In my previous post about how I got into publishing, I mentioned a particular book that I’ve had the pleasure of working on called Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. We often refer to this title as “our little engine that could” as it falls into the category of “off the beaten path” when one considers that it’s a middle-grade historical novel written in verse. I started at Harper right around the on-sale date of Inside Out and though it wasn’t initially reassigned to me (I later requested to take it over), I heard the buzz around the house grow as it collected starred review after starred review (FOUR total), and then whispers of awards talk started trickling in. Most of the time, we in publishing try to stay mum about awards discussions and probabilities lest we put a jinx on it (call us superstitious). In this case, however, our highly guarded hopes were rewarded when Thanhha received the National Book Award and then a few months later a Newbery Honor. To top it off, her book then hit the New York Times bestseller list—the final feat completing what I like to call the children’s lit version of the “Triple Crown.”
Working with Thanhha has been an absolute joy. She is everything a publicist could dream of: responsive, gracious, kind, funny, and all of those other marvelous traits you’d want in any friend. Perhaps being an Asian-American myself, I felt a certain connection with Thanhha, and though my own history is a far-cry from her experiences, I can’t help but feel a sense of pride in all that Thanhha and her heroine Hà accomplished. I’ve included one of my favorite poems from the book below, because it hits so close to home. For me, even growing up in a place as diverse as Brooklyn, there was always that feeling lingering somewhere just below the surface of being “medium.”
Black and White and Yellow and Red
The bell rings. Everyone stands. I stand.
They line up; so do I.
Down a hall. Turn left. Take a tray. Receive food. Sit.
On one side of the bright, noisy room, light skin. Other side, dark skin.
Both laughing, chewing, as if it never occurred to them someone medium would show up.
I don’t know where to sit any more than I know how to eat the pink sausage snuggled inside bread shaped like a corncob smeared with sauces yellow and red.
I think they are making fun of the Vietnamese flag until I remember no one here likely knows that flag’s colors.
I was living with my parents rent-free in Brooklyn which gave me a bit of time to “figure things out” so I took the opportunity to buff up my “life experience” category by getting various restaurant jobs in the city, hoping to meet some cool characters while also earning pretty decent cash. I juggled 3-4 jobs at a time: hostessing at a high-end sushi restaurant, bartending in the east village, cater waiter-ing at fashion events, “Evian Girl”-ing at the US Open, and the like. I was nocturnal for a solid two years and knew I wouldn’t last long on that schedule. Taking a break, I embarked on a backpacking adventure through SE Asia for a month or so, thinking that my travel journal would provide a solid springboard for a novel (this was pre-EAT, PRAY, LOVE, mind you). It was an exhilarating experience, but in the end I came home to my restaurant positions, threw in the towel on the writing, and a few months later my parents gave me the old “Hey, maybe it’s time you got a job with, you know, health insurance or something. You should also probably start paying rent.” I still had no idea what I wanted to do, so I applied to a host of random positions: a line-cook on the traveling train for Ringling Bros. Circus, a sales rep for a boutique high-brow greeting card company, a marketing assistant at Turner Sports, all to no avail. Knowing that I was in a bad spot (I had zero qualifications or applicable experience for anything really), I decided to tap my college alumni network for some leads.
Editorial Director at Dial Books For Young Readers/Penguin Young Readers Group
I’m from India, but I grew up in the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, India, Canada, Pakistan, Germany, and Poland so stories from diverse traditions and with diverse characters have been interesting and important to me. I went to Columbia University in New York City and studied English literature. When it came time to graduate, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to work with literature—read it, talk about it, analyze it. I thought perhaps academia was the right path for me. But not wanting to go into a six year commitment simply out of momentum, I decided I should take a year away from school and get “a real job.” That’s when I learned about the
Columbia Publishing Course
(a summer graduate course on all aspects of publishing). Unfortunately, I learned about the course the day after the application was due! Fortunately, however, a very kind graduate of the course could tell that publishing might be a good fit for me and she persuaded the admissions board to consider my (late) application.
I attended the course, learned about various parts of the industry, and realized that I only wanted to work in children’s books. The people who worked in the field were smart, interesting, and driven. And I wanted to be a part of it. Plus, with children’s books, you get to work not only with text, but also with visual storytelling (if you work on picture books) and that was very appealing to me.
At the end of the course I interviewed with a number of major houses (there weren’t that many jobs, and it was very tough to be a foreign student looking for a job–not all HR departments are fully informed on how visa requirements work so I learned the importance of knowing those regulations thoroughly) and landed my first job as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins. Since then I’ve worked at Disney/Hyperion, and now I’m at Simon & Schuster.
