For Writers

Diversity in MG Lit #17 Equity for Black books and their creators

It’s my goal with these posts to shine a light on new diverse books for young readers at the middle grade level. It’s a regular feature on the Mixed Up Files Blog because the disparity in attention that diverse books receive is an ongoing problem. Recent events, however, call for a more systemic look at racism as it exists within the children’s book industry.
I have been writing for the last 25 years and have had published work for the last 11 years. In that time I’ve met people at all levels of the publishing and bookselling industries. Across the board I’ve found kind folks with good intentions. There has been an awareness of the inequalities in the industry as far back at the 1920s or 30s. Efforts have been made over the last hundred years, and yet time after time they have come woefully short of anything that looks like equality.
Rather than cast blame I’d like to look at the retail side of the equation and a handful of concrete ways all of us can make book sales grow, especially for POC authors & illustrators. It’s not the entire solution, but one sure way to make more money available for Black authors is to make books more available to Black families. Here are a half dozen steps you can take to do right by authors of color.
  1. Buy your books from Black-owned bookstores. Here’s a list of them by state. If there’s one near you, please become a regular customer. If not order from one once in a while and have them ship the books to you.
  2. Support Indie bookstores. Most new voices are first discovered and promoted by indie booksellers. Indie bookstores are a venue for book events for local authors not given a publisher-sponsored tour. And indie bookstores selling books at their cover price are the ones that give an author their full royalty. Those venues on line or elsewhere that offer discounts on books are giving the author less in royalty. Royalties are what make it possible for an author to continue writing.
  3. Donate to BINC. BINC is the Book Industry Charitable Foundation. They provide assistance to booksellers which helps them stay open in the face of difficulty. The assistance includes help with serious medical expenses, eviction prevention, funeral expenses, disaster assistance, domestic violence survival, utility shut-off prevention, and many other things. Donate here. Every little bit helps, especially now when so many book stores are struggling.
  4. Read books from Small Presses. Even the big publishers agree that the most daring and diverse books come out of small, independent, regional, and university presses. If you are a librarian, especially one on a book award committee, please give equal attention to the small press gems from Amistad, Just Us Books, Cinco Punto, Orca, Charlesbridge, Lee & Low, Enchanted Lion, Lerner, , and the many others listed here.
  5. Get involved in small business politics  If I could wave a magic wand I’d love to give every neighborhood and town it’s own vibrant independent bookstore. Sadly many people live in a book desert. If that’s your community, spend some time at your town’s council meetings. Ask the local small business association what you can do to bring a bookstore to town, The American Booksellers Association has a small business issues section that offers, state-by-state some suggestions for advocacy for bookstores. This kind of advocacy can be boring and feel far removed from the heat of the moment but if we want Black businesses to flourish in the future we have to lay the groundwork for it now.
  6. Use and promote your public library. Librarians are often at the forefront of advocating for diverse books. If your local library is not as inclusive as you’d like, The American Library Association has materials to help a library conduct a self audit and take steps to diversify the books on the shelf. If the books on your state reading lists and battle of the books lists are not reflecting Black lives, speak up. Librarians choose those lists; they need to hear from you. If they’ve consistently done a good job of serving the Black community—give them that feedback too. Help your library by using it regularly, requesting Black-authored books regularly, and supporting it with your votes when the library levy is on the ballot.
  7. Advocate for a full time teacher-librarian in every public, private, and charter school. Librarians pay a key role in introducing young readers to diverse voices. They also support diverse authors by buying their books. Show up at school board meetings. Pay attention to how school funding is allocated. Make sure there is always budget for diverse books and the librarians who support them.
  8. Most important of all–Vote. Vote in every election, especially the local ones. Be a well-informed voter, drawing your information from a variety of sources. Be a passionate voter, advocating for free access to the ballot box for all. Speak up when voting abuse happens. And always, always, keep in mind the readers you serve as a parent, teacher, librarian or bookseller. Serve not just your immediate interest but their long term benefit.

