I’m not on Twitter much but on one of my recent visits I discovered a young black woman who’s doing her best to promote diversity in the Canadian children’s publishing industry. I recently had an unproductive exchange with a book festival director in Toronto so I’m very pleased to share this interview with Léonicka Valcius.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a young black woman with fabulous hair. I have many passions: some serious (social justice, economic inequality, oppression) and some frivolous (food, fashion, entertainment). I just started my career as a publishing professional and I have two commitments: to be the authors’ advocate and to promote diversity in publishing. (These are my opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.)
As a black child growing up in Toronto, I never saw myself in Canadian books and knew nothing about opportunities in the arts. Describe your evolution from a girl who loved reading to a book blogger and publishing professional.
It was such a long, winding path. Very much a case of growing into who you were meant to be.
I am Haitian-Canadian. I was born in Montreal but grew up in Florida, and I didn’t see much of myself in books either. The sad part is I never thought to look. I have always loved historical fiction and SFF, so somewhere along the line I took it for granted that people like me were never princesses, or warriors, or explorers. It didn’t bother me at the time because I didn’t realize it was a problem. I lived and went to school in a predominately white area and was used to being the only black girl in the room. In that way, the books I read reinforced that reality. Even when I wrote my own stories they featured blond-haired protagonists.
In high school and university I practically stopped reading books for fun—I had so much school reading to do! But I stayed connected to other readers by joining FictionPress.com. Though I am not much of a writer, I had been editing for my peers for years and continued to do so online. So when I hit that point where I had to decide what to do with my life, I took a look at what I was doing with my free time. Working in publishing was just the logical extension of my passions.
It’s not exactly encouraging to hear everyone screaming “publishing is dead!” when you are in publishing school. And after being surrounded by people of color at Florida Atlantic University and then University of Toronto, returning to a predominantly white environment was jarring. But I didn’t know any of that before going in. Perhaps if I had, I would have been more reticent and assumed that “people like me” didn’t belong in the industry. My ignorance worked to my benefit in this case.
I am also incredibly blessed. I was only able to afford publishing school and six months of internships because I live with my parents. I don’t pay rent. I don’t pay for food. My parents signed for my loan and covered my transportation costs when money was super tight. For people without those luxuries, getting into publishing is especially difficult (but not impossible).
Getting my job was a combination of hard work, support from my network, and divine intervention. My job is fast-paced and sometimes stressful but I love every bit of it. And how could I not? I get to share books with kids! I work for Scholastic Book Fairs Canada. I am the Junior Product Manager for their French division, Festival du Livre. I’m essentially a book buyer and marketer rolled into one. I purchase French children’s books, which are then sold in French book fairs hosted by schools across Canada, and I promote these books and the fairs through print and web marketing.
I fell into children’s publishing by accident. In fact I distinctly remember actively avoiding it. I thought it was too specialized, too idiosyncratic and that it was not the place for a beginner like me. But of course, God’s plans were greater than mine. Even though I love children’s books personally, and I loved my visit to the Scholastic offices, I still said “probably adult fiction” when people asked what type of books I wanted to work with. Then Ali McDonald, the children’s literary agent at The Rights Factory (where I had my first internship,) took me to the Festival of Trees. I’m forever in her debt.
I still try to blog here and there but I’m not nearly consistent enough to call myself a book blogger. I just try to engage with people who love books, both online and in real life.
You seem to be connected to the US children’s literature community. Compare the diversity and activism you see in the US to that in Canada. Are the challenges and/or solutions the same?
I’m only as connected as the internet allows me to be, though I am trying to learn as much as I can. Like in many industries it is useful to watch what the US is doing in terms of kidlit in order to get a heads up on upcoming trends.
Insofar as the challenge is to increase diversity in all levels of publishing (from the characters in the books, to the writers, to the people working in the pub houses) then yes, the challenges seem the same to me.
The differences emerge in visibility. The conversations about diversity in US kidlit are easy to find on various social media platforms. In Canada it seems to be considered a non-issue, especially because Canada clings to this rosy reputation for being open and multicultural. I have initiated every conversation about diversity that I’ve had in Canada. That said, there are many groups who are quietly doing the work to fix the problem.
What would you say to a black child in Toronto who has a vague interest in leading a “literary life”?
Read! Read everything, question everything, then read some more. Use the library at your school or in your city to look for black writers who write books similar to those you already like.
And write! I’m especially fond of fanfiction because it can be a great writing exercise. You already have the foundation of a story so you can be creative. What would happen if the protagonist was black? Was a girl? Was poor? Rich? Lived in the past? Lived in the future? The possibilities really are endless.
Finally, talk to your friends about the books you read the same way you’d talk to them about a movie you saw. Sharing your ideas helps you solidify your opinions or consider another point of view.