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.
Candlewick Press sat down with T.R. Simon to discuss her new
book ‘Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground’
CP: How do
the maturing Carrie and Zora see the world differently as they approach their
book two of the Zora and Me trilogy, Zora and Carrie are now twelve going on
thirteen. Although they are still children, they have encountered the sorrow of
death along with the pride and joy that life in Eatonville affords them. What
begins to alter them now is a slowly growing awareness of the past. While
Eatonville could seem idyllic, tucked away from the daily brutality of the Jim
Crow South, it is not free from the shadow of American history, particularly
from the history of slavery. The history of slavery is a hard thing for young
people because it requires them to confront the brutality of hate and the
despair of powerlessness. Zora and Carrie grapple with the conflicted feelings
that learning about Eatonville’s history brings up while simultaneously
realizing that life is necessarily, for good and for bad, informed by the past.
CP: Why did
you choose to tell this book with dual narratives?
struggled with how to powerfully connect the fact of Jim Crow to the
institution of slavery. Ultimately, I decided that the most effective way to do
that was to show them side by side. Reconstruction was the attempt of newly
freed slaves to enact self-determination, and Jim Crow was a formalization of
the backlash to Reconstruction. If you don’t understand how slavery operated
and the ideas of race that made slavery go, you can’t understand Jim Crow as
the logical social extension of that violently inhumane practice.
Candlewick was my first real publishing internship. I had
interned at a literary journal and a creative writing center, but my time at
Candlewick really gave me a complete idea of what the book industry is like.
The people who work at Candlewick truly do their best to help make themselves
available to you, even for something as simple as chatting over a cup of
coffee. The entire office environment is friendly; it felt so nice to be
surrounded by people who are just as passionate about children’s literature as
Through the warm and friendly publicity team I learned
industry lingo I had never heard of, enhanced skills that were previously
mediocre, and gained knowledge about different facets of the book world.
Another fun part of the internship was the “Books We’re Reading” board, which
is exclusively for the awesome people who make up Candlewick’s Publicity and
Marketing department. The board is a fun way to get book recommendations, start
a conversation about what others are reading, and is a cool way for interns to
your author-illustrator debut! Can you tell us about your inspiration for Alma
and How She Got Her Name?
ALMA is a picture book
about a little girl with a long name and a big story behind her name. The
story has autobiographical elements and is inspired by my own strong connection
to my extended family. I believe we are all a little bit of those that came before
us, and we carry a little of each of our ancestors with us. At the same time,
we are uniquely ourselves.
How does being a
diverse author and artist contribute to and inspire your work?
I was born and raised
in Lima, Peru, and moved to the United States in my mid twenties. In my first
years as an immigrant, I was trying to find my place in the US. I wanted to
feel less foreign and assimilate fast. I disliked standing out. But welcoming
my new culture and traditions came at the cost of giving up those aspects that
made me who I was. After I got married and had our first child, I came to the
realization that I needed to reclaim the unique aspects of my Peruvian culture.
I realized my culture was part of my whole personal identity, and I wanted to
pass my culture onto my children. It is at that moment that I started
illustrating and attempting to write for children. My work carries my Peruvian
and Latino culture deeply. In ALMA, I am writing and illustrating a book about
a little girl who is discovering who she is in this world just as I discovered
my place in my world.
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.
I discovered the joys of theater in middle school for a sad
but simple reason: I was quitting dance. At the age of twelve, I was told by my
teacher that I couldn’t continue at an advanced level without losing a
significant amount of weight. The issue of body policing in the performing arts
comes up in my YA novel Echo After Echo,
specifically for the main character, Zara, who is not the waifish ingénue
people have come to expect. Fortunately, when I chose to leave dance behind, I
fell into theater, and despite being a different body type than many of my
fellow actresses, I found roles and fell in love with acting.
My new life of green rooms and backstage bonding brought my
first queer friends. It’s no real secret that the theater world, from the
professional stages in NYC to the drama clubs in most schools are havens for
creative and hardworking LGBTQIAP folks. Before I even knew I was queer, I
found my people, and they shared my fervor for story-making, a heady mix of
love and ambition that still drives me. We collected, we rehearsed, we
constructed sets with questionable structural integrity, we held our hearts
outside of our bodies night after night, we threw AMAZING cast parties.
