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.

New Releases

Happy book birthday to The Weight of Souls (release date: August 6, 2013)!

the weight of soulsThe Weight of Souls

by Bryony Pearce

Sixteen year old Taylor Oh is cursed: if she is touched by the ghost of a murder victim then they pass a mark beneath her skin. She has three weeks to find their murderer and pass the mark to them – letting justice take place and sending them into the Darkness. And if she doesn’t make it in time? The Darkness will come for her… [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Definitely grabbing this book when I get the chance!

 

Review: Team Human

Team HumanTitle: Team Human
Author: Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Mystery, Contemporary, Comedy
Pages: 344
Publisher: Harper Teen
Review Copy: Borrowed from roommate
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Readers who love vampire romances will be thrilled to devour Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan. Team Human celebrates and parodies the Twilight books, as well as other classics in the paranormal romance genre.

Mel is horrified when Francis Duvarney, arrogant, gorgeous, and undead, starts at her high school. Mel’s best friend, Cathy, immediately falls for the vampire. Cathy is determined to be with him forever, even if having him turn her could inadvertently make her a zombie.

And Mel is equally determined to prove to her BFF that Francis is no good, braving the city’s vampire district and kissing a cute boy raised by vampires as she searches evidence in this touching and comic novel. —(Summary and image via Goodreads)

Review: Team Human works best if you are familiar with and have a fondness for vampires. Even though I’m only middling on both of those criteria, Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan did a great job of keeping my interest with Mel, their American Born Chinese protagonist.

What I find most fascinating about Mel is how, in a book from Cathy’s point of view, she would fit neatly into the Meddling Second Lead™ role. Most books and Korean television shows have trained me to despise such characters and their repeated attempts to break up True Love™, but I adored seeing the vampire romance play out from Mel’s point of view. The fact that Mel is motivated by genuine concern and fear for her friend (as opposed to romantic jealousy) helps a great deal in this regard. While I was occasionally annoyed by Mel’s insistence that she knew what was better for Cathy than Cathy did, I was still extremely sympathetic to her. In her place, I probably would have acted much the same after my best friend fell in love with and decided to become a vampire (which carried a 10% chance of death and a 10% chance of zombification) in a matter of weeks.

The other character standout was Kit, the vampire-raised human that Mel falls for. Kit’s backstory (and how some of his vampire family treated him) made me rather upset on his behalf and wishing for all sorts of bad fortune upon minor characters. Despite this, Kit was consistently a source of humor and awkward misunderstandings thanks to his lack of knowledge about human society. Some of these misunderstandings were brilliant and hilarious (kissing) and others were disappointingly easy to predict (promising to call).

The world building for this book was unexpectedly delightful, from therapists who deal with vampires who are having trouble transitioning to laws requiring smoked glass in all public buildings to block vampire-killing UV rays. I love that turning people into vampires is a regulated process requiring counseling and you-could-turn-into-a-zombie scare tactics. Mundane details like that really make this world feel like it could exist if vampires were real.

Unfortunately, the mystery surrounding Anna, her mother, and her missing father wasn’t something that held my attention very well. If Anna had been the narrator, I would have been more invested in it, but Mel was constantly distracted by getting in the way of True Love™ or establishing a loveline of her own. While I’m normally not much of a comedy person, I really wish that Team Human had focused more on the comedy/satire of the vampire genre and less on a mystery that I did not find compelling.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday. Ultimately, Team Human is a quick read, but it doesn’t have much staying power for me. It would be a great beach book for the last part of summer, especially if you are in the mood for some gentle mocking of vampire tropes.

Why We Need Diverse Literature and How to Find It

Why do we need diverse literature?
First, we need to know and understand ourselves. People need literature that helps them see others like them – to know they are not alone. We need literature that reflects many ways of being and ways of living in our world so we all have a chance to see someone like us. Second, to interact respectfully with others in society, it’s helpful to realize that there are people in the world who have another perspective. We can explore our differences and similarities through literature. There is a quote on the Lee & Low website attributed to both Rudine Sims Bishop & Ginny Moore Kruse “A single book can be a mirror for some people and a window for others.” Those mirrors and windows help us understand and connect with people in the world around us, but we need more than just one story. We need a multitude of stories.

In the following TED Talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about the “Danger of the Single Story.” Adichie explains that many individuals only know one story about a people and that may lead to stereotyping. When we know only one story about a culture, the risk is that we assign that story to all the people we believe are part of that group. Adichie provides an amazing and at times amusing presentation that speaks to the need for more stories about each other. This video is from 2009, but even if you have viewed it previously, it’s worth a second or even third look. Photographer Matika Wilbur also touches on this idea in her TED Talk. She’s concerned about the single picture that many people may have in their minds about Native Americans due to media exposure. Her current project is photographing individuals from 562 federally recognized Tribal Nations with a goal to “unveil the true essence of contemporary Native issues, the beauty of Native culture, the magnitude of tradition, and expose her vitality” (quoted from her blog). She is not only creating portraits, but is collecting their many and varied stories to share. This video is also well worth the few minutes it takes to watch.


