Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Industry Q&A with editor Rosemary Brosnan

Interview by Caroline Sun

Please tell us about the most recent diverse book you published.
P.S. Be Eleven
by Rita Williams-Garcia
Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven  will be coming out in June. It’s the wonderful continuation of the story told in One Crazy Summer, and I love it! In this story, sisters Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are back in Brooklyn after a summer spent with their mother in Oakland, CA. Delphine starts sixth grade, with all the perils that entails—a male teacher she can’t quite figure out, the sixth-grade dance, a growth spurt that leaves her taller than almost all the boys. And there’s the Jackson Five, this heavenly new group that is going to be playing in Madison Square Garden…  Although the book is set in the late 1960s, it’s has a very universal quality. And the setting never intrudes on the story—Rita is very careful about that. She is a master. We’ve worked together on all of her novels, and I’m proud to be her editor. Love Rita, love her books.

What’s the biggest challenge for publishing companies who want to feature more diverse titles?

Publishing diverse books has long been a passion of mine. I’ve been around long enough that I’ve seen the climate for publishing diverse titles get sunny, and then cloudy, and then sunny again, and so on. I’ve been involved in publishing Spanish-language and bilingual books at Penguin, and at Harper, through the Rayo imprint. The toughest problem is selling the books and reaching the market. I’ve heard a lot of publisher-bashing, which I feel is not entirely fair—and I suppose I’ll be criticized for saying so. In my experience, I’ve seen strong efforts to sell diverse books that are sometimes met with low sales—and I’m thinking of Spanish-language and bilingual books in particular. It’s likely that publishers don’t quite know how to reach the market. But perhaps people who want publishers to publish more diverse books should make a commitment to buy the books.  The problem does not lie only on the side of the publishers, although there is certainly more we can do.

One Crazy Summer 
by Rita Williams-Garcia
Here’s a perfect example of how someone has supported a book: K.T. Horning, the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, promised her local independent bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin, that she would buy multiple copies of One Crazy Summer to give as gifts every time she went to the store, if they would promise to always carry it. And she held to her promise. That’s a really wonderful grassroots effort. And then the book is on the shelves of that store, just waiting for other buyers to discover it—and it can be hand-sold by the bookseller. Teachers, librarians, professors of education, parents, and others could really make a difference. Publishers can put the books out there, but if people aren’t willing to commit to buying them, it’s tough to publish diverse books in large numbers. (And here I am talking about the larger houses, which have their own concerns and business models, not publishers such as Lee & Low, which I think do an amazing job of publishing diverse books. But their business model is different.) Part of the problem, of course, is the way books are sold nowadays, as well. There is a discoverability issue. How does a reader find books online? How does a reader find a particular book if the major bookstore chain is not carrying it? Here is where independent stores and grassroots efforts in the school and library and education communities come in.

Additionally, there is a societal problem we have to deal with: Some parents or potential book-buyers see diverse books and think these books are only for the groups represented, as though children of different ethnicities and races would not be interested in reading about kids who are different from them. That’s absolutely not true: put a great book into the hand of a child or teen, and that reader will enjoy it—and will even have his or her world expanded. For example, my son, who is not African-American, and who grew up in a New Jersey suburb, had a (healthy) obsession with Walter Dean Myers’ books and has read everything Walter has written. That’s because Walter writes outstanding books. But I, as a parent, had to know enough to put a wide range of books in front of him.

We also have to take into account that book publishing is a very largely white industry, and if the editors who are acquiring books are mostly white, that may impact what is acquired, as well as how the editors understand manuscripts that are submitted to them.

So, this is a multi-faceted and complex problem that needs to be approached from many different angles. My answer touches on just a few of the issues. I’m glad the CBC is leading the charge in this area.

What is an example of a current bestselling diversity title?

I’ll go back to Rita Williams-Garcia here, and One Crazy Summer. I’m sure Rita would not mind my saying that the sales of her teen novels were not large—despite long lists of well-deserved awards and accolades for all of them. I am happy that I continued to have the support here to publish her—we believe in her work. Then, Rita decided to write for middle-graders, and we published One Crazy Summer, which won the Coretta Scott King Award, a Newbery Honor, the Scott O’Dell Award, and was a National Book Award Finalist. The book hit the New York Times bestseller list—a truly happy event, and it continues to sell. Clearly it was the awards that made the difference. So, listen up, award committees! What you do can change the life of an author whose work is not reaching readers the way it should.

Who would you consider to be a diversity pioneer in children’s and/or young adult literature? This can be anyone within the industry.

I’d like to give a shout-out to Phyllis Fogelman, who was the publisher of Dial Books for Young Readers and a pioneer in publishing diverse books. She published distinguished talents such as Leo and Diane Dillon, Tom Feelings, Mildred Taylor, Jerry Pinkney, and many others. Phyllis had a tremendous commitment to diversity and paved the way for many authors, illustrators, and editors. I’ve always admired her accomplishments.

If you have an author who wants to write about characters outside of his/her own background, how do you generally handle that? Do you encourage your author to dive into research, or do you dissuade your author from venturing into what is unfamiliar to them?

