ALA Recap: Lee & Low and Cinco Puntos Discuss Multicultural Publishing

This year in Chicago, we hosted a joint book buzz session with Cinco Puntos Press entitled, “Talk is Cheap: A Conversation With Two Multicultural Book Publishers.” The idea was to bring people together to discuss how two small publishers are addressing diversity issues in publishing, and how we can all work together – publishers, librarians, and readers – to bring about real change.

For those who were not able to attend in person, here’s a recap of what was discussed:

Jason Low, publisher of LEE & LOW BOOKS, spoke first. The first thing he emphasized is that, when it comes to more diversity, talking about the problem itself is not enough. Talk must equal action. He gave examples of this mentality from Lee & Low Books’ 20-year history, citing times when the company has identified “gaps” in representation and taken concrete steps to change things for the better: launching several imprints that cover everything from guided reading books in the classroom (our Bebop imprint) to science fiction and fantasy (Tu Books); acquiring Children’s Book Press so their award-winning bilingual titles wouldn’t be lost; and starting the New Voices and New Visions Awards to encourage unpublished authors of color and to help them break into the industry.

Jason also shared some statistics about the makeup of LEE & LOW, both in terms of staff and authors/illustrators: Book_Buzz2


Book_Buzz3Jason closed by citing our recent CCBC study, which shows that the number of children’s books by and about people of color has not grown in eighteen years: “Children’s books are not keeping pace with the demographics of this country.” He stressed that in order to enact real change, “we have to cultivate a renewed sense of reader activism.” What does that mean, exactly? That we need to find ways to recommend these books, to make sure they’re visible. He noted that earlier this summer, his son came home with a summer reading list that was completely white. When something like that happens, he said, we as readers and librarians must speak up and ask for more diversity.

After Jason, Cinco Puntos Press Owner and Publisher Lee Byrd got up and spoke about the origins of Cinco Puntos Press, which has been publishing multicultural books for over thirty years. Located in El Paso, within walking distance of the US/Mexico border, Lee called Cinco Puntos staff and authors fronterizos – people who are truly steeped in the cultures from both sides of the border. “We are among a handful of publishers doing work who are rooted in the cultures our books come out of,” said Lee.

When Cinco Puntos first started, one of their guiding principles was a belief that books could open doors to turn nonreaders into readers, if only they could find books in which they saw themselves. They’ve seen that proven with books like La Llorona, The Weeping Woman, which is one of their all-time bestsellers. They also try hard to find illustrators whose backgrounds match up personally with the subject matter of their books.

Lee noted that many of the articles that have recently (or not so recently) come out about the lack of diversity in children’s books talk about the “hole in the middle of the doughnut” without acknowledging the great work that is already out there, so readers can find it.

One such great author, Benjamin Alire Saenz, also took the stage to share his take on diversity in children’s books. Benjamin Lasts Night I Sang to the Monsterfirst thanked Cinco Puntos Press for publishing his first titles, noting that most publishers would have passed over his work because they would not have seen a market for it. “I was the first Latino to with the PEN/Faulkner Award,” Benjamin said, and asked why it had taken so long when “we’re there. We’ve been there.”

He noted that, when attending the Newbery/Caldecott banquet the evening before, he noticed that all the Caldecott judges this year were white, and most were from the East Coast, West Coast, or urban parts of the Midwest. “Do we look like America?” he asked, then answered, “We still don’t.”

“I live for the day when we won’t need a Pura Belpré Award, a Coretta Scott King Award, because we’re all in this together. But that day has not arrived.” He also added that teachers are “too in love with the canon” and that, as a result, we’re losing Latino kids. He ended by saying that publishers like LEE & LOW and Cinco Puntos are doing God’s work, publishing books that turn kids into readers.

Afterwards, an audience member asked, “Are we preaching to the converted? How can we reach the people who aren’t here?” Jason Low answered by saying that our efforts can be translated to new media, but that we must push if we want people to pay attention.

Book Buzz session
Jason Low speaking

The media, even liberal media, are not just going to cover this stuff,” he said, noting that both LEE & LOW and Cinco Puntos Press were contacted by major news outlets (including NPR and The New York Times) working on stories about diversity in children’s books, but then left out of the final articles which ended up just presenting a straightforward doom-and-gloom soundbite. “They have to be persuaded that issues like this matter. You have to chime in. Imagine what would happen if all of us in this room and some of our friends weighed in in the comments sections of these major news outlets’ websites.”

“Is there a smaller number of authors of color writing and submitting manuscripts?” someone asked.

Both Lee and Jason said that, if submissions are lower, it is because authors of color are not being encouraged enough. Publishers must do the work of encouraging them and actively soliciting manuscripts – what Jason Low called “the ground game.” It can be slow, but it’s necessary if we want the numbers to change.

Oralia Garza de Cortés, one of the founders of the Pura Belpré Award, stood up to say that only a small percentage of librarians are people of color. “We need you all to help us,” she said. “When you’re in your committees, you have a responsibility to think of all of us.”

Jason Low ended by saying that the goal is to get people “off their butts and into an activist role.” These books matter. If we want there to be more of them, we can’t just wait for them to appear. Publishers must publish the books, readers must buy the books, and everyone must champion them.

Some of the books discussed (a.k.a. your multicultural books starter pack!):

Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki
Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri
Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
The Pot That Juan Built by Nancy Andrews-Goebel
In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall illus. by Javaka Steptoe
The Mangrove Tree by Cindy Kane and Susan Roth
Seeds of Change by Jen Cullerton Johnson
Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Cindy Kane and Susan Roth (coming in fall ’13)
King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan (coming in fall ’13)
Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac (coming in fall ’13)
The House that La Llorona Built by Joe Hayes
Maximilian: The Mystery of the Guardian Angel by Xavier Garza
Crossing Bok Chitto by Tim Tingle
Saltypie by Tim Tingle
Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Smell of Old Lady Perfume by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez
Chukfi Rabbit’s Big, Bad Bellyache by Greg Rodgers (coming soon)
Next by Kevin Waltman (coming soon)
Mi Familia Calaca by Cynthia Weill (coming soon)

ALA will be posting a full recording of the session in August.