It’s nothing new. Depressing, perhaps, but hardly groundbreaking when someone points out the lack of diversity in children’s literature With talk about the topic having reached a fever pitch, we thought now might be a good time to chat with a publisher that takes pains to bring to the fore voices that too often are passed by. Lee & Low Books was co-founded in 1991 by Tom Low and Philip Lee. The company’s mission statement? “To meet the need for stories that children of color can identify with and that all children can enjoy. In addition, we make a special effort to work with writers and illustrators of color…”
Jason Low, Tom’s son, is now publisher of the company. We sat down with him to discuss books for children, where they’ve been, and where they’re going.
NOTE: SLJ Conversations is a sponsored supplement to SLJ‘s Extra Helping newsletter. This interview was commissioned by Lee & Low.
Betsy Bird: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, Jason. First off, I’d like to get a better sense of your company as a small entity in a world of behemoths. Since the Lee & Low mission is to publish multicultural books , do you advertise or sell them in areas that bigger publishers wouldn’t necessarily think to go?
Jason Low: While some might see diverse books as limited, we have found the exact opposite is true when discovering each book’s marketing potential. We are open to trying different approaches, depending on what the book is about. For our book Seaside Dream that featured a family from the Cape Verde Islands, we advertised the book in a Cape Verdean newspaper. We discovered a large Hmong population in Minnesota, which embraced Dia’s Story Cloth. Our first graphic novel, Yummy, found a strong following with incarcerated youth. We routinely make connections like these for our books.
BB: Very clever. Is that something you take into consideration when you accept a book for publication? Its potential niche markets, or do you publish and figure out the marketing later?
JL: I am always thinking about how many hooks a manuscript has. Not that we are putting together a full-blown marketing plan before we acquire, but the more hooks the better.
BB: And sometimes a hook really sticks. It seems like the smaller publishers rely heavily on their big backlist titles. For example, would we have Tanglewood Press without The Kissing Hand? What’s your biggest backlist title?
JL: The strength of the backlist is the key to a solid publishing program. Our biggest backlist title is Baseball Saved Us, the first book we ever published. Baseball Saved Us defined us as a risk taker when it comes to subject matter.
BB: Oh yes! We’ve seen other Japanese-American internment camp baseball books since, but that’s still the one that teachers ask for the most. So how do you reach out to educators?
JL: Directly and often. Our sales representatives go to schools and present our books to reading specialists and principals. If a particular school can’t afford to purchase books, we work with them to develop a wish list for when they do have funds. Building trust and relationships is so important.
BB: And social media, too. I think it’s fair to say that your blog “The Open Book” is the best out there in generating the conversation about multicultural literature.
JL: Thanks for that! Our main goals are to deconstruct the reasons why there is a lack of diversity and representation in all media and create a safe haven for people who are interested in learning more about issues of inequality.
BB: It’s a good mix of your company’s mission, but an original use of a publisher blog in general. Usually publishing blogs are created with the purpose of promoting their own books first and addressing other issues second.
JL: What is unique about the Open Book blog is that the mission is on equal footing with our books. Since Lee & Low’s mission is so closely tied to the books themselves, talking about diversity goes hand-in-hand with promoting the books, and vice versa. This would never happen with a big publisher because they are all things to everybody.
The subject matter of the blog will change with the times. While our current studies measure why inequality persists, we’ll eventually move on and highlight what people are doing right now to address the diversity gap.
One day we’ll talk about other issues. But for now, we have our work cut out for us.
JL: When we launched our website in 1997, the Web was all about drawing people to one’s site. Today, it is about going to where people congregate, whether it be Twitter or Tumblr. Our work in social media was a conscious choice that changed our entire approach. To be successful on all of the social media channels takes the kind of patience and commitment that is not for the faint of heart and cannot be delegated to an intern. Our most senior people, including myself. are deeply involved.
For bigger topics like our Diversity Gap studies we design individual marketing plans. The work has paid off as a number of the Diversity Gap studies have gone viral.
BB: How about Pinterest, and Instagram?
JL: We are on Pinterest. Instagram is still being debated. To take on a new social media channel is no small feat. We know Instagram has a young audience, but we are already on Tumblr, which also skews young. We want to see how Tumblr goes before we take on more.
BB: Do you think the blog conversations result in greater sales?
JL: The blog conversations help to strengthen the perception that we are experts in this space and that the company takes race and gender inequality seriously. Does this dialogue lead to direct sales? It depends. If you were a reading specialist, librarian, or principal who had money to spend on books, and were aware of our activity online, would our activism sway your decision? If you had to make a choice between a general interest publisher and an activist publisher, who would you pick?
BB: Activist publisher, all the way, but then I’m a New York City librarian.
BB: I’ve been seeing a lot of Common Core discussions on the site. Are the CCSS a boon for you in any way?
