Editor Interview: Louise May of Lee & Low

According to the publisher site, “Lee & Low Books [is] an independent children’s book publisher specializing in multicultural themes. It is the company’s goal to meet the need for stories that children of color can identify with and that all children can enjoy. Lee & Low makes a special effort to work with artists of color, and takes pride in nurturing many authors and illustrators who are new to the world of children’s book publishing.”

See also The State of Multicultural Literature Today. Explore Lee & Low Books and Bebop Books. Don’t miss the submission guidelines for writers and illustrators.

What kind of young reader were you?

I loved to read all kinds of books, but especially series books, most notably the Landmark Books—nonfiction stories about United States history. They tied in to my interest in American history at the time. My all-time favorite was the book about Thomas Jefferson. I still have it (somewhere)!

What inspired you to make children’s literature your career focus?

I came to children’s publishing in a roundabout way, but my eventual arrival stemmed from majoring in child psychology in college. There I took a course in children’s literature, and I made the connection between what children read (and what is read to them) and their overall intellectual and emotional growth and development.

How about editing more specifically?

My first editing job was with a syndicated children’s newspaper. (That same children’s lit course in college helped me get the job.) I didn’t know much about editing at the time, but, instinctively, I loved making sure that the copy read well, the facts were correct, and the games and articles were appealing, interesting, and appropriate. I wanted to make sure children would enjoy the experience of reading the paper.

What do you see as the job(s) of an editor in the publishing process?

To me, the editor’s main job is to help an author or illustrator make his or her work the best it can be, and then publishing the work in the best way possible. This involves a myriad of tasks and responsibilities, and can include everything from negotiating and preparing contracts at the beginning of a project to writing marketing, sales, catalog, and promotional copy when the book is approaching publication.

Each project has different needs and challenges, and the editor has to figure out how to meet them while honoring the author’s and illustrator’s creativity. The amount and degree of guidance each author and illustrator requires varies from project to project, so editing each new book is a unique experience.

What are its challenges?

The greatest challenge is keeping books on schedule! During the many months (or years) a book is in development, any number of unforeseen events can jeopardize the schedule. A manuscript may take longer to edit than expected, an artist may need more time to complete the illustrations, photo research and the permission process can drag on, snafus can arise during manufacturing. The unknowns of each project keep you on your toes and make each book an exciting adventure.

What are its rewards?

It constantly amazes me how each project has its own individual path to publication. No matter how many books I’ve published, the thrill of seeing that first bound copy of a new book never diminishes. Right then, that book becomes my favorite book I’ve ever worked on.

Long term, the personal aspect of working with so many different people–authors, illustrators, art directors, designers–is invigorating and is what keeps the job interesting and fresh.

It is also rewarding to discover new talent and to see their work gain acceptance and praise within the industry. Of course, when a book is praised through starred reviews, awards, and other honors, that is another kind of reward. Just as important, though, is seeing that our books are reaching their intended audience–kids.

What makes Lee & Low special? How is it different from other houses?

Lee & Low Books is a small, independent publishing house. We publish just twelve to fourteen new titles a year. Our books focus on bringing into the mainstream of children’s literature those racial, ethnic, and cultural groups who have traditionally been underrepresented there.

We publish fiction and nonfiction about people with non-Caucasian ancestry, yet our stories have universal interest and appeal. We feel it is important to share these stories with everyone, so as to reinforce the belief that despite one’s background or the color of one’s skin, we all have experiences in common and can relate to what is both unique and the same about one another.

Why is multicultural representation important in the field of youth literature?

With the ever-changing make-up of American society, it is important that the body of children’s literature accurately reflects the diversity among its citizens. “Minorities” now represent large portions of our population, so the need for books that honor their experiences continues to exist and indeed grow.

How has this representation evolved over time?

At Lee & Low Books, our focus has evolved from a concentration on realistic and historical fiction set in the United States to include nonfiction (and fiction) with a more global perspective. In children’s publishing overall, I have seen an increase in commercial and mass market “multicultural” books, especially middle grade and graphic series, including Japanese manga.