This is tricky! I have ambivalent feelings about this issue. On the one hand, I’m glad no one told Tolstoy he should not write Anna Karenina, because he was not a woman. Writers should have freedom to write. But writers of color have not had the opportunities they should, and so I would be very wary of publishing a book by a white author about a character of color. In the extremely rare instances where I have done so, I have asked the writer to get multiple reads from people of the same culture as the character, and I have gotten multiple reads of the manuscript myself.

On a personal level, I am not a writer, but if I were, I would not feel comfortable writing about a culture outside my own. For instance, although I have been married to a Colombian for many years and have been to Colombia many times, I don’t think I could get a Colombian character right, because I did not grow up in the culture. So I do keep my personal outlook in mind when I am acquiring books, because I understand what it is like to be very close to a culture but to not totally understand the nuances of it.

Tell us about your editing process. When you edit cross-culturally, how do you ensure that the book gets a culture with which you might not be as familiar "right"?

I ask the author questions, and then more questions, and then even more questions, so I’m sure I understand. And sometimes my questions are unintentionally funny or stupid, but I want to understand everything.

If you could receive a manuscript about one culture or subculture that you don't normally see, what would it be?

I don’t really have a “wish list,” because I am just looking for fresh, outstanding, well-told stories featuring memorable characters. But I guess I’d like to see more books in which race is not the main issue. I certainly don’t think we’re a post-racial society by any means (and I feel that only white people could possibly think that to be true), but the kids of color I know have very complex lives and concerns.

Photo Credit
Kate Morgan Jackson
Rosemary Brosnan is Editorial Director of HarperCollins Children's Books. Authors and illustrators she has worked with through the years include Alma Flor Ada and Isabel Campoy, Kelley Armstrong, Jennifer Castle, Lulu Delacre, Neil Gaiman, Gail Carson Levine, Norma Fox Mazer, Pat Mora, Beverley Naidoo, Anne Nesbet, Neil Shusterman, Cynthia Leitich-Smith, Diane Stanley, Stephanie Tolan, and Rita Williams-Garcia. 


  1. Some intriguing thoughts, here, especially about writing outside of one's culture. Thanks for sharing.

  2. This: "But perhaps people who want publishers to publish more diverse books should make a commitment to buy the books. The problem does not lie only on the side of the publishers,"

    So true. Ultimately publishing is not a public service, but a business. If publishing a certain kind of book is not lucrative then publishers shouldn't be expected to do it. Nor is it up to them to figure out why said books might not be lucrative, or to spend tons of money trying to make said books lucrative.

    Buyers, advocates, spokespeople, government and philanthropic agencies need to put their money where their mouths are. When this happens, publishers step up.

  3. Rosemary, we need you on the committee! You're so right about big questions facing publishers. Thanks for this terrific interview.

  4. I think its great that you all are interviewing folks and asking hard questions like these. As an unpublished illustrator of color in the industry I have found it extremely difficult to "break in". So much so that I decided to stop trying to knock on their door( that of the industry) and decided to build my own house. Blind eyes can't see.

    I'm sure I could write an entire volume of essays about race, the roots of racism, racist laws in regards to civil and human rights, mis-education, business ownership, the thief and transfer of wealth in this country, and how that impacts the childrens book industry because it is a part of a much larger system of oppression. But id be wasting my breath. Instead I'd rather ask you at CBC to do more work to identify publishing houses, authors, illustrators, and book groups across the country who are taking initiative. I don't expect folks with no clue about their privilege to understand why diversity in storytelling is important. Some people don't get it and they will continue to blame others or ignore the facts.

    What I do expect is for People of color to say "to hell with you all (the industry)" and start writing, illustrating, publishing, distributing, and marketing their own stories. Mira Nair once said "If we don't tell our own stories, no one else will tell them" and I think that is true. There are people and companies out there right now who are taking the initiative right now to "do it themselves" and to "do it together" as a community and they are not waiting for anyone from the top 5 publishers to give them their permission.

    It is those people, their stories, and their faces that I would like to see more of. Thank you.

  5. "In my experience, I’ve seen strong efforts to sell diverse books that are sometimes met with low sales—and I’m thinking of Spanish-language and bilingual books in particular. It’s likely that publishers don’t quite know how to reach the market. "

    I'm curious if you can elaborate on this. As a reader and writer of color who grew up feeling uninvited to the books she wanted to read, which took place in a white world, and overinvited to historical fiction about "strong African Americans" and other cliche terms (since children's literature about people of color is overwhelmingly about confronting racism and meeting a noble Atticus Finch who solves all racism forever or it's historical fiction), I don't like being told to read books because they are diverse. I can't stand it when people tell me I would love a book not because it's about quirky characters, not because it's speculative fiction, not because it's epistolary, not because it's about music, which are things I actually do love in fiction, but instead because it's "about a girl - oh, she's African American - and she blah blah."

    While this is as much bookstores' fault for insisting on putting anything written by a person of color in the ethnic fiction section and only displaying books for heritage months, I also wonder why publishers aren't doing more to advertise books with diverse characters as BOOKS. I would be far less tired of cliched book covers in YA that feature girls in pretty dresses, headless people, and kissing if there was a girl of Native heritage in a pretty prom dress or a headless person with dark skin. I can understand that white people tend to look at the cover and assume the book isn't for them, but I also wonder if there were more people of color on the covers that people are used to buying, if that would become more comfortable.