Thursday, March 5, 2015

1 Editor Stacy Whitman of Tu Books Discusses Diversity in YA, What She's Searching For, and Her Favorite Books

I am thrilled to introduce Stacy Whitman who has provided us with an incredible interview.

Stacy Whitman is the founder and publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books that publishes diverse fantasy, science fiction, and mystery for children and young adults. Books she has edited include Joseph Bruchac’s AILA YA Award and Top Ten Quick Picks titleKiller of Enemies, and Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, which received a starred review from School Library Journaland has been placed on numerous lists, including the Amelia Bloomer Project, School Library Journal’s Best of 2012 List, and the Lone Star Reading List. Stacy holds a master’s degree in children’s literature from Simmons College.

1. What drew you to publishing? Why specifically diverse books?
I’ve always been a big reader, but I didn’t know that publishing was possible for me as a kid. I spent most of my after-school time at the library or up a tree, reading a book. Or riding a book on the back of a horse. Getting my first job in children’s books was a long, winding road. I actually grew up poor, on a farm, and was an animal science pre-vet major my freshman year in college. No one I knew worked in publishing—I had no idea it was a viable career choice. When you come from where I come from, practical majors in agribusiness or engineering are generally what you’re encouraged to study. 
And even in college when I started seeing writing and editing as a viable path, I didn’t realize books were a possibility for me until much further down the road. It took me almost 8 years within my undergrad journey (I took time off to work several times during my undergrad years) until I came to the point of realizing that working in children’s books was something I could and would want to do. By that time, I nearly had a bachelor’s in child development, and a really great teacher helped me realize that all those part-time and full-time jobs I’d been holding down just to pay the bills because office jobs were easier than shoveling manure at the college dairy farm—working for the local paper, transcribing overland trails journals for the college library special collections department, typesetting college textbooks, and proofreading phone books for a living (yes, I used to edit the phone book)—would combine with my degree to give me the chance to do something I actually wanted to do: create books for children and teens, the kinds of books that made such a difference for me as a kid.
As far as diversity in the books I publish, part of that was personal experience with all the college roommates I had along the way (many of whom were American POCs or from other countries), who taught me how to see the world from a different perspective, combined with a desire to learn about the world through books and seeing a glaring gap in the stories I was reading—I started noticing the stories I *wasn’t* reading. At Mirrorstone, which is the imprint of Wizards of the Coast I worked at right out of my master’s in children’s lit—my first editorial job in children’s books—my senior editor emphasized that she wanted to see diverse characters in the books I acquired because librarians were always asking what we had in the way of diversity at library conferences. It felt natural to seek diversity, but I was pretty clueless at first about white privilege and centering the stories of people of color. The more I’ve learned over the years, the more I’ve been passionate about diversity in the books I publish. 
Starting Tu Books was a natural extension of that learning process, borne out of a desire to use the power I have as an editor for good, to help make fantasy and science fiction, in particular, a more welcoming place for readers of color. We’ve expanded out to other genres since starting in 2010.

2. What do you look for in a submission? 
I look for good writing first and foremost—strong voice, in particular. I also want to see strong worldbuilding, characters I want to root for (which is not the same as “relatable,” which I don’t want to use—sometimes characters aren’t relatable, but you still care what happens to them, and root for them to succeed). I like culturally specific content, as appropriate to the story being told—whether the book is “about race” or “about culture” doesn’t matter so much that what content there is is specific and accurate. So whether there’s a lot of cultural content (such as the Slovak content in VODNIK by Bryce Moore, which is about a boy who can see characters from Slovak folklore, one of which is trying to drown him and save his soul in a teacup) or really not that much (such as the Chinese and Nordic content in CAT GIRL’S DAY OFF by Kimberly Pauley, which mentions the main character’s heritage very briefly and moves right along with the rest of the story about a girl who can talk to cats saving a celebrity blogger from kidnapping), as long as it works for the story, that’s what matters.

3. Do you feel that representation of diversity in YA is gaining ground? Is there a particular group that is more often ignored, misrepresented, or avoided?
That’s a hard question to answer right now. It’s definitely a hopeful sign that the CCBC numbers that just came out indicate a nice boost to certain groups’ numbers, as far as characters who are being written about. But the gains in authorship by people of color aren’t nearly as big. (And, note, those numbers are all children’s books—picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and YA, so it’s hard to pin down exactly how we’re doing in YA.) 
So as far as representation of authors, we have a long, long way to go. I’m very happy that white authors are just as excited these days about We Need Diverse Books as authors of color, but I think it’s also important for me and my fellow editors to be seeking authors of color and publishing them. And we in publishing—from the marketing and sales staffs to the booksellers on the other end—need to be promoting a wide variety of voices so that new voices of color aren’t lost in the shuffle. We’re nowhere near equity yet.
As far as groups you rarely hear from in YA, I am seeking Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander voices in particular because we don’t see much of them out there even in comparison to other groups. In addition, Native American representation is often hard to find, and even today, much of what you find in new books relies on stereotypes. So I seek to change that in the books I publish.

4. How do you feel about authors writing characters of different ethnicities and backgrounds?
If the writing is great, awesome!—with a few caveats. I have no problem publishing a wonderful book by a writer who is not from the background they’re writing about, as long as the author has done the necessary research, and done a good job. We evaluate that not just in the quality of the writing and of any sources the writer depended upon, but also by sending manuscripts out to expert readers from those communities, who give us critical feedback.
However, I also feel very strongly that should center the voices of marginalized writers. In fantasy and science fiction, that can be a challenge, so I reach out to those communities and share calls for submissions, and I’ve started a writing contest, the New Visions Award, to seek new writers of color. We just announced our most recent finalists, and will be picking this year’s winner in April. Debut authors of color who missed this last year should be working on their manuscripts for when we open again in June.