Wondering where to find a multitude of stories?
It’s no secret that there is a serious lack of diversity in Young Adult and Children’s Literature. There have been a large number of blog posts and articles recently to that effect. But there are some diverse books being published. They are not in the numbers I would like to see, but they do exist. They can be hard to find, so we have some resources on our blog to help make it easier. In the tabs at the top of this page, we provide a release calendar that displays titles scheduled to be published in the coming months. In addition, we have a resource page with links to many excellent websites/blogs that review and share diverse literature along with links to publishers focusing on diverse materials. We created a Goodreads profile with a growing list of titles and there are also blogs in our blog roll on the right-hand side of the page that focus on diversity.

But how can we know which stories are accurate representations?
Matika Wilbur noted in her TED Talk that some Native American images and stories from the media have been damaging to Native people. As a school librarian, I want to provide many diverse stories for my students, but not all stories are helpful. Just look at some of the early Newbery Award winners. There were a few books with cultural diversity, but several fed into stereotypes (one I highlight below). As an educator, I have to evaluate the resources I am providing to our staff and students. I am clearly not an expert on every culture in the world, but here are a few questions* that help guide me in my selection process for school and also as a reader:

  • Who is the author and what experience or knowledge do they have as they write from this cultural perspective? (This helps me understand the lens the reader will be looking through)
  • If they are not a native of that culture, is it published by a publisher from that culture and/or has it been favorably reviewed by someone from that culture?
  • Are the characters distinct, fully developed and free of bias and/or stereotypes?
  • If there are illustrations, are they free of bias and/or stereotypes?
  • Is it a well developed and engaging story?

It can be helpful to know the lens of the author. In the case of Shen of the Sea: Chinese Stories for Children (1926 Newbery winner), the stories were filled with broken English, verbal caricatures and misinformation. I read Shen last year and was horrified. As I investigated his knowledge base of Chinese culture, I found a post from a blogger named Amanda. She pointed to the April 1, 1994 issue of School Library Journal. In it Margaret Chang wrote, “Chrisman had never been to China, did not read Chinese, and claimed to be aided by two Chinese speakers, but gave no sources for the stories in his book” (p 42). According to the book’s description Shen is comprised of “Sixteen stories reflecting the spirit of Chinese life and thought.” Chrisman appears to have taken what he knew about Chinese culture, consulted a Chinese shopkeeper or two in California about some of the details and proceeded to create original stories. He may have even been doing this in some way to “honor” Chinese culture, but this is not a book I will be purchasing or sharing with my students.

I tend to specifically seek out books that are written from an insider’s perspective like No Crystal StairYaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and Since You Asked, but there are also people born outside a culture who have provided authentic representation. Debby Dahl Edwardson is not Inupiaq (Eskimo) by birth, but she’s been a part of that culture for many years. She has written powerful stories with fully developed, realistic characters in her YA historical novels, My Name is Not Easy and Blessing’s Bead. My Name is Not Easy is a look into the effect of the residential schools on Native students and their families. She did not rely on stereotypes, but created complex and unique characters. On her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, Debbie Rees shared Beverly Slapin’s very favorable reviewI would recommend Edwardson’s books without hesitation and there are many other talented authors that learn about a culture and successfully represent it in their novels.

We may not have balanced representation in publishing yet, but there are some fabulous pieces of literature that can be our mirrors and windows. Let’s seek them out and share them.

Chang, M. A. (1994). Chinoiserie in American picture books: Excursions to Cathay. School Library Journal40(4), 42.

*Some of my questions were developed with influence from Full Circle’s Criteria for Authentic Native American Books & Oyate’s comprehensive evaluation criteria

New Releases

July was a slow month for new releases, but makes up for the lack of diverse books by publishing 4 in the last few days. Plus, a new one from one of my favorite authors, Walter Dean Myers!!

 

everIf I Ever Get Out of Here, By Eric Gansworth

Arthur A. Levine Books

Lewis “Shoe” Blake is used to the joys and difficulties of life on the Tuscarora Indian reservation in 1975: the joking, the Fireball games, the snow blowing through his roof. What he’s not used to is white people being nice to him — people like George Haddonfield, whose family recently moved to town with the Air Force. As the boys connect through their mutual passion for music, especially the Beatles, Lewis has to lie more and more to hide the reality of his family’s poverty from George. He also has to deal with the vicious Evan Reininger, who makes Lewis the special target of his wrath. But when everyone else is on Evan’s side, how can he be defeated? And if George finds out the truth about Lewis’s home — will he still be his friend?

