Thursday, July 14, 2011

Interview with Stacy Whitman (2011 SBBT, Day 5)

One thing I was really looking forward to this year was Tu Books, a new Lee and Low imprint that focuses on diversity for young readers in Fantasy, Science Fiction and Mystery genre. Stacy Whitman is the editorial director and founder of Tu Books. Even though Whitman's busy starting up a new imprint she still found the time to answer a few questions.

Hi, Stacy and welcome. Can you please tell us a little about your history in the publishing industry? And the beginnings of Tu Books?

Thanks! I am a farm girl, actually--grew up on a farm in Illinois raising horses and rabbits. Fast forwarding a bit, I got my master's in children's literature from Simmons College, and have worked at a newspaper, a trade magazine, an educational publisher, and Wizards of the Coast's Mirrorstone imprint for young readers, and was a freelancer when I started Tu Books

In 2009, as a result of the big #racefail discussion and while considering how we might be able to read books from Japan that hadn't been translated into English yet, a friend and I had an idea of filling a gap in children's and YA fantasy. We started playing with numbers, putting together a business plan--almost as a joke, though the more I looked at the numbers and the need, the more serious I became about it. My friend decided it wasn't for her, but I stayed with it, continuing to meet with our Small Business Administration counselor and starting a fundraiser on in hopes of raising enough money to approach a bank for a small business loan.

Meanwhile, at Lee & Low Books, they were considering how they might reach older readers, and when they saw all the excitement online that our Kickstarter campaign was attracting, publisher Jason Low got in touch and suggested that perhaps we might have similar goals. I joined Lee & Low early in 2010 and have been working on launching Tu ever since--our first books come out this fall!

I am a big fan of Lee & Low Books. How has the transition been after they acquired Tu?

Being with Lee & Low has been the perfect opportunity. Rather than having to create my own marketing, sales, and distribution plans and networks, Lee & Low already has a great reputation as a publisher of award-winning, diverse books for children. The people I work with get it, and their excitement to branch out into science fiction, fantasy, and mystery for older readers has been a huge support to me. And the best part of all, instead of the two books I'd initially been looking to publish in the first year, we plan for six books a year, with three our first season. I have all the support I need, including an intern who helps to read submissions, to enable me to make this work.

How big or small (since size is relative) is the Tu staff? And how diverse is it?

As you probably know, Lee & Low Books was founded by two Chinese American businessmen who saw that children's books needed more diversity. The company has been dedicated to diversity from day one. Our publisher, company president, and staff hail from a wide variety of ethnicities.

Tu's editorial staff is pretty small! I'm actually the only full-time editor, so being a white woman of Swedish-Irish-Scottish-English-German-Prussian descent, not much diversity there (I represent the farm-girl, rural perspective!). I have an intern who reads for me, freelancers who give feedback on manuscripts before acquisitions, and copyeditors and proofreaders who go over manuscripts before they're finalized in design. These women are from a variety of diverse backgrounds and their points of view are always helpful in asking questions I might have not thought to ask.

We also consult cultural experts to read manuscripts and give us feedback on blind spots we might be missing. Everyone at Lee & Low is dedicated to diversity in children's literature, so we all share a common mission both for Tu's books and for the Lee & Low and Bebop titles.

I love the covers of the three inaugural Tu titles, Tankborn by Karen Sandler, Wolf Mark by Joesph Bruchac and Galaxy Games by Greg R. Fishbone. The covers have a lot of eye appeal and fit the premise of their stories.

What is the cover process like? Do you use test groups?

Once the designer has read the book and I've given them suggestions from myself and the author, the process starts with the designer presenting me with sketches or mock-ups of cover concepts. If the cover is illustrated, of course, the artist might be involved with sketches. I run the concepts that I like most past several people in the office, including our publisher--who is very involved with Tu decision-making--and marketing people, and I consider all feedback.

Occasionally I might informally show a cover to a few teens with whom I work at a tutoring group in Harlem, but it's nothing official. It's nice to know, though, for example, that they all *loved* the cover of Tankborn. "That's a book that I would totally read," one said. That made me feel like we're on target. I've toyed with the idea of official test groups, and it may be something we'll consider in the future.

When will the Tankborn, Wolf Mark, and Galaxy Games be up on Tu Books website? Will excerpts be included? Where and when will Tu Books be available?

They're up now! Here are the links
Galaxy Games, Tankborn and Wolf Mark

And yes, there will be excerpts as well. All three books are available for pre-order at both Amazon and, and they'll be available in stores and online come September. They're listed as "out of stock" on the website right now, of course, because they won't be released until September, but once the release day arrives, you can order them online or find them in a bookstore near you.

The past few years there have been more middle grade and young adult fantasy novels with diverse cast. Though the number of authors of color writing fantasy is still very low. First things first, I want a good story. Period. Though I'd be lying if I said I didn't pay attention to how many middle grade and young adult authors of color are being published.

I've read some great novels with female leads written by men but I wouldn't want to be limited to female characters created by male authors. There is power in creation and everyone has a right to it.

Has Tu been doing anything to encourage authors of color to submit their work?

