Tag Archives: thoughts

Trying to Hold Multiple Sides of the Same Truth

This is the image I hold in my head these days whenever entering a difficult, complex, multi-layered conversation.  I imagine a room where the TRUTH is placed in the center, and I have to make sure that I walk around this virtual room, examining the matter from as many angles as possible, even though of course I have my starting point and an original perspective.  I cannot trace the original maker of this graph (from 2005) but am grateful for his/her help in keeping me from completely unbalancing myself:


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Publishers, Editors, Everyone: Keep Your Courage and Keep Up the Good Work!

I unpacked a box of galleys for early 2016 titles from a children’s publisher yesterday and noted that quite a few titles feature POC characters or are written by POC — in all genres and reading levels.  I hope this is not just a fad, not a trend, not a reactionary act to a current movement, but the sign of real change and the harbinger of the new norm!

I want to publicly say this to publishers, editors, marketing folks, sales reps, authors, agents, anyone working in the Children’s publishing world:

With recent disputes on many titles for young readers, it might seem extremely daunting to move forward, to have to tread so carefully, to have to hear so many conflicting and often angry voices, to have to defend or admit missteps — especially if and when you are all trying hard and working diligently and honestly to AVOID offenses or mistakes. Just know that mistakes will be made, the readers and critics will continue pointing things out and reminding all of us how to do it better the next time, and It will take a while and much learning before any equilibrium is even a possibility.

I know this must seem such a heavy burden and you might just want to put it down and forget about all that’s unpleasant or painful.

But, please keep up the good work. Actually, please do a lot more good work. Please do listen. Please listen for the message and do not stop listening simply because you do not like the tone the message is delivered in. Please continue to to evolve.

We are all lovers of literature.  One thing I see literature lovers most capable of is the immense scope of our imagination in dealing with complex issues.  Do we not always applaud great children’s literary works for their complexity, for their bravery, and for their visionary integrity?

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of these much valued qualities in times of conflict?

Please tell each other and yourselves that, “No, this is NOT the time to put down the heavy pack of all the issues. It is NOT the time to turn away from the road leading to a better future.  It is NOT the time to leave other travelers by the road side to struggle by themselves. And, it is NOT the time to seek each other’s defeat.”

I know that I need to consciously remind myself all of these on a daily basis and it is taking a toll on my own sense of balance. But then I think of all the good that this will accomplish and believe that the peace of mind will come and it will all be worth the burden.

We need to help each other understand and unpack superbly complicated and often painful issues. The ultimate goal shall be that we all succeed TOGETHER. Just know that it will take a lot of determination and courage — especially from those whose daily jobs are to produce children’s books.

We need you to continue the journey upward, especially when the going gets really really tough.

Let us walk and talk in each other’s company, help each other grasp difficult and emotional concepts. And let us find each other in the not too distant future on the summit of true equity, TOGETHER.


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Can We Talk of Solutions? Regarding Diversifying Children’s Literature

Over at Horn Book, I joined the conversation over this month’s Editorial by Roger Sutton, entitled, “We’re Not Rainbow Sprinkles.” It is a heated conversation over representation and lack of fictional existence (of marginalized characters: non-white ethnicity, not-straight sexual orientation, or other non-dominant identities.) For the most part, the people who commented read the article and others’ comments carefully before they expressed their highly varied viewpoints. I wrote in one of my comments about my own emotional distress over the tumultuous debates all over the internet over such topics within the children’s and YA literary world:

It weighs on me. It makes me tear up on an hourly basis: seeing people here and elsewhere (Fuse8, Heavy Medal, Facebook — I dare not go to Twitter), in their earnest to “defend their own ways of thinking,” use hurtful words, seething comments, words that simply want to get a reaction but not advance anyone’s causes. It makes me worry about what all these negative energy will translate eventually into the literary works that are meant to reflect and uplift. That are meant to be Free and Beautiful and Cathartic (even and sometimes when they are Painful.)

