Nick, thank you for joining me!
Thank you for having me! Cynsations is one of my favorite websites—I use it as a resource all the time to learn from creators and publishing people I respect. It’s an honor to participate!
Currently, LQ publishes two lists: The Arthur A. Levine list, focusing on work created by previously underrepresented voices, and the Em Querido list, focused on bringing the creative work of authors and artists from around the world in the US market.
What are the biggest challenges when bringing books with other perspectives, whether it is a translation of an international work, or work from a previously underrepresented perspective within the US, to the US market?
Here’s one: resisting the urge, and helping others resist the urge, to impose any sort of box or artificial construct on what a book “should be” or should look like. And resisting the urge to try and guess too much what a broad swath of people will enjoy.
Book people can often be cautious and rely on past books or authors to help contextualize new ones. “If you liked that, you’ll like this;” “This is X meets Y;” “This sort of book was successful for your store, perhaps this one will be too;” “I liked this book and it was successful, perhaps we should stick with a similar formula;” etc.
The issue with this line of thinking is that because of structural racism, homophobia, and other factors, as well as the American tendency to only look inward, there are historically less examples of books from non-white, non-straight, non-cis, non-Christian, non-English speaking, etc. creators. And for the many amazing books from these authors that have been written, people haven’t worked hard enough to add them to their rolodex of reference points, or to trumpet them to others.
What results—whether we’re conscious of it or not—is less openness to new voices and creativity in promoting them, especially if they come from a diverse background, and even more especially if that author is trying something unusual or different. I think the more that we can do away with that reliance on past “comp titles,” and the more we can entrust great diverse creators and editors to do the books of their hearts—in whatever form that takes—the better and more successful we’ll be as publishers. The books may not look like yesterday’s bestsellers but what could be more exciting than that?
LQ’s focus on publishing work by diverse creators echoes the mission of Emmanuel Querido, whose Dutch publishing company published work by writers who fled Germany in the 1930s, and whose books were banned there. Unfortunately, the desire to ban books is not an artifact of history. Every year, books for young readers are challenged in libraries around the US.
One argument that’s often given in support of challenging or banning a book for young readers today is that it contains inappropriate content. What are your thoughts on the idea of appropriate or inappropriate content for young readers?
I think banning books shows a lack of respect for the intelligence and emotional awareness of young people. As well as probably myopia about their lives and what they encounter in any case. Kids are really really smart and figure things out for themselves—they don’t just blithely accept every sentence in every book as The Truth. I think they have an innate sense of what feels right or wrong and can suss things out while they read—and this process is an essential part of becoming a fully developed human being.
If a parent isn’t a fan of a particular book, or an element of it, and wants to read the book themselves and have a discussion with their kid about it, I think that’s a beautiful thing. Or if they like the book and want to have a discussion about it, that’s wonderful too.
But I feel that trying to ban something is harmful as well as probably ultimately ineffective in “shielding” a kid from what’s in the book, or whatever it is they’re hoping to do. I think kids are exposed to a lot more things than parents are aware of. And a book is one of the best ways to encounter something and work out how you feel about it, in a safe way.
I guess from personal experience the only book my mom ever didn’t let me read was John Grisham’s The Firm (Random House, 1991), when I was 13 or something. Why that book was the sole exception I’ll never know. But I turned out okay (I think).
I think a common misperception is that a book by a diverse creator will not be accessible or relevant to someone who doesn’t share that identity. What are your thoughts on the broader appeal of work by diverse or underrepresented creators?
I think Rudine Sims Bishop’s concept of how books can be windows, mirrors, or sliding glass doors will forever be the best explanation. It would be a boring life indeed if you only ever encountered voices from your particular combination of identities. Also, readers from traditionally underrepresented communities have been reading books from outside their identities for centuries and helping make them successful.
The bestseller lists from the past few years shows how much appetite there is for a much broader range of books the other way around, when publishing puts a little effort into it. America is a very diverse collection of communities, who all love books, and are hungry for them.
Is there a particular book or books on the LQ list, either current or forthcoming, that you’re particularly excited about?
Looking ahead to Spring ’22 I’m very excited about High Spirits by Camille Gomera-Tavarez, which is a debut collection of interconnected short stories from the Dominican diaspora. Camille’s voice is extraordinary. I’m also thrilled about Freedom! The Story of the Black Panther Party by Jetta Grace Martin, Joshua Bloom, and Waldo E. Martin Jr. Jetta is an incredible debut as well—I think she’ll be writing wonderful books for children and teens for a long time. And Josh and Waldo are the preeminent scholars on the Panthers. This is the definition of a book I wish I had when I was a kid.
Nick Thomas is a Senior Editor with Levine Querido. Previously, he was Senior Editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, where he started as an Editorial Assistant. He has also held positions with Bloomsbury, Chicken House, and David Fickling Books before returning to his AALB roots. He mostly edits middle grade and young adult books, and looks for stories that change something about you by the time you’re finished. Photo credit: Tess Thomas.
Originally from the U.S. Elisabeth Norton now lives in Switzerland, where she teaches English as a Foreign Language and writes poetry, picture books, chapter books and middle grade novels, as well as English Language Learning curriculum. She serves as the Assistant International Advisor for Outreach for the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI).