One of the few minority-owned publishing companies in the United States, co-founded in 1991 by Tom Low and Philip Lee, LEE & LOW BOOKS is an independent multicultural children’s book publisher whose goal is to publish stories all children can relate to. Since its first list, in 1993, LEE & LOW has published an impressive lineup of over 200 titles, many of which have been translated to Spanish and won a number of major awards and honors.
Jason Low, son of founder Tom Low and Lee & Low’s publisher, answered our questions about Lynne Barasch’s First Come the Zebra, one of the seven books selected for inclusion in our Spirit of PaperTigers Book Set Donation Project; the company’s new developments; and other topics related to multicultural children’s literature.
PT: How did Lynne Barasch‘s First Come the Zebra come about as a project for LEE & LOW?
JL: LEE & LOW has enjoyed a long relationship with Lynne since publishing her two other books Knockin’ on Wood and Hiromi’s Hands. Lynne had returned from a trip to Kenya, which planted a seed in her mind about the story that would become First Come the Zebra. The rest of the story came from Lynne’s own research on Africa and the harmful effects of tribalism in particular.
PT: Are there any plans to create a classroom guide/lesson plans for the book?
JL: We usually bring out a classroom guide when the book comes out in paperback so teachers can fully utilize both the book and the guide with their students.
PT: Can you please say something about working with Lynne on this and other projects?
JL: Lynne is a pleasure to work with. She is a true professional. She possesses a unique, spare style of writing and illustration that conveys sophisticated themes in such a way that children can enjoy and understand them.
PT: What can you tell us about LEE & LOW’s new imprint, Tu Books?
JL: Tu Books represents a chance for us to bring diversity to the science fiction and fantasy genres for middle grade and young adult readers in the same way LEE & LOW has brought more diversity to picture books since we began publishing in 1993. Since announcing the acquisition of Tu, we have received a substantial amount of positive feedback and I am anxious to see how our debut list is received in 2011. More details about this new venture can be found in an interview with Tu Books Editorial Director Stacy Whitman, posted on Cynsations.
PT: About your New Voices Writers Award, given annually for a children’s picture book manuscript by a writer of color, who are some of the voices you have published so far, and what has the reception to both the award and these new voices been?
Some of the New Voices Award Winners have been:
Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story by Paula Yoo
Janna and the Kings by Patricia Smith
The Blue Roses by Linda Boyden
And these are some of the New Voices Award Honors:
Bird by Zetta Elliot
Ghosts for Breakfast by Stanley Todd Terasaki
Raymond’s Perfect Present by Therese On Louie
Two New Voices Award books are scheduled for release by the end of 2010 and two more are in production for next year.
The reception to the New Voices Award books published since the award was established, in 2000, has been strong. Two books in particular, Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds (Texas Bluebonnet Award Masterlist) and Bird (Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award, Ezra Jack Keats Book Award) have received tremendous awards recognition and have sold well.
The New Voices Award is important because not only does it promote diversity but it also introduces new authors to the world of children’s books, playing a vital role by infusing the children’s book industry with new blood.
PT: Can you tell us about your company’s social media presence and what benefits you have seen from developing it, so far?
JL: We started social networking in 2009 and can be found at:
The Open Book Blog
Our social media efforts have allowed us to communicate with our supporters and customers in a more open and frequent way. Since many of LEE & LOW’s titles are so topical it is an efficient way for us to build timely connections between our books and what is happening in the world. Before our social media channels, the people who were interested in what we were doing would only hear from us once a month via our E-News. Now people hear from us several times a week, which promotes a more fluid flow of information.
PT: Do you think the public’s attitude toward multicultural books for children has changed much since Lee & Low was established? How so?
JL: As the company continues to grow, the demand for the diverse books we publish has also grown. I would like to preface this by saying the growth we have seen has been a slow, steady increase—this is still book publishing and it takes a sustained effort and a lot of patience to sell books of any kind. It is difficult for me to get a sense of whether attitudes have shifted favorably toward diverse books since we began publishing. I will say the enthusiasm for our books renews itself every season, and the amount of awards and reviews we have received is the kind of encouragement that tells us we’re moving in the right direction.
PT: What would you say is the most challenging aspect of being an independent publisher of children’s books these days?
JL: Finding good stories used to be the biggest challenge, but I would have to say patience is the biggest challenge we face now. Exercising the patience to publish what we can afford to publish each year. Waiting to see if the books we have placed our faith in do well as they are released into the world. For us, the publishing cycle takes a few years to really see whether or not a book has found its audience. For this reason it is a good rule of thumb to step back every once in a while, and look back at the work that has been accomplished, rather than being too consumed by what still needs to be done.
PT: What are your hopes for the future of Lee & Low?
JL: I would like to see us grow more, so we can provide more opportunities for authors and illustrators to tell the stories that need to be told. I’m a big book person but I do see how e-books may significantly change the way books are read. In whatever future form we will be reading our books, the demand for good stories isn’t going to go away anytime soon, and I see LEE & LOW playing a crucial role in providing diverse stories for years to come.
PT: Anything else you would like to add?
JL: I would just like to thank PaperTigers for helping us spread the word about what we are doing. We appreciate your support.
PT: It’s our pleasure and honor to have such great books to help spread the word on, Jason! Many thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. We are very grateful for the copies of First Come the Zebra you’ve donated in support of our Spirit of PaperTigers project and wish you and LEE & LOW continued success!
Make sure to also read Nathalie Mvondo’s February interview with Jason Low at Multiculturalism Rocks!. And for an in-depth look at the history and philosophy of the company, read Jason’s article, Balancing Words, Pictures and Diversity: The Story of Lee & Low Books.