Publishing World Mourns Lee & Low Cofounder Thomas Low and Celebrates His Legacy

With news of Tom Low's death this week, people in the publishing world mourned the loss of the man who co-founded Lee & Low Books to combat the lack of diverse literature for children and opened a new world of possibilities for authors, educators, and readers.

Tom Low. Photo: Lee & Low Books

Today, there are many publishers and imprints that seek to spotlight and promote diverse, inclusive stories and work by creators of color, but 30 years ago, that was not the case. Noting that lack of multicultural voices in children's literature, Thomas Low and Phillip Lee launched Lee & Low Books in 1991. This week,  Low died of cancer, but he leaves behind a legacy of booklists, careers launched, and a publishing house to continue the mission.

"He was proud each and every season we released a new list of books," his son Jason Low, publisher and co-owner of Lee & Low, wrote in an email. "He would read them and exclaim that 'These are the best books we’ve ever done.' He said this every year for the last twenty-nine years, and he meant it every single time."

This week, Jason and his family were reminded of how much the publishing world respected his dad, who died of cancer. 

"Since we announced my father’s passing, we have heard from all corners of publishing," Jason Low wrote. "These are folks who have a long relationship with the company through our books. We have heard from librarians and reviewers who have recommended our titles; educators who use our books in their classrooms; authors and illustrators who have published with us; and agents who have brought manuscripts to Lee & Low for years. The common theme people tell us is that the work that we do is important, that diversity matters, and that even though they are sad to hear of Tom's passing, they are glad that his legacy will live on through us."

Lee called it a "joy and a privilege" to be Low's partner starting Lee & Low. 

"He was a great friend, mentor, and visionary. It meant a lot to him to build a company that would promote diversity, encourage new voices, and nurture a new generation of publishing professionals," Lee said in a post on the Lee & Low website.

Author Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Pura Belpré Award winner for Under the Mesquite, never met Low, but is forever grateful to him.

"Tom Low has our hearts," she said via email. "He will always be remembered as the man who carved out a space for books that teach children they can follow their dreams--books that mirror their lives, nurture their abilities, and open the door to a world where their talents might soar. To do that job, Tom focused on searching for, finding, and nurturing new talent--diverse voices who shared his passion and love of children’s literature."

Lee & Low gave the author her start, and confidence in herself and her writing. 

"As an unpublished author looking for an open door, almost ten years ago, I needed someone to believe in me, someone who was willing to teach me how to harness my passion for writing, develop my talent, and craft something meaningful with words," she wrote. "Tom’s publishing team, the wonderful family that is Lee and Low Books, welcomed me into their home. They made me realize that my voice was important, that I had something worth sharing with the world, by helping me develop my little collection of poems into a novel in verse we eventually titled, Under the Mesquite. Tom's publishing house changed my life. I will always be grateful for this great man’s legacy—a dedication to social justice that will live on in the beautiful books his company will continue to publish and in the hearts of the children who will read them for generations to come."

Others he had impacted directly and indirectly took to social media to express gratitude for his actions in life and continued impact through Lee & Low Books.

"He changed the world by his actions," tweeted Laura M. Jiménez, a lecturer at the Boston University Wheelock College of Education language and literacy program and member of the We Are Kid Lit Collective.

"Sending love and gratitude for all he did," Isabel Quintero, author of My Papi Has a Motorcycle, wrote on Twitter; and the Full Circle Literary Twitter account responded to the announcement of Low's death with condolences, noting that his "legacy will continue for generations to come who will read Lee & Low books. Grateful for his vision and commitment."

In addition to the creators who Lee & Low published—including  Mochizuki, Carole Boston Weatherford, Javaka Steptoe, and Shadra Strickland—Lee & Low created the Diversity Baseline Survey to measure diversity in the industry. The first survey was conducted in 2015 then repeated in 2019 to look for growth and continued gaps. It is used as a measuring stick for those looking to make all facets of the industry more inclusive.

In 2016, Lee & Low was awarded the Carle Honors Angel Award for "inspiring so many people with its dedication to multicultural books and to a new generation of artists and authors who offer children both mirrors and windows to the world."

As one librarian tweeted of Low, "This man changed the world for so many children and parents."

 
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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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