Christopher Myers Talks with Roger

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If you did not hear or read Christopher Myers's Legacy Award acceptance speech on behalf of his late father Walter Dean Myers, please do that now. But then come back and see what the much-awarded writer and illustrator is doing as creative director of Make Me a World, a new imprint from Random House Children's Books.

Roger Sutton: You can be a tough man to find.


Christopher Myers: The one thing my family splurged on was travel. We'd go away for weeks at a time, maybe a month. That has stuck with me ever since. There's so much going on in the world that is useful to see firsthand.

RS: Well, you do seem to be all over the place. I mean that in a good way.

CM: I hope so (though my assistant can get quite irked with me — there's so much work to do!). I recently spent time at a school in Kigali, Rwanda. Sometimes when you're making books for kids it's good to go see a bunch of them. I'm always surprised at how often people who do this work don't spend time with kids, besides the kind of prescriptive author visits that they do. Go find a gaggle of unruly ten-year-olds — they will tell you so much more about what we need to do in the industry than any statistics or studies.

RS: I remember Lillian Gerhardt, founding editor of School Library Journal, saying of another book reviewer, "Her? She hasn't smelled a kid in years."

CM: I love that. That's very much in line with my own philosophy. So many books being published are for people's idea of a child, not actually for any children out there. Bridging that gap has become one of my goals.

RS: As an artist, you create whatever it is you need to create. Now as a creator-turned-publisher, do you go into it thinking, "Here's what kids need, here's what kids like"? Because that can be a pitfall too.

CM: I never do, to be honest. It's more about telling stories that I like and feel are necessary. As long as I stay true to the story as a precious thing in and of itself, it will find an audience. The other challenge, especially around publishing for diverse audiences, is the fact that publishing specifically to an audience is usually going to fail. What works are the stories that cut to the larger truths, our histories, the hopefulness and all of the bigger feelings that we have. You can have an adult novel about a guy's quotidian day — I went to the bathroom, and then I searched my soul, and I ate a ham sandwich. You can't really do that in young people's literature. We get to think about the things that young people think about, which are big questions, like identity formation: Who am I? What is my place in society? Do I believe in justice? Do I believe in truth?

RS: I have to interject to say that while this is true, it's also true that the label "children's book" can be used to oversimplify a complicated situation or big question, don't you think?

CM: Absolutely. Look at stories in which justice is easily won, especially nonfiction historical texts that reduce generations of thought and work into one significant moment. How do we make a literature for the future? We get to ask the big questions but, like we discovered when we were young people, there are no easy answers. When kids get neatly tied-up morality tales, without the complexity and nerve-wracking strangeness that are part of our contemporary time, we're doing them a disservice.

 

RS: If you're publishing books for adults, you're basically publishing adult-to-adult, but when you're publishing books for children, the creators themselves are not, generally speaking, children.

CM: There are very few plucky thirteen-year-old detectives writing books about themselves for young people! I think specifically of my objections to some of the ways in which #ownvoices as a hashtag — anything that functions as a hashtag — is necessarily not as complicated as I want it to be.

RS: Yeah.

CM: Hashtag politics are politics of oversimplification. We can lose sight of children's literature as being one of the few communal literatures that there are, besides holy texts like the Bible or the Koran. Children's literature is meant to be consumed by a community—by a classroom, by a parent reading to a child. Young adult literature has a sense of community embedded in it, which is why YA Twitter has exploded to such an extent. As you say, it's a very different prospect writing adult-to-adult, in a solitary fashion, as opposed to writing to a community, writing to a group of people who are in the process of discovering themselves, and in that discovery always finding new and exciting complications. It's never simple to discover oneself.

RS: We have contending guardians, too.

CM: And that guardianship often consists of people who feel they are done with the process of discovering themselves, who do not like to be challenged in that type of way. They want to build this 1950s version of the child, a static being that embodies all the innocence that we would love to give our children. In fiercely holding onto that oversimplified category of child, we more often than not do damage to the complicated, rich lives of children around us.

RS: You've been associated with publishing pretty much for your entire life, with first your father's and now your own career. What's been the hardest thing for you, going into this new kind of business relationship as a publisher?

