Archive for the ‘self-publishing’ Category

On Thursday I ordered my new bookcase from Gothic Cabinet and then went to the new visitor center at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with my cousin and purchased this little pin…we then went next door to the Brooklyn Museum and saw the Question Bridge exhibit—I will definitely be going back to watch more of this expertly integrated video installation (you can watch excerpts on the website *and* there’s an educator guide). Black men ask and answer questions of themselves and one another, and though their answers are interesting, it’s almost more fascinating to simply watch them processing and articulating their values and beliefs…and they’re beautiful! I joked with my cousin that they need to put names and numbers in captions, but really it’s quite moving just to hear so many thoughtful black men reflecting on issues that matter. I wish I heard those voices more often…it’s somewhat sad that it takes technology and a degree of manipulation to create/simulate this kind of dialogue among men. Still, it’s very creative…I’ll be teaching two sections of The Black Male this fall, and will definitely use this in the classroom.

On Friday morning I went up to East Harlem to join the party—my Behind the Book students at JHS 13 were celebrating the publication of their full-color short story anthology, Remembering Our Loved Ones. These are stories they wrote after completing my “Postcards from Far Away” workshop. It was really gratifying to listen as each student went to the front of the classroom and read part or all of her/his story, which was a tribute to someone s/he loved and lost. At the end I asked the students to autograph my copy of their book…I felt really lucky to be able to share that moment with them. Chris from Behind the Book then gave me a packet of letters written by a group of 6th graders I’d worked with at Thurgood Marshall Academy. Their teacher already sent me a moving email, but there’s nothing like hearing from the kids themselves:

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This is our second day of December rain but I’m still trying to feel festive—right now I’m baking cookies for my students and last night I hung my wreath on the front door. I also got a special delivery today—advance reader copies of my next novel! So far I’ve been presented with two covers and neither one fully captured the essence of Ship of Souls. It’s an urban ghost story so the cover needs to be gritty yet magical…they’re still working on it. In the meantime, this plain cover doesn’t thrill me but I’ll now be able to share the book with family and friends. If you’re an educator or librarian or book blogger and you’re already on my list, you should be getting your ARC in the next week or so (directly from the publisher). If we haven’t met but you’d like to check the book out, just leave me a comment.

Amazon made a big announcement this week and the reactions have been interesting. If you like my writing and want to check out Ship of Souls, you should know that some booksellers are vowing never to sell any book published by Amazon. I respect the right of others to stand up for what they believe is right—I just wish we could generate as much outrage over the racism that excludes so many unique voices from the traditional publishing industry. I also can’t help but wonder how many of those indie booksellers stock children’s books by black authors. How many stock books by Lee & Low—can you find Bird in those stores? And how many are open to self-published authors? I want a publishing industry where readers and writers have options. When one door closes, you’re not completely shut out because you can always try another. As I said in my acknowledgments:

I want to thank my agent, Faith Childs, who read the manuscript and responded with enthusiasm and encouragement. I also thank her for persisting in an industry where doors and minds are so often closed to writers like me.

Lastly I thank the AmazonEncore team for keeping their door open.

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This is a guest post submitted by Summer Edward.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to meet Zetta Elliott at the A is for Anansi conference at New York University. Since then, I’ve been a loyal reader of her blog, Fledgling. So when I saw Zetta’s recent post listing MG and YA novels written in 2011 by African-American authors in the U.S. I thought I’d follow suit and compile a list of English-language Caribbean children’s and young adult books published in 2011. While Caribbean children’s and YA publishing communities have their own unique struggles, they do share some of the same challenges faced by so-called “minority” publishing communities in the U.S. Like Zetta, I think a good way to gauge the status of a publishing community is to look at publishing statistics.

I found that 48 English-language Caribbean children’s and young adult books were released this year. Of those books, 7 titles were reissues and over 50% were self-published. Of the 16 books published by publishing houses, most were published by publishing houses located outside the Caribbean.  Also, only 4 of the books were YA books. Take a look at the list and let me know if I’ve missed anything.

Note: I’ve tried to supply as much information about the books as possible, but in some cases details like the publisher or the type of book are unavailable. I’ve coded the books as follows: BB- Board Book; PB- Picturebook; YA- Young Adult novel; MG- Middle Grade novel. Some titles have no web links because no links to the books are available. Reissued titles are indicated by an asterix (*)

English-language Caribbean Children’s and Young Adult Books Published in 2011

 Published by Publishing Houses:

  1. Good-bye, Havana! Hola, New York! by Edie Colon (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books; August/PB)
  2. Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand (Marshall Cavendish Corp/Ccb ; September/PB)
  3. One Love by Cedella Marley (Chronicle Books; September/PB)
  4. Stir It Up! by Ramin Ganeshram (Scholastic; August /YA)
  5. Bouki Cuts Wood: A Haitian Folktale by Amanda St. John (Child’s World; August/PB)
  6. Marijuanaman by Ziggy Marley (Image Comics; May/YA)
  7. Boy Boy and the Magic Drum by Machel Montano (DIP Publishing; January/PB)
  8. Minding Ben by Victoria Brown (Voice; April/YA)
  9. Island Princess in Brooklyn by Diane Browne (Carlong Publishers; August/MG/YA)
  10. The Cloud with the Silver Lining* by C. Everard Palmer (Macmillan Caribbean; October/MG)
  11. My Father, Sun-Sun Johnson* by C. Everard Palmer (Macmillan Caribbean; October/MG)
  12. A Cow Called Boy* by C. Everard Palmer (Macmillan Caribbean; October/MG)
  13. Riot* by Andrew Salkey (Peepal Tree Press; May/MG)
  14. Earthquake* by Andrew Salkey (Peepal Tree Press; May/MG)
  15. Drought* by Andrew Salkey (Peepal Tree Press; May/MG)
  16. Hurricane* by Andrew Salkey (Peepal Tree Press; May/MG)

Published by Organizations:

  1. The Discovery by Grace Nichols (Guyana Book Foundation; September/PB)
  2. All the Joy in the World by Nasaria Suckoo-Chollette (Rotary Club of Grand Caman Sunrise; March/PB)
  3. Daddy and I Explore…The Farm! by David Chapman (Sunray Publishing; April/PB)
  4. Waldorf, the Water Drop: The Story of Water Pollution by Pamela O’Toole  (Guyana Book Foundation; September/PB)
  5. Bri and Luk: Friends In Times of Changing Climates (Future Centre Trust; January/PB)


