Decades ago, I tried to sell the rights to a children’s picture book series we published by an author of Indian descent and featuring a South Asian child. The stories were simple, showing memorable moments in the girl’s life. The reviews were terrific. A publisher in Britain—where there are millions of people of Pakistani and Indian heritage—replied that, while the series was worthwhile, it was for a “special” market, not the U.K. mainstream. When I received similar responses elsewhere, I realized mainstream meant white characters; there was no sense that commonplace or joyful moments in the lives of South Asian communities would or should be of interest to young readers. Perhaps if the series had dealt directly with the “traumatic” subject of racism my British colleagues might have been interested.
Years later, we published the picture book Mom and Mum are Getting Married! It wasn’t about the challenges the brides faced due to discrimination but rather typical wedding planning. Recently, we simplified it as a board book called Mom Marries Mum!, and, while many applauded the release of this title, they also questioned why, if we were addressing a “controversial issue,” did we not do something more “hard-hitting.” The author, Ken Setterington, had previously written a forthright book for us about gay men being persecuted during the Holocaust but realized that, while it was important to do the “trauma” book, it was no less important to explore the familiar experience of planning a wedding with a lesbian couple.
I love hard-hitting books that deal with the real experiences of diverse communities and written compellingly for both adults and children. Social justice and human rights stories are Second Story Press’s mandate. We will always do those books. However, having come to North America as an immigrant with parents who spoke little English, I never saw characters like myself or my family in the kids’ books at school or in the library. I kept wondering, where’s my lush, green, suburban lawn with a rambunctious dog running around?
As a publisher, it is important to me that young people who might not be regarded as part of the dominant culture still find a place in literature. Certainly, the ongoing issues that confront North American society—oppression based on race, religion, disability, immigration status, gender, and identity—need to be addressed in well-written and well-conceived books. At the same time, all readers need to find themselves in books that are not specifically issue-directed.
To better understand someone, we must see the current and historical trauma of their experience, but also everything else. At Second Story, we publish books about the terrible oppression of Indigenous children in residential schools as in The Train, but equally valuable is The Water Walker, the story of an Ojibwe grandmother calling attention to fresh water protection. Alongside our many Holocaust-focused books is the biography of a Jewish woman deemed Canada’s greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, Bobbie Rosenfeld: The Olympian Who Could Do Everything by Anne Dublin; the novel about the community of Black Jews who lived in Ethiopia for many centuries, Daughters of the Ark by Anna Morgan; and Jacob and the Mandolin Adventure, historical fiction about child immigrants who came to North America to farm and ended up performing at Carnegie Hall. A forthcoming title, Unstoppable: Women with Disabilities, doesn’t just discuss the hardships confronting the women profiled but explores their remarkable achievements. Our hope is that kids might read these books and say, “Wow, I didn’t know that,” or “Wow, maybe I can do that too.”
Just as there is a wide variety of stories about the pleasures, interests, contributions, and everyday experiences of members of the historically dominant culture, there needs to be a spectrum of literature that reflects the experience of other communities. How wonderful for all young readers when they can see each other and themselves in an abundance of books, not just in stories in which they are suffering or being oppressed and exploited. A commitment to diversity in children’s literature means that difficult and challenging books, from which readers can begin to better understand the history, struggle, and hardships of multiple peoples, are necessary. At the same time, don’t we also want to know more about the everyday, wonderful, special, and joyful experiences that are part of all our lives?
Margie Wolfe is the is the publisher, president, and owner of Second Storey Press.