5. What do you recommend for authors nervous about writing a diverse character because of a fear of not being able to do her justice or accidentally misrepresenting something in a different culture?
First of all, no one should be writing diversity if they don’t feel qualified. The first step for writing cross-culturally is to *get* qualified, whatever that looks like for you. I’ve forgotten who said it, but someone said that you shouldn’t feel qualified to write about a community until you’ve “held their babies.” Sometimes that’s not possible in a literal sense—especially when you’re talking about writing about history; your research might involve more library time than holding literal or metaphorical babies—but the principle of spending time in the community you want to write about, really coming to understand people from the inside rather than from an outsider’s perspective, is hugely important.
A great place to start when thinking about writing from a cultural perspective not your own is Nisi Shawl’s excellent essays, “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation” and “Transracial Writing for the Sincere." In an ideal world, you want to be at a “guest” status—and not an imagined one. I’ve known a few white writers who have trampled on cultures they consider themselves a part of, who say that the people in the culture are fine with what they do, when in fact the culture is not known for telling someone to their face that they’re being offensive. No one wants to be in that position. No one wants to be the person who has committed a microaggression or outright aggression—few people go into writing about another culture intending to cause offense or pain, but it happens. So understanding power dynamics, understanding what microaggressions are and how not to culturally appropriate, and how to politely learn about a culture not your own—these are all really important before you start writing. 
Don’t let fear of blundering hold you back, either—accept that you will likely blunder, and that to err is human. We all make blunders, but learning how to apologize and do better next time is also very important. Learn to listen and respond politely to feedback before you publish, and to change what needs to change. And learn that even after doing all you can, you will make mistakes. Learn from them and move on to do better next time. 
I recently presented on this topic at New York Winter SCBWI, and blogged a recap of my session over at the Lee & Low blog. Check that out for further links & reading.

6. What are you looking for currently?
We’re still relatively new (we are 5 years old in March), so if a writer wants to know what we’d be interested in, take a look at the list of books we’ve published so far  and make sure that your submission isn’t *too* close to what we’ve already published. And be aware of trends that are waning. For example, I’m not terribly interested in dystopias right now—we’ve published a 3-book dystopian series and an anthology centered on dystopian stories, and right now, with so many dystopias out there, it’s just not something I’m interested in right now. 
I am looking in particular for books with a strong adventurous streak, whatever the genre, and possibly a strong romance storyline. We’re open to science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction—and I love genre mash-ups. I love, for example, historical fiction set in a real-world setting but with a magical or steampunk twist. I’d love to see a steampunk set in colonial India or Hong Kong, addressing colonialism from a native worldview. I’d love to see more African American and African diaspora stories of all stripes, particularly futuristic (not dystopian—perhaps set in space!) or a contemporary fantasy drawing upon Gullah or Creole cultures and folklores. There’s such a wide variety of possibilities.
Most of all, I am looking for writers who are people of color themselves. While I welcome writers of all backgrounds who write well cross-culturally, I want to boost the voices of marginalized communities.

7. What are some of your favorite books and why?
This is one of the hardest questions to answer, because I have SO MANY. Can’t pin them all down! Growing up and through college, I loved Diana Wynne Jones, Robin McKinley, Robert Jordan, and other high fantasy authors of their ilk. One of the biggest reasons is the folkloric connection in high fantasy. I used to reread Franny Billingsley’s THE FOLK KEEPER in college because I just LOVED the connection to Irish folklore. My own ancestry includes Swedish, Irish, Scottish, English, Prussian, and German roots, along with—I discovered later—a very tiny connection to Cherokee and Choctaw people (though those ancestors could well have been lying about their deceased mother’s ancestry to gain land in Indian Country, so I don’t *identify* as that). I tell you that because I am a family historian and I loved to read books connected to the culture of the people I come from. But reading that high fantasy voraciously also brought out to me just how little I know about the folklore of other places in the world, and how much I’d love to read fantasy set in those cultures.
So, more recently, one of my favorites is Cindy Pon’s SILVER PHOENIX, which opens that kind of world to me in a Chinese-related setting. 
On the science fiction side, a recent favorite is Shannon Hale’s DANGEROUS, which stars a Latina character who also has a disability who saves the world from aliens. I’m all about superheroes! On my list up next is Gene Luen Yang’s THE SHADOW HERO for that reason.

8. What book/author are you most proud of working with?
It’s really hard to pick any one particular book! I am very proud of the recognition that KILLER OF ENEMIES by Joseph Bruchac has gotten in the last couple of years—it was a QuickPicks Top Ten title, as well as winning the American Indian Youth Literature Award for YA book—as well as the starred review and multiple lists that SUMMER OF THE MARIPOSAS by Guadalupe Garcia McCall has been recognized with. These accolades are great because many of them are showing a connection to the readers themselves, at how these books have been hitting a gap our teens need filled.
I am also very excited about our new spring title, INK AND ASHES by Valynne Maetani, which is our first mystery title and the winner of our first New Visions Award contest. It’s already receiving wonderful blurbs from other authors, and is a Junior Library Guild selection.
But as far as an author I’m most proud of working with, they’re all important. They have each made excellent books, no matter the accolades received.

1 comment:

  1. I've enjoyed this journey, thus far, into becoming an author. Sadly, I can say that as a person of color, I can see the underrepresentation in both MC's and authors of color. But strides are being made and I appreciate editors like Stacy opening doors.


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