  1. The CP Superheroes of the Cayman Islands by Vinnette Mae Glidden (Caribbean Pirate Ltd; October/PB)
  2. Island Girl by Khara Jhanielle Campbell (CreateSpace; June/PB)
  3. Spooky Nights on the Island by Beverly E. Dyer-Groves (AuthorHouse; June)
  4. Ping Pong by June Stoute (Wordways Caribbean; September/PB)
  5. Sweet Dreams: El Yunque Dreams by Jo Anne Valle (CreateSace; May/PB)
  6. Trapped in Dunston’s Cave (Caribbean Adventure Series) by Carol Mitchell (Caribbean Reads Publishing; June/MG)
  7. Grommit– My Life and Times by Andy Campbell (Bob & Chris Books for Children; March/PB)
  8. Squirrel Coconuts by Andy Campbell (Bob & Chris Books for Children; March/PB)
  9. To Patos and Back by Andy Capbell (Bob & Chris Books for Children; March/PB)
  10. The Reggae Band Rescues Mama Edda Leatherback by Jana Bent (Reggae Pickney; September/PB)
  11. Why the Turtle and the Snail Carried Their Houses on Their Backs by Marilyn Laing (AuthorHouse; April/PB)
  12. Kaa Kaa & Tokyo in Babysittin’ ‘Lil Kelly by Rabia Abdul Akim (ContessaBlack Entertainment; July/PB)
  13. We Are Free: A Story About the Origin of the Garinagu by Ingrid and Ibo Cayetano (July/PB)
  14. Sweet Jamaican Summertime at Grandma’s by Angela Brent-Harris (Xlibiris; May/PB)
  15. The Night Nopat Was Left Out by Lynette Noel (AuthorHouse; February)
  16. Money Basics for Kids: Financial Literacy for Children by Sharryn Dawson (Money Basics for Kids/PB)
  17. Marcus and the Amazons by Geoffrey Philp (Mabrak; August/MG)
  18. I Find It So Hard! by Rosheenna Beek (PB)
  19. Who is Smarter Than Galiber Guess? by Anthea Bousquet (Maryli Publisher; April/MG)
  20. Bahamian Lyrical Tales by Kirkland “KB” Bodie (Media Unlimited)
  21. Satchi and Little Star by Donna Seim (Jetty House; August/PB)
  22. The Adventures of Lisbeth by Liesel F. Daisley (AuthorHouse; August/PB)
  23. The Magic Cave by Aarti Gosine (AuthorHouse; January/MG)
  24. The Perfect Shell by Joanne-Mason (due December/PB)
  25. Trixie Triangle by Kellie Magnus (Jack Mandora/Media Magic/BB)
  26. A Book for Baby by Kellie Magnus (Jack Mandora/Media Magic/BB)

Summer Edward is the Founder and Managing Editor of Anansesem, a Caribbean ezine for and by children. She is a writer and Caribbean children’s literature activist from Trinidad and Tobago. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from Temple University and an M.S.Ed in Reading, Writing, Literacy from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Philadelphia, PA.

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As promised, here’s the second half of my interview with Jacqueline Woodson. You can also find a condensed version at Ms. Magazine‘s blog and I filmed our conversation, too (find it on YouTube).

ZE: Do you identify as a feminist writer?

JW: Um…

ZE: Or as a feminist at all?

JW: It depends on who the audience is. You know, if I was speaking to a group of feminists I think I would identify as a feminist writer. If I was speaking to a group of writers, I would identify as a writer who is feminist. It really depends. I feel like I get really nervous sometimes around the qualifiers because of who has to qualify and who doesn’t have to qualify. Am I an African American writer? It depends. If I’m speaking to an all-black audience, then yeah, I’m an African American writer. If I’m speaking to a group that’s not all African American, then I’m a writer who is African American. If I’m speaking to a queer audience, I’m a queer writer. And on it goes. But all of those things completely inform who I am and are a part of it. And so I definitely am a feminist but I really think that in order to create change in this world, we have to figure out who does the qualifying and who gets qualified and begin to change that.

ZE: Well, since you are going to have a teenager before too long—she’s a tween already, right?

JW: Oh, man…

ZE: How do you think today’s teenagers learn about feminism? I claimed that identity at age 12, but don’t recall reading books with feminist characters until college. Sometimes I worry that young people today think the most empowered black woman of their generation is Beyoncé.

JW: She’s pretty powerful! It’s an interesting time to be a mom, to be a woman, you know, post-hip hop…

ZE: Are we post-hip hop?

JW: Well, the kids growing have never not known hip hop. And I think they haven’t [not] known the beautiful brown girl who’s super famous. We had Aretha Franklin. I had Michael Jackson and he was a young performer but he was male and complex, and he had brothers and some of them were cute and some weren’t. But we didn’t have all these icons who were similar to us to choose from. So I wasn’t trying to say, “I could be the next Aretha Franklin or Al Green.” I didn’t want to. It was a different world. But here the worlds have come so close in this information age, everything is right up on us and we have all this information about everybody. And all this access and “friendship” too. So all of a sudden kids have–this is their world. I think one thing I’ve noticed is that my daughter has Tashawn, Toshi Reagon’s daughter who is her cousin, and she idolizes her. And she has Kali, Linda Villarosa’s daughter. Linda used to be one of the heads at Essence and she wrote the first lesbian story in Essence about coming out. Having those two teenagers in her life makes a big difference. Tashawn—you know who her grandmother is [Bernice Johnson Reagon], and her mother is, and now who she’s become. It took her a long time to get there but she’s like, “Toshi, You need to shower. You smell.” And Toshi will be like, “Ok, I hear.” Or, “Toshi, you need to stop looking at whoever the celebrity is and think about what you want to be.” And it’s so interesting that she can’t hear it from us. But she can when it comes from teenage girls. I was looking at New Moon Girl, which is a feminist young girl’s magazine I got for her—it’s great. When she first got it she was like, “This doesn’t have any advertisements in it.” And I’m like, “Yes, that’s the point.” And she hated it at first and then I saw her sneaking and reading some of the articles. But they say young girls need older girls that they look up to so they have all these celebrities close but then they have real girls even closer. And that person needs to be someone on the up and up. Kali and Tashawn are two teenagers I trust forever and that’s going to make a difference in her life. Also she’s being raised by a village, and coming back to those Republicans and whatever they say about single parent families…they don’t understand that culturally, that a lot of times these kids may have a single dad or a single mom but they also have these villages going on and people who are not letting them get away. And they don’t have what I call “the nuclear insanity.” Even when I was growing up with my mom and grandma, it was like, “This is the family. It doesn’t go outside of the family. Don’t tell anybody about that.” And now we have the village and they’re like, “Your mom is crazy if she thinks she should do that!” And so the kid has other adults to bounce things off of.

ZE: Multiple perspectives.

JW: Exactly. And so I think that’s what’s hopefully going to help her through all the dreck. And a lot of kids through figuring out who they are. But I think they so need those feminists who don’t even know they’re feminists yet. I don’t know if you asked Kali and Tashawn if they’re feminists–I think they completely are, but I don’t know if that’s the language they would use to describe who they are.

ZE: Well, many black women historically have rejected the “f’ word and chosen some other terms.

JW: Who was it who said, “If there was a war between white feminists and black something I’d be shot in the back by someone who calls me ‘sister’”? Maybe it was Barbara Jordan? But basically that fight, whose side am I really on? The person was a black lesbian. That kind of dilemma…it is true—the minute I think of feminist, I think: white woman. I think of “strong black woman” as the equivalent of feminist but I use different language for it.

ZE: Different associations, that’s interesting. I never think of white women when I think of feminism!

JW: Really!

ZE: I get nervous when people ask if I can teach Gender Studies because I don’t know any of those white women! All I know are the black women. So I could teach Black Women’s Studies or Black Feminist Studies. But I’m at a loss when it comes to the rest of it.

JW: Didn’t so many black feminists—did they ally with the white feminists?

ZE: Some people argue that the feminist movement comes out of the abolitionist movement. So you had these really devoted white women, black women, men who were committed to abolition and that form of social justice. But a lot of abolitionists weren’t interested in racial equality. So then when you see the first wave feminist movement evolving out of the abolitionist movement and pushing for suffrage…certain black women got invited to speak in the north, but not in the South…so I just feel like there’s always been these divergent histories and there are moments where they’re bound together but it just doesn’t seem genuine to me…Ok, we’re almost at the end.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center keeps annual statistics on the race of authors of children’s books, and these stats consistently show that authors of color make up less than 5% of all the books published for children. I sent you a long quote by Barbara Smith, one of the founders of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.