Acclaimed adult author Eric Gansworth makes his YA debut with this wry and powerful novel about friendship, memory, and the joy of rock ‘n’ roll. –Cover image and summary from Goodreads

dramaWay Too Much Drama, By Earl Sewell

Harlequin Kimani Tru

The toughest lessons aren’t always taught in the classroom… Maya is ready to put the fabulous back into her life—and that means getting her manipulative cousin, Viviana, out of it. Bad enough that Viviana is living under the same roof and tried to claim Maya’s boyfriend, Misalo, for herself. Now she’s going to Maya’s high school and she’s part of the quiz team competing on a TV show…alongside Maya, Keysha and Misalo. 

Maya has no sympathy when Viviana finally starts to feel the pressure of fitting in to her new world. That’s until her cousin does something drastic…and dangerous. Maybe Viviana isn’t as tough as everyone thought. Maya could be the only person who can help bring her back safely. Question is…does she want to?

cruisersThe Cruisers: Oh Snap!, By Walter Dean Myers

Scholastic

The Cruisers are in trouble — again. The freedom of expression they’ve enjoyed by publishing their own school newspaper, THE CRUISER, has spread all the way to England, where kids from a school “across the pond” are now contributors to their own school’s most talked-about publication. When photos start to go alongside the articles written by kids, things get suspicious. Zander, Kambui, LaShonda, Bobbi — and a bunch of students from Harlem’s DaVinci Academy and London’s Phoenix School — come to learn that words and pictures in a newspaper don’t always tell the whole story.

With his signature on-point pacing and whip-smart characters, award-winning author Walter Dean Myers delivers another awesome book about the Cruisers, a group of middle-school misfits who are becoming the coolest kids in the city. — image and summary from Amazon

 

star powerStar Power, By Kelli London

K-Teen

Charly St. James takes on her biggest challenge yet when her television show goes for a ratings sweep by making over the life of a not-so-willing small-town teen with a big secret. . .

Charly St. James is on top, and she’s determined to keep it that way. That’s why she and the producers have come up with a plan to take The Extreme Dream Team to the next level–by turning loners into VIPs. After all, how can you enjoy your new digs if your life is jacked up?

But when Charly meets her first makeover, Nia, she knows she’ll have to do more than dress her up and boost her self-esteem. Nia is living in the shade of her twin sister, who is luxuriating in a major case of pretty girl syndrome. And the more Charly tries to get Nia to shine, the more her twin sabotages her mission. Good thing Charly loves a challenge, ’cause these twins’ troubles are more than skin deep. . . — Cover image an summary from publisher’s website

 

 

Review: Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices

open micTitle:  Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices
Editor: Mitali Perkins
Genres: Realistic fiction, contemporary
Pages: 127
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Review copy: ARC
Availability: September 10, 2013

 

 

 

Summary: Listen in as ten YA authors — some familiar, some new — use their own brand of humor to share their stories about growing up between cultures. Henry Choi Lee discovers that pretending to be a tai chi master or a sought-after wiz at math wins him friends for a while — until it comically backfires. A biracial girl is amused when her dad clears seats for his family on a crowded subway in under a minute flat, simply by sitting quietly in between two uptight white women. Edited by acclaimed author and speaker Mitali Perkins, this collection of fiction and nonfiction uses a mix of styles as diverse as their authors, from laugh-out-loud funny to wry, ironic, or poingnant, in prose, poetry, and comic form. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Take a moment to admire the cover. Go on. Cute, isn’t it?

Open Mic is an anthology with a colorful mix of stories in different mediums. Gene Luen Yang discusses the problematic casting of Avatar: The Last Airbender movie using comics to tell his story. G. Neri lays out a cultural map of Berlin using a blend of humor and free verse poetry to describe a multi-cultural family in a place not quite ready for diversity. Debbie Rigaud creates a snapshot of the relationship between Simone and her great-aunt Ma Tante.

One story in particular stood out to me: Mitali Perkins’ story gave me a glimpse of her teenage life. The story centers around Mitali and her two sisters playing the Game of Guys and being perfectly comfortable with who they were. Recognizing Mitali in her own story, I realized how personal each of the stories in Open Mic were. The autobiographical thread running through the short stories and poems is a story in itself. The story told is, like the title says, a story of life between cultures.

My main complaint is that of length. Only ten stories? The last work, Naomi Shihab Nye’s gorgeous poem “Lexicon,” left me wishing Open Mic would continue on. The value in this sort of anthology is that it’s so rare — an anthology written about and by people who have actually experienced life between cultures. These are voices that need to be heard. Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of ten voices, there were hundreds? Thousands? Here’s hoping many more such anthologies will follow.

Recommendation: Get it soon or borrow it from the library when it comes out.