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 amok”

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.

USBBY’s 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 diversity.


Susan 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.

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