The heavy burden manifests itself in many ways: I feel exhausted, my shoulders are hunched more and tense, I cannot focus on simple daily responsibilities, I can’t remember minor or even major facts, all because my mind has been so preoccupied by the many ideas presented to me and sought out by me. My desire to simply “put it down” is great.  I want to stop dealing with all of these issues and just get back to simply enjoy great books for kids and teens!!!  But, I find myself incapable to unburden my mind. I am compelled to continue thinking and learning and writing and talking about these topics.  And today, I want to talk about the Publishers and what I think as their responsibilities in redressing the balance of the industry:

Case Study One:

Twenty-one years ago, I was a lowly subsidiary rights assistant in a large children’s publishing company — Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group (a different entity from the current Macmillan publishing company).  A brand new children’s picture book was to be released by the revered Chinese American author Amy Tan.  I got a chance to look at the F&G (folded & gathered pages of a picture book proof) and noticed that Ms Tan used the concept of punctuation AND musical notes within the storyline — indeed, the use of these devices helped move the plot along.  Not one to keep my mouth shut, I raised the question of how if the tale was set in ancient China, both western musical notation and the use of punctuation would have been totally, utterly, culturally inaccurate.  But of course my views were deemed completely insignificant: I wasn’t in the editorial department and who could question Amy Tan, the author of Joy Luck Club and her knowledge of the Chinese culture?  And, even if the inclusion of such details was anachronistic and culturally inaccurate, so what?  No one was going to be hurt.  Right?  And it’s just about to be published — too late to make such major changes!  So the book, Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat, was published exactly as it was written and illustrated and has been enjoying great success for almost a quarter of a century, with a host of PBS cartoon episodes based on the characters and the setting in the book, even if it didn’t receive very positive reviews.  Oh, also, do you know that Sagwa literally means a stupid person?

Case Study Two:

Fast forward to a couple of months ago, in a casual conversation with a non-white editor, I first heard how one of the largest stumbling blocks in publishing diverse books by diverse authors is the sales force in each publishing company.  When editorial teams present in house their potential future publications to the sales reps, if their proposed titles receive the verdicts of “We don’t know how to sell this or that title…” or “I don’t think this will sell…,” then it is pretty much dead in the water.  And according to this editor acquaintance of mine, the sales reps are overwhelmingly white and the titles rejected often include many diverse titles.

Case Study Three:

Fast forward further to this past month.  While attending a publisher’s preview, a young, white editor talked about a book that is set in a major foreign city. She kept referring to the city as “New Delhai.” And I was superbly puzzled: I’ve never heard of such a city.  (Although I must admit that I’m not a geography wiz!)  I glanced at the printed description and realized that the city the editor was referring to was New Delhi, in India.  I was completely floored by this lack of cultural literacy as we sat in the room being told how so many the books published would enrich our young people’s lives and give them an expanded sense of the world.  However, no one else seemed a least bit bothered by it.  Or that no one cared?  Or were we all just too polite to point out this mistake?  Later on, I learned from another friend that there is a town in New York State called Delhi and it is pronounced DelHai.  This young editor could have just always thought that the city in India shares the exact name and pronunciation as the New York town.  (Like Houston – Hauston – Street in NYC and the City of Houston -Hueston- in Texas.) Still… I was flabbergasted. And I was surprised at how no one else seemed to find this bothersome and at how the helpful friend tried to find a reason or an excuse for the mispronunciation of one of the largests city on earth.

Case Study Four:

During the translators panel at the recent USBBY Conference, the Chinese translator of John Muth’s Stone Soup (a story that’s NOT originally Chinese, made to be against an ancient Chinese setting, translated into Chinese from English) pointed out that one of the ingredients that went into the soup had to be changed when he translated the text into Chinese because it wouldn’t have been readily available in the setting and the Chinese seldom use that ingredient in making soup.  Also the fact that there are architecturally inaccuracies in the paintings as well.

