Remembering Our Co-Founder, Thomas Low

Tom Low headshot

With deep sadness, Lee & Low Books announces the passing of co-founder and CEO Tom Low. Tom passed peacefully at home, surrounded by family. His youngest son, Lee & Low president and co-owner Craig Low, confirmed the cause was cancer. An obituary can be found on Publishers Weekly.

Tom co-founded Lee & Low Books in 1991 with Philip Lee, after a successful career running his own temporary personnel agency. Both Tom and Philip were dismayed by the lack of multicultural literature for children, and felt strongly that there was a business opportunity for a publisher to address that gap.

“It was a joy and privilege to be his partner in starting Lee & Low,” says Philip Lee, who left the company in 2004. “He was a great friend, mentor, and visionary. It meant a lot to him to build a company that would promote diversity, encourage new voices, and nurture a new generation of publishing professionals.”

Tom was an out-of-the-box thinker who helped forge a unique path for Lee & Low when there was no obvious model to follow. Coming from outside the industry enabled him to look at every facet of book publishing from a fresh perspective, which made it easier to depart from traditional norms. His sharp business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit guided Lee & Low’s growth and helped the company continue to adapt through many changes in the industry.

Tom was especially proud of Lee & Low’s work supporting new talent, particularly creators of color, and always had a special place in his heart for debut books. Some notable authors who got their start with Lee & Low include Caldecott Medalist Javaka Steptoe, Pura Belpré Author Award winner Guadalupe Garcia McCall, and six-time Coretta Scott King Honor recipient R. Gregory Christie, to name a few. Tom was also instrumental in the creation of the company’s New Voices Award, an annual writing contest for unpublished authors of color, now in its twenty-first year. “It’s very, very rewarding to see new people, new talent, join this field,” Tom said in an interview.

Tom’s sons Craig and Jason Low joined the company in the late 1990s and eventually took on leadership roles. As Tom scaled back his involvement in day-to-day activities over the last few years, he continued to oversee rights and permissions, where he showed his mettle as a tough negotiator, always firm in his belief in the quality and value of what Lee & Low had to offer. “For those who had the opportunity to know him, they often admired his graciousness, leadership, humanity, and keen focus on equity,” said Craig Low. “He held a high moral standard and led by example. He could be hard-nosed but was also humble, and I learned a great deal from him about life, family, and business.”

Under the Low family’s leadership, Lee & Low Books has remained at the forefront of diversity issues through initiatives like the Lee & Low and Friends Scholarship with Simmons College and the industry-wide Diversity Baseline Survey. The company received the 2016 Angel Award from the Carle Honors for “inspiring so many people with its dedication to multicultural books and to a new generation of artists and authors who offer children both mirrors and windows to the world.” As the company prepares to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary next year, Lee & Low Books is living proof that there is—and always has been—a strong market for diverse literature.

“Tom was an incredible and inspiring leader who reminded us of our mission and our potential as a company. Editorial always prepared our acquisitions materials with Tom in mind. We tried to anticipate what questions he would ask, and no matter how much we prepared, he always managed to throw a curveball,” remembered Lee & Low senior editor Jessica Echeverria.

Tom valued not only Lee & Low’s authors and illustrators, but the deep talent of the Lee & Low team. “He was a big believer in people,” said publisher and co-owner Jason Low, Tom’s oldest son. “He always said that we had the best people working for us, which we were fortunate to be able to cultivate over many years. The Lee & Low family are a collection of the most dedicated individuals who have helped us get through this difficult time.”

Tom will be deeply missed by all who knew him. “He was so much more than the company co-founder,” said Louise May, Lee & Low editor-at-large, who began working at the company in 1999. “While his leadership and perspective guided the company in its formative years, he was also always our greatest fan, cheerleader, advisor, and overall sounding board. He valued everyone who worked for the company and believed wholeheartedly in encouraging growth and promoting from within. And over the years he became more than my boss. He was also my friend.”

Lee & Low editorial director Cheryl Klein observed, “Given the unique role Lee & Low has played in US children’s books, Tom leaves behind a hugely important legacy in American publishing.” That legacy includes more than a thousand beautiful, diverse books currently in print from Lee & Low Books.

“I felt the books that we published were important,” Tom once said of the company’s mission. “It turns out we were right.”

Because of the pandemic, there will be no memorial service at this time. Well-wishers are encouraged to send a donation to one of Tom’s favorite charities: The Fresh Air Fund, Scenic Hudson, or North Shore Animal League America. Condolence cards can be sent to:

The Low Family
C/o Lee & Low Books
95 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016

15 thoughts on “Remembering Our Co-Founder, Thomas Low”

  1. I am sorry to hear of the loss of your founder at Lee & Low Publishers. I was thrilled to discover a book many years ago that was a New Voices award winner, “Dumpling Soup.” I saw it in the bookstore and could not believe there was finally a picture book about my family’s life in Hawaii and making dumpling soup at New Year’s, and the little girl was Korean, and the author was Korean American! I have been a teacher and media specialist for many years since then and always promote and share about Lee & Low publishers. My condolences to your family and company.