JW: I can’t believe you explained who Barbara Smith was!

ZE: I’ll just read a short part:

“As feminist and lesbian of color writers, we knew that we had no options for getting published except at the mercy or whim of others—in either commercial or alternative publishing, since both are white dominated.”

Now you are a prolific, celebrated, award-winning author. Would you say that the problems Smith identified in the 1980s have been resolved? For example, could you name five other black LGBT authors of children’s literature?

JW: Um…I couldn’t. I probably could name two, but that doesn’t—I don’t know if they don’t exist. I don’t know if people just aren’t out. I think that’s one of the interesting things that’s still happening. Even with white children’s book writers, I think there are people who are still very closeted. And since people of color getting published in the mainstream is still pretty new, I don’t know how many people are coming out and having their first book be a queer book and saying, “I’m queer.” I think it’s still very loaded. I think you’re dealing with children, and you’re dealing with a society that automatically associates pedophilia with anybody who’s interested in children in any way. And a lot of people who still think that queerness is some pathology. I definitely know there are not a lot of—I haven’t come across a lot of young black writers that are new, but I feel like, if the book is finished and it’s halfway decent, I feel like there’s a home for it. And I don’t know if that’s me just being out there and not knowing enough about publishing. I mean, you’re one of the new writers coming up. I think of Coe Booth, Brenda Woods, the woman who did Fly Girl [Sherri L. Smith]. I’m just thinking of African American and Caribbean American writers that I can think of off the top of my head. I think the writing is very different. I think you’re one of the people who’s potentially going to change the world of—I don’t want to say “science fiction” and sound like an old school person…

ZE: Speculative fiction.

JW: Right, speculative fiction. I think Coe is doing more of the kind of urban stuff and then other people are trying to do some of the old school traditional writing. But I think in terms of publishers trying to figure out where it belongs, that’s kind of a slower movement—especially with the business of books changing so quickly. And I also don’t know what’s happening on the web and what people are doing for themselves, the way Barbara Smith was able to create a press that was still publishing paper [books]. I don’t know what’s happening out in the world where people are saying, “Ok, to heck with publishing because they’re not publishing me.” But is starting your own press…

ZE: Well, that’s me—I had to self-publish.

JW: Yeah, so you self-published but you also have your blog, which is a new part of publishing. And you’re an academic so you’re writing about it and changing the world that way. So I think—

ZE: You feel optimistic then about the future of publishing.

JW: You’re like, “Shut up.”

ZE: No! It sounds like—

JW: I think I feel optimistic but I think people can’t expect it to be the old way of doing stuff. I mean, I start doing this in the ’90s—my first book was published in 1989. And that was before the web, it was before so much changed about publishing. I think if I was starting to write today, I would be self-publishing.

ZE: Do you really?

JW: I totally think so.

ZE: Why?

JW: Because I think—especially if I started with a book like Last Summer with Maizon. Maybe if I started with Maizon at Blue Hill, because that’s something other—a black girl going into a white environment. So I think that book might have made it into the mainstream. Or the book I just wrote. But I don’t know about Miracle’s Boys, I definitely don’t think Last Summer with Maizon. From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun? I don’t know. Because a publisher’s first question is, “How is this going to sell? And how much money can I make off this?” And if they think it’s going to sell to 1000 people, that’s not good—or if they think it’s not going to have a long life or win an award. All those things inform what gets out in the world. It’s sad, but we do what we’ve always done, which is, make a way out of no way. And I think people must be doing that because there are so many writers in the world.

ZE: So do you think it’s less likely for a writer starting out today—for, say, a writer like me to have thirty books published in my lifetime with traditional presses? Or will it be a mix of digital publishing and self-publishing…

JW: It depends on how you write. When I started out I was writing three books a year, now I write about two. And if you look at it over—how many years have I been doing this?

ZE: Twenty.

JW: I think it’s possible. I don’t think they’ll be books. They might be e-books, or self-published. They might be books that go straight to film. I think there are all these doors that have opened that are great. So negotiating contracts is different now—what happens when iPad wants to buy your book? Which I still haven’t figured out, not that they’ve offered. They might be books that start on the iPad, that you’re commissioned for, and none of that makes them lesser than. I don’t think self-publishing makes a book lesser than a mainstream publisher because you have all the same outlets for getting the book published. And also you have the same places you can send them to for awards.

ZE: A lot of places won’t accept self-published books. A lot of review outlets won’t accept them. At Kirkus, for example, you have to pay to have a self-published book reviewed.

JW: But you also have to pay to have a book on the table at Barnes & Noble in mainstream publishing. So I think if part of self-publishing is paying Kirkus for a review, if that means it gets a good review and gets the book out there, I think it’s worth doing. I just don’t see it as lesser than. I think it’s a new world and this is a new way to get the book out there. It’s going to be interesting to see what survives. Mainstream publishers are taking books out of print by the minute. Whereas you have all this control over how the book stays in print, how long it lasts, how many ways to get it out into the world. I feel like, one of the places I’m at is, having for years depended on the publisher to do all the publicity and make the book last. And then you have something like the bind-up of If You Come Softly. Barnes & Noble didn’t pick it up and it’s about to go out of print after a year because the mainstream publisher depends solely on Barnes & Noble, and if they say “Stop, we don’t want this,” then the publisher goes, “Wow! Now what do we do?”

ZE: They passed on it? Because of the cover?

JW: I don’t know why. I have no idea why they passed on it.

ZE: I think that’s one of your most popular books, from people I talk to.

JW: I think they’ll carry If You Come Softly or Behind You [separately]. I haven’t seen it in a long time in the neighborhood B&N, but when this [bound edition] came along they said, “We’re not carrying this in our stores.”

ZE: That’s happened to a lot of authors I know of—authors of color specifically.

JW: Interesting.

ZE: And then publishers try to change the cover to make it look like it’s not about people of color—“Don’t panic!”

JW: “You can read this!” So I think one of the cool things about being a writer now is that you’re already on the forefront of how to get the stuff, you know, how to do the work that needs to be done to get the book in the world in a way that I’m not.

ZE: Are you interested in the blogosphere?

JW: To blog myself?

ZE: Or to follow other people’s blogs?

JW: Yeah, I like reading blogs but I can’t even imagine…whenever I think of [starting] a blog I think, “I should be working on a book, I should be answering fan mail.”

ZE: It can be a huge time suck. But people would love to know your every daily detail.

JW: I tweet though.

ZE: That’s true. Does that make you feel more connected to your readers?

JW: It does. It also makes me have to think about each day in a different way. Today I was tweeting about a nine-year-ld kid I saw walking down the street reading a Kindle. He tripped and I thought, “That’s the book. That’s the book talking to him!” And a part of me went, “Yes!” But Toshi’s sister is getting a Kindle for her birthday because she lives between two houses and she gets mad when she leaves her books at one house. And that makes sense. But it gives me pause because so much change is happening so quickly. But no—I love your blog but I won’t be joining you there.

ZE: Ok. For all those bloggers out there, I tried. To conclude, you mentioned you have a book about meth addiction. When can people expect to see that on the shelf?

JW: That’s coming out in January of 2012.

ZE: Oh, good—not that long.  And I think you said you have books scheduled to come out for the next five years?

