The CBC Diversity initiative was founded in 2012, as part of the Children’s Book Council’s commitment to promoting diverse voices in literature for young people. We believe that all children deserve to see their world reflected in the books they read. We recognize that diversity takes on many forms, including differences in race, religion, gender, geography, sexual orientation, class, and ability.
In addition to championing diverse authors and illustrators, CBC Diversity strives to open up the publishing industry to a wider range of employees. We’ve taken an active role in recruiting diverse candidates, participating in school career fairs and partnering with We Need Diverse Books on its summer internship program.
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.
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.
1) Why do you think there’s such a dearth of diverse children’s books?
In a couple of words: white supremacy. The
fact that there are more books published about animals than about black kids
says a lot, not only about our
society, but about “Western” sensibilities and colonization on the whole. About
the perception of “race” and the role of literacy in the development of
societal hierarchies. The English staked their claim on land in various places
around the world and forced the people in those places to learn the English
language, but literature and the arts were reserved for members of the highest
social classes. Who were all white.
The fact that we’re almost two decades into
the 21st Century and just now
beginning to see books written in English that reflect the realities of the
English-speaking world says a lot about who, historically, has been expected—or
even allowed—to achieve English
literacy. When all the business-related rhetoric is stripped away (“Those types
of books statistically don’t sell well.” “The numbers don’t suggest that this
would be a good investment.”), the implications are that 1) certain groups of
people don’t read and 2) the people who do
read wouldn’t want to read about x-type of people. The marginalized wind up
doubting the validity of their very existence, and the privileged continue to
see themselves as the protagonists of the only stories that matter. I’m sure I
don’t have to explain why this is detrimental to everyone.
Tell us about your most recent book and how you came to write/illustrate it.
BEAUTY is about queer Latina girls and enchanted, murderous gardens. The
Nomeolvides women, including the youngest generation of five cousins, tend the
grounds of La Pradera, a famously beautiful garden known both for enthralling
visitors and killing those who break its rules. This story grew from my love of
flowers and from wanting to write girls like me and my cousins into the world
of fairy tales.
Do you think of yourself as a diverse author/illustrator?
queer, Latina, and I’m married to a trans guy, so in a way I didn’t set out to
write diverse fiction any more than I set out to live a diverse life. Writing
inclusive stories was a matter of letting the truth I already know have a place
in my work.
My dad—technically a refugee from East Pakistan (now
Bangladesh)—became a harbor engineer, traveled far and wide, stood in the
presence of Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Queen
Elizabeth, and settled his family in California when I was in the seventh grade.
He died this year, and I’m grieving hard, mourning the loss of his humor,
loving company, and joyful spirit. I also miss his stories of Poshora, the
village where seven generations of my family lived on a jute farm. Thanks to
Dad’s deep roots in that particular place, no matter how people saw us, we
didn’t identify ourselves as Asian-Americans, Indian-Americans, or even
Bengali-Americans. I knew as a child that the Bose family was from Poshora in Faridpur, East Bengal.The problem is that now, without Dad’s witty, adept use of
the Bangla language, recitations of Tagore’s poetry, and reminiscences from his
childhood, it feels like the hyphen connecting my identities has taken a blow.
Will it be fatal? My parents’ shift from country to country—something that I
didn’t choose—has already cost me, leaving me to grow up far away from a
supportive network of relatives and grandparents. Dad’s life and stories
provided my particular connection to that faraway village in East Bengal. With
Dad gone, will I tilt even more to the American side?
Candlewick Press Publicist Jamie Tan, with questions provided by summer
marketing and publicity intern Melissa Lee:
As someone who’s spent
a couple years trying to figure out the right career path, it didn’t dawn on me
to consider publishing until I began blogging and reviewing. What about publishing appealed to you?
My mother says I have been entranced with books as soon as I
learned how to hold objects. The idea of getting to work with them was
tantalizing – almost a privilege more than an occupation. As a kid I had no
idea what kind of publishing jobs were out there, but I knew I wanted to make
books and read to my heart’s content…and somehow get paid for it.
Since high school, I have
been determined to pick a career that wouldn’t have me ending up in a cubicle
feeling miserable. Not everyone is able to do what they love as their career.
Though watching you, you seem to love being a publicist. What about being a
publicist gets you up and out of bed every morning?
Easily, the people. I actually love working in my cubicle
because I’m right next to some of the best people I know – incredibly
intelligent people who can talk about everything from critical theories to
promo items to the proper care of mint plants. I’m a really social person, and
I don’t know what I would do without my co-workers nearby! I also work with
some of the most pleasant authors and illustrators I’ve ever met, so not only
do I want to keep my job, I want to make sure that these people get their work