Sylvia Liu is co-founder of the comprehensive children’s literature resource Kidlit411 and a picture book author whose debut A MORNING WITH GRANDPA (illustrated by Christina Forshay) won Lee & Low’s prestigious New Voices Award.
One of the most important and inspiring movements in kidlit today is diversity, so I’ve asked Sylvia to talk to us today about creating authentic stories with relatable, diverse characters. Get those pencils ready because you will want to write after you read this interview!
Sylvia, what does the movement “We Need Diverse Books” mean to you?
For me, We Need Diverse Books means that every child can easily find stories and books that are mirrors and windows. Mirrors that reflect their own stories and circumstances and windows that show other people’s stories. This means that previously underrepresented groups need to be better represented at every level of children’s books. On the supply side, we need more diverse creators and more diverse gatekeepers (agents, editors, booksellers, librarians, reviewers). On the demand side, we need a reading public that buys and demands more diverse books. To achieve these isn’t a matter of wishful thinking or good intentions, because the societal inequalities that created the lack of supply and demand ultimately need to be addressed. For example, publishing and the creative arts are professions that are still very much based in apprenticeships—i.e., you need to have enough money to take unpaid internships when you’re starting out, or to take creative risks.
What led to you entering Lee & Low’s “New Voices” contest?
I have known about the New Voices Award ever since it began in 2000 because I have been following Lee & Low for over twenty years (my college and law school friend is related to the company’s founder). Over the last five or six years that I’ve been writing picture books seriously, I have always had the award in the back of my mind. Most of my stories are not specifically geared towards multicultural or diverse topics, so I didn’t submit any until 2013, when I wrote A MORNING WITH GRANDPA. After I wrote it, I thought it would be a good fit because it told a universal story about a grandparent and grandchild’s fun and funny relationship but with specific cultural references.
“When writing a diverse story, you should not just insert a character of a certain ethnicity or race. It is about so much more.” Can you expand upon this concept?
You’re right. It’s about telling a story from deep within a point of view or culture that requires intimate knowledge or experience to that culture. It’s more than changing a name to Maria or Mei Mei. It’s inhabiting that character’s world and showing and sharing the details of that world that make it specific to the culture, ethnicity, or world view. I do believe authors are capable of writing from different perspectives and cultures other than their own, but if they do, they need to approach the story with respect and research.
Going forward, what are your hopes for diversity in children’s publishing?
In the ideal world, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. We would have all different kinds of stories written by all different kinds of people, reflecting the multiplicity of experiences–social, cultural, racial, ethnic, economic, gender, ability, and more. But in the short term, as I mentioned before, I hope that gatekeepers (editors, agents, reviewers, book sellers, librarians, parents) take seriously the emerging commitment to diversity–promoting and giving voice to people of color, LGBTQ people, and other underrepresented people in the industry through hiring, contracts, reviews, and book sales.
Sylvia, any final thoughts?
Remember that only you–a specific person on this planet with a particular worldview, background, culture, family, sense of humor, and self–can tell your stories. Don’t be afraid to share your stories with your truths and perspectives, and don’t deprive the world of them.
What an inspiring statement, Sylvia! I hope this sparks new ideas for our blog readers.
Thank you so much for sharing your “new voice” with us…and for having Lee & Low share your “New Voices” picture book!
One copy will be given away within the next two weeks. Just leave one comment below to enter. (US addresses only, please.)