JW: I have books coming out until 2014. I have a picture book that EB Lewis is illustrating, Each Kindness, about the year that a girl is not kind, and the aftermath of that, how one can’t go back to a moment, the moment might stay with them always. And I’m excited about it. And I have another picture book called The Rope that James Ransome’s illustrating. And I have a book called Baby’s Brothers Red and Blue that actually spans many decades. It’s a novel that starts in 1910 and goes to the 1970s, about two brothers from the Negro Migration through the Viet Nam War. A lot of stuff happens. And right now I’m trying to finish up a book about a girl who time travels back to pre-Civil War. But it’s not going so well—yesterday I stopped writing early.

ZE: When you stop writing do you pick up another project?

JW: Yeah. I’m doing that play [on African American folk artist Clementine Hunter]. I’m actually going to the library now because I refuse to buy any more books. I need to get a bunch of librettos to read because I just don’t know how to write one.

ZE: You’ve done an adaptation before.

JW: Yeah, that’s Locomotion. But I’m doing an opera with Robert Wilson, and Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Toshi Reagon. And so since it’s an opera and I’m writing the book, I don’t know how to do that. But I did the adaptation of Locomotion, and that was fun.

ZE: Do you like the idea of reaching different audiences with different formats?

JW: I do! I’m really starting to like the play format and it’s kind of my go-to when I’m really stuck as a writer. It makes me feel like, “Ok, I got this.”

ZE: I feel like writing plays helped me to hone dialogue. You really have to embed action in the dialogue because they’re on a stage, they can’t be running around doing all kinds of different things.

JW: It is really true. It creates a much cleaner line. And that tightness comes back to my fiction.

ZE: And congratulations—you just won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor award for Pecan Pie Baby. I was talking to illustrator Shadra Strickland—she just won the Ashley Bryan award and I asked her if she had a space in her studio for her awards. And she said, “I can’t! I have a space right above my desk but it’s just too much.” What do you do with all your awards?

JW: They’re behind me.

ZE: So at your desk. You don’t face them, but they’re there.

JW: Yeah, I can turn and look at them. If they were right on the wall in front of me I would be stressed out. And it took me a long time to put them up in my office. I still have a bunch in the storeroom. But I definitely don’t have them facing me, and I actually don’t work in my office so much. I go in there once the book is finished.

ZE: What’s the greatest reward of being a writer if it’s not the award?

JW: You know, I feel like when I finish a book, that’s when I’m happiest as a writer. When I know I’ve written that last line, before I start having the cover fight with my publisher. It’s such an accomplishment to say, “Ok, this is done. I’ve done this.” Before I start stressing about the next book. So usually I’m working on more than one book at a time, but when one is coming really well, I’ll stop and just work on that. And when I write that last line, there’s no other feeling. So that’s cool. And I love when a new story comes. I don’t know if this happens to you, but when you’ve written that last line you think, “This is it. This is the last book I’ll ever write.”

ZE: I can’t believe you think that, having written 30 books.

JW: Thirty’s pretty much a whole number. So this is the gift that the universe gave me, it’s enough now. I do think there’s a time to move on.

ZE: What would you do if you weren’t writing?

JW: Dream dream dream? Like, if I could do anything I wanted to do? I’d play pro ball.

ZE: Basketball? Get out of here—like for the Liberty?

JW: No, no, for the Nets, for the Knicks, for the Phoenix Suns, or the Chicago Bulls.

ZE: Ok, explain that to me.

JW: Well, you said, “dream.”

ZE: You would want to play in the men’s league?

JW: Yes, yes. I’d want to be tall enough, powerful enough. I love basketball.

ZE: Interesting. Why not the WNBA?

JW: I like the NBA. It’s faster, it’s bigger…

ZE: It’s more physical.

JW: Yeah, it’s much more of an adrenaline rush. I respect and love a lot of the women who play for the WNBA, and I’m glad it’s there. And I think also, from childhood it was my dream to be the first woman player in the NBA. And then the WNBA came along when I was an adult.

ZE: Well, you know, the Nets are coming to Brooklyn. They’ll be in your ‘hood soon enough.

JW: I know, I know. But I want to play for the New Jersey Nets!

ZE: Ok, I think I have exhausted my questions. Thank you so much for doing this!

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In May I had the opportunity to meet with Ms. Magazine associate editor Jessica Stites while she was visiting NYC. While strolling through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, we tried to think of ways we could collaborate around the issue of equity in publishing. A conversation with veteran author Jacqueline Woodson was one of our ideas, and I’m happy to share this link to the interview on the Ms. blog (“Writing Children’s Books While Black and Feminist”). Here on my own blog I’ve decided to post the unedited transcript in two parts; you can also find video footage of our hour-long talk on YouTube. Enjoy!

ZE: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. Let’s start with your early influences. Scholar Rudine Sims Bishop has argued that, “readers often seek their mirrors in books.” She also suggests that books can serve as “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” As a child, what books offered you a reflection of yourself, and which ones opened up another world for you?

JW: That’s a good question. I don’t know the sliding glass door reference. I know about the mirror…

ZE: The sliding glass door often gets left out of it.

JW: Interesting.

ZE: So the window, obviously, is that you can look into someone else’s world, but to me that’s voyeurism. So I love that she suggests you can open that sliding glass door and enter that world and kind of exist as an equal with other kinds of people.

JW: Yeah, that’s important. I’m glad that’s in there. I think that looking back on it, now that I’m past my angry thirties of [having] no mirrors, I feel like I was able to make the journey of kind of finding myself in any book. Because that was all I had. So I would read something like Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret and I was flat-chested like Margaret so—ok, this was where we kind of met each other. And the books that really kind of opened doors for me—one book that in retrospect made me gasp was Stevie by John Steptoe. Just the fact that they talked like I did, they were brown like I was brown. They lived in the city, it looked like they lived in the apartment in the illustrations. And everything just made me say, “Whoa, I know these people!” And Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry just ‘cause my family was from the South and I think that’s a book that I’ve read so many times and each time I read it, it never gets old. I mean, I’ve revisited some of the books from my childhood and some of them feel real different than when I was reading them as a kid, but that one has held up. Zeely was one of the first books I read that was by an African American about African American people. Sounder to this day still makes me angry.

ZE: Reading it?

JW: Yeah. It’s a room I’ll walk out of.

ZE: Did you also see the film when you were a kid?

JW: I saw the film and I actually loved the film but the book was just—ugh.

ZE: What made you angry about it?

JW: It was supposed to be my people and it wasn’t and I couldn’t tell how it wasn’t. So I felt like, almost kind of like I wasn’t, like something almost was wrong with me. Because if this is supposed to be who we are and this is so different from who I am and who I know, then how am I legitimate? And you know, as an adult I realized that no one had a name except the dog. They were supposed to be Southerners but they never touched each other, and you know Southerners are always hugging and kissing and saying, “Look how you’ve grown!” And remarking on things you don’t want them to remark on.

ZE: They were a sharecropping family, weren’t they?

JW: They were sharecroppers, they were poor and sad. So this writer, who was not African American, could not get inside their story. I don’t know what his connection was. I think in the forward he talks about someone telling him that story, like an old black man telling him the story of that family. But the fact that he could create a story where he couldn’t see any hope or happiness in it…and again, I didn’t know this when I was a kid. I just knew this book made me really angry. Later on, of course, I came to—I remember If Beale Street Could Talk when I was in the 7th grade maybe. Tish and Fonny, and they lived in Harlem or somewhere in the city and it was such a loving love story. I also remember reading The Bluest Eye when I was a kid.

