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Devoted to Diversity: Publishers with a Purpose

It’s no secret that mainstream publishing has gaps to fill. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s annual statistics show that the numbers of books published about people of color and First/Native Nations people are disproportionately low, and books by members of these groups are even lower in number. (See the July/August 2017 and March/April 2018 Horn Book for the first two interviews in a series about the CCBC’s findings.) Other groups, including people with queer identities, those with disabilities, and members of minority religions, also go underrepresented.

The need certainly isn’t new. And neither is the idea of creating a publishing company or imprint to help meet it. Just Us Books is a small, independent press established to fill a hole in the market, echoing a trend toward “alternative” presses in the 1970s (Feminist Press, for instance) and ushering in a new grassroots movement of similar houses. Frustrated by the difficulty in finding a publisher for her AFRO-BETS ABC BOOK, author Cheryl Willis Hudson and her husband Wade Hudson published it themselves in 1987. Though one editor had told them, “There’s no market for Black children’s books,” they sold five thousand copies within three months. With the sequel in 1988, AFRO-BETS 123 BOOK, they launched Just Us Books, a publishing house “exclusively dedicated to producing Black children’s books.” Imprints now include Sankofa Books, which brings “previously out-of-print Black classic books back to the marketplace,” and Marimba Books, established to publish books that reflect American diversity more generally.

Lee & Low, the largest publisher of “contemporary multicultural stories” in the U.S., has been in business since 1991, publishing books that highlight “the richness of today’s cultures” and making “a special effort to work with unpublished authors and illustrators of color.” The efforts of Lee & Low and its imprints to promote diversity in children’s books include bestowing awards for manuscripts by unpublished authors of color and compiling the 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey, which measured staff diversity at publishers and review journals.

In Canada, Groundwood Books was founded in 1978 and is now part of House of Anansi Press. Groundwood is “particularly committed to publishing books for and about children whose experiences of the world are under- represented elsewhere.” Based in Toronto, Groundwood “gratefully acknowledges the traditional territory of the Wendat, the Anishnaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Métis, and the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation on which we operate” on its website. Titles range from picture books such as Joanne Schwartz’s Town Is by the Sea, illustrated by Sydney Smith (and winner of a Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor and the Kate Greenaway Medal); to poetry collections like Jorge Argueta’s Somos como las nubes / We Are like the Clouds, illustrated by Alfonso Ruano; to middle-grade novels such as Deborah Ellis’s Breadwinner trilogy.

Canada can be a good place to look for publishers highlighting stories of First/Native Nations people. HighWater Press, an imprint of Winnipeg-based Portage & Main, published 2017’s When We Were Alone by David Alexander Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett, and Nimoshom and His Bus by Penny M. Thomas, illustrated by Karen Hibbard. Bedside Press, which is also based in Winnipeg and also acknowledges the traditional territory on which it operates, is “dedicated to promoting important history and uplifting new voices in a variety of genres and formats,” focusing primarily on graphic novels. Its titles include Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-Fi Anthology, edited by Hope Nicholson, a 2018 American Indian Library Association (AILA) Youth Literature Award Honor Book. In Toronto, children’s publisher Annick Press “is committed to publishing diverse authors who write books for children of all ages on a wide range of subjects, and from varied cultural perspectives.” Annick’s #NotYourPrincess, edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, was the 2018 AILA Best Young Adult Book, among other accolades. Here in the United States, The RoadRunner Press, established in 2011, is “dedicated to publishing juvenile + adult titles by Native Americans and the diverse voices of the American West.”

Cinco Puntos Press, founded in 1985, deals largely with “the multicultural literatures of the American Southwest, the U.S./Mexico border region and Mexico” and has extensive children’s and young adult lists, including Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero. Arte Público Press started its children’s imprint, Piñata Books, in 1994, “dedicated to the publication of children’s and young adult literature focusing on US Hispanic culture.”

