What did writing this book teach you? 
 
This book taught me the importance of patience and not giving up. I wrote the first draft of Ahimsa in 2003. There were many times over the years that I wanted to give up on the manuscript because it felt hopeless and things weren’t happening fast enough on it. I’m so glad I stuck with it!
  
[Uma] What tripped you up along the way, even after you’d begun to feel more in command of the work? 
 
[Supriya] Despite all the research through the years of writing Ahimsa, it wasn’t until I was working on the copyedit and double-checking my work that I realized a couple of the famous Gandhi quotes I had used in the book were probably things he had never said. It took a while but in the end, I was able to find words that were actually from one of his publications.
 
[Uma] Ahimsa is a concept that’s desperately needed in today’s contentious world. What do you want young readers—and their adult allies, too—to take away from this story?
 
The main thing I want readers of all ages to take away is the importance of empathy. Just because an issue doesn’t personally affect you, it does
not mean the problem does not exist. I hope young readers will be inspired by Anjali’s journey from a child of privilege to someone who is very aware of the wrongs in her world and is willing to do what she can to right them.
[Uma] Congratulations, Supriya Kelkar. Much luck with this book and others yet to come.

An Untold History, A Working Title

There are many stories that never get included in history textbooks and many others that should be part of the contemporary discourse but get overlooked. Political mayhem regardless, books for children have begun to take such stories on in fiction, nonfiction, and innovative combinations. Here are just a few:

ticktock

Ticktock Banneker’s Clock by Shana Keller, illus. by David C. Gardner

nocrystalstair

No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illus. by R. Gregory Christie

vrcover3

Viva, Rose! by Susan Krawitz

waterdrum

Calling the Water Drum by LaTisha Redding, illus. by Aaron Bond

StepUpToThePlate_final_cover

Cover art by Nidhi Chanani

Now, with the release of Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, I’m honored to have been able to bring one of these untold narratives to the page. More on the book on Kitaab World, The Book Smugglers, Teen Vogue Ms. Yingling Reads, and Cynsations. Thank you all!

Lee and Low, the diversity source for anyone who reads, is absolutely the perfect publisher for this book. They have staked out that very space in the children’s publishing market, after all, over so many years–the space of stories that don’t usually get told. Thanks as well to writer and educator Tami Charles who offers ways that teachers can use my book in the classroom.

At one time this book had a different title. It was only a working title, the sort you know won’t last, but it holds the story ahead of you in some mirage you keep on following. In that way, the working title keeps you working. At the outset, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh was called “Summer’s Promise.”

At this moment, with this book out, summer promises to be a season of gratitude.

Taking the Time a Book Needs

LeonardThis is the story of one book. It wasn’t a book at first, just an idea that came from Karen Leonard’s ethnographic study and filmmaker Jayasri Majumdar Hart’s exploration of the history of a group of mixed-heritage families of Yuba City, California. The story–my fictional rendering, that is–went through many revisions. Maybe 40-odd rounds of reworking and chopping, rethinking and changing.

It will be published next year, my novel about a girl who longs to play softball in Yuba City, California in 1945. A girl from a family in which the mother is from Mexico and the father from Punjab. We have a title now. We are in the thick of edits. We will soon be talking about things like jacket design and flap copy.

How many years did all this take, exactly? I was shocked when I looked at the dates on some of those files I’d saved on my hard drive, files that migrated from one computer to the next as I kept on chewing away at this story I felt driven to tell. I started this novel in 2003, all of thirteen years ago. And I am so very glad it did not get published right away! It has needed all this time.

Louise de Salvo asks why so much writing advice is about not judging your work, when in fact we need to make so very many judgments about it as we go forward. It’s a fair question. I’ve been a writer for more than twenty years but this story needed me to step back and judge it, and judge myself, many, many times before I could understand how it needed to be written.

“Still A Worst Problem,” or More on the Diversity Baseline Survey

diversity102-logo-e1426107884357From the Lee & Low Blog:

Since its release, the Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS) has become the most visited blog post we have ever produced. The DBS has been widely read and written about, and has opened up a renewed interest in how to improve staff diversity in the publishing industry.

If surveys and statistics aren’t your thing, maybe this post on the We Read Diverse Books site will make more sense. An eight-year old reader writes:

Furthermore it’s still a worst problem because in the Scholastic catalog, we found out that there was 100 books and there was seven diverse books and ninety-three books of white characters!

There. What a voice that is! I hope someone’s listening.

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.

Lee & Low New Voices Award

Lee & Low Books announces the 2014 New Voices Award.

NVoices-hero

Excerpt:

LEE & LOW BOOKS is proud to announce that Andrea J. Loney of Inglewood, California, is the winner of the company’s fifteenth annual New Voices Award. Her manuscript, Take a Picture of Me, James Van Der Zee, is a picture book biography of James Van Der Zee, an African American photographer best known for his portraits of famous and little known New Yorkers during the Harlem Renaissance.

Kara Stewart of Durham, North Carolina, is the Honor winner for her manuscript Talent, about a young girl who goes to Sappony summer camp.

Congratulations to the winners and applause to L & L for the work they do in publishing and sustaining diversity in the children’s book world.