  2. i enjoyed reading about the history of Lee and low Publishers. i know that a book published by Lee and Low is well worth the read.
    My positive thoughts to Mr Low’s family.

  3. I am so deeply sorry to hear of Tom’s passing. He was such a kind man (and also tough!) and a true visionary. I think of my time at Lee & Low as extremely formative to who I am today. To all of you at L&L, I extend my condolences and especially to Craig and Jason. Tom was a gift to all of us!

  4. I am so sorry that Tom Low has passed. I hope his family will find comfort in their memories and pride in his legacy. I am grateful for his leadership and vision that led to Lee and Low Books. His work, along with that of his family and colleagues, is a force for good in the world.

  5. I am sorry to hear of your loss. My deepest sympathy to his personal and professional family.
    Elizabeth Garcia, M.L.S.

  6. So sorry to hear this news. Lee and Low worked with us at Groundwood early on to promote authentic voices from people who didn’t have access to mainstream publishers. Tom Low helped to make the world a better place.

  7. Following is a personal remembrance.

    I want to tell you a little bit about Tom, that you might know not only the impact we can all have as individuals and as team members, but also that the efforts you put in are worth it.

    Tom cofounded Lee & Low Books Books back in ninety one. I interviewed that very year, when there were no in house employees, and no books out, either. I was hired the next year and have made literally every book Lee & Low has ever published. That’s background, enough about me.

    Tom was honest. I mean good or bad he let you know where you stood. This guy had more integrity in his finger than most experience in a lifetime.

    If he told you something, that’s the way it was – and if he was wrong, he acknowledged it, too. Not just quietly to you to avoid embarrassment, but publicly that people might witness and grow from the experience. His baseline was good humor, but not exuberance. He was unafraid to roll up his sleeves and expected those in his sphere to do the same. He commanded respect – and he gave it.

    One thing I will always admire and respect – one lesson I learned from Tom, frankly – is that this world is not about you as an individual. What you build for others, how you can better other people’s lives and experience is what it’s all about, and he fully believed that to be able to do so doesn’t have to mean at the expense of turning a profit…but that profit is not the reason, or the be all and end all. Man I tell you that alone is a priceless lesson and I will never forget it, and I hope some of you folks can internalize that, too.

    Tom stood up for what he believed in! He was no shrinking violet. We had a couple of moments over the course of 28 years that don’t bear repeating but I can say were borne in each of us standing for principles we believed in. And the depth of our respect for one another grew commensurate to our learning more about each other. I think we appreciated as years went on that many of our differences were stylistic, and the cosmetics betrayed how much more we had in common.

    That so many more know of Lee & Low Books than know of Tom and his contributions personally goes to how low profile he was happy being. The photo below depicts a smile that was very genuine and during the course of almost any conversation would surface at least once…yet as good looking a man as he was, was not especially comfortable with portraits of himself. He’d rather opt for the group shot at our annual holiday lunch – which was held regardless of how good a year we had. Because to Tom, and all of the principals at Lee & Low, what we celebrate is our working together, is our shared goals, is the progress we make as a team. This has been instilled and carried out by both of his sons, who in fact are both President and Publisher.

    Before Lee & Low, there was no truly successful sustainable multicultural publishing house. There were imprints, startups, some who struggled, or who were underwritten by grants, but this one was what two men with a vision were gambling on, and today it is the largest house of its kind in the country.

    Tough? Yeah, Tom was tough. Yet, he was also gentle. He was complex and simple at the same time. And he was also just a guy. He loved his tennis, he loved his Mets, and he loved his accomplishments – but didn’t see them as his accomplishments, rather the accomplishments of a team he helped to grow and nurture. Wow.

    Tom, your legacy cannot be over exaggerated, for it is huge, and it is lasting. Your impact is felt across the world, and will be for many years – even by those who might not know your name. And you have impacted others, including me and mine, and when we share the vision, and the goal of making this a better world, that is quite a legacy indeed.

    And best of all: The seeds you have left behind are taking root.

    1. Dear Danny Alderman:

      Your personal remembrance of my big brother Tom is priceless. Such a candid testimony lacking any hint of sanctimony is beyond appreciated. Thank you for your bold and heartfelt account. Believe it or not he was the same way with his siblings. He never elaborated about his work and maintained a big picture strategy regarding overall fairness within the family. Thank you so much.

      Be well, Betty

  8. The Ohioana Library Association joins in remembering and honoring Mr. Thomas Low, co-founder of Lee & Low Books. Mr. Low’s commitment to authors and books that helped foster greater harmony and understanding was deeply appreciated. Ohioana was pleased to honor one of those books: Andrea Cheng’s “Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet,” received the 2014 Ohioana Award in juvenile literature. Mr. Low’s legacy will live thru his contributions to the field of publishing, which he clearly loved. Our condolences to his family, friends, associates, and colleagues.

    David Weaver, Director
    Ohioana Library Association

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