CM: The hardest thing is realizing that there are no villains. There are no nefarious voices saying, "We don't want to publish this book because we don't care about marginalized communities." People are trying their best to build a literature for children, but they may not understand that there are things they don't know. That's a pattern I have found: I say, "Hey, there are needs for young people's literature to address, for children who have not been addressed before," and everyone agrees.

RS: How could you not?

CM: If everyone's agreeing, where is the no? Because there must be a no along the way. In the children's book world, we have a lot of creative ways of saying no. Everything from "This book isn't child-appropriate" to "There is no audience"...

RS: "This is about black kids, and I don't have any black kids in my community."

CM: Exactly. The panoply of nos isn't based on some denigrating notion or intentional marginalization, it's about preserving an ideal about what it means to be a child. That's a hard thing to go up against — nobody wants to be the bad guy. But at the same time, there needs to be some serious soul-searching about where those nos lie. Why is this book inappropriate for children?

This is why I have so many issues with the shallowness of thought on Twitter. Rather than telling me why they don't like a book, I want people to tell me the vision of community they are trying to espouse by either denigrating or lifting up a book. Are they looking for a community in which no child ever doubts themselves and will never see that doubt reflected? Are they looking for a community in which every child's identity is already set in stone and positively affirmed? Asking ourselves, with each book, what community we are defining — a community of readers, a societal community — can be a much more useful rubric than finding what's "wrong" with a book. I don't really believe there is such a thing as a book that has something "wrong" with it. The question is: what is the community that we are trying to define by each book that we publish?

RS: Right. It's more like — this phrase really can't be used anymore, but it's more like "let a hundred flowers bloom." That didn't go well. But still a great idea.

CM: Exactly. Mao's mottos read really well on the page. They are the Twitter of political thought. Part of the danger of our current political rhetoric is this oversimplification; we are governing by slogan. We're doing literary criticism by slogan. This may sound odd coming from someone whose literary career has been founded in three- to four-hundred-word manuscripts, but I stand by the idea that complexity is a gift that we can give young people. Every young person that I grew up around had a complicated life. Maybe that's not a convenient truth for everyone, but that is the truth. Unless we want to erase those complicated lives—if you want to erase complicated lives like my own, then go right ahead with publishing by the whim of Twitter. I don't think that's going to serve a lot of young people's lives.

RS: Rather than simply adding to the fantasy that you describe of childhood as this idyllic place, one thing a more diverse body of books can do is show that we're all screwed up. We're all complicated people.

CM: Amen to that. I am always stunned by the narrowness by which some people think about diversity. Oftentimes, when I walk into a room, I become the avatar for blackness. But when I'm talking about diversity, I'm talking about so many more things, the great iceberg of stories that remain underneath the waterline and untold.

I am fascinated by the decline of poor kids in books — nobody's poor anymore. (There are, of course, notable exceptions, especially in Vera B. Williams's work, which dealt directly with poverty without becoming a pornography of poverty.) Issues of class, sexuality, religion are often ignored, or they're addressed in a very blunt way. The "problem" of the book is that you are poor or that you are black — this idea that because you're a young black kid you don't have a moral quandary about something entirely unrelated to your race. I absolutely reject that as a way of thinking about these issues.

 

RS: I can see your eyes rolling even as you say this.

CM: These are not the stories that my father fought so hard to be published. These books, I know, may be well intentioned, but they are another kind of poison in our industry right now. This idea that all we need are our good intentions ignores the great artistry and thoughtfulness of good storytellers, the skill set that is inherent in being a storyteller.

I tell a story that happened to me about three years ago. I was working with refugee kids in Munich. These were all young people who had come from Syria, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq. I met this very charming seventeen-year-old boy. I said, "Would you like to publish a book about your life story?" And he looked at me and said, "Do you have dentists where you're from?" I was like, "I'm from Brooklyn." And he was like, "If something is wrong with my teeth, I'm going to a dentist. I'm going to someone with specialized knowledge about how to do this. Similarly, you're a storyteller. That's your job." He's like, "I'm a seventeen-year-old boy trying to figure out whether I need to learn German or English, whether or not I'll be able to stay here for another three months. I want that story told, but I want to go to a specialist. I want to go to a dentist. I want a storyteller holding my hand through the process." I think that there's been a great devaluing of the skill sets of storytellers.

