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.
Tell us about the most recent diverse book you represented. My most recent sale, which has not yet been publicly announced, is a young adult novel that fearlessly confronts the national and cultural issues concerning the “Black Lives Matter” movement. I can report that this project sold in a highly aggressive auction, which would indicate that publishers are very interested in this kind of narrative. I’m looking forward to sharing more news about this fantastic book in early 2016!
How do you go about finding diverse authors and illustrators?
I have found social media, particularly Twitter, to be very useful as a platform for letting writers know the kinds of themes and stories I’m looking to represent. Several of my now-clients first approached me because they saw me talking about issues and concepts I was hoping to find in my submissions. Also, the sales of past books with diversity elements have helped position me as an agent with a strong interest in this area.
Please tell us about the most recent diverse book you published.
I have two answers for that, both examples of the different ways I would define “diversity”:
Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson, a fully-illustrated work of narrative nonfiction, tells the story of the African American experience through the lens of an “everywoman,” an elder whose own family history has spanned decades and intersected with defining moments in American history. It’s an extraordinary book which received a Coretta Scott King Medal and an Honor, for writing and illustration respectively. Kadir is an African American writer and artist, writing about his own heritage, which is probably the first way anyone might define a diverse book.
The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas is a less obvious example. It is a teen fantasy, the first in a trilogy, set partly in 19th century England and partly in a magical world parallel to our own. What makes the book “diverse” for me is that Sherry is a Chinese immigrant who came to the States when she was thirteen years old.
While I actively look for stories in which the authentic experience of race, ethnicity, or religion is explored, I also think we need more diversity of authors, period, who just write great stories, whether or not they feature diverse characters. I would never want diverse authors to be pigeonholed.
Jeremy Lin is a Taiwanese-American, Los Angeles born, Harvard educated, undrafted NBA point guard who rose to unexpected stardom on the New York Knicks (he’s now a member of the Houston Rockets). A little over a year ago, in February 2012, Lin had a moment in history that transcended sports and race and became a worldwide phenomenon affectionately referred to as “Linsanity.” This meteoric rise is best encapsulated in the CBS “60 Minutes” special that recently aired. In a nutshell: Lin went from bench-warming obscurity to international sensation as he led the New York Knicks on a winning streak that defied all odds. In his 12 starts before the All-Star break, Lin averaged 22.5 points and 8.7 assists, and New York had a 9–3 record. Jeremy Lin is one of the few Asian Americans in NBA history, and the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA.
So What Does Linsanity Have to do with Children’s Books?
Please tell us about the most recent diverse book you published.
Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven will be coming out in June. It’s the wonderful continuation of the story told in One Crazy Summer, and I love it! In this story, sisters Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are back in Brooklyn after a summer spent with their mother in Oakland, CA. Delphine starts sixth grade, with all the perils that entails—a male teacher she can’t quite figure out, the sixth-grade dance, a growth spurt that leaves her taller than almost all the boys. And there’s the Jackson Five, this heavenly new group that is going to be playing in Madison Square Garden… Although the book is set in the late 1960s, it’s has a very universal quality. And the setting never intrudes on the story—Rita is very careful about that. She is a master. We’ve worked together on all of her novels, and I’m proud to be her editor. Love Rita, love her books.
What’s the biggest challenge for publishing companies who want to feature more diverse titles?
Publishing diverse books has long been a passion of mine. I’ve been around long enough that I’ve seen the climate for publishing diverse titles get sunny, and then cloudy, and then sunny again, and so on. I’ve been involved in publishing Spanish-language and bilingual books at Penguin, and at Harper, through the Rayo imprint. The toughest problem is selling the books and reaching the market. I’ve heard a lot of publisher-bashing, which I feel is not entirely fair—and I suppose I’ll be criticized for saying so. In my experience, I’ve seen strong efforts to sell diverse books that are sometimes met with low sales—and I’m thinking of Spanish-language and bilingual books in particular. It’s likely that publishers don’t quite know how to reach the market. But perhaps people who want publishers to publish more diverse books should make a commitment to buy the books.
The problem does not lie only on the side of the publishers, although there is certainly more we can do.
The National Book Awards Gala is coming up this Wednesday and one of the finalists in the Young People’s Literature category is
Never Fall Down
by Patricia McCormick. It is a novel based on the real life of Arn Chorn-Pond—a man who survived unspeakable horrors in the labor camps of the Khmer Rouge as a boy, escaped as a soldier, and was later adopted and brought to the United States. This is a story of brutality, but ultimately it’s an inspiring story of how the arts can save a life, and how the resilience of the human spirit can shine even in the darkest of times.
In her brief introduction, Patty writes:
Nearly two million people died—one quarter of the population. It is the worst genocide ever inflicted by a country on its own people.
I used this quote often in my pitching because when I’d first read it, it shocked me…and I knew it would shock others. It did. What I learned from the many journalists and producers I spoke with is that a lot of people don’t know these facts. This doesn’t altogether surprise me as the Cambodian genocide is not a piece of history that is widely taught or discussed. Cambodians themselves would prefer to avoid their terrible past. When Patty and I discussed the history and the current relevance, she wrote me the following for background and context:
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 graduated from Colgate University with a BA in English Lit, a severe lack of motivation, and the typical post-collegiate contrarian belief that I would never EVER work for “The Man.” I thought I wanted to be a writer, so I signed up for some writing workshops and quickly learned that I had little talent, less patience, and a somewhat violent reaction to “constructive criticism.”
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.