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An interview with Lee & Low

Lee & Low

As the largest publisher of multicultural books in the United States, Lee & Low is a leader in diverse books. KitaabWorld spoke to Hannah Ehrlich, Lee & Low's Director of Marketing and Publicity and editorial director Cherly Klein on their journey and future projects.  

Lee & Low Books has been a leader in multicultural children's literature, can you share some background on how Lee & Low decided to focus on multicultural books?

From the very beginning, our focus was always multicultural books — it’s a central part of our mission as a company. Lee & Low began in 1991 when Tom Low and Philip Lee looked around for diverse children’s books, and realized that there were almost none — and those that did exist tended to be folktales that placed people of color in the distant past. They decided to create a company with a mission to publish contemporary diverse stories that all children could enjoy, steering clear of folktales and animal stories in favor of books featuring main characters of color and emphasizing today’s rich cultures. They also chose to make a special effort to work with creators of color, a priority that continues to influence our publishing program today.  

What are your parameters to define “diversity’ in children’s literature?

There are so many ways to define diversity! When Lee & Low began, our focus was pretty much exclusively on racial diversity, but over the years we have listened to feedback from librarians, booksellers, and parents about other types of diversity that are not being reflected on their bookshelves. In response, we have expanded our definition to include things like sexuality, gender identity, neurotypicality, and disability. There are so many types of diversity: religious diversity, geographic diversity, socioeconomic diversity, language diversity…the list goes on. We think about all of these needs as we decide what to acquire, although we still maintain a focus on racial diversity in our books because that need is still very real.

Over the last 20 years of being an independent publisher, what are some of the trends you have observed in the landscape of diverse books and where do you see it moving towards?

I think things have changed dramatically for the better in the last 20 years! Even ten years ago, many publishers did not believe there was a market for diverse books, and we regularly heard from gatekeepers who felt that diverse books were only of interest to kids of color, not to everyone. (We still hear this sometimes, but less frequently.) Today, there are more diverse books available as well as more marketing and sales support for many of those books.

The focus has also shifted from just quantity to quality of diverse books, with an emphasis on supporting #ownvoices narratives from marginalized communities. I think the question of authenticity, which is an incredibly complex one, is going to shape the landscape over the next few years, and I hope one thing we will see more of as time goes on is narratives featuring intersectional identities with many different types of diversity folded in.

How important is it for publishers to source “own voice” narratives? How do you verify the authenticity of these stories?

We believe it's vitally important for publishers to find and publish more “own voices” stories, to provide stories that have not yet been heard, to correct the record on any misapprehensions perpetuated by outside writers, and to illuminate the diversity of experiences within diverse groups. “Verifying authenticity” is a fraught subject, but we get expert readers from the #ownvoices group in question on all of our projects either before a book is acquired or during the course of the editorial process, and that outside check makes us confident of our ability to stand by our books. 

At KitaabWorld, our focus has primarily been on South Asian children’s’ literature - what have your experiences been in acquiring South Asian children’s literature? What future publications are you working on?

We’ve published some wonderful South Asian children’s books, including Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min; multiple titles by Uma Krishnaswami (most recently her novel Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh); and Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar, which was, we believe, one of the first novels published in the U.S. to focus on the Indian independence movement. This February, we’ll release Under My Hijab by Hena Khan, illustrated by debut artist Aaliya Jaleel, which wonderfully illustrates the many positive roles Muslim women play in the world. 

In 2019, we have a chapter-book biography of Muhammad Yunus, adapted from our award-winning Twenty-two Cents by Paula Yoo. 2020 will bring a terrific STEM-oriented picture book called Seven Golden Rings by Rajani LaRocca, to be illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan, and another marvelous historical middle-grade by Supriya Kelkar – this one beginning with the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

How do you feel about the statement: “Diverse books are only for diverse children”? As a publishing house, how do you work towards countering it?

We strongly disagree! Diverse books are for all children. As a publisher, we try to demonstrate the ways in which our books can serve as both window books and mirror books -- often for the same child. For example, a book like King for a Day can be a mirror book not only for a Pakistani child but also for a child with a physical disability or a child who has had to stand up to a bully. All great books, including those featuring diverse characters, have both universal and specific aspects so separating out “diverse” books from the rest doesn’t really do them justice. In addition, our literacy team does a great job of demonstrating how our books can be used not only to teach about specific cultures but also about larger curricular topics such as social and emotional learning, literacy, math, and more.

We love some of the South Asian stories that Lee and Low has chosen to publish such as King for a Day and Hot Hot Roti for Dadaji - can you share a behind the scenes look about publishing those stories?

The editor of King for a Day, Louise May, says: “The author, Rukhsana Khan, is Pakistani Canadian, and the book was originally published in Canada (under a slightly different title). It eventually went out of print and rights reverted to Rukhsana, who sent the manuscript and book to me. I liked the story very much and felt it would be a good addition to our list. I suggested revisions to the author, among them the idea of not mentioning the main character’s disability in the text, letting that be a visual element only. I also wanted new illustrations that were more vibrant, emotional, and culturally authentic.

The illustrator, although not Pakistani or Muslim, did extensive research into the art, artistic traditions, architecture, and culture of Pakistani, and I worked as a liaison between the author and illustrator to ensure authenticity. The author is not usually involved in the development of illustrations for a picture book, but for this title I thought it was an important step to take to ensure that we created culturally responsible illustrations.”

Publishing books involves an entire ecosystem - authors, illustrators, publishers, distributors, bookstores - do you see an overall shift towards more multicultural books being written, showcased and shared?

The good news is, YES! The launch of We Need Diverse Books in 2014 and the ongoing work of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in counting all of the diverse books released each year have together created a strong awareness of the need for more diverse authors, illustrators and titles, especially among booksellers and librarians, and we’ve seen those numbers increasing almost every year. (The Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference, founded in 2015, offers a way for aspiring authors and illustrators of color to meet each other and people in the publishing industry—building community and connections vital to staying in the publishing game.) 

Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey in 2015 also highlighted the need for diverse staff within publishing houses, and those numbers have been inching upward as well. Importantly, the success of books like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, and Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James have also disproved the old canard that diverse books don’t sell, or only sell to diverse audiences, and that has encouraged more publishers to take risks with diverse titles. 

The bad news is, the publishing ecosystem is so huge, and it has been tilted toward white people for so long, that change is slow and incremental . . . a percentage point more of people of color working in the industry here; two percentage points more of diverse authors published there. We still need more diverse booksellers and out-of-the-box sales thinking to help get diverse books to the mirror audiences who might appreciate them most. Thankfully, at least on the creative side, the growth seems to be self-reinforcing: As aspiring writers of color see books by authors of color succeeding, that inspires them to write their own stories, or encourages them to keep going. 

Cheryl Klein is the editorial director at Lee & Low Books, where she acquires and publishes picture books and middle-grade and YA novels.

Hannah Ehrlich is the Director of Marketing and Publicity at Lee & Low Books, working to bring more diverse books into the hands of reviewers and readers.

See new South Asian titles in 2019

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