Case Study Five:

Yesterday, I visited Baker & Taylor’s book ordering site where I purchase most of the books for my Middle School Library.  I wanted to buy about 20 copies of Marilyn Nelson’s My Seneca Village which has garnered lots of praise and is my pick of the month for the faculty book club.  I was totally surprised that B&T does not carry this title.  Then I went to another wholesaler, and the book is listed as Print on Demand, with a 2% discount (as opposed to the usual 40%).  Amazon carries some new copies but not enough for all my teachers in the club.   It is available in eBook form and that’s how I got my own copy. The publisher’s site only offers eBook format.  So, even though this book has received 3 stars by now, is penned by a Newbery honor author (Carver,) and totally fits the #weneeddiversebooks movement bill, it must be deemed too difficult to sell by Baker & Taylor.  I wonder if Ingram & Follett carry the title and how many copies are ready for purchase?

So, what conclusions I drew from reflecting on all of the above experiences?

  • Whether the author or illustrator of a book is of a particular culture matters less than if they do their homework and work diligently to produce authentic and culturally sensitive books.  I am hopeful that many authors and illustrators will become more and more culturally aware and do not find such demand unreasonable or burdensome — or, perhaps it is burdensome but not something that can be shirked!
  • Wouldn’t it be great if publishers encourage or even create professional development opportunities for their sales, marketing, and editorial teams to enrich everyone’s understanding of the importance of diversity, respect, and inclusion?
  • Wouldn’t it be great if publishers hire more diverse employees to allow for better understanding of varied cultural contents in the manuscripts or illustrations?
  • Wouldn’t it be easier to verify authenticity and spot questionable treatments if there are enough pairs of culturally sensitive eyes to review and evaluate the books in-house, prior to publication, and not wait to put out fires after the book lands in the hands of the readers?
  • As consumers, we hold much power in our hands as well.  If we keep buying the same-old same-old, and do not seek out or demand availability of the much needed diverse books, there will be no incentives for the publishing industry to heed such need: since it needs to survive and meet the bottom line, after all.

It is late.  I need to sleep.  Please talk to me and share ideas and solutions!


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In the Ring: White Mediocrity vs Non-White Mediocrity

It seems that, within the boxing ring of White Mediocrity vs Non-White Mediocrity, Non-White Mediocrity does not stand a chance. It has always been, and will continue to be, if we don’t keep challenging the status-quo, complete Knock-Outs, round after round.  Hey, sometimes, White Mediocrity even wins against Non-White Excellence. There are even White Lousiness knocking out Non-White Mediocrity at Round ZERO.  (Think of all the unpublished manuscripts by “mediocre” non-white authors vs all the published not-so-good ones by white authors.)

This Boxing Ring imagery popped into my head this morning when I started following the recent facebook/twitter/blogsphere face-offs between YA author, Meg Rosoff, and many others, and especially after reading the words from Camryn Garrett on her blog.  The relevant quoted words are at the end of this post, but I want to first go back and track my own journey from being a harsh harsh critic of “diversity books” to one who considers them very differently on this day in October, 2015.

Recently, in Beijing, I encountered so many outstanding Chinese children’s books and I couldn’t help but ponder: why don’t American children have the opportunities to see these books? Why aren’t these books (many of them short picture books) translated and are made readily available in the United States?

Manager Li, who invited me to review the children’s book output in China, said to me one day, “Our best children’s books are as good as the best American books.” And he is right!  But, there is simply not room for these books on the American market.

Why aren’t there more foreign books available in English to American Children?

To answer this bluntly: because much of the U.S. Children’s Book Market exists to support the livelihood of Proper American Authors. Which is completely reasonable and understandable. American Children’s publishers are American. They should take care of their/our own first.  They should definitely put priority on publishing American authors: outstanding, mediocre, or even not that good.

Scouring major children’s book review publications, one can easily see how many children’s books are considered “unworthy” by critics, but are nevertheless published and promoted by the American Children’s Publishers.  (As to what effects this “taking care of our own talents” has on the worldview of the young readers, that’s a totally different, full length blog post coming your way soon!)