JL: The CCSS shine a fresh light on nonfiction, and there are many great biographies of figures of color as well as nonfiction texts by authors of color. Since CCSS is still new, there are very few ready-made textbooks/curricula for schools, so publishers like us can fill the gap with diverse, contemporary works. The CCSS represent an opportunity.
BB: Would you say it represents more of an opportunity for smaller publishers like yourself that can taper your backlist to the standards? Or do you think the big guys will profit more?
JL: It’s a significant amount of work to align everything to the standards. I would say that micro-publishers simply don’t have the people power or resources to pull this off. Mid- to big-size publishers will be able to benefit from CCSS and the standards of the day.
BB: Let’s get back to the diversity issue. Recently Walter Dean Myers spiked the conversation about race and kids’ books. Do you feel like interest in multicultural books for kids comes in waves? That they’ll remember them when there’s a piece in The Times and then go back to ignoring it?
JL: I honestly believe our daily efforts to address race through various channels have contributed to mainstream media taking an interest. Our objective is to keep the focus on diversity in all its forms, day in, day out, so people cannot go back to sleep. Look at the flood of media attention diversity has received this year alone: the Huffington Post, the New York Times, CNN, Entertainment Weekly, BBC, and NPR. Diversity is starting to trend!
But we can do better. The media’s reporting the same old simplistic “Diversity 101” story that there is a lack of diversity in children’s books and no one is doing anything about it. Companies like Lee & Low have been part of the solution of producing quality diverse books for more than 20 years. The “Diversity 102” story is long overdue.
BB: Does media coverage of race and children’s literature affect your sales?
JL: My answer is a definitive no. In addition to the Myers’ articles, it is imperative that a balance be struck between the “there are no diverse books . . .” articles and those that point to real solutions that are happening right now to reverse this trend. Where are the articles on the companies that have worked for decades to publish diverse books? How about some ink for the organizations that are addressing summer reading loss among children of color?
That is why we decided to allocate our own resources to studies such as the Diversity Gap, which gets to the root of the problem and maps out the reasons why we cannot get the diversity engine running. What is stopping society as a whole from achieving equal and fair representation in books and media? As we researched each study, finding a lack of diversity in television, film, theater, New York Times Bestseller lists, and politics, it became clear that the correlation and consistency of our findings reflect society-wide issues.
Change can only come when we admit we have a problem. Once we as a society are able to do that, we can build from there. The most successful societies are the ones that are most equal. It is not in our best interests to continue to live the way we do.
BB: So what is the biggest challenge in promoting books with multicultural characters for kids and teens?
JL: Our challenge continues to be building audience. Any new endeavor we try has an audience-building component to it. When we started our YA/middle grade imprint, Tu Books, a big consideration for the success of the imprint was how adept we can be at connecting to teen readers. There is no button we can press to make this happen automatically, although I certainly wish there was.
BB: How have teens responded to Tu Books products? Has anything surprised you?
JL: Our Tu Books publisher, Stacy Whitman, relayed this story to me: “I brought a copy of Tankborn to my volunteer tutoring one night right after the book came out, along with a few other books, to use to discuss the writing process. When the seventeen-year-old I was tutoring looked through the books, she immediately grabbed up Tankborn and said, ‘This book is for ME!’ I think it may have been the first time in her life she had seen a person on the cover of a book that looked like her.
I suppose this isn’t surprising, just reaffirming.
BB: Absolutely. So in a 2013 interview with Roger Sutton, you said that being a smaller publisher frees you up to take more risks. What risks have you taken recently?
JL: Well, if you believe the old adage that “diverse books do not sell,” the very existence of Lee & Low is an extremely risky endeavor. Choosing to feature people of color on the covers of our books contradicts the tendency to whitewash covers because of the belief that books with people of color on the covers presumably do not sell. While a lot of people in publishing say that diverse books are needed or they wish we had more of them, the actions of most publishers speaks volumes.
As for other risky endeavors, publishing books about non-household names is something we have done consistently. We have a book coming out this year called Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, about jazz legend Melba Liston. Liston was not only a great musician, playing with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye, and John Coltrane, but she was also a talented jazz arranger. Also this year, we are publishing a picture book biography about one of my personal heroes, Muhammad Yunus. While Yunus is a Nobel Peace prize recipient, I feel the bank he founded, which gives microloans to the poor, presents a timely message, since many U.S. politicians are actively passing laws that single out the unemployed and poor and make their lives unnecessarily difficult.
BB: Finally, anything cool coming up in 2014?
JL: Ton of cool stuff coming this year. Projects by Pat Mora, Meilo So, Nikki Grimes, Shadra Strickland, London Ladd, Frank Morrison, Paula Yoo, and Maya Christina Gonzalez are some of the names who will appear in this year’s line up. All really exciting stuff.