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.
For more information about Lee & Low Books and their titles, check out their website, follow them on their blog, on facebook, and on twitter
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!
Lexa CainMay 28, 2013 at 3:37 am
I’d never heard of Lee & Low, and I’m so delighted to find a publisher who knows how important it is to widen the public’s perception of who a hero/heroine is — that they can be any color, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation. I’m very impressed and wish the publisher much success. 🙂
Patricia EimerMay 28, 2013 at 8:23 am
I’ve never heard of Lee and Low but I hope they’re very successful.
Katie MMay 28, 2013 at 9:02 am
Never heard of this publisher before, but I’ve had Tankborn on my to read list for some time. As for the question, I don’t actually watch Doctor Who.
BramMay 28, 2013 at 9:18 am
I’m not sure why the entry above asked for my favorite Dr. Who episode (any episode with River Song).
Awesome blog post, great vision!
LauraMay 28, 2013 at 9:37 am
Oh, this makes me so happy! I really hope white families are also buying these books so their kids are exposed to different perspectives from an early age. I’ve made it my mission to be the book-buying aunt to my niece–this reminds me to really check out what’s new out there and not only get her my old favorites.
StephanieMay 28, 2013 at 10:22 am
The Animorphs series! Not only was it an awesome ooncept, but featured diverse characters who were amazingly well-rounded.
PhoebeMay 28, 2013 at 10:56 am
I LOVED Tankborn and can’t wait to read the second book!
Mary AnneMay 28, 2013 at 12:04 pm
I remember reading Forerunner Foray by Andre Norton way back when, and being startled that the main character had black skin. It was such a leap from anything I had read before. But I loved that book as a kid – I read it over and over.
KarlaMay 28, 2013 at 12:19 pm
superbwgMay 28, 2013 at 12:38 pm
And All the Stars has a pretty diverse cast of characters, all being celebrated in awesome ways. Cinders was a fantasy/SFF hybrid featuring a mostly Chinese cast of characters…along with the occasional cyborg.
Mary @ Sprout's BookshelfMay 28, 2013 at 1:12 pm
We LOVE Lee & Low! So excited to read these books — even if I don’t win them ;).
BrandonMay 28, 2013 at 3:02 pm
I think one of my favorite books is Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves. Some call it a little dark or gruesome, but I actually quite enjoyed it. The Curse Worker series by Holly Black. The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson. The Blood Ninja series by Nick Lake. Brave Story by Miyuke Miyabe. I could go on and on.
Hannah E.May 28, 2013 at 3:11 pm
Thanks so much for having me here! We’re big fans of The Book Smugglers and it was an honor to be part of your “Progressive Publishers Doing Cool Things” post.
AnonymousMay 28, 2013 at 3:36 pm
Kindred and Parable of the Sower are my classic favorites, but current sci-fi YA fav has to be Zahrah the Windseeker.
K. ImaniMay 28, 2013 at 3:38 pm
Oops. That anonymous is me. Too fast with the send button. Lol
LorenaMay 28, 2013 at 4:10 pm
As an aspiring writer and voracious reader of multicultural descent, I’ve been following Tu Books and Lee & Low for some time now. They’re publishing great books!
LorenaMay 28, 2013 at 4:15 pm
As an aspiring writer and voracious reader of multicultural descent, I’ve been following Tu Books and Lee & Low for some time now. They’re publishing great books!
As far as the contest goes, I’d have to say my favorite diverse SFF book is probably Cindy Pon’s “Silver Phoenix.”
LexiMay 28, 2013 at 5:44 pm
When I was younger, I loved the “Dragon of the Lost Sea” series by Laurence Yep. I had not thought of them in awhile, thanks.
Hannah HMay 28, 2013 at 6:00 pm
This sounds like a very cool company- I will be sure to check their books out!
I really enjoyed The House of the Scorpion.
AllisonMay 28, 2013 at 7:22 pm
does Animorphs count? I haven’t been reading much SFF lately, and Animorphs is one of the most wonderful series I’ve ever read<3
Alison CMay 28, 2013 at 7:54 pm
The Dreamblood series by NK Jemisin
ElisabethMay 28, 2013 at 8:11 pm
I specifically look for Lee & Low books at the library for my kids. My red-haired, blue-eyed boy especially liked Bein’ With You This Way and asked for it again and again.