But who are the Proper American Authors and Illustrators?

Whom do American Publishers believe deserving priority and support?  Whom do I believe deserving my priority and support — as a reader, as a reviewer, and as an educator?

I have been a harsh judge of books written by non-white authors, especially Asian American authors. Perhaps because I am Chinese and want to feel, oh, so proud of my Chinese & Asian heritage, that I see mediocrity (or pretty much anything below stellar) as a personal disappointment.  I often point out the issues of in-authenticity or pedestrian literary quality of an OK (or more than OK) book that is actually a much needed addition to the diversity pool.  I absolutely believed that diversity topics needed to be packaged within outstanding, excellent books, otherwise, hmm…they kind of reek of hidden or overt agenda and to me, that was a no-no.

This harsh critic mentality is akin to the wisdom passed down from black parents to their black sons and daughters to “behave 200% more politely, talk 200% more eloquently, and dress 200% better” just to have a chance to be treated equally as their white counterparts.  I wanted every single book by Asian American authors to have not only solid character development, not only well-crafted passages, and not only a great plotline: I NEEDED them to be stellar in every possible way and all aspects! Because, how else could we convince the world of our worth?

Recently, I began to wonder, to doubt my former convictions.

I have noticed that any flaw belonging to an underrepresented group is often enlarged ten folds and is seen as evidence of the shortcomings of the entire group; while the flaws found among the protective multiplicity of the dominant/majority group are often made less significant and almost never viewed as the weaknesses of the entire group.  Perhaps this was why I thought that it’s totally all right for the many pedestrian, mediocre, and sometimes even downright bad “majority books” to take up precious space of the marketplace?

But not any more.  And especially not after reading these words from Camryn Garrett on her blog: For All the Girls Who Are Half Monster:

White mediocrity: This is more of a concept, but I’m happy to explain. While there are white authors who are amazing and fantastic and produce great works, there are also white authors who…are just okay. Or even bad. But they’re celebrated and given awards and praise for being mediocre.

Meanwhile, people of color are held to actual standards (that sounds rude, but whatever.) They have to work to be good, and sometimes that isn’t enough. Basically, white authors can get on the NYT Bestseller List for being “okay.” A Hispanic author has to be “fantastic” to get the same thing. White authors have to be “fantastic” to win a National Book Award. Black authors have to be “outstanding” to be considered.

I didn’t want to start any fight – not in the Boxing Ring, literal or metaphorical.  But, at the same time, things must be said, and concepts must be challenged. Let the conversation continue!


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Notes from Beijing: Chinese Children’s Books and Other Thoughts, Part 1

FCLBeijingThese thoughts went through my mind as I visited Beijing and the International Book Fair with a focus on the local books published for the Chinese young readers.

First, simply about communication and information exchanges.

It was quite an education for me to truly understand that the “WORLD” wide web as I see and use it is definitely NOT so “world wide.”   YouTube, Google-platform, Facebook, and Twitter are all inaccessible in China, unless someone has installed IP masking devices (VPN, etc.)   So, when I tweet or share something on Facebook from New York City, I cannot guarantee to reach the millions of potential internet users in China.  According to the editor of one of the publishers, Fairrosa Cyber Library site often shows up without her being able to load the included images — and no YouTube videos can be displayed either. Furthermore, since my recent reports on Newbery & Caldecott winning publishers feature Google spreadsheet graphs (pie-charts), the information, without a plain text summary, was inaccessible to the Chinese readers of my blog.

Although I always knew about the differences in accessibilities of certain sites in China, experiencing it first hand definitely made me think twice about my comfortable assumptions.

Another striking realization came after I spoke with several representatives of major children’s book publishers: either with the editors, publishers, or rights managers: each told me that they have all sold their best titles internationally.  Upon further inquiry, “internationally” means Korea and other Asian countries such as the Philippines, and France, and other European countries such as Germany.  They almost NEVER meant North America, especially The United States.  They all told a similar tale: the U.S. publishers of children’s books only wish to sell Chinese language rights and have the books available in China for sale; very rarely would a U.S. publisher seriously consider buying and translating Chinese originals into English editions for American children.  I wonder if this situation will change any time soon?

