Publishing Diverse Books Isn’t About Meeting Quotas

Please welcome Stacy L. Whitman to Rich in Color! Stacy is the publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books that publishes fantasy, science fiction, and mystery for children and young adults. She has agreed to stop by the blog today to talk about why she publishes diverse books and what she’s looking for.

In the years since I started Tu Books in 2009, I’ve had many conversations about why diversity is so important in genre fiction and in fiction for young people. Many times, especially when talking to people who are steeped in fantasy/SF fandom who haven’t had much opportunity to really think about why diversity is important to young readers, I’ve heard comments such as “But speculative fiction is diverse. It’s all about diversity and understanding the Other.” I’ve also been told that we shouldn’t be looking to meet quotas.

Wolf MarkBut publishing diverse books isn’t about meeting quotas, much as we use the stark numbers to show how little things have changed over the years. It’s not about hitting a certain number so much as acknowledging how badly we’re doing at reflecting the real diversity out there in the world, right now. And while speculative fiction really has always been about meeting the Other, it hasn’t always been about understanding the Other (we are getting better at this part, I think). My frustration as a lifelong fan, however, is that although we have plenty of orcs and elves and aliens in spec fic filling symbolic diverse roles, we don’t always do that well on human diversity. Instead, white humans stand for the default “human” role in far too many of our stories.

I publish diverse books because I feel like we’re missing out on (literally) a whole world of awesome stories that have been ignored for far too long: stories in which people of color star as heroes of their own tales, stories in which the worldbuilding and the cultures and the characterization are at once both completely new compared to what’s already out there in the mainstream, and familiar because of our common humanity. I’m looking for stories inspired by folklore that hasn’t been seen enough in the U.S. mainstream and stories that extrapolate another culture’s worldview into the future. I’m looking for fantasy creatures that are not another reincarnation of the British tradition that Tolkien made famous.

This is not to say that I am not looking for stories starring non-humans, though as of now I haven’t quite found a story starring elves or aliens that has quite been the right fit for me. Some have come close; some haven’t. But when it comes to submissions, I look first and foremost for story. Is it a story I love, that I’ll be excited to work on for the next two to three years? Because that’s how long it takes to put a book out, and if I am bored from the first read, I’ll be even more bored in the second, third, and fourth reads.

TankbornPart of the excitement comes from meeting a world that, as a white American of mostly Swedish/German/British/Irish descent, I haven’t seen before. When I first read Tankborn as a submission in 2010, its universe was completely new in the dystopian genre. It’s both hard science fiction and a dystopian tale at once, and it deals deftly yet head-on with the kinds of class and race issues that dystopian stories hint at but don’t always take on boldly, and at the same time it feels like the real future in its technology and language evolution and biology of a new planet.

Not that a world needs to be completely new to me to catch my attention. Sometimes all it takes is one small twist, such as the Chicago I know twisted to become a world in which people have Talents, such as blending into one’s surroundings, moving things with one’s mind, or talking to cats. What matters in each story is that it move me—because it’s so dramatic, or so funny, or so full of action, or perhaps all of the above wrapped in complicated worldbuilding that the author ties together with a neat bow.

But because I’m looking for such a large number of factors to come together in one book, sometimes it’s hard to find exactly what I’m looking for. For example, I’d love to see more submissions in which the main character is African American or of some other African descent, in which the character’s slice of contemporary culture is a strong part of the worldbuilding. Tankborn stars a girl who is of African descent genetically, but it’s set so far in the future and on a world in which the culture is derived from the Indian caste system, so we still don’t have a book from Tu that reflects contemporary African American readers in a way I’d like.

Galaxy GamesI’d also like to see more optimistic forward-looking science fiction. Dystopias are on the wane, and I’d like to see more science fiction in the vein of our launch title Galaxy Games, in which a boy is recruited to play in a galactic competition much like the Olympics. I’m not looking for more sports-related titles per se, just more books with that kind of forward-looking excitement, the idea that the future for people of color will look just as bright as Gene Rodenberry once envisioned it.

