Lee and Low Books is the largest multicultural children's book publisher in the United States. For over 25 years their mission has been to publish contemporary diverse stories that all children can enjoy. For this Talking Race & Kids online conversation, we spoke with Lee & Low Books' Literacy Specialist, Katie Potter, who shared ideas and resources for finding and sharing such books with children. Watch the video of the session, read her tip sheet on how to use "read-alouds" to spark conversations with kids, and check out the four (4!!) children's booklists she made to help you nurture kids who embrace race. And if you're looking to put more quality multicultural children's books in the world, follow Lee & Low, ask your libraries to carry their books and/or buy their books for the kids in your life. Lastly, thanks to all of you in the EmbraceRace community who joined us for this conversation. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
EmbraceRace: Excited to be here with Katie Potter who is the literary specialist for Lee & Low Books.
Lee & Low Books is kind of more than a book publisher because they're the biggest book publisher of multicultural children's books. That's what they do. That's what they do. No adult books. I [Melissa] see them as field builders because they've been doing a lot to mentor young writers, to publish writers of color in particular and First Nation writers who were not in the pipeline, were not getting published. Katie will tell you more of it, but we really appreciate how hard that must be and what a relief it must be that we're in a moment where people want diverse books. So there's a little bit more action in that area. But there could be more, as Katie will tell you. So we're talking about books. We're talking about how to read books aloud to your kids and your students to spark conversation.
EmbraceRace: First, a little more about Katie! As the Literary Specialist at Lee & Low, Katie Potter is responsible for writing and developing the teacher's guides and educator resources. And she works also with academics and nonprofit organizations to figure out how to incorporate diverse multicultural literature into curriculum and syllabi, which is awesome. She's also an educational researcher, a teacher, a literacy instructor, and she has lots of degrees. We're really excited to have her here. Katie welcome!
Katie: Thank you so much for such a warm welcome, Melissa. I'm so excited to be here and I feel that our organizations are so aligned and I'm really excited to share more information.
[Katie presents, followed by a conversation with Andrew & Melissa of EmbraceRace and then by questions and comments from the EmbraceRace community.]
Katie: So before we, you know, dive into to the conversation I wanted to give some context to you all said about our mission as an organization. As Melissa mentioned, we are the largest multicultural children's book publisher in the country and our mission is to publish books about everyone and for everyone. I like to start with this infographic. It's the The Diversity Gap in Children's Books that we produced and it features statistics that were compiled by the Cooperative Children's Book Center. And it was updated just last year with the new publishing statistics from 2017.
Katie: And you can see here the different numbers that were generated. So while 37 percent of the U.S. population are people of color, 13 percent of children's books in the past 24 years contain multicultural content. And you can see in 2017 the number has gone up slightly but we still have a very long way to go.
So our role at Lee & Low is to really publish books that are multicultural and diverse. And that has always been our mission since we began in 1991. At the bottom you see a little bit of information and statistics about authors. So while we publish multicultural and diverse children's books, we also are really dedicated to working with new debut authors and illustrators of color. So I'll just read you this statistic here.
You'll also notice in this infographic that Black, Latino, and Native authors combined wrote only 7 percent of the new children's books published in 2017. I'm going to talk a little bit more about how we work with new authors and illustrators, specifically of color. But these are just statistics that kind of set the framework and the context for the conversation that we're going to have today.
[Find the Lee & Low's Diversity Gap in Children's Publishing graphic as well as their Diversity Baseline Study - which focuses on the publishing industry in general - and many other resources, on their blog.]
Katie: Along those lines, this is our team. We're very small. We're a family-owned, minority-owned book publisher! So you can see we have a lot of different staff from different backgrounds. We also have other fellow teachers who are staff members. So it's really nice to have that perspective when you're working specifically with children's books because we work a lot with schools and non-profit organizations and universities who are working closely with librarians and community organizations in schools. So we come from a range of backgrounds.
Katie: I wanted to talk about our editorial priorities, what we look for when we see manuscripts and also what we're publishing every year.
So we have an emphasis on people-centered stories. Children and people are always at the center of our books. And those stories should center children, people of color, and or Native children and people. So again it's a testament to our mission that those two are the first priorities that we hold true to.
We have a dedication to working with creators of color and nurturing new talent. We take unsolicited manuscripts and submissions which I think is rare in the publishing industry. We have a dedication to telling a wide range of stories in many genres as well as a commitment to cultural authenticity and accuracy, more importantly, and to keeping diverse books in print. We do not take our books out of print. That will rarely happen.
Katie: We have two awards that are exclusively for writers of color and Native nations. So the first one is The New Voices Award and that's for a picture book manuscript. And then the other one is the New Visions Award and that is for a middle grade or young adult novel submission. And you can find this out more on our Web site, at our editorial page. It also talks about how you can submit and it really breaks down the guidelines very specifically.
Now I'm going to delve into a little bit about some of the resources that we produce - those are available to everyone.
Katie: First I wanted to show the Classroom Library (or Home Library!) Questionnaire. It's called classroom library questionnaire, but you can really use it in any capacity or setting where you're working with kids and you have access to books. So it's essentially a checklist of going through your library, your inventory of books and examining what you have or more importantly what you might not have. This is a really powerful tool, not only for yourself as a caregiver or librarian or teacher, parent. It's also a great way to get kids involved and give them agency in the books that they're examining and selecting, whether it's from the library or wherever. What am I working with and what do I need more of?
As the Literacy Specialist [at Lee & Low], I also help to curate specific lists. These lists are designed with families, teachers, librarians in mind into what is needed and how we can help curate and select the books that are relevant to what's being taught in schools or what's being discussed in home settings.
I created the Social and Emotional Learning Diverse Reading List last year. It's arranged by six different themes and then broken down by grade levels. And this was in response to an overwhelming request for, what are your books that tackle social and emotional learning. And while we have so many books that do that, I really took the time to select the ones that targeted the theme that you can see in the list the most.
The Social Activism Diverse Reading List is similar. It's broken down by grade and then each book is tagged with a specific theme. Whatever you're working with- whether it's race or gender or environment. They all have specific tags. So these can be accessed at the links that I provided below.
Now we're getting to helpful selection criteria [pictured below] for a great multicultural children's book and questions that you can ask yourself whenever you're reading a book or engaging with a text. Things that you can ask before you either read it to a child or take it home. And they're mainly about really digging in and examining the roles that the characters or people are playing in the book. Really taking the time to think about where the author and illustrator come from.
Katie: Is it an #OwnVoices book, meaning does the writer come from that culture where they're writing from? Are there any possible offensive or stereotypical representations present? These are all questions that you can ask yourself when you're looking for a great multicultural children's book.
I love to share this next list whenever I present - resources for further learning about diverse books based on specific categories and themes. So you can go on to any of these websites, whether you're looking for African American books, Native books, Latinx books. There are more I'm sure, but these are the ones that I have been sharing the most. So please take the time to check these resources out. They're super helpful.
Katie: And the last resources I want to point you towards are award lists. Awards are a really great way to tap into more diverse books, current awards and archived awards. And these are all online.
As I said before and will repeat, the Lee & Low blog is a really great place to look for content. We have a lot of educator-based blog posts. We have some for caregivers - we're working to add more of our caregiver presence on the blog. Librarian posts. Also you can find out about new releases and we have tons of author and illustrator interviews which I personally love reading, about the creation of the book and where the ideas come from. So it's a really great place to read more.
how to use "read-aloud" Opportunities with kids: