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Sylvia Liusylvialiu 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!

MorningWithGrandpa_cover

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.)

Good luck!

wendyartwork

Let me introduce you to one of the hardest working illustrators in kidlit. I have known Wendy Martin for years, and during that time she has been drawing everything in sight and refining her style. Her diverse range spans from mandala coloring books to art nouveau maidens to the bright watercolors of her illustrative picture book debut, THE STORY CIRCLE/EL CIRCULO DE CUENTOS. This charming bi-lingual tale features a determined group of students who discover the power of story.

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Wendy, were there any unique challenges to illustrating a bi-lingual picture book?

I received the manuscript in English only. According to the paperwork from the publisher, the text would be translated later. Piñata Books has a fairly standard format for their picture books. Both languages of text on one side of the spread with the English and Spanish separated by a vignette, but the art notes I received wanted art to run across the border. In most cases, when I’m doing my thumbnail sketches, I leave room for text while designing each spread. In this book’s case, I had to allow for a bit more than twice the space of the English copy, because Spanish usually has more words. 
It’s a good thing the text is very short, since my illustrations take up a lot of space.

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How have you gone about marketing and promoting this book as an illustrator rather than an author?

THE STORY CIRCLE/EL CIRCULO DE CUENTOS is a wonderful book for classroom usage. But with the release date being May 30, schools have been closed for weeks already here in Missouri. I plan to use the summer months to create a contact list of school resource librarians about coming to area schools to talk about what an illustrator does and how a book is illustrated. I already do this kind of appearance via Skype school visits around the world. The author, Diane Gonzales Bertrand, is an accomplished speaker and teacher. She is promoting the book in Texas at book fairs and local children’s events. She says she is pretty uninvolved in the digital arena, so that’s where I’m focusing my marketing efforts for now. This blog tour is part of that.

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Why are picture books with diverse characters important?

I remember as a child always feeling like an outsider at story time, mainly because the characters in the books were never like me. It’s difficult to be a minority, whether it’s by culture or because of skin tone. The United States is a melting pot, where there are many, many cultures, skin tones, religions, lifestyles, what have you. No child should be made to feel as if their families, their cultures or their race are “less than” any other. If they don’t see kids like themselves, in books, doing the things that they do, in the way they do it, it is harmful to them, as well as to the children outside of that group of people. One of the reasons I was so excited to work with Piñata Books is precisely because their editorial focus is inclusive of many cultures. They do tend to lean toward the population breakdown of the Houston, Texas public school area, but since they are located there, that’s understandable.

I have kids of multiple ethnicities in my made up classroom. I loved giving each one of them a personality. I do that a lot. My characters all have backstory (in my head) as to who they are, and how they’ll act in all my books. They become “real” to me, for the length of the time it takes me to create the book. It’s always a little bit sad when I send them out into the world. Just like a mom sending any of her children off on their own.

storycirclerainThank you, Wendy, for sharing your new book–and for giving away a copy to one of our blog readers! 

Leave one comment below to be entered in the random drawing for THE STORY CIRCLE/EL CIRCULO DE CUENTOS. A winner will be selected in approximately two weeks.

Good luck and happy reading!

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COMING SOON:


BLOOP
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

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illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

"PRIVATE I" SERIES #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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