Thomas Low, co-founder and CEO of multicultural children’s publishing house Lee & Low Books, has died of cancer at his home in Connecticut, his family confirmed. He was 78.
Tom Low had been a successful businessman in New York heading his own temporary personnel agency when he changed course and teamed up with fellow Chinese-American businessman Philip Lee to co-found Lee & Low Books in 1991. Though they had no previous publishing experience, both men had noticed, and been dismayed by, a dearth of contemporary diverse stories for children and believed there could be a business opportunity in pursuing their passion to fill that gap in the industry.
The first Lee & Low list debuted in 1993 and included the picture book Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee. That title was roundly praised by educators and parents, received a full-page positive review in the New York Times Book Review, and helped set the bar for the company’s catalogue, which represents a mission to focus on contemporary stories—not folktales—from a variety of cultures and to “make a special effort to work with unpublished authors and illustrators of color.”
Low was especially proud of his company’s support of new talent, which included establishing the New Voices Award in 2000, given to unpublished authors of color for a picture book manuscript. Caldecott Medalist Javaka Steptoe, and multiple Coretta Scott King Honor recipient R. Gregory Christie are among the notable winners. In 2010, the Lee & Low imprint Tu Books launched the New Visions Award, a writing contest for unpublished authors of color who create a middle-grade or YA novel. More recently, Lee & Low Books sponsored and organized the first Diversity Baseline Survey, which measures diversity in the children’s book industry, and helped establish the Lee & Low and Friends Scholarship to allow students of color to enroll in the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons University.
In recognition of these efforts, Lee & Low Books was named a 2016 Angel Honoree as part of the Carle Honors program administered by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, for “inspiring so many people with its dedication to multicultural books and to a new generation of artists and authors who offer children both mirrors and windows to the world.”
In the late 1990s, Low’s sons Craig and Jason joined the family business and moved into leadership roles, allowing Low to scale back on his day-to-day running of the company. Over the past few years, Low continued to oversee rights and permissions, a role in which his colleagues said he proved a tough negotiator. Craig Low, president and co-owner of Lee & Low, said, “For those who had the opportunity to know him, they often admired his graciousness, leadership, humanity, and keen focus on equity. He held a high moral standard and led by example. He could be hard-nosed but was also humble, and I learned a great deal from him about life, family, and business.”
“He was a big believer in people,” publisher and co-owner Jason Low, Low’s oldest son, said. “He always said that we had the best people working for us, which we were fortunate to be able to cultivate over many years. The Lee & Low family are a collection of the most dedicated individuals who have helped us get through this difficult time.”
Lee & Low cofounder Philip Lee, who left the company in 2004, paid tribute to Low with these words: “It was a joy and privilege to be his partner in starting Lee & Low. He was a great friend, mentor, and visionary. It meant a lot to him to build a company that would promote diversity, encourage new voices, and nurture a new generation of publishing professionals.”
Louise May, Lee & Low editor-at-large, who began her tenure at the company in 1999, offered this remembrance: “He was so much more than the company co-founder. While his leadership and perspective guided the company in its formative years, he was also always our greatest fan, cheerleader, advisor, and overall sounding board. He valued everyone who worked for the company and believed wholeheartedly in encouraging growth and promoting from within. And over the years he became more than my boss. He was also my friend.”
Offering a glimpse of Low’s approach to the business, and his reputation for thinking outside the box, Lee & Low senior editor Jessica Echeverria recalled, “Tom was an incredible and inspiring leader who reminded us of our mission and our potential as a company. Editorial always prepared our acquisitions materials with Tom in mind. We tried to anticipate what questions he would ask, and no matter how much we prepared, he always managed to throw a curveball,” she said.
In all, Lee & Low Books currently has a catalogue of more than 1,000 diverse titles in print, making it the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the country. It is also one of the few minority-owned publishing houses in the U.S.
Lee & Low’s editorial director Cheryl Klein spoke of the significance of these successes. “Given the unique role Lee & Low has played in U.S. children's books,” she said, “Tom leaves behind a hugely important legacy in American publishing.”