Though there aren’t many children’s publishers focusing specifically on queer stories, publishers of queer-related material often produce some YA books; Interlude Press, a “boutique publisher of LGBTQ general and romantic fiction,” even has a YA imprint, Duet, launched in 2015. See E. M. Kokie’s article “Looking for Queer Girls on the Shelves” in our September/October 2017 issue for discussion of their title Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee, a superhero story about a bisexual teen girl. Flamingo Rampant describes itself as “a micropress with a mission — to produce feminist, racially-diverse, LGBTQ positive children’s books, in an effort to bring visibility and positivity to the reading landscape of children everywhere.” Its six-book seasonal sets (so far, one in 2015 and one in 2017) include books featuring LGBTQ children and families, with an emphasis on characters and creators of color and with a variety of abilities and religious backgrounds.

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There are also publishers who don’t specifically state that they exist to further diverse books or to represent a particular group, but do state that their purpose is to create something outside the status quo. Seven Stories Press, a small publisher with an “uncompromising” political bent and a penchant for “bringing books that might otherwise have been marginalized thunderously into the mainstream conversation” (as their website puts it), opened the imprint Triangle Square for “a new breed of skeptical young readers” in 2012; Innosanto Nagara’s 2013 board book A Is for Activist (later also published as a picture book) is perhaps their best-known title. Creston Books, founded by Amelia’s Notebook series author Marissa Moss in response to “fewer and fewer large [publishing] companies, reflecting less diverse tastes and interests” aims to publish and promote “a broad range of quality picture books” regardless of whether each is expected to be a bestseller. Approximately a third of Creston’s authors have debuted with the company, which published its first list in 2013. And Dottir Press, launched this year by Jennifer Baumgardner (formerly of Feminist Press) focuses on “topical subjects,” including feminist issues as well as race and racism.

One Crazy SummerThe idea of imprints at larger publishers focusing on aspects of diversity isn’t brand-new, either. Independent publisher Amistad Press, founded by Charles F. Harris in 1986, was acquired by HarperCollins in 1999. Amistad as a whole is, according to its website, “the premier publisher of multicultural fiction and nonfiction,” and Harper-Collins’s Amistad children’s line includes “picture books through young adult works by and about people of African descent that discuss historical and cultural themes.” Amistad publishes much of Rita Williams-Garcia’s work and has also published books by Kwame Alexander, Lamar Giles, and the late Walter Dean Myers.

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Awareness may be higher these days thanks in part to the work of We Need Diverse Books and others, but gaps remain, and many young readers could still use more opportunities to read about characters like themselves, or to learn about each other. Just ask Zetta Elliott, who argued in a 2015 School Library Journal article that as “a Black feminist author committed to social justice,” self-publishing was her “only recourse” for most of her books for young people. Thankfully, even more publishers are beginning to take notice and action. We’ve seen a spate recently of publishers and imprints created either to highlight a particular underrepresented group, or to focus on diverse books in general.

Simon & Schuster established Salaam Reads in 2016, aiming “to introduce readers of all faiths and backgrounds to a wide variety of Muslim children and families and offer Muslim kids an opportunity to see themselves reflected positively in published works.” Its first list launched in March 2017 with two middle-grade novels with Muslim heroines, one realistic fiction (Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan) and one fantasy adventure (The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi), and its books since then have ranged from picture books to YA and portrayed varied aspects of Islamic culture.

This year, Penguin announced its Kokila imprint, with the mission of “centering stories from the margins with books that add nuance and depth to the way children and young adults see the world and their place in it.” Its first list is slated for summer 2019; Kokila plans to publish about fifteen to twenty titles a year, including fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels, from picture books to YA. Confirmed authors include Pura Belpré honoree Pablo Cartaya; Sherine Hamdy and Myra El-Mir; Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winners Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña; Printz Award winner John Corey Whaley; and Calista Brill and Nilah Magruder.