AGENT SPOTLIGHT: Tina Dubois of ICM Partners

Hello Mixed-Up Filers! Are we in for a treat today! Years ago, I was fortunate enough to take a workshop with Tina Dubois, literary agent with ICM Partners. Besides running a great workshop, she couldn’t have been nicer! So, I’m pleased to let all of you get a chance to meet her here at Mixed-Up Files.

JR: Hi Tina, thanks for joining us today!

TD: Thanks so much for having me and for your kind introduction! I’m glad our paths continue to cross.

JR: To start, I see you live in Brooklyn. I’m a Brooklyn boy, myself. Sheepshead Bay/Gravesend area. What is it about the city that appeals to you?

TD: The energy, the pace, the people!

JR: I agree with that. You also lived in London, one of my favorite places. How has living in different areas helped influence your tastes?

TD: I want my list to reflect a far greater swath of experiences and points of view than my own. Moving from a small town in New England to study in London surely helped shape that.

JR: Could you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an agent and also about ICM?

TD: Shortly after receiving my MFA in Poetry from Brooklyn College, I got a job as an assistant to two amazing agents at a boutique literary agency. They taught me every aspect of the business, from pitch letters to contract language to foreign rights. I moved to ICM a few years later and began building my own list under the mentorship of another amazing woman.

ICM Partners is one of the oldest and largest agencies in the world, with offices in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and London. I’m very fortunate to work with such incredible colleagues representing the most talented people across so many disciplines: music, comedy, theater, broadcasting, television, film, podcasting, speakers, publishing, you name it!

JR: What was the first book you sold?

TD: Anne Ursu’s middle grade fantasy trilogy, The Cronus Chronicles. It set a high bar, and I’m so grateful to Anne for trusting me with those books—with all of her children’s books!

JR: What do you enjoy the most about your job?

TD: I love working with my authors. They are so talented: creative and smart and funny. And hardworking!

 

JR: What sort of books do you look for?

TD: I’m looking for middle-grade and YA fiction across all genres. I’m also interested in middle-grade and YA nonfiction, specifically memoir (including graphic memoirs), history/biography, pop culture, and social issues. I want diverse voices/#ownvoices. I want books with something important to say about the world we live in and that challenge the status quo. I have a soft spot for unpredictable magic and characters facing impossible choices. I love books that make me laugh and cry in equal measure.

JR: Are you very hands-on with your authors?

TD: Yes. I like to be involved with every aspect of the publishing process. It’s really a collaboration with my authors—from the submission strategy to the editorial vision to the cover design to the marketing and publicity plan. The focus is always on creating the best book, considering the market it’s being published into, and anticipating how the author’s career is being shaped with each book being published. I’m also an editorial agent, so it’s not unusual for me to do a round (or two) of edits before going out with a project.

JR: With everything that’s going on, what’s the state of publishing right now?

TD: My answer to this question changes moment to moment. There are terrible, impossible losses—book sales, jobs, lives. There are also heartwarming acts of generosity and kindness—established authors using their robust platforms to support debuts; booksellers and libraries serving their communities with remote events. None of these things erase the very real hardships facing us right now, and I can’t pretend to know what’s to come. But I am grateful for the publishing people who are working hard to give us stories to help make sense of our world–and real facts for when certain voices in that world speak nonsense.

JR: What advice can you give to authors?

TD: Write from your most empathic, beautiful self, pursue whatever fascinates and scares you, and read widely.

 

JR: That’s great advice. I always like to ask, what was your favorite book as a child?

TD: I don’t know that I had a favorite—or rather, my favorite was always whatever book I was currently reading—but I know Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson resonated deeply with me.

 

JR: What’s one thing from your childhood that you wish could come back?

TD: The raucous family gatherings we used to have when my mémère was alive. All the aunts and uncles and cousins still get together, but it’s not the same without my mémère’s cooking and her smile. She was full of mischief, and she loved us grandkids. My sons would’ve adored her.

JR: Very sweet. One of my grandmothers never got to meet my kids and I always wish she had. How can people follow you on social media?

TD: @tinaduboisny

JR: Okay, before I let you go, a few months ago, you posted a photo of you holding a duck, and made it seem like it’s a ritual. I need to hear the story behind that.