ZE: You talked before about your “angry thirties.” I don’t detect rage in your writing; I actually see a lot of grace. Where did that rage come from and where did it go?

JW: That’s a really good question. I think the rage was more in my life. It wasn’t until my early 30s that I really started thinking about the disparity between race and economic class, and all of those ways in which the world just wasn’t working. I think that’s when I started coming into more of a sense of myself as an outsider. And as a kid I felt it all the time because I was a Jehovah’s Witness and you know, my family was kind of different from other families on the block. But in terms of my growing consciousness of who I was and how I fit into the greater scheme of things, it was kind of shocking to realize that no, I wasn’t part of this privileged majority that had an education before college and that really had a lot of privilege and with it, entitlement. And I kind of had to learn about my right to be here. And that was through a lot of anger and then acceptance—not of that world as it was, but of the fact that yeah, I do have a right to be here and I do have something to say and I am as smart as and sometimes smarter than people who’ve been well educated or are able to pay for a lot of education. So that was definitely a period of growing, and growing through that anger, and I think the way the grace came through in the writing was it was cathartic for me. I think there were probably drafts that were angrier than other drafts and I realized I’m not going to be heard through the rage, I’ll be heard through the love. And it’s kind of what began to inform all of my life, including my writing. If that makes sense.

ZE: That makes a lot of sense, and it’s something I could probably learn from since I’m still in my angry thirties! You’re the parent of two children. In 2011, how easy is it for your children to find their “mirrors” in books? Has motherhood changed the way you write? I know you took your daughter to a literary festival not long ago, which I think is great, and I’d love to know how that went.

JW: Oh, goodness. One thing motherhood has done is it’s given me even more of a sense of urgency in terms of what’s at stake. What’s at stake for how my children will see themselves in the world. I think before I was a parent I thought about it in terms of the child and children, but I didn’t have a real personal connection to it except the connection that was me as a child and wanting what I didn’t have as a child in the literature that I created. And wanting that for other children. Then once I had my children and seeing that they needed something [got me] really thinking more deeply and urgently. My daughter does not read my books. She says, “I’m not a fan.” And maybe one day she will.

ZE: You’re kidding!

JW: Yeah, she says she likes funny stuff. I’m not that funny. But my son reads or will let us read the picture books to him. We were at Putnam yesterday and they have posters of all the Caldecott and Newbery and Coretta Scott King winners and every time he came across one of my books he’d say, “I wrote that one Mommy.” He’ll also say he wrote Make Way for Ducklings. It’s hysterical. But it definitely brought that sense of urgency to me. And I think I got funnier because my kids make me laugh so much. I never had that censor flag that I think some young writers have—you know, this is going to embarrass my family or make my parents mad at me. But I think now, with children, I do think if Toshi reads this in ten years, how is this going to make her feel or what is she going to think about me, and where I was in this place and it definitely informs how I’m writing stuff. When I was writing Beneath the Meth Moon, the new YA book about a girl addicted to meth, in terms of thinking about a young person addicted to drugs and Toshi coming to this book when she’s 14 and thinking, “How does Mom know so much about this?” but also having that experience of that world in a way that hopefully scares her away from drugs but also makes her think about the bigger world and the greater good in a way that hopefully writing does for all people. But it is a tighter personal connection in terms of thinking about how my kids come to my writing.

ZE: I notice that in a lot of your books you represent alternately configured families and we just had the Marriage Equality Act passed here in NY state. How hard is it for you to sell stories that show children who have alternate realities?

JW: I love the way you put that—“alternate realities.” It hasn’t been a huge struggle in that way. I haven’t really done the two mom/two dad thing, so I haven’t kind of pushed that boundary. I think mainly because that story hasn’t come to me yet in a way to tell it that’s—when I think of a two-mom or two-dad family, I’m thinking, “This is the first thing I’m thinking about—this kid has two moms or two dads.” And that’s not the story. Kids don’t care about that. So I’m constantly trying to think about what the deeper story is in there. Because I think novels do fail when they try to push the issue somehow, when they try to be didactic. And I never want to do that. But I do want to write about people who haven’t historically been seen in literature and I think publishers are open to that as long as they like the writing. So when I put a single mom on the page, when I put a girl being raised by her grandma on the page, when I put a dad who’s incarcerated on the page, when I put familial or regular foster care on the page, I have a sense of the deeper story. I was raised by my mom and grandma, so I know all the stories around that and not just, “I live with my grandma and here’s that story.” I think because the stories are multilayered the family can exist in the fiction in a way that is, of course, “universal,” meaning other people will read it and like it and publishers will buy it. But I have had letters from The Notebooks of Melanin Sun—the first time I put a queer mom on the page people were upset about that.

ZE: Really?

JW: Yeah, I think part of it was that it was the ’90s and the Christian right was really starting to skyrocket and it was published by Scholastic, which was a mistake in itself. You can’t really do stuff at a conservative publisher and expect it to have the kind of life it would at a place that’s more comfortable dealing with stuff like that. So again, I try not to think about any issue in the book. To me the families are families and this is what families are. To me, the mom/dad family is an alternative to my family. And so few of them exist, even on our block. That it’s kind of like, when you see that it’s like, “Wow—they’re still together? Wow—that person’s being raised by a mom and dad.”

ZE: I would love to know what you think about the Iowa marriage pledge signed by some Republicans. Have you heard about that? It has a clause that claims African American children were more likely to be raised in a two-parent family under slavery than since President Obama was elected in 2008.

JW: Oh, man. Well, [those] Republicans don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s so ridiculous because in ten years, of course, they’re going to realize that that wasn’t the case. When you read something like The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. In it she talks about how all the statistics at that time showed that people who were part of the Negro migration were more inclined to have children out of wedlock, to be less educated and less employed. And then twenty years later they did another study and realized that those same people were more inclined to have families that were “intact” and have higher education and have two or three jobs, who had come here with that idea of working and having a family and creating a better life. So when Republicans say that about African Americans I just have to roll my eyes, and say, “Ok, whatever you need to say about us right now to make you feel stronger, you can have it if that’s all you have.” When I took Toshi with me to Virginia for the conference, I made her listen to The Warmth of Other Suns on the way down and back up. She was like, “This is so boring.” Chris Myers is doing a video and asking kids what does it mean to be American?

ZE: For the book he did with his dad [We Are America: A Tribute from the Heart].

JW: Right. So he’s having this blog with videos on it. And I interviewed Toshi out here and she was like, “Whatever. I live in Brooklyn, I’m in Park Slope. It’s America.” And I said, “Come on, honey, you can be deeper than this.” And she said, “What? America is America.” So I said, “What does it mean to be African American?” And she said, “Well, you know, I was listening to this book with you, The Warmth of Other Suns, and I know that black people did a lot of good stuff, like we built this country. And if it wasn’t for African Americans we wouldn’t have Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson.” And I said, “Ok, how about some non-celebrities, like the president?” And she said, “Yeah, we wouldn’t even have Obama and I realize I could be president!” And that’s so interesting because I don’t think she can be president, you know, I’m not there yet—thinking a black woman could! I’m still at the point of thinking, “Wow, we have a black man as president.” But she couldn’t attach unless it was African American. “American” meant nothing to her.