Could you tell us about the New Voices Award?

Lee & Low Books New Voices Award was established in 2000 to further our mission of seeking out new talent. The contest is for a fiction or nonfiction picture book manuscript and is open to writers of color who have not had a picture book published. The contest accepts submissions from May through October each year, and each May complete guidelines for that year are sent to an extensive mailing list. Guidelines are also posted on our Web site.

Since the inception of the New Voices Award, we have published several manuscripts that came to us through the contest. All the winners have been published or are in production. Some honor manuscripts and others that did not win but showed outstanding potential have also been published. To date, this amounts to a total of about ten books.

Do most of your manuscripts come directly from writers or through agents?

I’d say one-quarter to one-third come through agents. The rest come directly to editors or the slush pile. We accept unsolicited manuscripts and over the years have found gems in the slush. Perhaps one book we publish each year was originally pulled from the slush.

What recommendations do you have for writers in the submission process? What are pitfalls to avoid?

Do your homework. Look at the kinds of books each publisher has published in the past, so you don’t send inappropriate submissions. Check out publishers’ Web sites. For us and any other publisher, read the publisher’s guidelines and follow them! If a house wants only certain kinds of stories, such as we do, only send manuscripts that fit the requirements.

Part of the reason why some houses no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts is because so much of what was received was not appropriate for the house.

What titles would you recommend for study to writers interested in working with you/the house and why?

Writers and illustrators can get a good sense of what we’re all about by exploring our Web site. All the books are there with illustrations, previews, synopses, reviews, and more. We publish such a wide range of titles and work with illustrators with so many different styles, that it’s impossible to recommend specific titles. I’d also not want a writer to feel he or she needs to do what has been done before. A unique topic, subject, and/or approach are always welcomed.

Could you describe your dream writer? Illustrator?

For both writer and illustrator, one who is talented, professional, and with whom I can share–and hopefully help enhance–their vision for their work.

Over the years, I’ve mentored and taught a number of beginning writers. I’ve been asked more than once whether Lee & Low only publishes authors/illustrators from underrepresented communities as well as whether the house publishes stories only by members of the groups their manuscripts reflect. Could you speak to those questions?

We work with writers and illustrators from all communities and are not adverse to writers who write cross-culturally.

What is most important to us is that someone works authentically and from personal experience or from a well-researched position. Being of a particular group does not automatically make a person an expert on all matters relating to that group.

Some personal stories obviously can only be told by the person who experienced them close-up, and sometimes an illustrator from the same background as the people in the story can add subtle details that enhance the cultural specificity of the illustrations.

No matter the person’s background, a good writer or illustrator who is immersed in her or his subject can create authentically and effectively for a wide audience. Ultimately, what we look for are a story and illustrations that ring true and are respectful of the story and all it represents.

In what ways does your house reach out to teachers, librarians, and booksellers?

Our Lee & Low hardcover and paperback trade titles are available to teachers, librarians, and booksellers through the usual channels. Our books are reviewed by all the major children’s literature journals, and submitted to national, state, and numerous other awards.

In addition, we have an educational imprint, Bebop Books, which sells directly to the educational market. This imprint consists of all our paperback books, many developed specifically for the beginning reading market. Most titles are also available in Spanish. As with our trade titles, the Bebop Books titles embody diversity of content and illustrations. This is especially important; with these books, even the youngest readers learn about themselves as well as those who may have different backgrounds, customs, and traditions.

What do you do outside your editorial/publishing life?

One thing I try to do is find time to read adult books!

Is there anything you would like to add?

Write what you know, what is meaningful to you, not what the market dictates. But be aware of the market! Be open, flexible, but also know when to stand your ground. Some manuscript are rejected not because they don’t have merit but because they do not fit with a publisher’s list. Writing is hard work. Do it because you love it.