When looking for new titles by authors of color or books that feature kids of color, searching the websites of small independent publishers is a must. This year 5 of the 16 Latino authors were published by small independent presses.
For Latino authors when of the first indies I think of is Cinco Puntos Press. This year they published Mr. Mendonza's Paintbrush by Luis Alberto Urrea. They have also published two YA novels by one of the best YA authors out now, Benjamin Alire Saenz.
Lee Byrd is the co owner and co founder of Cinco Puntos Press. After I asked three questions. Byrd was kind enough to share her thoughts.
1. When you started Cinco Puntos Press with your husband, did you know it was going to be a multicultural press?
2. There were 16 Latino MG/YA authors published in 2010. 5 were published by small independent houses, including Mr. Mendoza's Paintbrush, which is a CPP title.
Why do you think independent presses have always been responsible for a large percentage of titles published by authors of color?
3. In her article Mayra Lazara Dole mentions the need for more diverse Latino stories. Is CPP receiving diverse submissions from YA Latino authors?
Thanks for coming to Cinco Puntos to ask these questions. They raise a lot of issues. I went back over Mayra's very interesting article and the comments the article evoked. She makes important points, but I also think that writers and readers need to recognize that publishing is an evolving process. I know that every book we've ever published has taken us to new places and new understandings. Publishing is very creative work. These understandings sure weren't there when we first started out. As a matter of fact, when we first started Cinco Puntos Press in 1985 here in El Paso, we really didn't know the first thing about publishing or about children's books or about multicultural literature (I don't think that word was around much in 1985). We knew that we were sick and tired of working for other people and wanted to try our hand at publishing (about which we knew nothing). What we did know was a whole lot of writers and since we were writers ourselves (I write fiction and Bobby is a poet) we knew what we liked and what we didn't like. Because we didn't know what we were doing or what direction we were going in, we just assumed, I think, that we would publish fiction and poetry.
Our first book was a collection of short stories called Winners on the Pass Line by our friend Dagoberto Gilb. At that time, we really didn't know the first thing about distribution or publicity or contracts, as a matter of fact. Our second book was a poetry chapter book by Joe Somoza. Then Bobby met storyteller Joe Hayes in New Mexico. Bobby was doing poetry in the schools and Joe had several years before set out in the schools to tell stories. Since he was raised on the U.S./Mexico border in Benson, Arizona, Joe is bilingual and loved telling all the stories he heard as a kid. We asked him if we could publish a book of his (he had already published a few of his own) and he said we really needed to publish La Llorona, because the kids loved it, and we needed to publish it in a bilingual format.
La Llorona set us off in a completely different direction. It has actually been our all-time best selling book. It was from La Llorona and subsequent bilingual books that we saw that we would be able to sustain this business by publishing books for kids, mostly bilingual books, but that poetry and fiction were not going to keep us afloat. As our business has grown and changed and as publishing has changed too, we find ourselves looking for books for young adults written by people of color. We've also had good success with non-fiction that deals with issues on the U.S. Mexico border. But, to our sorrow, we do very little adult fiction or poetry. Not only is publishing creative, it's also a balancing act, looking for work you love, that you hope and pray will find an audience.
In ensuing years, we published more biligual books by Joe Hayes, whose instincts with stories we always trusted because he spends so much of his time telling stories to kids. We were lucky to have Benjamin Alire Saenz who lives here in El Paso let us publish his kid's books and we were able to encourage him to consider publishing books for teenagers. His first YA book, wood. Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, was a real success, and continues to be a success. I think it knocked people's socks off and surprised them. Then we bumped into Choctaw storyteller Tim Tingle and he opened our eyes up to Native American work. Now we look for more Native Americans to write for young adults.
Other great and important writer voices we've published are Xavier Garza, from the Rio Grande Valley; Claudia Guadalupe Martinez, from right here in El Paso; David Romo with his important work on the Mexican Revolution; Cindy Weill, the NYC teacher whose passion is promoting folk art through early childhood books; Youme Landowne, the builder of community wherever she goes; Ilan Stavans (another YA title published this year about Cesar Chavez); Luis Urrea; Eve Tal; the Abraham-Gonzalez sisters; Jose Lozano, with his wonderful dry wit; and many others.
We are very proud of the writers we have published and honored by the fact that they bring their work to us. Bobby and I are both writers. We write our of 'place,' out of our lives and out of where we live, and because we live in El Paso on the U.S. Mexico border, we are much more sensitive to work that comes from a Mexican-American background. We don't live in New York (though I'm from New Jersey), so we are not as familiar with Cuban and Puerto Rican cultures. We've lived here for 30 years and are able to sense when a work is a mirror of this culture, when the voice is authentic, so our books seem to reflect the culture here in this part of the world.
I can't really answer the question about why indies have been responsible for a large percentage of titles published by authors of color. At Cinco Puntos, we are very interested in writers of color and in good writing. We also recognize that writers of color may not be seeing what a wonderful and important audience teenagers are and how critical it is for teens to see themselves in books. So if an author of color calls with a manuscript for kids or adults, I try to encourage them to consider writing for young adults as they continue on in their career.
When Sherman Alexie published his first YA novel,The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, he was stunned by the great YA audience out there, and especially how eager teens were to learn more about Native Americans. I think writers of color are not seeing the enormous needs for YA titles.
Actually we are interested in writers of every color. What engages us more than anything is writers writing right up out of their own lives. I think that writing like that interests us no matter what culture we find it in. We just plain love really good writing and, when we see it come in the door, we get really excited.