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Emerson’s “Diversity in Children’s and YA Publishing” panel

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Susanne Althoff, assistant professor in Emerson’s WLP program, introduces the panel.

Last week, Martha and I attended an excellent panel on “Diversity in Children’s and Young Adult Publishing,” hosted by Emerson College’s Writing, Literature, and Publishing program. Panelists were Lesléa Newman (author of Heather Has Two Mommies, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, and many, many others); Vicky Smith, Kirkus‘s children’s and teen editor; and Connie Hsu, senior editor at Roaring Brook; and the moderator was Jabari Asim, associate professor and graduate program director for creative writing in Emerson’s Writing, Literature, and Publishing program and also a children’s book author — most recently of the picture book Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis, illustrated by E. B. Lewis.

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Jabari Asim, Connie Hsu, Vicky Smith, and Lesléa Newman.

Each participant brought his or her unique personal and professional experiences to the discussion, and that particular blend of viewpoints was smart and enlightening. Jabari began by asking Vicky what compelled her to implement Kirkus‘s policy of identifying all characters’ races in each review, wherever possible — read her editorial “Unmaking the White Default” (and here’s her editorial “Smiling Slaves in a Post–A Fine Dessert World” — time ran out before the panelists could really delve into it).

Connie talked about her personal commitment, as an editor of color herself, to actively seek out new, nonwhite authorial voices: “Editors are busy. It’s true. But if it’s your passion, you’ll make the time.” She was refreshingly upfront about how the business side of things relates to the acquisitions process (“profit-and-loss statements” came up more than once) and how the publishing sales machine can be slow to change. Also? She has a beautiful Beekle tattoo to commemorate Dan Santat’s Caldecott win for a book she edited.

Lesléa told us the “urban lesbian-lore” behind Heather‘s original publication. Struck by the absence of gay families in children’s books, she and a friend raised $4000, “pre-Kickstarter — we had to fold paper and lick envelopes” to publish Heather. It has been in print ever since, and is still regularly challenged (as was October Mourning “just this year, and in liberal Massachusetts,” where parents were allowed to “opt out” of students reading the book). Jabari asked Lesléa if, throughout her prolific career, she has ever worked with an editor of color…and the answer was no.

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Connie Hsu, Vicky Smith, Jabari Asim, Susanne Althoff, and Lesléa Newman.

The questions from the audience were thoughtful, moving into the direction of cultural appropriation and who can write whose stories. The consensus seemed to be that #OwnVoices are preferred — and if not, you’d better do your research (like Lesléa did for Hachiko Waits). Vicky invoked Jacqueline Woodson’s 1998 Horn Book article “Who Can Tell My Story?”, and Jabari reminded us that even if you’re writing from within a culture you can still get it wrong…so, again, you’ve gotta do that research (spoken like a true professor and journalist!).

And then Martha and I got to have dinner with Susanne, Vicky, Jabari, and Lesléa, where we continued the discussion and veered off into other, less heady areas (i.e., families, academia, and a little industry gossip). Thanks again, Emerson, for hosting such a great event.

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is senior editor of The Horn Book Magazine and online content editor for The Horn Book, Inc. She is a current member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

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