The only diverse SF I can think of is not racially diverse but ability diverse–the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold features a strong main character of unusual height. I obviously need these books to diversify my reading.
jennieMay 28, 2013 at 8:20 pm
Parable of the Sower is a classic favorite, Akata Witch is my most recent book crush.
LisaMay 28, 2013 at 8:58 pm
As a school librarian and aspiring children’s book writer, I have purchased a lot of Lee and Low titles. I especially love their multicultural biographies.
As to multicultural SF writers how about the books of the award- winning and great Samuel R. Delany!
Kate & ZenaMay 28, 2013 at 9:13 pm
That’s hard to answer! I’m trying to think of one. The Everworld series would probably be my answer. It was a little creepy, but I did love it!
Linda WMay 28, 2013 at 9:44 pm
Yay for Lee and Low! I read Summer of the Mariposas! I’d love to read Tankborn.
Lee LeeMay 28, 2013 at 9:55 pm
I have to say I’m loving anything by NK Jemisin. I also really like Orleans by Sherri L Smith. Though I’m not sure if either one of them counts.
NastassiaMay 28, 2013 at 10:10 pm
This is the first time I’m hearing of this publisher , really great that they are providing diverse books for persons to enjoy. I don’t really have a favourite SFF novel.
Tricia C.May 28, 2013 at 10:21 pm
As a teacher and parent of children from several cultures, I’m so glad to read this post and know about the books mentioned in the comments above. I’ve noticed that more and more graphic novels have multicultural characters. Yummy, one of those graphic novels (pictured above), is so powerful; it alters the worldview of the reader.
Have to say I was troubled by the fact that I couldn’t really come up with a science fiction/fantasy multicultural novel. I know they’re scarce but are available. Gotta work on my classroom collection! The titles above are a great start.
erinf1May 28, 2013 at 11:38 pm
Wow… these sound amazing! I’m also at a loss to remember a scifi book w/ diverse casting… hmmm… that’s troubling!
LeeMay 29, 2013 at 8:22 am
I would say Kindred by Octavia Butler. It’s a classic.
Jasmine StairsMay 29, 2013 at 9:41 am
Probably my recent favourite is Posterchildren, by Kitty Burroughs, a self-published book which features characters of lots of different skin tones, backgrounds and sexual orientation and which is such a FUN book it makes me so HAPPY. Ahem. It’s about superhuman kids in a training school, thereby combining my three favourite things: school stories, kids with crazy powers, and WONDERFUL characters.
KaetheMay 29, 2013 at 3:55 pm
Hmm, I’m torn between Jemisin’s 100 Thousand Kingdoms and Butler’s Kindred. Love what Lee & Low is doing, and that the Smugglers are showing them off. And I’m looking forward to reading Tankborn soon.
JustineMay 29, 2013 at 5:34 pm
Re: Stephanie — Ooh, I’d forgotten about the Animorphs! That’s a good choice.
GenevieveMay 29, 2013 at 9:53 pm
um I don’t read a lot of sci fy but lee and low sounds like a great company (:
SerenaMay 30, 2013 at 2:26 pm
The Animorphs series was my all-time favorite series when I was younger.
Missie KayMay 30, 2013 at 9:47 pm
I would have to go with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It’s such a rich world in so many ways.
ElizaMay 31, 2013 at 5:35 am
Betsy Bird at Fuse8 recently had a posting about the dearth of African-Amercian boys in 2013’s middle grade fiction. As a follow-up to her posting, she talked about the Stories For All Project by the folks at First Book. Per the folks at the project “We solicit proposals from the publishing industry and awarding 500K purchase orders to the publishers who offered us the best range of diverse titles. We selected HarperCollins and Lee and Low.” What a great idea. The best way to see that these books are published is to create a demand for them. I thought you all would be interested in this project.
MeghanJune 1, 2013 at 9:05 pm
I also could not think of a SFF book by or about a diverse character 🙁 Shows how lacking the industry is because I read plenty! I think what Lee & Low are doing is important work and I am so glad you featured them!
