Learn, Grow, Improve: Progressive Publishers Doing Cool Things is a monthly feature at The Book Smugglers, in which we spotlight new ventures, content creators and publishers that are doing awesome things – awesome, defined as something smart, admirable, and most importantly, progressive. There are plenty of new publishers that working to increase literacy, to raise money for charities across the globe, and who are redefining our concept of reading and of the book itself.
Today, we are delighted to highlight Lee & Low Books!
Founded in 1991, Lee & Low Books is a family-owned, independent children’s book publisher with a focus on diversity. The company’s mission is to meet the need for stories that all children can identify with and enjoy. We are thrilled to have Marketing & Publicity Manager Hannah Ehrlich over today to talk about Lee & Low, their mission and what makes them a perfect example of what we consider progressive and cool.
Minding the Gaps
In many ways, LEE & LOW BOOKS is like any other children’s publisher. We publish picture books, middle grade, and YA, of all different genres— nonfiction, fiction, even science fiction and fantasy. We work with libraries, bookstores, bloggers, and our books are written and illustrated by some of the big talents in children’s books today.
The main difference between us and most other publishers is this: nearly all of our books feature main characters of color.
You wouldn’t think this would be that unique, since people of color comprise close to 40% of America’s population, according to the last U.S. Census. But if you had to take a guess based on most bookshelves, you’d probably guess something closer to 5%.
The lack of diversity in children’s books isn’t new; it’s why LEE & LOW was founded 20 years ago. Back then, books for children that depicted characters of color were extremely limited, and the few books out there tended to portray diverse cultures one-dimensionally, more or less as a collection of folktales and civil rights stories.
That was two decades ago. Yet since 1994, when the CCBC started keeping track of the number of children’s books published annually by and about people of color, the number of books about African Americans, American Indians, and Latinos has actually decreased. Decreased!
At LEE & LOW, we’ve always felt that talk only gets you so far—what changes things, truly changes them, is action. So since the company was founded, the driving questions have been: where are there gaps? What can we do to help fill them?
This has taken us to some interesting places over the years. We’ve published biographies of incredible people who fell through the cracks of history, like escaped slave-turned-Civil War Hero Robert Smalls. We published a graphic novel about a 12-year-old gang member from Chicago’s South Side. Because we’re a small, family-owned publisher, we can take risks if we feel that a story is worth telling, even if it’s outside the realm of what others think will sell.
One major gap that we saw early on that persists to this day is the lack of authors and illustrators of color. It’s a tough world for them. Last year, only four percent of children’s books published were by people of color, and 2012 was not an anomaly.
To help change that, we make a special effort to work with authors and illustrators of color. We’ve also created two annual writing contests, the New Voices Award and our brand-new New Visions Award, for unpublished authors of color to help them break into the industry. The New Voices Award, now in its 14th year, has kicked off the careers of many great authors including Zetta Elliott and Paula Yoo. Both awards offer the winner a cash prize and a publication contract.
In 2011 we decided to focus on another gap: the lack of diversity in speculative fiction for young readers. At that time, a freelance editor named Stacy Whitman had begun a Kickstarter project to start a small press called Tu that would publish diverse SFF for young readers. In a short time, she raised over $10,000, proof that readers felt deeply about this issue. We acquired Tu Books as an imprint of LEE & LOW, and since then have published some terrific books including Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Summer of the Mariposas, an Andre Norton Award nominee, and Diverse Energies, a dystopian anthology with stories by authors like Paolo Bacigalupi, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Malinda Lo.
It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, multicultural publishing. If you talk about the need for diverse books too much, if you are constantly pointing to the statistics (grim as they are), the books themselves start to take the shape of vegetables: good for you, but not much fun.
But I hope when people pick up our books, they realize that diverse books truly are about everyone, for everyone. Some of our books are serious. Some of our books are funny. Some talk about race, history, or culture, and some just talk about hanging with Grandpa in the vegetable garden. A book with a black main character can be about anything that a book with a white main character can be about, and can be just as well written.
And beyond that, as readers – the ever-curious, ever-learning people that we are – why wouldn’t we want access to as many stories as possible? Why wouldn’t we want books that reflect the gorgeous and ever-growing diversity of our country, that help us to understand our neighbors, our friends, and ourselves in new ways?
We’ll be here publishing the books. And if you want to see more diverse books, read them. Review them. Buy them. It takes action to make change. Perhaps if we work together, 2013 will be the year we see the numbers change for good.
Thank you, Hannah!
And now, fellow readers (and publishers), we open up the floor to you! Got any suggestions for publishers doing cool, important things? Leave a comment or drop us a line (contact AT thebooksmugglers.com). (edit)
We have 3 sets of the first two books in the TANKBORN series by Karen Sandler to giveaway, so one copy of both TANKBORN and the sequel, AWAKENING to three winners. The contest is open to US addresses only and will run until Sunday June 9 at 12:01am. To enter, use the form below! Good luck!