On the evening of Tuesday, November 19, the Children’s Book Council presented its second annual CBC Diversity Outstanding Achievement Awards at The Center in Manhattan.
Introducing the program, CBC and Every Child a Reader executive director Carl Lennertz elucidated the significance of the awards. “You’re here because you believe in the movement that is advancing diversity on the page and in the workplace. And it is a movement, not a trend. Trends are long and slow and can come to an end. This cannot.”
Presenters then stepped up to the podium one by one to announce the awards. Vaishali Nayak, middle grade marketing manager at HarperCollins Children’s Books, presented the award to Andrea Davis Pinkney, v-p and executive editor at Scholastic. Karina Granda, associate art director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, gave the award to Namrata Tripathi, founder, v-p, and publisher of Penguin’s Kokila imprint. Celia Lee, senior manager and editor at Scholastic, presented the award to Varian Johnson and The Brown Bookshelf. Shifa Kapadwala, global brand publicity manager at Scholastic, handed the award to Just Us Books founders Cheryl Willis Hudson and Wade Hudson.
The 2019 winners each received a book donation worth $1,000 from the Children’s Book Council in their names to the charity of their choice. Pinkney selected READ 718 in Brooklyn; the Hudsons designated East Orange Public Library in New Jersey as their recipient; Tripathi indicated Children of Promise, NYC; and Johnson and The Brown Bookshelf chose two New York City schools as beneficiaries, P.S. 11 elementary school and the Brooklyn New School/Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies.
Phoebe Yeh, v-p and co-publisher at Crown Books for Young Readers, then took the stage to moderate the panel discussion. Yeh first asked the award winners to name their favorite artists.
“[Illustrator] George Ford [Paul Robeson, Lee & Low],” Wade Hudson answered, “he’s like a big brother to me. He’s in his 90s. We just watched Harriet, and he immediately shared his enthusiasm with me. He did the same thing for Black Panther.”
Romare Bearden was Cheryl Willis Hudson’s selection. “I love collage and color.”
Johnson replied, “Kadir Nelson. He worked with Kwame [Alexander] on The Undefeated [HMH/Versify].”
“I’m married to an artist... but [Brian Pinkney] isn’t here. He’s my favorite person,” Andrea Davis Pinkney clarified. “My favorite artist is Faith Ringgold. She’s nearing her 90s and still going.”
“My favorite for now is Art Twink,” Namrata Tripathi said. “They bring a level of thoughtfulness and joy, and I think you’ll love their work.”
After asking for the panelists’ favorite musicians, Yeh requested their favorite authors.
Pinkney and Cheryl Willis Hudson agreed on Toni Morrison. Johnson stated Walter Dean Myers, while Wade Hudson chose Richard Wright. Tripathi declared it was too difficult to decide, but that a particular book that arrived at the right time for her was Anne Carson’s Autobiography in Red.
“Speaking of Morrison, I’m thinking of her call to action here,” Yeh said. “How has that informed why you’re sitting on this stage?”
“We started The Brown Bookshelf because it felt like black creators were being put into a box,” Johnson said. “It goes beyond what goes on the page; it’s the people behind it. We all probably saw the PW graphic on how many people of color are in publishing. So our 28 Days Later campaign was our way to shine the spotlight on creators and books we love.”
The Hudsons recounted their journey to launching Just Us Books, writing and publishing black-centered books and then giving myriad creators starting opportunities. “It’s important to say that we didn’t know it at the time, but we were standing on the shoulders of black people who were fighting to share their own stories,” Wade said. “We weren’t the first, but we were proud to continue the legacy.”
Pinkney explained how she started in magazine publishing at Essence. “As a journalist, you have to constantly be thinking of new ideas,” she said. “Kids see what they see—and they don’t see what they don’t see. It’s more than the books; it’s what we do with them, the hands we press them in.”
“Actually, when we first met you, you were at Essence,” Wade replied. “You were writing a feature on black couples in business and profiled us.”
Pinkney nodded. “That’s how I got into children’s publishing. I was charged to do a feature on black children’s books, and eventually I couldn’t fill the box. I was reaching out to publishing houses, and eventually someone at Simon & Schuster said, ‘Come help me fill it.’ ”
“That’s a good segue,” Yeh said before asking Tripathi about Kokila.
“What we’re trying to do is just take the doors of publishing and throw them open,” Tripathi said. “The books we’re [publishing] are books we think reflect the world.” Considering those who call diverse books “niche,” she stated, “I missed the memo when reality became niche.” She revealed that having Kokila at Penguin Random House, the largest of the Big Five publishing houses, can be challenging, but that it also comes with access to resources.
“No matter what size the house is, we need to shift the paradigm,” Pinkney noted. “Words are powerful—‘niche,’ ‘trend.’ We have to change the conversations so all boats rise.”
Wade Hudson agreed, referencing Lennertz’s opening remarks. “It’s not a trend; it’s a movement. We have to find ways to grow our markets. As an independent press, we know it’s more than just book sales—we have flexibility [to support our creators].”
Turning the conversation to education, Pinkney specified, “We need to think about the kids. I visit a lot of schools all over the U.S., and there are seas of brown faces. This is 2019.”
Cheryl Willis Hudson added, “We’ve been framed in the conversation as niche, but in terms of publishing philosophy, we published books for our own kids. You can and should have a multicolor cast.”
“Yes, and we also need to spend time to promote family literacy,” Wade said. “Education is a part of the marketing, too. I think we underestimate how important it is to bring the people along with us.”
Johnson agreed, saying, “I think adults sometimes need so much more education than kids do.”
“Though the younger you start them, the better,” Pinkney said, “Ages zero to five. For example, Clifford the Big Red Dog had a diverse cast.”
“I’ve been thinking about the inroads we’ve made in middle grade and YA,” Johnson mused, considering Pinkney’s point. “Are we seeing that same diversity in picture books?”
“I’ve been feeling a sort of frustration in what we can talk to our youngest kids about,” Tripathi confessed, sharing an anecdote about her mixed-race daughter asking if she was white when she was three years old, in response to an adult who’d asked her, “What are you?” Tripathi wondered, “When do you have the conversation with your kids about race? Why do we do board books about feminism—they’re great, but why can you talk to your kids about misogyny but not race?”
After a discussion on past and future books on race, Yeh then turned the conversation toward mentorship. Cheryl said over the years, the Hudsons have referred people to the Kweli Conference, have taken on interns, and have mentored on an individual basis and at conferences.
“I’m very fortunate to have great mentors,” Andrea Davis Pinkney enthused. “It goes both ways. Mentorship is essential! Ironically, I tell people to call me, and they don’t. We can’t hold onto anything unless you give it away.”
Johnson provided perspective from the author side. “It’s not just about getting published; it’s about staying published. One of my mentors is Cynthia Leitich Smith, who taught me how to be a professional author. I love having one-on-ones with mentees.”
Yeh requested suggestions on how publishing professionals could help their junior colleagues.
“When you’re in a mentoring relationship, one thing I find sustaining is how much you get back from that rich conversation,” Tripathi replied. “Listen in all directions.”
“Call Andrea,” Cheryl added with a smile.
When asked for any closing remarks, Pinkney said, “You can be afraid to dive. Or you can dive afraid. And we as a community, we need to dive afraid, unapologetically.”
The night’s events concluded with a swap of diverse books, with remaining titles donated to a local charity.