On June 1 at BookCon, the “WNDB Presents: Intent Imprints” panel brought together leaders of imprints with a specific focus on diversity to discuss their individual and collective missions, and what their existence means for the industry. The panel included Christopher Myers, publisher of Make Me a World, an imprint from Random House Children’s Books; Denene Millner, publisher of Denene Millner Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing; Stephanie Lurie, editor at Rick Riordan Presents from Disney-Hyperion; Namrata Tripathi, publisher of Kokila Books at Penguin Young Readers; and Zareen Jaffery, publisher of Salaam Reads from Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. The panel was moderated by Nic Stone, author of Dear Martin and the forthcoming novel Jackpot.
Jaffery began by highlighting the importance of good representation, noting that the first time she saw someone like herself represented was on a UNICEF poster. “In pop culture,” Jaffery noted, “only a narrow world view is shown. It’s an erasure of imagination and a form of conditioning. We need to pass the mic to communities that have not been able to tell their stories.” Jaffery explained that “Salaam,” an Arabic greeting meaning peace, was chosen as the moniker for her imprint because “when you read a book, especially as a kid, you’re inviting a friend in—it’s a way to say hello.”
Tripathi defined sub- and microcultures for the audience of booksellers, librarians, and readers. “Subculture is usually a community created through a shared interest. Members opt-in.” Tripathi pointed out the punk community as a subculture she finds interesting. In comparison, “a microculture is not opt-in and is a small group within a larger group.” She described the Jewish South Indian population that migrated to Toronto as an example of a microculture, mentioning that she’d love to see a book that represents that specific experience. At Kokila, Tripathi is interested in exploring experiences within microcultures and focusing on “hybridity and duality.”
Stone asked the panelists what makes specificity universal, prompting a response from Millner: “We are all human, but the way we experience the world is not universal. We don’t always appreciate that nuance.” Speaking of the imprints represented, she said, “We, are saying those nuances matter. We need to respect, to see, and to understand that.” Myers said that, due to increasing globalism and our instinct to prepare our children for the world, “we are becoming aware that we are only getting part of the story. We want the whole story. We have a desire to see each other fully.” He noted that other media is ahead of the publishing industry in that regard.
“The thing that makes a story connect with readers is when there is truth on the page. Truth lies in specificity,” Tripathi said. Lurie added that “adults assume kids only want to read about themselves. Kids don’t agree; they want to see others.”
Myers contended that we are beginning to recognize that we are hybridized: “We are all many things. That is what rich literature is. We want literature that tells as many stories as possible.” Jaffery agreed, saying that means not just publishing books about pain. “Kids see and acknowledge race,” Tripathi said. “It exists. Books are a way to counter and embrace our differences.”
Lurie spoke about the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, which is rooted in folklore and mythology and “looks at where we come from.” Lurie said that the universal stories about the human condition found in mythology appeal to teens and tweens. Stone mentioned a forthcoming book from the imprint, Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia, as a book that prompted tears “not just because of sad parts, but because of all the kids it would reach.”
Millner started smaller, at Agate Press, and has just brought her imprint to Simon & Schuster. She spoke about Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, written by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Gordon C. James, which won both a Newbery and Caldecott Honor, and which “did phenomenally well because it shined a light on the everyday humanity of black children.” Millner said that the biggest obstacle to telling these stories is “the system. We did Crown in eight weeks,” she told the crowd, resulting in gasps of surprise. Now that she is working with Simon & Schuster, she says she “can see why it takes a year to publish a book.” Jaffery echoed a similar sentiment, saying that her biggest challenge is time management. “There’s a lot we want to do,” she said. “We feel the urgency to open the gates as wide as possible. We want to be part of lasting change.”
“It’s hard,” Tripathi admitted. “There’s a physical and an emotional toll to repeatedly having conversations about representation. It’s exhausting.” Millner didn’t mince words when she said that “getting people to sign on” is difficult. “The pushback is still there. It’s annoying as hell.”
Responding to Millner and providing a challenge as a conclusion to the panel, Myers said, “There is no ‘no,’ but in publishing there are a thousand other ways to say ‘no.’ We have to ask ourselves where this ‘no’ comes from. Where does it live? Our structures have problems and it’s hard to acknowledge, but we must ask where the ‘no’ is and how we can challenge that response. We have to ask ourselves whether we are more married to those things than building the world we want to see in kidlit.”