I have always noticed that translated children’s books are scarce on the U.S. market and felt sad that the U.S. children do not have the same level of exposure to world literature and diverse viewpoints and sensibilities that I had the good fortune to have, growing up in a small island country.  I read books translated from all over. Some of my all time favorite books that were re-read many times were from Italy (Heart or Education of Love), France (Arsène Lupin: Gentleman Thief series), Cuba (Malfada – a satirical comic strip series), Japan (manga) and India (Buddhist allegories.)  And while there have always been publishers who work hard at bringing books from other cultures to the U.S., there seems to be some difficulty to sell these titles when the cultural landscape and sensibilities differ greatly from the everyday, presumed mindset of the U.S. children.

Case in point: One thing I noticed was how the strong Chinese tradition of not shying away from sad endings remains evident even in picture books for fairly young children.  Tragedy is quite common in traditional Chinese literature, theater, and now TV shows and movies, and children are often familiar with many somber tales.

Take these two books by Cao Wenxuan (曹文轩) for example:

lastpatherThe Last of the Panthers shows the devastating scenario of the “last” of many species and there is no uplifting or hopeful ending when our Panther gives up on itself and falls into the perpetual sleep.  It is heart wrenching but so effective.  A young person reading the simple text and looking at these gorgeous pictures would acutely feel the pang of loss of such majestic animal and might be inspired to be more responsible in caring for our natural world.
kingofthecapAnother title is the Hat King.  A story set during the Sino-Japanese war when the boy and his grandfather (a magician skilled in “hat tricks”) had to endure the deaths of the boy’s parents at the concentration camp and even when they successfully escaped from the camp, they had no house to go back to any more.  And that’s how the tale ends. This is a story almost never told to the children in the U.S. It’s powerful and bleak — but it’s also real and full of familiar affection.

Will either of these titles, which are top-selling picture books, or dozens of other quality peers, ever find their way to the general U.S. mass market? And if and when they do, will they be translated faithfully and stay intact?


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Who Publishes Newbery Winning Titles (1996-2015)?

Last Monday, I published the statistics of Caldecott publishers from the last 20 years.  This week, I offer the results of my spreadsheeting for The Newbery Award.  Sampled years: 1996 to 2015 (20 years.)  Two comparative highlights:

The Newbery gold and silver medals have gone to fewer publishers than the Caldecott medals.  (28/13 for Newbery and 32/17 for Caldecott.)

The Newbery Gold Medal winners are mostly female while women have only won four Caldecott gold.  (13x vs 4x)

Again I ask the Children’s Lit experts in the field to correct information when you spot errors so I can update and make this report more accurate for everyone.

Summary by the number, from 1996 to 2015:


  • 84 Winning and Honored Titles total (20 winner and 64 honor)
  • 19 Individuals won — (Kate DiCamillo won the gold medal twice.)
  • 12 women are named award winners (63%)
  • 4 Winners are POC: Kwame Alexander, Christopher Paul Curtis, Cynthia Kadohata, and Linda Sue Park
  • 41 Honor titles are written by women and 23 are written by men (64% vs 36%).
  • Multiple winners of Gold + Silver seals: 4 times: Jacqueline Woodson; 3 times: Christopher Paul Curtis (1 gold), Kate DiCamillo (1 gold), Jennifer Holm; 2 times: Richard Peck (1 gold), Jack Gantos (1 gold), Nancy Farmer, Sharon Creech (1 gold), Kevin Henkes, Laura Amy Schlitz (1 gold), Jim Murphy, Gary D. Schmidt, and Patricia Reilly Giff.

Imprints & Publishers

  • 28 Different Imprints
  • 13 Different Publishers after consolidation*

* Please bear in mind that due to the nature of large companies incorporating smaller publishers with previous wins, the accounting can not be perfect.  (FSG, for example, was independent, then part of Macmillan.)