ZE: You have written more than 30 books about an incredibly wide range of experiences, including foster care, teen pregnancy, witness protection programs, police brutality, and racial ambiguity, and incarceration. I notice that many of your characters move from isolation/alienation to a place of belonging. How do you develop ideas for your books, and is there a particular overarching message you want to send young readers?

JW: It’s interesting that you say they move from isolation to belonging because that’s kind of what I did in my thirties. And so I think I’m telling that story again and again in different ways and constantly figuring it out maybe just a little more deeply than the last time. Basically I start with the character, the characters have always come to me first and then I figure out what it is they want and how they’re going to get it. I feel like so much of my life is trying to figure out what they want. Asking myself all of these questions: who is this person? Where do they live? What do they look like? What are the paradoxes in their lives? In terms of a message, I never know what a book is about until someone says to me, “I read your book about blah blah blah” and I’m like, “Oh, ok, that’s what it’s about?” I feel I’m so far removed, I’m very much in the process of writing but it’s almost like being in a zone, really. And then with the characters and their world and by creating their world I walk deeper into their world and start seeing it clearer and clearer with each revision. Then as the characters get more clarity and the book starts moving along and then is finally finished, when I stand back I know I’ve written these characters and told this story but I really never know what the story’s trying to say, really, until I read the good reviews because I don’t read the bad ones.

ZE: I don’t think there are any, Jackie!

JW: I beg to differ! I don’t think I have a message aside from what I believe myself, which is that we all have a right to be here, and trying to show the many ways that people can be here and be whole. Which is what I’m constantly trying to reinforce in myself and my kids and the community. So if someone said, “Why do I write?” I think because this is the power I have, this is what I know how to do to feel powerful and to make others feel powerful.

ZE: If someone said your characters make African Americans seem noble, how would you respond?

JW: We are noble!

ZE: Some of us—some of the time!

JW: I think the fact that we’re even here and standing is amazing. Given how we got to this country. You know, in the words of Audre Lorde, “We were never meant to survive.”

ZE: “Not as human beings.”

JW: Yeah! To go from dehumanization to humanization to creating change—or not creating change. But I think it’s a miracle for a lot of people to be walking through the world given what their lives have been. But when I look at our people—not just African Americans but Caribbean Americans. Black people in this country did not come here easily, no matter how they got here. And even when you look at something like income versus wealth, and how people have been able to raise families and send their kids to college and even buy a home. We did not get 40 acres and a mule—some did, but a lot didn’t, it’s bootstraps. I always talk about, especially a lot of people in Park Slope, there is always some hidden money somewhere. Suddenly somebody has a down payment on a house…

ZE: That’s wealth.

JW: Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. And for the most part we don’t have wealth. We have income and maybe we have one generation of wealth. What we have is the wealth of our history and the wealth of our survival. The fact that when all else fails, this is what we can come back to. And it helps me when I’m writing a book—I’m writing the 30th book and I’m still like, “I don’t think I can do this.”

ZE: Really?

JW: Yeah! I’m sorry, it never goes away. That’s one of the big bummers about writing. I tend to think, “That was a fluke,” or “I knew I was able to do it for that one but can I do it for this?” And also because the stories, going from Christianity in Feathers to race and identity politics to meth in a Midwestern white community…

ZE: Do you do that on purpose? Do you push yourself into areas that make you feel insecure maybe?

JW: Well, Dr. Zetta…I just get bored! I don’t want to revisit the same places because I don’t think I have any more stories to tell there. So that’s also why it’s hard to write sequels. Because it’s like, “I’ve done that!”

ZE: Oh yes…

JW: Are you in the middle of sequel writing?

ZE: I’m in the middle of two sequels. And I just read Behind You, which you kindly gave me, thank you. And I thought, “She called it a companion book.” And I remembered having a conversation with another author who said, “Stop calling it a sequel. Call it a companion book because then it can exist on its own. And you don’t have to fuss and worry about continuity.” But it has to stand on its own in terms of dramatic action and that I struggle with a lot.

JW: But you know, from one book to the other they want different things.

ZE: The characters want different things, but readers have expectations from the first book.

JW: Yeah, that’s true.

ZE: “Is she going to end up with so-and-so? And I know you didn’t make her do that!” And I just think, let me just finish the book before anyone else says anything.

JW: It’s true. I tend not to talk about it until I’m way deep in it and have a sense of where it’s going.

[Part 2 of this interview will be posted tomorrow, but you can watch the entire interview now on You Tube.]

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In the summer of 2009 I got an unusual email from Amazon—not an advertisement or order confirmation, but a personal email. This message came from an acquisitions editor who had read my novel, A Wish After Midnight, which I self-published the year before. This editor said he loved the book and wanted to partner with me to help it find a larger audience. After verifying that it wasn’t a hoax, I entered into negotiations and ultimately sold the rights to my novel to AmazonEncore, the company’s new publishing wing. Wish was given a beautiful new cover and was re-released six months later in early 2010.

As a black feminist, I definitely had reservations about partnering with a behemoth like Amazon. I worried what my friends would say—would they accuse me of selling out? Was I betraying my feminist values? Yet, I reasoned, I had spent nearly a decade dealing with rejection from big and small publishers alike. My work was even turned down by a feminist press that was headed by a black woman! I didn’t embrace self-publishing at the outset—I was driven to it by the refusal of traditional publishers to give my writing their official stamp of approval. Self-publishing ensured that my work would exist in the world, but I still encountered a great deal of resistance and a certain measure of disdain, and it was a real challenge to get my books into the hands of readers and reviewers.

In the end, to my relief, most of my feminist friends congratulated me on my decision to work with Amazon and did all they could to spread the word about my “new” novel. I had a fantastic experience collaborating with the AmazonEncore team—I was treated with respect, my expertise and ideas were valued, and no changes were made to my feminist narrative about two black teenagers sent back in time to Civil War-era Brooklyn. Wish wasn’t reviewed in any major outlets, but the blogosphere embraced it and my overall experience was so positive that I plan to publish my next YA novel with AmazonEncore in 2012.

I’m still determined, however, to keep all options on the table when it comes to publishing. The industry is in flux right now, and I think authors need to respond by being flexible and open to new possibilities. We also need to be conscious of the ways that certain voices continue to be marginalized within the publishing community. Statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center demonstrate that authors of color constitute only 5% of the five thousand books published annually for young readers. Getting published is an uphill battle for most writers, but the institutional racism that pervades all sectors of US society makes it that much harder for people of color to have their stories published by traditional houses. Self-publishing has been an important option for black writers for centuries, and I suspect that won’t change any time soon.