I've really been appreciating the recent uptick in diversity as well. Though of course the question is, are we doing much better now than we were twenty years ago? According to the CCBC, the actual numbers have held steady for over a decade. I'm glad to see more POC starring in their own stories rather than being relegated to sidekicks, but of course there's always more we could be doing. And you're right, part of doing better would be publishing more authors of color.

We've been working to reach out to a variety of writing societies for POC, such as the Carl Brandon Society, which is an African American science fiction and fantasy writers' society. I also try to encourage authors of color via calls for submission to general writing societies like SFWA and SCBWI, and in my talks on diversity at writing conferences--I try to address both encouraging authors of color to write fantasy/SF (or submit those manuscripts they might have put aside thinking there was no market for a POC main character in fantasy) and encouraging white writers to diversify their writing in a way that doesn't appropriate from other cultures.

Not to mention in my own personal networking on Twitter (@stacylwhitman), my blog, and so forth. But I'm also always looking for new places to send calls for submission, and would love suggestions for places I might have missed, particularly bloggers and online communities of writers that I might not know about.

Will Tu do its own version of the Lee and Low's New Voices Award?

I hope so! We haven't discussed it, but I think it's a good idea. We've just been focused on launching the actual imprint for now. Perhaps sometime in the future it could happen, but we don't have plans for it right now.

How does an editor edit cross-culturally?

Being an editor is kind of like being a lifelong student. You learn to look things up, to think about what you're reading critically, to figure out what you don't know and to ask questions. And there's a general awareness of diversity issues at play as I edit, things I've learned from talking about diversity issues with authors and readers online for several years and and from years of living with roommates from around the world and from different U.S. ethnicities. This awareness helps me have cultural perspective on a manuscript, to have a sort of rubric of questions I might ask a manuscript to meet in its own way (though each story is different). I try to get a sense of whether issues of privilege and racism are being played with in a way that enlightens rather than pains the reader (well, other than in ways that literarily *should* pain the reader, such as in a dystopia!). I hope I'm asking questions of authors that help them avoid pitfalls and blind spots.

But I don't think of myself as the expert--my role is to facilitate a good story and make sure that the cultural content works, up to the limits of my understanding, but I also rely on authors to have done their research and/or to speak from personal experience in their own culture. I also, as noted above, rely on cultural experts to help us fill in the gaps where the author's research might have fallen short, especially for writers who are writing cross-culturally, who may miss nuances even if they've lived in a culture as a Guest (see Nisi Shawl's excellent article delineating the theory of Invaders, Tourists, and Guests here.

If I'm an expert at anything, I hope it's an expert at asking questions that the author can translate into crafting a better book.

How has Tu Books reception been?

At ALA last month in New Orleans (the American Library Association annual conference), and the reception from librarians, I'm told, was *wonderful*. People were so excited about it--both people who knew Lee & Low and were excited for the expansion, and people who love fantasy and science fiction and were excited about the diversity of characters and stories. I'm starting to see reviews online of the ARCs that were given out at Armchair BEA, as well, and so far I'm seeing so many positive things. It's reaffirming.

Many people got behind Tu before it was acquired by Lee and Low, proving that diversity is needed and wanted. What can people do to help Tu become a viable imprint?

Keep an eye out for our books this fall. Ask your local independent bookstore to consider stocking our books, and support them by buying books from them. And if you got an ARC, please consider posting a review if you liked the books, even if it's just a mention in your Facebook profile. Any word of mouth will help! Tell all your friends about it! Ask your library to order our books for their shelves, and recommend that your friends check it out from the library if they can't afford to buy books. Suggest the books to teachers for whom the books might be appropriate--sometimes fantasy and science fiction is the best way to reach reluctant readers, and they might even find ways to use the books in the classroom that meet science, history, culture, or other standards.

Also, encourage writers of color to consider submitting to us if they have a book that might fit our mission.

And hey, young writers of color: Keep writing! We need your stories! As I read the other day--and I'm sorry I don't have an attribution for it--there have been societies who got along without the wheel, but there have never been societies who didn't have stories. What are your stories? What folklore, fairy tales, ghost stories, etc. can you draw upon for a fantasy story? Where will kids like you be in 100, 200, 400 years? What if a mystery happened in your neighborhood? There are so many possibilities, so many stories waiting to be told, and I look forward to reading them.

What if a teacher wants to order a class set?

All they'd need to do is to call our office see ordering information here on our website and ask for the Sales Department, who will be glad to assist you.

Stacy, Thanks so much for your time and goodluck with Tu Books

Be sure to check out the other Day 5 interviews

Genevieve Valentine @ Shaken & Stirred
Alyssa B. Sheinmel @ A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Matthew Cody and Aaron Starmer @ Mother Reader

The full roundup of this weeks SBBT interviews is here


MotherReader said...

Fascinating discussion of diversity in kidlit - and what an amazingly proactive way to address it! Looking forward to books from Tu.

I love the way the job of the editor is described as always learning something new. It's obvious, when I think of it, but not something I'd really pondered before about the career.

Great interview!

Vasilly said...

What an inspiring post, Doret! It's amazing how Stacy decided to do something and a path was opened to her.