(Guest post by Becky Flansburg; Project Manager for MCBD)
Not long ago, I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing publisher, Philip Lee. As one of the former founders of Lee & Low Books, Philip left the company in 2004 to create his own publishing house, Readers to Eaters, in 2009. It was Philip that clued me in on a big milestone for Lee & Low Books that I felt really needed to be shouted from the rooftops. Lee & Low Books has always had a passion and commitment to diversity in children’s literature and publishing exec, Jason Low, spent some time with us to share his thoughts on diversity and a very exciting milestone for one particular Lee & Low book.
Lee & Low Book’s connection to Multicultural Children’s Book Day began way back when MCBD first began. Our non-profit has always been in awe of this diverse children’s book publisher’s passion and commitment to children’s literature.
Lee & Low Books is the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the country, and one of the few minority-owned publishing companies in the United States. They offer books for all young readers, from leveled books for beginning readers through middle grade and young adult novels. They also publish several bilingual books, as well as books in other languages. Their books reflect the diversity and richness of the United States. LEE & LOW BOOKS is more than just a publisher: it is a leader in the movement for more diversity in literature.
The Exciting News
The “milestone” that I discovered was impending was the 25th anniversary of Lee & Low’s very first published book, Baseball Saved Us.
The 25th anniversary of anything is a big deal, but it’s even bigger when it’s a company connected to a shared mission and vision. Thrilled and excited, I reached out to my connection at Lee & Low who in turn put me in touch with exec, Jason Low. Jason generously agreed to share his thoughts on the 25th Anniversary of Baseball Saved Us, some points of pride with his company and also his thoughts on the advancement of diversity in children’s literature. Enjoy!
Q & A With Lee & Low Books’ Jason Low
Becky: Walk me briefly through Lee & Low’s timeline and what year you came on board.
JL: I joined the company in 1997. I was employee #6. By then, Lee & Low Books had established itself as a promising small publisher of quality multicultural books. At the time, one of Lee & Low’s biggest challenges was finding diverse authors and illustrators and developing stories. Many of the limitations we faced back then mainly had to do with size, or lack thereof. Everyone wore many hats. As a result, we struggled to cover the basics like keeping publication dates and sending out review copies on time. The early years were an exciting time too! The lack of resources forced us to prioritize and innovate. Working with a modest budget required us to come up with creative solutions and guerrilla marketing techniques. There is no better way to learn how to run a business than to work for a startup.
Becky: This month is the 25th anniversary of Lee & Low’s release of their very first book, Baseball Saved Us. What does this milestone mean to you personally? To the company?
JL: Baseball Saved Us will always symbolize for us how it all began. The book broke new ground by making the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II personnel. It is an underdog story set in an era of overt racism, seen through the clear-eyed innocence of a child, with America’s favorite pastime acting as a backdrop. Baseball Saved Us set the bar for us editorially, and as the years advanced, our instincts developed further, telling us what other stories still needed to be told. Our focus on ethnicity eventually widened to include other marginalized groups like LGBT and people with disabilities. “About everyone ~ For everyone” became our motto. As the business matures, we remember everything, from the highs to the lean years we had to endure. These memories give us an appreciation for where we are today. The early years taught us how to get by with less, but now that we have the means to do more for our books, it is an exciting time.
Becky: Was there any specific reason this book was chosen to be Lee & Low’s first offering?
JL: New publishers are typically focused on finding great manuscripts and publishing them as soon as possible. The chicken-and-egg model would apply here—no books = no sales. This hand-to-mouth kind of publishing persisted for a number of years. In the beginning, there was no master plan. Baseball Saved Us was one of three books ready for release in our debut year.
Becky: Do you have something special in mind to celebrate/recognize this milestone?
JL: We are working on a 25th Anniversary edition of Baseball Saved Us to commemorate this milestone. It will be released in Fall 2018.
Becky: Lee & Low has such an amazing reputation for producing impactful and quality books for readers. This is a tall order, but can you pinpoint 3-5 books that Lee & Low has published that you feel really made an impact on readers?
JL: Aside from Baseball Saved Us? I’d go with:
By G. Neri
Illustrated by Randy DuBurke
By Monica Brown
Illustrated by Sara Palacios
By Jen Johnson
Illustrated by Sonia Sadler
By Guadalupe Garcia McCall
By Tony Medina
Illustrated by Stacey Robinson, John Jennings
*Note: I Am Alfonso Jones is a new graphic novel, so it remains to be seen what long-term impact this book will have on readers. However, the book has already been included on lists like the New York Public Library’s Best Books for Teens and the Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens from the American Library Association (ALA), so we believe it is destined to go far.
Becky: Back in 2015, Lee & Low did a study on the Diversity Gap that showed that, despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, only 10% of children’s books published have diversity content. Do you feel these stats have shifted over the last 3 years?
JL: Yes and no. See our reactions and thoughts here: http://blog.leeandlow.com/2017/03/30/the-diversity-gap-in-childrens-book-publishing-2017/
Becky: If you could let readers know ONE THING about Lee & Low, what would that one thing be?
JL: If you are searching for authentic, quality, diverse books with plenty of heart, Lee & Low Books is the publisher for you. Pass it on.
Jason Low is the publisher and a co-owner of LEE & LOW BOOKS, the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the United States. Jason has spoken at national conferences like American Library Association and Texas Library Association. He has presented at universities such as Princeton, Pratt, and NYU about the importance of inclusion in children’s books. In addition to publishing award-winning books, the company initiated a series of Diversity Gap Studies, which revealed a lack of representation across industries like film, television, and theater. Lee & Low also spearheaded the first Diversity Baseline Survey to measure diversity in publishing staff, the results of which have become an often referred to benchmark by academics and major media alike. In 2016, the Eric Carle Museum selected Lee & Low as the recipient of its Angel Award for the company’s dedication to artists and authors who offer children both mirrors and windows to the world.