MeghanJune 1, 2013 at 9:11 pm
Not to just blame “the industry” on my lack of multicultural reading because I obviously choose what to read. I do think that if more diverse books got buzz (or were published!) I would read them.
KristinJune 2, 2013 at 7:40 pm
When I hit the second Olympians series, (Lost Hero, Son of Neptune, Etc) I was happy to see some great cultural diversity among Riordan’s awesome demi-god series.
KristinJune 2, 2013 at 7:43 pm
However trying to think of a SFF author I’ve read recently that fits the category I sadly come up blank. I am happy a press like this exists.
AnonymousJune 2, 2013 at 9:14 pm
I too have never heard of these publishers I’m so glad they exist. I’m always on the look out for diversity in my books. I’ve always loved speculative fiction and am thrilled when I find stuff from different points of view. As a little girl I ended up reading lots of female writers because they tended to have good female characters I could identify with. Alas I have yet to find the latina american sf heroine. One of my favorite books is Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring. It unique, well written and speaks to the immigrant experience. Also its an amazing urban fantasy using mythical elements. There are so many rich mythology and folk tale systems out there to use as fuel for stories it doesn’t just have to be greek or grimm.
ElizaJune 2, 2013 at 9:41 pm
Anonymous – thanks for the recommendation for Brown Girl in the Ring. You’re right that books (any not just SF/F) with Latina/Latino characters are very rare, so I’m always on the look-out for good ones. Though they’re not SF, have you read The Knife and the Butterfly or What Can(t) Wait by Ashley Hope Pérez? Both are excellent.
LaurenJune 3, 2013 at 11:35 am
I’m going to have to say Cinder, by Marissa Meyer. Very cool to have the entire book take place in “New Beijing”. Also a fan of N. K. Jemison’s The Killing Moon.
Tim RJune 3, 2013 at 10:15 pm
How about Samuel Delaney’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand? There’s always Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, but I prefer American Gods. Currently, my son would pick the Tron animated series. Just some thoughts.
JenJune 6, 2013 at 12:35 pm
Liar by Justine Larbalestier is a favorite SFF YA novel. Also anything and everything by Octavia Butler.
Lee & Low sounds like they’re doing great work. There are a lot of books that look/sound wonderful.
GraceJune 8, 2013 at 11:52 am
This is a wonderful concept, and I love their recent focus on speculative fiction. I’ll have to check out their catalog, as books that highlight diversity tend to be some of my favorites.
GraceJune 8, 2013 at 11:54 am
Octavia Butler is one of my favorite SF/F authors. I also liked Sarah Zettel’s “Dust Girl.” Oh, and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy!
KristaJune 8, 2013 at 8:53 pm
I have really enjoyed reading Rick Riordan’s work. I loved introducing the stories to my students.
Ehrlich, Hannah | Writing for Children and TeensJuly 9, 2015 at 7:44 pm
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AnonymousDecember 13, 2017 at 1:50 am
To Whom It May Concern:
I am writing on behalf of my mother, and myself. I am a forty-four-year-old male who has been living with H.I.V for over 17 years. As such, I live on a very limited income.
I was once a kindergarten teacher before I became ill. Consequently, my mother at the age of 69 has to continue, and work in a child care center. The work is very demanding for her. The staff have made jokes regarding “what do you bring to the school, your old”. I feel very powerless in my ability to help her. She is working with a diverse class of composed of children of varying ages (2-5). I am a firm believer, as an educator that for a child to developing an understanding of equality they have to be shown, and explained about the concept on the level from an early age. The school my mother works at has very few book resources for the teachers, and students. She works at a school call A.P.S in Toronto. I was hoping you could help her by sending her a diverse, and large collection of books that are age appropriate, so that she may instruct the children on the need for universal equality, acceptance, and understanding. We live on a very limited income. I would be very grateful as a P.H.A, if you could send my mother a collection of books for the holiday’s as a donation for her to take to school.
We Live at:
630 Vesta Drive
p. This request is sincere, my name is sean brennan, and I used to sit as a board member of the AIDS Committee of Toronto.