When it comes to #ownvoices — and I can tell you this from my own experience — I'm not always the best storyteller for some of the things I have been through in my life, and I'm a really good storyteller! There are skill sets that we bring as storytellers. Yes, we need more diverse voices as storytellers. But we're not doing reportage. We're directly plugging into the long veins of mythology that help people figure out who they want to be in this world. If writers come in without the history, without the craft, we do ourselves and these stories a disservice.

We want responsible storytelling. We want people who care enough to take the time to do the research, to really believe in the humanity of their characters. Quite frankly, I refuse to give up all of the stories I want to tell. I love Joan of Arc because she was a gender outlaw, because she fought the British — always a good idea as far as colonialism is concerned — because she had visions and motivated people with those visions. I'm not going to give up my right to think about Joan of Arc because I'm a black guy from Brooklyn. I'm not a maiden from the fifteenth century in the Meuse Valley, but that is precisely the kind of story that I should tell.

RS: You and I are both equally distant from Joan of Arc, but if I wrote about her, people would love it or hate it, but they wouldn't question my right to write about her. You writing about Joan of Arc is completely different.

CM: Right, and that's the other side of #ownvoices. I have watched way too many writers of color, writers who are desperate for work, being told that they shouldn't write about this or that because they couldn't know it as well as someone else. Some people are given carte blanche to write everything, and others are given the sense that they should stay in their lane. Anything that smacks of staying in a lane is something I'm going to rebel against.

RS: How are you translating this philosophy into the hardboiled world of publishing?

CM: The first part is finding writers, which sometimes means finding the best storytellers outside of young people's literature. A book I'm very proud of is Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, which comes out this fall. Akwaeke writes books for adults, and Pet is their first journey into young adult literature. Ray Jayawardhana is an astronomer and the dean of arts and sciences at Cornell. When I first saw Ray giving a lecture about extrasolar planets, I realized this man is an amazing storyteller. We're publishing his Child of the Universe next spring. Sometimes athletes are storytellers, like Ashima Shiraishi, who's one of the best climbers in the world and will hopefully be in the 2020 Olympics. Her book, also coming out next spring, is How to Solve a Problem: The Rise (and Falls) of a Rock-Climbing Champion. My definition of storyteller is fairly wide and pretty open.

Then I give these storytellers permission, something that is wildly underestimated in the publishing world. If you grow up in certain situations — for example, if your father isn't one of the premier children's writers in the world — you might not understand that you have the right to tell a story. I'm lucky I was born with permission, albeit to a fault. When I was a kid I'd say to my father, "Dad, I have a good idea for a book." And he'd say, "I don't want to hear your ideas. I need outlines." What I was being taught was not "Who are you to have an idea for a book?" It was that when you have an idea, you need to put it in a recognizable form. You always have permission. My job now is to give permission, loudly, to people who are interesting storytellers, and to continue giving that permission over the long, arduous process of publishing a book. I'm lucky enough to have been raised to give myself permission, to believe that there are stories to be told and that if you have the craft and the discipline, you can make that happen.

RS: But can you make that happen as a publisher? How do you make sure that these books succeed?

CM: I believe very much in aftercare. As someone who's published a fair number of books, I realize that the aftercare was often wanting. Years ago I did a book of Bible stories with my father, and I remember saying we needed to get that book into churches. But the publisher didn't have any direct access to churches...

RS: And it's too hard to figure out how to sell to this new audience.

CM: Now it's my job to make sure the people who need that story will find it — be it through planning a drag ball (for the launch of Pet) or a lecture series in planetariums. That aftercare even goes so far as thinking about the book's design; for example, how might librarians and teachers like this design versus astronomers or burgeoning scientists? Storytelling consists of several parts, and one is caring for an audience. There are so many audiences in the United States who have been deeply uncared-for. That's my job as a creative director, as the publisher of these books, to understand that you have to tell the story, but you also have to care for the receivership of the story.

RS: You also, as a publisher, have to keep caring for the telling of that story long after the story's been told. It's a book. You've got to keep getting it to people.

CM: Again, if we understand young people's literature as a communal literature, my job is to take care of the community as much as it is to take care of the author.

 

 

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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