(Guest post from Barefoot Books)
I (Becky) can’t remember what came first; me discovering a gorgeous book called The Length of String, or author Elissa Weissman reaching out to MCBD to share news of this novel with us.
Either way, the moment I saw the cover and the summary of the story, I couldn’t hit the “Buy” button fast enough.
The Length of a String is about a black, adopted, Jewish girl who discovers her great-grandmother’s diary from World War II. Part of the book is the diary itself, which takes place mostly in Brooklyn in 1941. This historical story alternates with the contemporary story of Imani in present-day Baltimore, reading the diary and beginning to think about family in a new way.
Elissa is also the author of the awesome Nerd Camp series that has garnered rave reviews from School Library Journal and The Horn Book.
Imani knows exactly what she wants as her big bat mitzvah gift: to find her birth parents. She loves her family and her Jewish community in Baltimore, but she has always wondered where she came from, especially since she’s black and almost everyone she knows is white. Then her mom’s grandmother–Imani’s great-grandma Anna–passes away, and Imani discovers an old journal among her books. It’s Anna’s diary from 1941, the year she was twelve and fled Nazi-occupied Luxembourg alone, sent by her parents to seek refuge in Brooklyn, New York. Anna’s diary records her journey to America and her new life with an adoptive family of her own. And as Imani reads the diary, she begins to see her family, and her place in it, in a whole new way. Engrossing, heartfelt, and captivating from start to finish, The Length of a String combines contemporary and historical fiction in one moving story that shows family is far more than genetics. (for ages 10-14)
When we asked Elissa what her inspiration for THE LENGTH OF A STRING was, she had the most interesting story to share!
“The inspiration for The Length of a String came from three different places,” she recalled. “Growing up, one of my closest friends had been adopted from Mexico. She and her sister, who was adopted from within the U.S., were raised Jewish, like me. Thinking about their experience—especially what it might be like to look different from everyone else at Hebrew school—gave me the idea for Imani.”
Elissa then shared that the second idea came from an episode of “The Diane Rehm Show” on NPR in which many people were calling in and sharing their stories about being children of Holocaust survivors. One caller revealed that her grandparents had saved up money to send their children to America, but they could only afford to send two. When they got to the boat, the smuggler said, “Sorry, the price just doubled.” Now they could only afford to send one.
“I heard that and immediately began thinking about the story of the young girl who had to go to America by herself. It gave me the idea for Imani’s great-grandmother, Anna,” she added.
The third piece of this wonderful book came from Elissa’s own family history. “When I started writing the books, I was fortunate to still have four living grandparents, three of whom grew up in New York City in the 1930s and 40s. I sat down with them and recorded them talking about their childhoods and, with my Grandpa Marty, his career as a furrier. I was excited about the opportunity to incorporate their memories and stories into a book. But I’d never written anything historical before, and I was intimidated by the research involved. I decided to try combining my contemporary, adopted-character idea with my historical idea as a way to ease myself into this book. Once I started writing, I realized that the two stories were meant to go together all along”
I (Becky) have just started digging into this book and I can assure you, I’m hooked. Putting this book down to get some work done is going to be a challenge! When I asked Elissa what she wanted teachers, librarians, and parents to know about The Length of String, she had this to say;
“Though a good portion of the book takes place during World War II, this is not your typical Holocaust story. Also, the ending is really good!” she shared. “The Length of a String is different from my other books—it’s for slightly older readers, it contains a historical story in addition to a contemporary one, and the subject matter is more serious, though it still contains a good amount of my trademark humor.”
Elissa Brent Weissman is an award-winning author of novels for young readers. Best known for the popular Nerd Camp series, she and her books have been featured in Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, NPR’s “Here and Now,” and more. Named one of CBS Baltimore’s Best Authors in Maryland, Elissa lives in Baltimore City, where she teaches creative writing to children, college students, and adults. Learn more at ebweissman.com.
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(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 “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!
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.
The last On My Desk of 2017!
But don’t worry…there’s no shortage of awesome books to share!
This series got started because, with my role as Project Manager, I get to enjoy the avalanche of amazing multicultural books for kids that are donated to our project. My office currently looks like a small bookstore and I love every second of it.
Being appreciative over every book that crosses my desk, I wanted to find a fun way to share those books with the loyal folks who show up here to read every week and support this non-profit. In that moment, On My Desk | New Diverse Kids’ Books to Consider was born! It’s my way of sharing some amazing titles that don’t always get the attention they deserve. [Read more…]
A few months ago I shared that, because of my role as Project Manager, I get the honor of seeing and reading a TON of amazing multicultural books for kids that are donated to our project. And as a result, I wanted to find a fun way to share those books with the loyal folks who show up here to read every week and support this non-profit.
I am so proud of how well this series has taken off and even more pleased at the enthusiastic reactions of the authors and the readers every time I offer up a new “load” of Diverse Picture Books that the Mailman Book Fairy brought me. This week is no different 🙂