It sometimes happens in publishing that more than one publisher releases a book about the same subject or person in the same season or soon after. This is occurring more and more, especially with biographies. Recently we published a picture book biography of Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientist and environmentalist who initiated a tree planting movement in Kenya that resulted in the planting of 30 million trees. Our book was the fourth book about Maathai to be published for children in the past couple of years.
Why does this happen? Serendipity? Coincidence? Stars lining up in a certain alignment? Publishers in general are on constant lookout for inspirational stories. At the same time, authors are writing about people who inspire them, and experienced authors are doing their homework, searching for stories that are absent in the marketplace in an effort to present something new to readers. It is entirely possible that four different authors, around the same time, came to the same conclusion that there were no books on Wangari Maathai for children and decided to do something about it. This is where overlap can occur.
I was reading a manuscript the other day, and there was a part that made me laugh because it could have been a page pulled from my childhood. The scene was between best friends, sharing a carefree, endless summer day with a good old exchange of one-upmanship. It’s amazing how a children’s book can remind you of the person you used to be.
I have always been attracted to things that allow me, in small ways, to retain parts of my childhood, whether they are the books I read, the movies I see, or the music I listen to. Being an adult does not afford one the freedom to act like a child, as the responsibilities of life do not allow for many carefree, endless summer days. But being able to relive parts of your childhood through conscious choices of literature or other media can keep the child within alive. I think this is a terrific way to approach life, since we each get only one chance to be a child, and everyone knows that childhood is very brief compared to the years one must spend acting like an adult.
The 1989 film Parenthood has inspired a TV show of the same name. I haven’t seen the show yet, but I have noticed some snappy ads on the streets. One sidewalk ad features the line, “Realizing you’ve become your father”—funny and true.
I read some online reviews of the show and one person commented that it was both funny and heart-wrenching. As the father of two boys, ages 9 and 6, that makes sense to me. When you become a parent you often get together with other parents to commiserate as you face different issues concerning your kids. It is always interesting when I meet parents who have kids who are older than mine, because I am curious as to what developmental issues lurk just around the corner.
Digital books will directly impact the work we do here at LEE & LOW, so I took the plunge and purchased a Kindle so I could gain a hands-on understanding of what the reading experience was like compared to the paper books we know and love.
I have read my last five books on the Kindle and here are my thoughts:
Since the screen on the Kindle is smaller than the pages of most books, and there is a magnification feature that can enlarge the text shown, the reading experience is a fast one, because there are fewer words per “page.” On the Kindle I feel like I’m flying through chapters, and since I have always considered myself a slow reader, the momentum of plowing through a book is kind of exhilarating.
Recently I was in Hawaii on vacation and one of the things I noticed right away was how Asians are the majority of the people living there. In the city of Honolulu on Oahu, street signs are in English and Japanese. Generally rice, and even miso soup, are served with all meals, including breakfast. I learned from attending a luau that immigrants from Japan, China, and the Philippines make up a big part of Hawaii’s cultural diversity. When I got back home, a quick web search revealed that Hawaii is the only state in the United States where whites are not the majority of the population.
The number of children’s books featuring racial, ethnic, or cultural diversity has not kept pace with the growing diversity of the United States population. Census data from 2008 shows that 34% of the population is minorities. In contrast, the number of children’s books reflecting diversity is about 13% of the books published each year. Since 1994, when the Cooperative Children’s Book Center started to keep statistics of children’s books published by and about people of color, I’ve watched this percentage inch up and down. But there has never been a significant improvement or decline.
In August 2009 there was a controversy over a novel with cover art that showed a white face even though the main character of the story was black. The main argument for featuring a white face instead of a black face seems to be a belief that readers are more likely to buy a book with a white face on it. The cover was changed by the publisher because of the uproar it caused on the web, but the incident got me thinking about the images on the covers of our own books, especially since we are a publisher that focuses on diversity.
One hundred percent of the time diverse faces stare out from the covers of our books. Does this mean that only Asian American readers buy Asian books and African Americans only purchase our African or African American titles? If this were the case, we would have been out of business a long time ago. Our publishing mission is based on the idea that the universality of themes contained in our books appeal to a wide audience. A book that takes place in Southeast Asia, for example, should capture the imaginations of both a white child in Minnesota and a child of South Asian descent because of the common themes that bind us together.
I’ve been listening to a Mandarin AM radio station all morning. At home, my family has decided to take on the collective challenge of learning Mandarin. Learning Mandarin is one of the items on my to-do list that has been carried over for a couple of decades. So this year we decided to draw a line in the sand. Personally, I’ve always had a fear of foreign languages, which originated from doing poorly in high school French.
Growing up, English was the language spoken at home. The only time I heard Chinese for any length of time was when we made our weekly visit to my grandmother’s apartment in New York’s Chinatown. My mother would converse in Cantonese for the evening with her mother, while my brother and I ate Chinese take-out and watched Dallas. Listening to them catch up was like background noise; I heard them talking but it meant nothing to me. Years later I went on a foreign exchange program to Taiwan, which resulted in no Chinese learned since I was surrounded 24/7 by “bananas” and “Twinkies” like myself. The only cultural exchange I gained from that trip was my fascination with Chinese Americans who had bona fide Texas drawls.
In April 2003, researchers completed their analysis of the human genome project. They confirmed that all human beings were 99.9% genetically identical. While science has proven we are nearly the same, why do we continue to judge people based on our perceived differences? Race, religion, politics, meat eaters vs. non-meat eaters—the list is endless. Our life experiences shape us more than the innate sensibilities with which we are born. History also documents the injustices we have bestowed upon each other as a result of deep resentments that have accumulated between groups of people. So while our bodies are the same, our brains—our minds and perceptions—divide us from one another. Ironically, our brains are also the difference between us and the animals who act on instinct alone.
I was reading an article about women’s roles in the United States military and was surprised to learn that regulations still prohibit women from serving in combat. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have blurred the lines of warfare to such a degree that women have found themselves, despite the rules that forbid it, fighting alongside men for the first time. The women have proven themselves to be tenacious soldiers and they have earned many medals of valor.