Author Q&A with Sayantani DasGupta

Why is diversity in science fiction and fantasy so critical?

I grew up on science fiction and fantasy – Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time to The Hobbit to Star Wars, Star Trek, and Carl Sagan’s amazing show, Cosmos. Science fiction taught me to imagine big, to envision things beyond my reckoning. It taught me to dream. But of course, science fiction and fantasy back then didn’t let me see anyone who looked like me in a central role. As a brown skinned, immigrant daughter, I loved science fiction and fantasy. But science fiction and fantasy didn’t really love me back.

I think over the years, we’ve seen a vast improvement in terms of representation in many genres of children’s fiction. My own kids got to read a much more diverse array of books than I ever did. But not across all genres, unfortunately. My son, in particular, was a huge fantasy reader – if there wasn’t a talking bird, or flying horse, or a wizard in the tale, he wasn’t having it! Yet, the same gaps in representation I found as a young lover of science fiction and fantasy are still around 30+ years later. That’s a problem, because if all books are in the business of building our imaginations, then sci-fi and fantasy are in the business of building radical imagination. And if there’s ever been a time during which we need a collective radical imagination, it’s now. That’s part of the reason I wrote The Serpent’s Secret.

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Traditions

By Susan Tan

As a child, I was enthralled by traditions.  

           I loved them, from going to Hebrew school, to my parent’s tradition of letting us eat ice cream for dinner on April Fool’s day, to the way we lined our shoes up in straight, neat rows before going inside my Nai Nai and Ye Ye’s[1] apartment.  

           This love of traditions has lasted into my adult life, and I often wonder if my family and our traditions are the reason that I write.  My mother’s family is Jewish, and came over from Russia several generations ago.  My father’s family is Chinese and Christian, and my Ye Ye was an evangelical Christian minister.  I’ve inherited a rich family history that teems with stories, from my grandparents’ accounts of their close escape from Communist China with my father as an infant, to the stories my mother’s mother tells of Passover Seders all in Hebrew and Yiddish, with linen napkins so big they spilled from your lap to the floor. We’re also a family that continually generates new narratives, because when you ask your evangelical minister grandfather to please come up to say an Aaliyah at your Bat Mitzvah, that simple act is, in itself, a pretty excellent story.

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Phoebe Yeh: How I Got into Publishing

VP & Publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers, Random House Children’s Books

Senior Year.  Second Semester.  It started with a Children’s Literature class I took with Jane Yolen.  I admit, I hadn’t read any children’s books…since middle school, seventh grade, back in my day.  And I had definitely never heard of Natalie Babbitt and Steven Kellogg, part of the course reading.  I read TUCK EVERLASTING and was profoundly moved – and horrified that I had missed out on Natalie Babbitt because I was “too old” when she started writing children’s books.  (Then I binge read everything else by Natalie Babbitt.)  Same with Steven Kellogg, only I was able to read all of Steven’s picture books in one day.

Fast forward.  I’ve graduated from college.  I’m in Taiwan, teaching English as a second language and loathing it.  Teaching is not my avocation.  For solace, I reread and reread the three books I brought with me: RAMONA THE PEST, PIPPI LONGSTOCKING (remember, second semester course reading) and THE JOURNALS OF SYLVIA PLATH (Remember, I’m all of twenty one, full of recent college graduate angst.)

Upon my return to the States, I have a new career plan.  I’m from New York City.  That’s where most all the publishers are: I should get a job in publishing, children’s publishing.  My Chinese immigrant parents are aghast.  Odd enough to choose publishing as a career choice; why am I making it even harder by choosing a niche like children’s books?  I won’t be swayed.  Even though I know nothing about the business (Remember, this is the mid 80s.) out of my newly discovered passion for children’s books, I’m determined to work in children’s publishing only.  And since I’m an English major, a job in the editorial department makes the most sense. It doesn’t really occur to me that there are a myriad of jobs in the publishing sector and I don’t have to limit myself to one department.  (Today, I tell students and interns: Don’t do it this way!)

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Author Q&A with Carole Boston Weatherford

Why did you choose Arturo Schomburg as a subject?

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 is illustrated by Gregory Christie. 

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Q&A with Author Chitra Soundar

Do 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?

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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.

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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.

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Suzy Lee: “It all depends on the readers”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.