I’ve also been on the hunt for years for an Asian-set steampunk. The Victorian era happened all over the world. I’d love to see a take on the vision of steampunk from the point of view of a citizen of the British colonies all over the world, particularly somewhere like India or Hong Kong (or even in the minority communities of the UK, the way Y.S. Lee did so well in the mystery series The Agency). Let’s look at the past with a new lens, as well, especially in this genre that captures the imagination so enticingly.

I’m looking in particular for more authors of color, as well, because part of our mission as a company is to nurture new authors of color. We were very excited to acquire our first New Visions Award winner earlier this year, and we’ll be announcing the opening of our 2nd annual New Visions contest in the coming months. (I say 2nd annual, but this contest will not be exactly annual due to the amount of reading required of our committee. It will probably be held roughly every year and a half for the first few years at least.)

Until we stop thinking that diversity is an agenda, rather than just a reflection of our readership, we’ll continue to have readers say things like the following: “I prefer ‘diversity neutral’ characters in my reading unless there is a reason to make it part of the story. Religious people might like being preached to in their readings, but most people don’t. If these things are jammed into books because ‘it is the right thing’, people will know, and they won’t likely be pleased. Not many of us care for books with agenda.” (Quote from an anonymous commenter on Nathan Bransford’s blog)

The Monster in the MudballI like to believe that the reason people say things like this is because they still think we’re stuck in an After-School Special world, a world that preaches instead of telling a good story, and they don’t realize that we’re way past that in YA lit today. A few I’m looking forward to, books that star diverse main characters just going about their business being awesome: my fall titles Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac, for which we’ll be doing a cover reveal later this week and you’ll be able to hear all about it then, and The Monster in the Mudball by S.P. Gates, a middle grade adventure about a boy who, with the artifact inspector he meets along the way, must track a monster that’s hatched from a ball of mud in his neighbor’s flat.

Coming next spring, we finally get to see how the Tankborn trilogy ends (it’s GOOD, y’all—you’re going to love it!) and we meet a new world in M.K. Hutchins’s Drift, about a brother and sister who live in a world where everyone lives on islands set on the backs of turtles that drift on the surface of Hell. And further out, we have our first mystery title by New Visions Award winner Valynne E. Maetani, about a girl who accidentally brings the Japanese mafia, the yakuza, down on her family when she discovers her deceased father was once a member of it.

Not one of these books has an agenda, unless that agenda is entertaining young readers with awesome stories, just as books do that star white characters. And I think there’s plenty of room out there for more books like these, so that the nearly half of the kids in our country that are people of color can see themselves reflected in the stories they read, and so that the other half might be able to be entertained putting themselves in the shoes of people like the friends they go to school with. Because even if our books are about fantastical events and people, the effect on the kids that read these books is very real.

Stacy L. WhitmanStacy Whitman is the publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books that publishes fantasy, science fiction, and mystery for children and young adults. In 2009, she founded a small press named Tu Publishing, dedicated to publishing multicultural fantasy and science fiction for children and young adults, which was acquired by Lee & Low Books and became Tu Books. Prior to starting Tu, she was an editor for Mirrorstone, the children’s and young adult imprint of Wizards of the Coast in Seattle. She holds a master’s degree in children’s literature from Simmons College. She has edited elementary school textbooks at Houghton Mifflin, interned at the Horn Book Magazine and Guide, and spent a brief stint working as a bookseller.

One Reply to “Publishing Diverse Books Isn’t About Meeting Quotas”

  1. Great to hear from a publisher of diverse fiction! I totally agree with the idea that we’re not aiming to fill a quota, or beat some kind of agenda into readers’ heads. Rather, it’s about accepting and representing that humanity is more than one race or ethnicity, and that equality exists and is (or should be) present in our fiction.

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