Versify, Newbery Award–winning author Kwame Alexander’s new imprint with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, will launch in spring 2019; though its submission guidelines don’t specify that authors or characters must be from underrepresented groups, the imprint is based on “Alexander’s vision that accessible and powerful prose and poetry…can celebrate the lives and reflect the possibilities of all children” (emphasis theirs). Titles on its inaugural list will range from Vamos! / Let’s Go!, the first entry in a bilingual picture book series by Pura Belpré winner Raúl the Third, to White Rose, Kip Wilson’s YA verse novel about anti-Nazi resistance fighter Sophie Scholl.

At Random House, Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner Christopher Myers plans to launch Make Me a World in fall 2019. The new imprint’s mission will be to “publish a selection of books that open up new worlds, possibilities, and pathways for young readers of all ages,” including “voices of diverse thinkers and artists from all walks of life.” Some of the titles on the first list will be Mama Mable’s All-Gal Big Band Jazz Extravaganza! by Annie Sieg, a picture book about female musicians’ role in the evolution of jazz; Walk Toward the Rising Sun by Ger Duany, a YA memoir about a pivotal time in the life of a boy from South Sudan; and Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, a YA fantasy novel about a teen who frees a creature from her mother’s painting.

Disney-Hyperion’s Rick Riordan Presents imprint released its first books this year. It publishes “great books by middle grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, to let them tell their own stories inspired by the mythology and folklore of their own heritage.” Hence, Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee, a space opera based on Korean mythology; J. C. Cervantes’s Storm Runner, which involves an ancient Mayan prophecy; and Roshani Chokshi’s Pandava series, about a girl who turns out to be a character from the Hindu epic the Mahabharata.

At the smaller Agate Publishing, the Agate Bolden imprint focuses on books by African American writers. Agate Bolden’s new children’s imprint, Denene Millner Books, has quickly become well known in the children’s book community thanks to the highly acclaimed Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James, which appeared on Millner’s inaugural list in 2017. See Kim Parker and Elissa Gershowitz’s interview with Millner in the July/August 2018 Horn Book for more about the imprint.

Online bookseller KitaabWorld, which has distributed “South Asian children’s literature” since 2016, recently expanded to become an independent publisher. Its first titles, North American editions of Room in Your Heart: A Folktale from Bhutan by Kunzang Choden, illustrated by Pema Tshering; and Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why by Sowmya Rajendran, illustrated by Satwik Gade, were released this year. Yali Books, founded in 2012, has “a focus on South Asian cultures.” Bharat Babies, started in 2013, publishes “developmentally appropriate books that tell the stories of India’s heritage for children from birth through elementary school.” Its 2018 title Always Anjali by Sheetal Sheth, illustrated by Jessica Blank, was featured on NPR and the Today show.

Book packager CAKE Literary takes a different approach in bringing diversity to the literary world. As a “boutique development company,” CAKE crafts concepts for projects and seeks writers to carry them out, then submits the projects to publishers. Its first book, Tiny Pretty Things by founders Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton (who is also COO of We Need Diverse Books), was published by HarperTeen in 2015. CAKE is “committed to creating delicious and diverse concepts for middle grade, teen and women’s fiction readers”; its “delicious YA” imprint is also called CAKE, and its “sophisticated kidlit” imprint is, of course, CUPCAKE.

Meanwhile, Capstone, though primarily an educational publisher, does publish some trade books and recently garnered quite a bit of attention with A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui. The picture book, about a Vietnamese refugee family living in the U.S. in 1982, received a 2018 Caldecott Honor and a Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor, among other accolades.

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This list is far from exhaustive, but from it we can see that several publishers and imprints are devoting themselves to counteracting the representation discrepancies in children’s and YA books. Mainstream publishers and imprints, of course, also publish “diverse books,” and many are stepping up their efforts to publish more of them. Here’s hoping that continues to happen. But in the meantime, it’s good to see evidence that there are some people in the publishing world who are committed to filling the gaps.

From the September/October 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for including Creston Books in this list. We not only have a large percentage of debut authors, our titles are completely diverse in both content and creators. Our writers and illustrators are African-American, Latino, Philippino, and Asian-American, all telling stories from their rich perspectives.

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