My mission as an author is to mine the past for family
stories, fading traditions and forgotten struggles. Add to that unsung heroes.
When my friend and frequent collaborator Eric Velasquez pitched the idea of a
Schomburg biography to me, I was intrigued. Like Schomburg, Eric has roots in
Africa and Puerto Rico. I detected Eric’s passion for the project and I could
not refuse. I believe this is the book that Eric was born to create. Even
though the book had a ten year gestation, I am honored that Eric asked me to
collaborate. This is our fifth book together.
When did you first learn about Schomburg?
I knew of the Schomburg Center before I knew about the
man behind it. I did picture research there in the early 1980s. That was long
before there were digital archives online. Back then, I had to wear white
gloves to handle vintage photographs. I recall being in awe of the Center’s
vast holdings. What I did not know is that Schomburg the man was a bibliophile
and a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance, a period I first wrote about in Sugar
Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood. That picture book isillustrated
by Gregory Christie.
you only write stories from your own cultural background?
For a long time before I was published, I
wrote only western stories – stories set in western families about children
with western names and their rituals of growing up. This is because subconsciously
I was writing what I was reading. As a child and as an adult, I read mostly
western narratives and that seeped into my writing. But my heart wasn’t in
those stories. It wasn’t my truth. And when I did write stories from India,
either set there or about India and Indian characters, I started getting lesser
rejections (or at least more personalised ones) because my stories now had the
secret ingredient that makes magic – authenticity. For me more than setting the
stories in India or in its culture, it is about personal connection. Why do I
want to tell this story? Why me? Am I the right person to tell this story? If
so, then I would attempt to bring it to life.
Conversely, do you feel restricted in the subjects and settings you can choose?
I’m a nomad. Although I was brought up in
India, I have lived in Singapore and now in the UK. I travel a lot and I gather
stories where I go. But I always remember that all the stories filter through
my own experiences – of what I know and what I don’t. I have fallen in love
with folktales from Antwerp and Prague but I worry about retelling them because
I’m not sure I would have the depth of the cultural context. Even to retell a
small story, I would need tremendous amount of research and understanding. So I
pick and choose projects I can actually invest time and energy into. On a side
note, India is a big country with language, ethnic and other diversities and I
research a lot even to tell Indian stories.
Diversity in Our Digital World: Visual Literacy Across Borders
By Susan Polos and Janet Wong
The CBC program “Diversity in Our
Digital World: Visual Literacy Across Borders” was a great success at the
International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) regional conference
sponsored by USBBY (usbby.org) at the University of Washington in Seattle,
October 20 - 22. The CBC session featured two illustrators, Suzy Lee and Keith
Negley, as well as a publishing professional, Tucker Stone.
Janet Wong, poet and publisher at Pomelo
Books, and Susan Polos, school librarian from NY, introduced the panel. Wong
and Polos serve as co-chairs of the American Library Association/Children’s
Book Council (ALA/CBC) Joint Committee. Coincidentally, both are board members
of USBBY, Janet representing the International Literacy Association (ILA) and
Susan, ALA. Tucker Stone is also a member of CBC and represents CBC on the
USBBY board. CBC’s commitment to diversity, evident in its work and its blog,
proved a perfect fit for the conference theme, “Radical Change Beyond
Borders—the Transforming Power of Children’s Literature in a Digital Age,”
inspired by the work of Eliza Dresang.
The CBC breakout session opened with an
introduction to the work of CBC in the area of diversity. Slides showcasing
current CBC Diversity Blog posts made clear to all present that the range of
posts, including a storytime guide, authors’ posts, book guides, book lists,
Q&As, and more, highlight and encourage diversity in all formats and forms
for publishing professionals. Both illustrators selected for this panel, Suzy
Lee and Keith Negley, have been featured on the CBC Diversity Blog. Wong
explained that one goal of this panel was to expand the discussion of diversity
in children’s literature beyond race and ethnicity to feature “diverse
thinking” in the creation of children’s books.
Suzy Lee: “It all depends on the readers”
Suzy Lee (suzyleebooks.com) shared illustrations from her
work and spoke about three of her books, Wave, Shadow, and Lines
(published by Chronicle Books). She mentioned the importance of borders in her
work both through her use of the physical book’s bindings and gutters and as
story tools, taking the reader from a realistic scene to a metaphysical
understanding of the artist’s process. She explained how readers of “silent”
books can see what she, the illustrator, has intended them to see; readers also
bring their own interpretation to the reading. “When there’s no word pointing
out what to read, the readers can read more. It’s because the meaning of the
image is not fixed. It’s always changing. And it all depends on the readers;
they read as they want in their own way.”
One anecdote that Lee shared involved an
autistic boy whose teacher said that when Wave was shared in their
classroom, “the room was silent, and [the boy] could hear [the book] in his
head … he was captivated.” As Lee noted, this is the kind of moment “when
the ‘silent’ picture book shines.”
Keith Negley: “Toxic masculinity has run
Keith Negley (keithnegley.com) worked as an
illustrator and designer for magazines before writing and illustrating
children’s books published by Flying Eye, the children’s imprint of Nobrow, an
international publishing company. Negley’s books, while not wordless, tell
stories primarily through illustration and contain minimal text.
He shared work from two published books, Tough
Guys Don’t Cry and My Dad Used to Be So Cool, as well as a
forthcoming book, Mary Wears What She Wants (Balzer +
Bray/HarperCollins). Negley wants to break barriers of gender expectations,
showing that both boys and girls can resist the stereotypical boxes—and to show
dads who are affectionate and sensitive.
Tucker Stone: “Helping small publishers get
the word out”
Tucker Stone anchored our panel with a
reminder that our real challenge, when it comes to diverse children’s
literature, is with distribution.
Stone spoke both of his former position as
US Sales & Marketing Director with Nobrow US/Flying Eye Books, as well as
his current work as Client Marketing Manager for Children’s and Comic titles for
Ingram’s Consortium Book Sales & Distribution. In this new role, Stone
strives to communicate the interests of international readers to independent
publishers and to promote the titles he represents.
Outstanding International Books (OIB) Lists
Suzy Lee’s first book was signed during a
visit to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. She advises international authors
and illustrators to go to Bologna and to learn from the editors and agents
there, if possible. “Bologna was a real-wonderland … I was amazed at the
various perspectives and styles” of the international books on display. For
advocates of diverse books who are not familiar with international books and
are unable to travel to Bologna, Wong and Polos recommend downloading USBBY’s
annual Outstanding International Books lists for the past decade (http://www.usbby.org/list_oibl.html).
International books provide a valuable glimpse of additional approaches to celebrating
Polos is a School Librarian in the Bedford Central School District. Janet Wong
is a poet and co-founder of Pomelo Books (PomeloBooks.com), a CBC member.
Together, they serve as co-chairs of the ALA-CBC Joint Committee.