The first time I spoke publicly about self-publishing was at Rutgers University. After reviewing my award-winning picture book, Bird, Dr. Yana Rodgers invited me to speak to her students in the Women and Gender Studies Department. She assigned my self-published play, Mother Load, and I developed a presentation that paid tribute to Barbara Smith and Audre Lorde. I talked about Second Wave black feminist publications and the historical importance of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, founded by Smith following a 1980 phone conversation in which Lorde asserted, “We really need to do something about publishing.” Nearly a decade later, Smith reflected on this pivotal moment:

Why were we so strongly motivated to attempt the impossible? An early slogan of the women in print movement was “freedom of the press belongs to those who own the press.” This is even truer for multiply disenfranchised women of color, who have minimal access to power, including the power of media, except what we wrest from an unwilling system. On the most basic level, Kitchen Table Press began because of our need for autonomy, our need to determine independently both the content and the conditions of our work and to control the words and images that were produced about us. As feminist and lesbian of color writers, we knew that we had no options for getting published except at the mercy or whim of others—in either commercial or alternative publishing, since both are white dominated.[i]

To the students at Rutgers I explained my decision to start my own imprint, Rosetta Press, with its mission to publish books “that reveal, explore, and foster a black feminist vision of the world.” I didn’t then see any significant difference between my self-publishing project and the aims of the feminists at Kitchen Table Press. But over time I had to admit that I hadn’t formed a collective, and I wasn’t planning to publish anyone’s work other than my own—not until I caught up on the backlog of unpublished manuscripts on my hard drive. Self-publishing is, as the term suggests, very self-centered; its appeal lies in the autonomy it provides, but that level of self-reliance is only partly in line with my understanding of feminism. I confess, I don’t want to tell anyone else how or what to write, and self-publishing frees me of the need to please anyone other than myself with my writing. But do I owe the world something more than my books?

I concluded my presentation that day by reading aloud June Jordan’s prophetic words about the “difficult miracle” of being a black writer in the US:

…we have been rejected and we are frequently dismissed as “political” or “topical” or “sloganeering” and “crude” and ‘insignificant” because, like Phillis Wheatley, we have persisted for freedom. We will write against South Africa and we will seldom pen a poem about wild geese flying over Prague, or grizzlies at the rain barrel under the dwarf willow trees. We will write, published or not, however we may, like Phillis Wheatley, of the terror and the hungering and the quandaries of our African lives on this North American soil. And as long as we study white literature, as long as we assimilate the English language and its implicit English values, as long as we allude and defer to gods we “neither sought nor knew,” as long as we…remain the children of slavery, as long as we do not come of age and attempt, then to speak the truth of our difficult maturity in an alien place, then we will be beloved, and sheltered, and published.

But not otherwise. And yet we persist.

I’ve written quite extensively about racism in the publishing industry and the risks and rewards of self-publishing. When aspiring authors ask me how to deal with rejection, I tell them to persist: Keep writing. Get your work done so that when the moment arrives, you’ll be ready. Study the industry and know what you’re up against. You may have to adjust your expectations, and you may find yourself forming unexpected alliances. But don’t surrender your voice or your vision. Stay in the game and work with others who are trying to change the rules.

Lately I’ve been puzzling over how to be an “ethical author” in an industry that only seems to value the bottom line. Can I preserve my autonomy and still serve the communities to which I belong? I think so. Last month the publishing industry convened in NYC for the annual BookExpo America; BEA 2012 would be the perfect opportunity to ask members of the publishing industry to sit down and get serious about equity. My goal now—in between job-hunting, self-publishing a new novel, and finishing the sequel to Wish—is to replicate the UK Publishing Equalities Charter proposed by the Diversity in Publishing Network (DIPNET):

The aim of the UK Publishing Equalities Charter is to help promote equality and diversity across UK publishing and bookselling, by driving forward change and increasing access to opportunities within the industry…

For many years the industry has spoken collectively of the need to make publishing more diverse yet has not embarked on an industry wide initiative to resolve this issue. “What is widely suspected about publishing has proven true: the industry remains an overwhelmingly white profession…”

The same can be said of the publishing industry here in the US and it’s about time we did something about it. I’m not ready to start a feminist press, but I can still advocate for equity so that marginalized writers can become more visible in the literary landscape, which never has accurately reflected the composition of this country.

[i] Barbara Smith. “A Press of Our Own, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.” FRONTIERS, Vol. X, No. 3, 1989, 13-15.

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“Be your own example.” That’s what my friend Gabrielle told me to do when I started complaining about not having any 30-something black feminist role models a few years ago. It would be so much easier if you could just point at someone and say, “I want a life like hers,” but every woman has her own ambition and her own path to follow—I’m still searching for mine. I named Rosetta Press after my paternal grandmother; I bear her name and yet know very little about her. Last month I was giving advice to a young writer on redesigning her blog; last night it was my turn to follow my own advice, and I scoured my apartment for colors and textures and images that represent my imprint. This is as close as I could get: a painted map of Nevis, the Caribbean island where my father was born; a photograph of my grandfather (who refused to tell me anything about Rosetta, whom he never married); the wedding photo of my aunt (who has no memories of her mother, having been raised by another couple); the two cowrie shells I found on the streets of Brooklyn; my father’s passport from when he was a teen and a British subject; and my favorite piece of fabric, which is a beautiful sari my cousin brought me from Bangladesh. I took a dozen photos and couldn’t decide which was best, so the header changes every time you change the page…

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Folks on Facebook seem to be split—nearly everyone on my personal account likes the yellow cover and everyone on my author account likes the black…you?

The black cover has an opaque back, whereas the yellow cover allows the front image to be visible on the back.

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Sometimes my students save me. I can get mired in my own thoughts and it really helps to be drawn out, to stop ruminating and start reflecting. This past week we had some really interesting conversations about the death of Osama bin Laden, the memorialization of traumatic events, and reparations. Then I saw on Facebook that Sarah Park posted the reading list for her course on Social Justice in Children’s/YA Literature. I’ve got so much reading to do! So this morning I woke up wanting to revisit the issue of equity in publishing. What would it look like? How can it be achieved? How do I, as an author, publish in a way that reflects my commitment to social justice?

Remember my cousin Bethany J. Osborne‘s fabulous explanation of the difference between equity and diversity?

Diversity is when you invite many different kinds of people to sit at your table.  You look for difference in terms of age, race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, ethnicity, etc.  But equity means addressing the fact that some people come to the table without a fork, some have two plates or none at all, some expect to be waited on, and some are more accustomed to doing the serving.  Equity attempts to ensure that everyone can sit down to eat together on terms of equality.

When I look at the publishing industry today, I see an approach that mirrors the diversity efforts on many college campuses. Debbie Reese posted this useful article (“The Invisible Campus Color Line“) on Facebook a few weeks back and I shared it with my colleagues at work. There was some resistance, but at least half a dozen educators agreed that we’re missing the mark when it comes to institutional equity:

Initially, schools are enthusiastic, pledging their full commitment to ensuring their campuses are free of racial, religious, and gender bias. They willingly participate in surveys that measure students’ perceptions of cross-cultural relations on campus. They throw international dinners, sponsor diversity days, and spend weeks writing and refining diversity statements.

But when [EdChange founder Paul Gorski] begins to suggest the work that he believes really counts—reevaluating policies, reallocating budgets, and ultimately challenging the status quo—they stop returning his phone calls. They hire someone new, and they start again. Since student bodies turn over so quickly, it always looks as if the school is making an effort, even if they’re actually just treading water.

I think it’s safe to say that the publishing industry in the US is “just treading water” when it comes to diversity and equity. And as with college campuses, “Token efforts to ‘celebrate diversity’…often amount to little more than marketing stunts.” If the dominant group holds a huge banquet every year and after much petitioning finally invites three marginalized people to attend the banquet, that’s not equity. If they say, “We love spicy food! Why don’t you bring some of your delicious ethnic food for us to sample?” That’s not equity. Getting invited might make you feel special, but whatever you bring to the table won’t actually alter the power dynamics that determine who holds the banquet, determines the guest list, sets the menu, etc.