Also recognize that children’s book publishing is a small world and there are but a few dozen companies operating in the U.S., eligible for the award.

Here are the two charts I made.

Newbery Wins by Imprint

The reddish area represents about 50% of the total, split between 7 imprints while 21 other imprints share the rest 50%.  Clarion had a large share and now counts as part of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. FSG did exceedingly well as a small publishing house (Frances Foster and Melanie Kroupa were both acknowledged as their imprints) before becoming part of Macmillan.  So did Henry Holt, now also part of Macmillan.

Nancy Paulsen, Joanna Cotler, Frances Foster, Richard Jackson,Melanie Kroupa, and Wendy Lamb are all editors with their own named imprints, making up for almost 10% of the total.

Newbery Wins by Publisher

The reddish area represents about 89.5% of the total, split between 8 publishers while 5 other publishers took home 10% (7 titles) of the win. Penguin and Random House are still counted separately even though they are technically merged.  Together, these two publishers combined would have 30% (25 titles) share of the total wins for the last 20 years.  Front Street is no longer a stand-along publisher and their backlist titles are now sold by Boyds Mills and also absorbed into Namelos, under the steerage of Steven Roxburgh, former publisher of Front Street.


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Who Publishes Caldecott Winning Titles (1996-2015)?

Inspired by Barbara Genco’s Caldecott by the numbers: Brooklyn edition (math is fun!), I did a little bit of my own unscientific investigation playing with a spreadsheet and a couple of charts: for the past 20 years of Caldecott winners and honor titles.  There are people more knowledgeable about the publisher/imprint situation and also where they are located (and were located when each individual title won the award) so please feel free to comment and correct.  I will update the blog entry when corrections are received and verified.

Summary by the number, from 1996 to 2015:


  • 87 titles received gold and silver medals (20 winner, 67 honor)
  • 18 individual Caldecott winning illustrators (David Wiesner and Chris Raschka both won twice)
  • 4 women were named medal winners (20%)
  • Out of the 67 honored titles, some illustrators were named more than once like Jerry Pinkney: 4x, Mo Willems, Brian Collier, and Peter Sis: 3x, Kadir Nelson, Melissa Sweet, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, Jon Klassen, 2x — not an exhaustive list, and some honored illustrators were also winners in other years, such as Jon Klassen, Brian Selznick, and David Wiesner.
  • 58 out of the 87 titles are illustrated by men (67%)

Imprints & Publishers

  • 32 individually named imprints
  • 17 publishers were named (after some consolidation*)
  • 10 titles are from publishers that do not operate mainly from the NYC offices – as to the best of my knowledge: Candlewick: 4x, Chronicle: 1x, Eerdmans: 2x, Harcourt: 3x, Beach Lane: 1x (11%)

* Please bear in mind that due to the nature of large companies incorporating smaller publishers with previous wins, the accounting can not be perfect.  (Roaring Brook, for example, was independent, then part of Millbrook, and now part of Macmillan, which in turn is actually a part of an even bigger company, Holtzbrinck Publishing Group.)

Also recognize that children’s book publishing is a small world and there are but a few dozen companies operating in the U.S., eligible for the award.

Here are the two charts I made.  If you can’t see them here, please click on the links.

Caldecott Wins: By Imprint — The reddish area represents about 60% of the pie

Caldecott Wins: By Publisher — The reddish area represents about 87% of the pie

The information gathered for these charts are from the Official Caldecott Award Page. Readers might find it of interest to browse older winners and honor titles and discovered more facts, such as:

Finding some publishing names no longer with us: Lothrop, Bradbury, Scribner, Four Winds and the “original” Macmillan Children’s publishing group.

Some years the same publisher is awarded 2-3 times, for example: Orchard in 1997, 3 wins; Macmillan in 1972, 3 wins; Harper in 1971 2 wins

Before 1980s, Newbery and Caldecott were the SAME committee.


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