Ask a Librarian with Fifi Abu
At the April 8th Color of Children's Literature Conference in New York, Cynthia Leitich Smith spoke about her experiences breaking into the writing world as a native author over 20 years ago. The general attitude in publishing was "We already have one." in response to the thought of signing a Native American author. One was enough. Perhaps one was almost too many. And that one author was generally male. There is a quota, apparently, on POC taking seats at the white publishing table. Hearing other authors and illustrators of color speak on April 8th made it clear that despite all of the lip service about diversity, the old rules are still in place. And there is something that feels very calculated and staged going on as the call from publishers for submissions from POC occurs. I've seen agents make graceless cattle calls on social media "Hey, does anyone know any Muslim illustrators?" Widely casting their net while loudly broadcasting the fact that despite the constant inboxing of queries and connections to everyone in the entire publishing industry, no one knows an actual Muslim. Admitting to the world that publishing is such an exclusively caucasian world that no one in it can even make a referral. Because of external pressure, publishers are attempting to make a gesture toward diversity. But due to the exclusionary nature of the industry, the people who have been invisible are not people that publishers have relationships with.
I had a recent experience with an art director who was interested in discussing my Muslim-themed work. He was trying to place me in an imprint that deals exclusively with POC. That was the only place he could see me having value. The only place I belong. I politely listened to everything that he had to say, but inside I was shouting "I can do other things! I can draw cats going dancing! I've got a dog who bakes cakes! I've got a book about mothers!" It was clear that I was only being considered because the publisher would be able to check a box. I was useful for one type of book and one imprint, but not as a general author/illustrator. I would prefer to be be seen as a whole person, not as a two-dimensional marketing ploy. I love the idea of diverse books being created by a wide range of diverse people. But even more, I love the idea of the white publishing world seeing POC as a valuable part of the general talent pool.
For next month's post and moving forward, please send me questions and topics that you would like to discuss that involve libraries, books, diversity, and the children's literature community. firstname.lastname@example.org
Fifi Abu spends her days surrounded by books that have already been created and the rest of her time writing and illustrating books yet to be born. She looks forward to a day when all children can see themselves reflected in the books they read. Ms. Abu holds a master's degree in children's literature and a master's degree in library science, is an active member of SCBWI and a Children's Book Academy graduate. She is pleased to announce that she has been elected to the 2019 Caldecott Committee.
A child plays, turning a stick into a magic wand, a sword, a baton or a microphone. In Jackie Azúa Kramer’s poetic picture book, The Green Umbrella (North South, 2017), illustrated with luminous enchantment by Maral Sassouni, animals stake their claims (in eloquent soliloquies) to Elephant’s umbrella. To Hedgehog it’s a sorely missed boat, to Cat— a tent, to Bear— a flying machine, and Rabbit thinks it’s his missing walking cane. As Elephant explains to each one why he is certain they are all mistaken, rain ceases and the sun comes out. They share a picnic in the shade of the green umbrella, which, like “the great green room” in Margery Wise Brown’s classic Goodnight, Moon, encompasses all. The umbrella is now a home for promising friendships and a launching pad for further adventures.
Searching for comparable picture books that combine the themes of loss, sharing and perception, I found the closest match in Who Took the Farmer’s Hat? by Joan L. Nodset, illustrated by Fritz Siebel (Harper & Row, 1963). A farmer loses his beloved, old brown hat to the wind. Searching for it, “The farmer ran fast, but the wind went faster.” Animals he meets as he searches have all seen his hat, but have taken it for something else. Squirrel thought it was a brown bird. Mouse saw a mouse hole in the grass. Fly saw a hill in a tree, Goat— a flowerpot, Duck— a boat, Bird— a nest. The farmer climbs up to the nest and finds an egg in his hat. Loath to disturb it, he tells bird that although it “looks a little like my old brown hat,” he can see it is a nest, after all. He buys himself a new brown hat that looks very much like the old one that (in the final spread) is now filled with baby birds.
In both of these delightful books, sharing is the reward, a message that seems to me more vital than ever now. The late, lamented author, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, dealt with this theme of the rewards of loss in Chopsticks (Disney-Hyperion, 2012), wittily illustrated by Scott Magoon. An inseparable pair of chopsticks (“practically attached at the hip”) must learn to go it alone when one is injured. Exploring new possibilities (playing pick up sticks, pole vaulting, etc.) a solo chopstick expands his repertoire. Reunited, the sticks discover great new ways to repurpose themselves. The book ends with a rousing piano finale. Chopsticks, of course.
Pablo Neruda wrote his poems in green ink, “the color of hope.” Walt Whitman asked, “What is the grass?” and answered with poetic speculations. In my poetry workshop, Ways of Sensing (inspired by Whitman and the Wallace Stevens poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird), a third grader gave an answer that Whitman had not considered: Grass is a green thread, sewing the Earth. These three picture books about perception highlight, in varied colors, ways that loss can strengthen bonds, stitching us all together.
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