Long before #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Deborah Shine was publishing books about diversity and tolerance at Star Bright Books, which she founded in 1994 in Harlem and relocated to Cambridge, Mass., three years ago. Beginning with the press’s very first book, Rochelle Bunnett’s Friends at School, Shine has made a point of portraying children of different colors, nationalities, and abilities in the books on her list.
Shine believes that children should not only be able to see themselves in print but also hear their native tongue when the books are read aloud. Star Bright makes bilingual books available in 24 languages, including Haitian Creole, Vietnamese, and simple Chinese. She wants families who immigrate to the United States to read books aloud in their own language.
If that makes Shine (age 82) sound like an innovator, that’s because she is. She grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa under apartheid, a system she fled the day after she turned 21. She moved to London, where she became a fashion designer. Her book career began after she married and came to the United States. She and her family went first to Hawaii and then, in 1968, to Lexington, Ky., where within days of arriving she opened the Owl and the Pussycat, one of the country’s first children’s-only bookstores.
“It was never a profitable store,” recalls Shine over tea at Star Bright’s offices/warehouse in Kendall Square near MIT. “We had free coffee. I couldn’t run [a bookstore] today; it’s an entertainment center. We sold books.” Shine credits the bookstore with helping her turn her four children into readers. It also led to the publication of Friends at School. One of her customers had a boy with Down’s syndrome, who never got invited to birthday parties. Shine wanted her company’s first book to be for that child.
From bookselling, Shine transitioned into publishing. She moved back to London and took a job at Kestrel Books, a division of Penguin U.K., in 1979 after selling the bookstore. She returned to the U.S. a year later and worked at Random House under Janet Schulman, before accepting a job as editor-in-chief at Checkerboard Press, a division of Macmillan. “I jokingly say, our bestsellers are disasters for Random House,” says Shine, whose family encouraged her to start her own press after hearing her come home from work so many times and say, “I have a great idea and they wouldn’t let me do it.”
Some of the books Shine was held back from publishing featured black, disabled, or Native American children. Over the years she has filled in the gap herself with books like Cradle Me (2012), with pictures of Native American babies, which she wrote and published under her maiden name, Debby Slier; or Witches (2011), about children with disabilities having fun trick or treating, which she wrote under the pseudonym Cheryl Christian. Altogether Shine has written, edited, or adapted more than 65 books under variations of her own name and various pseudonyms, including Edith Adams, Sarah Bright, and Robin Harris.
At Star Bright, which has a backlist of 300 titles, Shine publishes 16 books a year. “If something’s brilliant, we’ll do it,” says Shine, who sometimes finds her books by serendipity. Michael Thompson’s The Other Bears came as a sample from a Chinese printer. Shine liked it so much that she tracked down the rights to the tale of two Koalas who are suspicious of “other” bears, like polar bears and black bears, until they see the little bears play together.
The press’s first early chapter book series, called Jake’s series, which will launch in spring 2015, was originally published by the same press as The Other Bears, Penguin Australia. Star Bright will start with three Jake stories, written by Ken Spillman and illustrated by Chris Nixon, followed by another three next fall. The Star in Malaysia described Jake as “lovable in the same way that Dennis the Menace was to kids in the 1970s.”
Most of Star Bright’s books are aimed at ages 4-8. Shine typically prints three to five thousand copies of a book; a few, like Judi Moreillon's Read to Me and Meg Starr's Alicia's Happy Day, have sold many times that. And Brian Wildsmith’s Animals to Count has sold over a million copies. The press handles its own distribution; “I love seeing the orders,” says Shine, who produces books in all formats. E-editions of Star Bright’s titles are available from the iBook store and through distributors, including Follett, and OverDrive.
But it’s not just overseeing the orders that Shine enjoys, it’s being a small publisher. “You can do what you want,” she says. And that’s what she plans to continue to do.