One of the books I recently edited at Simon & Schuster is a finalist in the Children’s Book Council’s Children’s Choice Book Awards, the only national book awards program where the winning titles are selected by children and teens of all ages. Zombie in Love, written by the fabulous Kelly DiPucchio, is up for the win in the Kindergarten - 2nd grade Book of the Year category. Voting for the Children’s Choice Book Awards opened today, so have all the kids you know vote for their favorite books (especially if it is Zombie in Love)!
While we’re working hard to put together a well-organized Resources page for our readers, here is an interesting opportunity that the CBC Diversity Committee was privy to and wanted to share with the masses. Not only is this initiative about changing the children’s publishing industry from within, but it must also be about changing and refining the literature that is submitted to be published.
The Highlights Foundation is a not-for-profit organization that started in 1985 and is dedicated to raising the quality of writing and illustrations for children’s literature. The Foundation offers Founders Workshops to educate both beginners and seasoned published professionals. Not only does the Foundation offer workshops for writers and illustrators to hone their craft, but they also offer scholarships for attendees to go to the programs. One such program that directly touches on our initiative will be led by Mitali Perkins and Donna Jo Napoli with two of our very own Committee members, Alvina Ling and Stacy Whitman, as guest speakers at the event!
Check out the Highlights Foundation’s call for applicants below to attend this exciting workshop.
Creating an Authentic Cultural Voice
Join award-winning authors Donna Jo Napoli and Mitali Perkins, as well as editors Alvina Ling and Stacy Whitman, and special guest Kathryn Erskine for an intensive four-day workshop. Your mentors will work with you to discover your true cultural voice through impeccable research, imagination, empathy, and experience. Our goal is to gather a community of open-minded children’s book authors who wish to think deeply about questions such as:
Who has the right to write multiculturally?
How do we bring humility to our research?
What audience are we writing for?
If you are interested in being a part of this amazing opportunity, please
fill out the application
and submit it, with your responses to the essay questions, in addition to your writing sample.
Applications for our scholarships are available by e-mailing Jo Lloyd at email@example.com, or calling, toll-free, (877) 512-8365.
After working with Kristin Levine on her first novel, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, I knew that Kristin had a true gift for bringing history alive and making it feel both current and relevant. Her stories are vibrant and suspenseful; her writing reverberates with warmth and deep emotion; her characters feel like trusted friends telling you something true, something you know you need to hear, even if hearing it is a hard thing. So I knew when she shared with me the very first pages of her second novel, The Lions of Little Rock, that Kristin was poised to make a very special literary contribution, she was readying remarkable characters to become our friends—ones who would tell us a very important truth about who we were and who we are. I knew these characters and this book would be beloved, but I had no idea just how strong a chord it would strike. Lilly Ghahremani wrote on her blog yesterday,
The Lions of Little Rock is a powerful book for so many reasons. On the surface it is a sweet, thoughtful tale, and one might mistakenly file it away as historical fiction and believe that the lessons end there. But the point is that the story is important to us today, and will be every day until we properly square away our racial issues. One can only hope that a unique book like this contributes to a gentler younger generation, one that approaches each and every member of their classroom with more interest and understanding. Not just the black children- all children who look a little bit different than them, or act a little bit different. It is a tale of acceptance that I guess I wish more adults would read and learn from.
Lilly had an affecting personal connection to the story and she wrote about that connection poignantly and with grace. It was an emotional experience to read her words. Hers is just the kind of connection I’d hoped readers would make and a testament to why books that show us all of who we are as a society is a must like air or water. Read Lilly’s words, be affected and just a little bit changed.
I often recommend The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau as a case study in immigration. I’d like to mention it here, because it’s not an obvious choice, given that it doesn’t have many of the BISAC Codes we look for in diversity-friendly books.
I won’t speak to whether or not you will love the story….In words of the great LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it.
I will, however, say that the book understands the dynamic of immigration in a way that I rarely see in MG or YA literature, and I was exceedingly grateful to Ms. DuPrau for writing it. The story follows Lina and Doon shortly after they defeat Bill Murray and lead the people of Ember out into the daylight. The Emberites have been inside an elaborate bomb shelter until then, and represent—more or less—a roving population of refugees. The plot centers on their discovery of a settlement called Sparks, and the tensions that arise when the settlers reluctantly take the Emberites into their camp.