Candlewick Press Assistant editor Melanie Cordova, with questions provided by
summer editorial intern Isabella Corletto.
Candlewick has been my first experience in publishing. What made you want to
get into publishing? How did your career begin, and how long have you been
working in the industry? Did you always know you wanted to pursue a career in
I didn’t know I wanted to work in publishing until my
freshman year of college. Back then, I desperately needed a job and after many
attempts, my boyfriend (now husband) convinced me to apply to a bookstore.
Luckily, the bookstore I applied to needed a children’s bookseller immediately
and they hired me on the spot. The experience changed everything. At the
bookstore, I rediscovered my love for books, especially children’s books. By
the end of my sophomore year I had changed my major from Journalism to Writing,
Literature, and Publishing. After that, I interned and worked at a couple of
publishing houses until I finally landed at Candlewick. If we count my
bookstore experience, which I obviously do, I’ve been working in publishing for
a decade now.
To be able to work
with a text when it’s in its earliest drafts and then see it published has to
be an incredibly special experience. So much more time, care, and hard work is
put into every single book than I could’ve ever imagined. What is one of the
most rewarding experiences you’ve had during your time in publishing?
When I was a sales assistant at Candlewick, I saw a press
release about Candlewick acquiring Juana and Lucas. The story appealed
to me so much, and I was so excited we had taken it up. After transferring over
to editorial, I found out that my boss was the book’s editor and had just
started working on it. From admiring this project from afar to working with the
incredibly talented Juana Medina to seeing it win the Pura Belpré Award,
working on this book has been one of my most rewarding experiences so far.
It’s 1961. I’m 10, and in bed reading a book. My mother isn’t telling me to go outside and play because, first, we live on the 11th floor in an apartment building in New York City, and second, because playing outside always makes me wheeze.
The book I’m reading could be anything—though, if I’m really sick, it’s likely to be The Swiss Family Robinson. The Swiss Family is mostly male and much older than I, but the practical details of their island life and the girl who has built her own house all by herself are endlessly fascinating to me.
This is my special comfort book, but I also love The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and the Narnia series and the biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine from Mama’s nightstand, The Wind in the Willows, Nancy Drew, and A Wrinkle in Time. As an adopted only child, I find books about big, warm families of colorful siblings exotic and fascinating. But I like Little Men even more than Little Women. The boys of Plumfield School feel like a family even though they aren’t related by blood. I particularly identify with the musician Nathaniel, who is delicate and sensitive and lies a lot.
I’m a girl and I can’t read music, but I understand why he lies. I lie to stay out of trouble, too.
“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” said Abraham Lincoln when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Those words came back to me in the early 1990’s when I watched a newscast showing Mary Cummins, President of School Board District 24 of Queens NY saying, “This is a war and it will be fought….” Cummins was talking about the Rainbow Curriculum, a resource compiled for New York City school teachers that suggested titles to make classrooms more inclusive and diverse. Cummins objected to three books included in the curriculum that feature families with same-sex parents including my own book, Heather Has Two Mommies. Chaos ensued with protests, demonstrations, and heated school meetings that came close to violence. Headlines such as “How a ‘Rainbow Curriculum’ Turned into Fighting Words” (from the New York Times) and “City writer’s book involved in national gay-rights battle” (from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, my hometown newspaper), gave me pause. Fighting words? Battle? Had I also written a book that started a great war?
That certainly was not my intention.
I wrote Heather Has Two Mommies in 1988 at the request of a lesbian mother who stopped me on the street one day and said, “We have no books to read to our daughter that show a family like ours. Somebody should write one.” I knew exactly how this little girl felt. Growing up in the 1950’s, I had no books that showed a family like mine: a Jewish family celebrating Chanukah and Passover and eating matzo ball soup and challah on Friday nights. After reading book after book about families that decorated Christmas trees and hunted for Easter eggs, I wondered why my family didn’t do those things. Why was my family so different? What was wrong with my family?
The American Library Association (ALA) concluded its Midwinter Meeting in Chicago by announcing the top books for children and young adults – including the Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Newbery and Printz awards.
Kwame Alexander received the 2015 Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King (Author) Honor for his novel ‘The Crossover’ (HMH). The Caldecott Medal went to illustrator Dan Santat for ‘The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend’ (Little, Brown). Download the ALA press release for the complete list of winners and honorees.