TD: Oh, jeez, how do I explain this? Several years ago when I was home for the holidays, my oldest childhood friend took a photo of me with one of her chickens perched on my head. The following year, it was two chickens. Then three. Then four. This past year, she added ducks to the mix. Every year I insist it’ll be the last (because claws and beaks and dignity), but you will not find two people laughing harder, and so the tradition continues.

JR: It did look like you were having a lot of fun, but I suggest you quit before it reaches vultures! I’d like to thank you again for taking the time to speak to us today!

TD: Thanks so much for having me! It was a pleasure getting to chat books–and birds!—with you, Jonathan.

Interview with Author Janet Sumner Johnson

One of my favorite things about writing for FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES is that I get to talk to so many authors. This post is especially fun for me because I got to interview my good friend Janet Sumner Johnson who does what to me seems impossible – successfully moving between writing Middle Grade and Picture Books.

 

Interview with Janet Sumner Johnson | MUFYou started your career as an author writing Middle Grade (THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURES OF THE PB&J SOCIETY). What got you interested in writing Picture Books? And, how long did it take you to write a manuscript you were happy with?

I have always loved picture books. The idea of telling a story in so few words fascinated me! When I had three young kids at home, we had just moved to a new city, and we spent a lot of time at the library and reading picture books. Kids can be pretty inspiring (lol!), and that’s when I first attempted to write a picture book.

Granted, I was busy writing middle grade during this time, but it took eight years from the moment I wrote that first picture book, to when I finally dared show a manuscript to my agent.

 

Where do you get your ideas? And, once you have an idea, how do you know if it is best suited for a Picture Book or a Middle Grade book? Do  you start out with the form specifically in mind or does it sometimes take you by surprise?

Most of my ideas come from life. PB&J Society was inspired by the 2009 recession, when so many people were losing their houses. I also dipped liberally into my own memories as a child. Help Wanted came from my daughter. She wanted Daddy to read her a bedtime story, but he was frantically working on a presentation for work the next day. She basically fired him then and there.

When I get an idea, it’s usually pretty clearly one or the other. Sometimes character age will dictate that. Sometimes it’s the simplicity/difficulty of the problem to be solved. And I’m a pretty visual thinker. With a picture book, I can usually see images in my head for how the story might unfold. With a middle grade, it’s more like a movie.

But every now and then, I’ll start a picture book and brainstorm my way into what could be a fun middle grade book. For example, I’m working on a picture book pirate story, and some of the ideas I jotted down for the resolution were pretty extensive. Way too much for a picture book. So I’ve tucked those ideas into my middle grade files.

 

What’s your favorite thing about working on Picture Books? What’s the most difficult? And how do those things compare to what you love about Middle Grade and what challenges you the most there?

PB and J | Interview wiht Janet Sumner Johnson | MUFWith picture books, I love the wordsmithing that’s involved. Every word matters. I get to mine my brain (and hone my Google searches) for word play and luscious words that can say MORE with less. The most difficult part is deciding what NOT to say. Pictures are so important, and leaving space for the illustrator can be a balancing act sometimes. What parts of the story need to be read, and what parts would be better left for the illustrator? I actually really enjoy figuring that out, but it’s definitely challenging.

After writing a picture book, middle grade feels so liberating. I get to use ALL THE WORDS (even if it will need revision). The whole story is mine, and I can tell as much or as little as I choose. But as freeing as that is, and as much as I love that freedom, that leads to my biggest challenge in middle grade: plotting out the story.

Plotting is tough! Not only do you have to figure out the main story, but then you have to create subplots that align and enhance the main plot. There’s so much space, and figuring out all the intricacies of the whens and the whys . . . it can be brain melting. It’s quite the contrast to picture book plotting which is so focused.

 

What skills have you gained from writing Picture Books that help in writing Middle Grade? How has writing Picture Books changed your Middle Grade writing?