But what’s actually achieved by NOT showing up at the banquet, or choosing to hold your own private party someplace else? If you show up at the banquet and try to tell the attendees about themselves, you’ll be shunned and marginalized even further. If you show up, smile, and “go along to get along,” then you’re perpetuating the problem. You’re upholding—and ultimately affirming—the status quo. Is that the price marginalized folks have to pay to get their books out into the world?

As far as I can tell, the only comprehensive plan to reform the publishing industry comes from the UK group, DIPNET.

The aim of the UK Publishing Equalities Charter is to help promote equality and diversity across UK publishing and bookselling, by driving forward change and increasing access to opportunities within the industry…

For many years the industry has spoken collectively of the need to make publishing more diverse yet has not embarked on an industry wide initiative to resolve this issue. “What is widely suspected about publishing has proven true: the industry remains an overwhelmingly white profession…”

That’s true of the big houses and many small presses—even feminist and multicultural publishers. Amazon’s expanding its publishing program, but will it transform or mirror the “all-white world” of traditional publishing? Self-publishing is one option, but there are obvious limitations to going it alone. DIPNET offers these steps to achieving equity in the publishing industry—can you see US publishers signing up for this?


  • Wherever possible try to recruit a representative mix of people according to your local demographics. For example 46% of England’s ethnic minority population live in London (source: LDA: ‘The Competitive Advantage of Diversity’, Oct 2005), this should be reflected in organisations based in London.
  • Provide equality training for all staff on a yearly basis
  • Set up a staff equalities working group ensuring a good representation of people in the organisation
  • Create an equality policy that is embedded throughout the organisation in policy, strategy and working practice
  • Monitor the impact of policies through conducting equality impact assessments
  • Make all policies transparent by updating them and making them available to all staff (e.g. via the intranet)
  • Provide equality training for senior managers and board members
  • Make all job applicants complete an equality monitoring form which are monitored on a regular basis
  • Take on a trainee from an underrepresented group by hosting a Positive Action Traineeship
  • Increase recruitment pool by advertising jobs externally instead of informal recruitment methods (e.g. word of mouth)
  • Develop staff from underrepresented groups by providing training and career development opportunities
  • Develop a mentoring programme that supports new staff from traditionally underrepresented groups
  • Develop a mentoring programme that supports staff from traditionally underrepresented groups at transitional career stages
  • Hold an equality themed brown bag lunch for staff encouraging debate and dialogue amongst colleagues in an informal setting
  • Attract and recruit more disabled people to your organisation
  • Score all job applications on the core competencies required for the position to limit the use of informal recruitment methods
  • Make your sites accessible to all your clients and customers by conducting regular accessibility assessments
  • Include an equality statement within job advertisements
  • Ensure that all shortlisted candidates are asked whether they require any ‘reasonable adjustments’ prior to interview to ensure equal opportunities
  • Work towards achieving ‘Two ticks positive about disabled people’ accreditation which guarantees an interview to a candidate with a disability (as defined by the Disability Discrimination Act 2005) and who match the requirements of the person specification
  • Take part in careers events in order to raise the profile of the industry to traditionally underrepresented groups
  • Run an equality themed seminar at a book fair
  • Form a relationship with a local school and run workshops/talks to educate students about the industry
  • Conduct regular surveys to identify satisfaction levels amongst staff
  • Make available a cultural calendar for staff to raise awareness of cultural/religious dates throughout the year
  • Hold a ‘Celebrating Equality’ day to enable staff the opportunity to find out more about their colleagues in an interactive manner
  • Wherever possible ensure authentic representation of people from underrepresented groups (e.g. book cover designs, illustrations, marketing material etc.)
  • Be involved in industry wide collaborations to increase equality in publishing
  • Take part in yearly industry wide reporting through organisations such as Skillset
  • Take on flexible working/condensed working hours to support those with caring responsibilities
  • Bridge the gender gap by encouraging and training more women into management and senior management positions
  • Bridge the ethnicity gap by encouraging and training more people from diverse ethnic groups into management and senior management positions
  • Host an open day so that the general public can find out more about your organisation
  • Encourage members of staff to be involved in seminars/workshops/talks that raise the profile of the industry to traditionally underrepresented groups
  • Identify an Equalities champion on your board of trustees who can be responsible for monitoring action on equality

Last week a friend sent me this article about living an intellectual life outside of the academy; it’s a little pie-in-the-sky, but at least someone’s out there looking for alternatives. That’s what’s needed for the publishing industry…

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I’m waiting for the latest proof of One Eye Open to arrive. During our self-publishing event in Toronto last month, someone asked us to break down the steps involved in publishing your own book. I tried to explain that the steps change with each book because you’re accumulating more and more knowledge. They’re now considering removing the proof option on Create Space, but I can’t imagine why you’d want your book to go up for sale before you had a chance to look it over. At first I was excited about shooting my own photo for the book cover, but then found out my camera’s automatically set to low-res so had to do it over on high-res. Fortunately, Cidra knew a professional photographer and Valerie ended up doing the shoot for me. Next I selected the photo, cropped it, boosted the color, and sent it to a photolab to be retouched. The lab technician’s first question was, “Want me to make her lighter?” NO! The retouched photo came back a few days later and I think it’s stunning, but still worried that the technician might have gone against my instructions. Representing women faithfully is really important to me. I’ve been writing this weekend and there’s a new kind of anxiety stirring within: if I create a female character who’s questioning her sexuality, is it a mistake to also make her a victim of sexual assault? I can recall all the times I’ve taught The Color Purple and had students insist that Celie was “turned into a lesbian” by the abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather. At the same time, I think it’s important to show that *all* children are vulnerable to abuse. In God Loves Hair, Vivek Shraya includes a disturbing but important scene where his child narrator is abused by a man while at an ashram. Although he’s been warned about the man, the child—an aspiring religious devotee—sees in the adult the same loneliness and alienation he has experienced at school: “I look at him on the bed, sad and hunched over, like the last one to get picked for a team. I know that feeling. He is my brother, I tell myself.” Unfortunately, the child’s empathy leads to exploitation. His religious community is one place where the narrator feels accepted—even admired because of his exemplary singing during prayers. At school, it’s an entirely different experience. Children who are bullied and/or isolated are made more vulnerable to abuse. Yet my character, Nyla, is something of a bully herself and is still victimized by an older teenage boy. The result is perhaps the same: Shraya’s narrator and Nyla are both likely to be blamed for the abuse. You led him on, you went with him, you asked for it. I need to do some more research on this. In One Eye Open, the main character is a rape survivor who meets her best friend, Vinetta, in a support group for victims of sexual abuse. Nina’s response to the rape is to shut herself off and avoid men entirely; Vinetta takes an opposite approach and engages in (sometimes risky) sexual behavior with women and men. Her bisexuality frightens Nina who can’t imagine herself as a sexual being with the right to make a wide range of choices; she’s trying to play it safe but that only binds Nina to the past. In my class we talk about Toni Morrison’s definition of freedom: “choice without stigma.” For Yvette Christianse, freedom is “not having fear.” We’re reading Unconfessed this week, which is a fictional narrative of an enslaved woman jailed on Robben Island for taking the life of her enslaved son. Imprisoned in several jails, Sila is raped repeatedly by guards and yet offers very few details, choosing to focus instead on the children conceived through rape. Sila won’t be defined as a beast, a drunkard, a murderer. She is a mother, a friend, a daughter and she clings to the memories that reinforce these identities. But she can’t shut out the vuilgoed, the filth. Sometimes teaching this material helps my own writing, but sometimes it wears me OUT.

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