So haha, Help Wanted | Interview wiht Janet Sumner Johnson | MUFthe biggest skill I’ve gained from writing picture books is plotting. As I mentioned above, I can get really bogged down with plotting in middle grade. Writing picture books has helped me learn to break it down, to really focus on the basics. Intricacies can be added in later, but if I focus on the plot in its simplest form first, that really helps me. In addition, because picture book plotting gives such an emphasis to story structure, that can help me see the possibilities of where I can go with the story when plotting a middle grade.

In addition to changing the way I think about plot, picture book writing has affected my writing on both a micro and macro level. Micro in that I tend to write a little leaner than I did before and spend more time on word choice (though I try to hold back the picture book writer in me until revisions). Macro in that I spend more time thinking about the heart of the story. Heart is so important in picture books. Without it, story can fall flat. That’s true for middle grade, too. And while I knew that, picture book writing made me think about it in a different way.

 

What was your biggest challenge in switching from Middle Grade to writing Picture Books? And, what advice do you have for writers looking to branch out into other forms?

My biggest challenge in making the switch was overcoming my own self-doubts. I would look at picture books I loved and think, “Wow, this book is amazing! I could never write something like that.” I wasted a lot of time with such destructive thinking.

Switching genres was definitely a challenge. It took me years of practice and study to figure it out (and I’m still figuring it out). But anything is possible. If you want to branch out, do it! Push away those doubts and go for it! Look for mentors who can help you through. I took a class from Susanna Leonard Hill called Making Picture Book Magic, and it was transformative. She has been an amazing mentor for me and for so many others.  So go for it! I believe in you.

 

Both  THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURES OF THE PB&J SOCIETY and HELP WANTED:  MUST LOVE BOOKS take a serious subject and infuse it with humor. Do you have any advice on how to write funny?

I love humor so much. It’s been my coping mechanism for as long as I can remember. The best advice I can give is to blend in the unexpected with the everyday and mundane. Do that well, and you’ve got humor gold. Three ways to throw in the unexpected is through your character, through the setting, and through the events.

For character examples, just look at Pigeon in DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS! by Mo Willems. He takes an everyday event like driving the bus, and makes it hilarious by swapping out the bus driver. Or take the character Bunnicula in Deborah and James Howes’ BUNNICULA. Mixing a bunny and a vampire is just so unexpected! The cute and cuddly mixed with a horror monster. Neither is funny on its own, but put them together, and brilliant!

For setting, just look at ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY by Chris Grabenstein. While authors and book people know that libraries are amazing, Chris Grabenstein made this one amazing to everyone! So many unexpected hidden clues, and even unexpected rooms in a library. He took something we all love and turned it on its head.

And for examples of humorous unexpected events, we have the typewriter and the cows’ demands in CLICK CLACK, MOO! COWS THAT TYPE by Doreen Cronin. So unexpected and hilarious!! It’s the combination of two mundane things that don’t usually go together that really make the book amazing.  And bonus, if you want to take a master class in unexpected events, study THE BEST WORST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER  (or any of the other books in that series) by Barbara Robinson. She is brilliant.

There’s so many great humorous books. Read them, and when you find yourself smiling or laughing, stop, and try to break down what the author did. I’m all about mentor texts.

 

I know a lot of your in-person events were cancelled due to COVID-19? Where can our readers find you on-line?

You can find me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. And you can always connect with me through my website, www.janetsumnerjohnson.com, which also has fun extras for both my books from coloring pages to teaching guides.

In addition, I’ve got some virtual events coming up:

On June 6th at 11 AM EST, I’ll be doing an online reading of HELP WANTED in conjunction with House of Books, a bookstore in Connecticut. I’ll be on their Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/hobookskent/.

I’ll also be participating in Nerd Camp SoCal on July 17th along with many other amazing authors. You do have to register for that, but it should be amazing!

Thanks so much for having me on From the Mixed-Up Files!

 

Janet’s picture book, HELP WANTED: MUST LOVE BOOKS is out now! You can find it and THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURES OF THE PB AND J SOCIETY at your favorite indie bookstore.

Help Wanted | Interview wiht Janet Sumner Johnson | MUF