Just Us Books Celebrates 30 Years of Championing Diversity in Literature
Thursday, February 28, 2019
Posted by: Christopher Locke
|Just Us Books Founders Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson pose with their title, We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices.
In celebration of Black History Month, Just Us Books founders and African American publishing pioneers Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson discuss the current state of diversity in publishing, what inspired them to champion black interest and multicultural books, and the projects they’re working on now to continue their valuable work in this area.
“Our inspiration has always come from our own children’s experiences and the desire to provide them with positive literature that affirms their identity and place in the world,” said Cheryl. “We started our company in 1988 with the publication of a concept known as AFRO-BETS A B C Book. From that beginning, we have branded our company as one that publishes quality books for children and young adults that spotlight Black history, culture and experiences in picture books, biographies, books of poetry, middle grade fiction, and anthologies. The children in our books are authentic and contemporary. They are as diverse as our communities whether urban, suburban, rural, or international. Our nonfiction books explore the depth and breadth of Black history and culture rather than skimming them for meager representations. Our Sankofa Books imprint brings back to readers strong African-American titles that have gone out of print and Marimba Books is reflective of multicultural students in classrooms across our country.”
Since Cheryl and Wade began their publishing journey 30 years ago they’ve noted some progress in diversity in the publishing industry but they say that it still isn’t enough. “There have been some changes,” said Wade. “There are more books in the marketplace created by people of color. Some of them have won many of the important awards in children’s and young adult book publishing. But when you look at the number of books written and/or illustrated by people of color compared to the total number published each year, the percentage hasn’t changed a lot. Much more still needs to be done to address the lack of diversity in the industry. The focus is usually on the content in terms of the diversity of books that are published and who is creating them. But even less progress has been made to diversify staffs at publishing houses. There are very few people of color in editorial, marketing, and sales. That, I am sure, is one of the reasons for the lack of diversity in books that are offered. Making publishing more inclusive has been a cause undertaken by advocates and allies for decades. I am encouraged about the future because there are many more advocates and people of color involved in this struggle for change than when we started Just Us Books thirty years ago.”
|Just Us Books' upcoming title, I’m a Big Sister Now.
Wade explained further how independent publishers can change the industry in terms of diversity. “I think independent publishers should recognize how important they are in the book publishing industry. The major publishers have so much clout. So, it’s understandable that we independent publishers seem like grasshoppers when measured against them. But we are so crucial. I think it is the steady and committed independent publishers who move the needle of progress in so many ways. Whether it is diversity and inclusion in staffing, providing opportunities for marginalized authors and artists, expanding topics and subjects that books address or making personal connections to book buyers through innovative marketing strategies, independent publishers have been in the forefront of change. Major publishers often incorporate innovative initiatives we have initially implemented. So, we need to embrace what indies have accomplished, and how important we are so that we can be even more motivated and empowered to continue. We are not grasshoppers!”
Just Us Books continues their tradition of publishing black interest and multicultural books with these recent titles: We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices (the story of how this unique book came to be is described below), AFRO-BETS Kids: I’m Going to Be! written by Wade Hudson and illustrated by Nancy Devard, Bright Eyes, Brown Skin written by Cheryl Willis Hudson and Bernette Ford and illustrated by George Ford, and I’m a Big Sister Now written by Katura J. Hudson and illustrated by Sylvia L. Walker.
Six Questions with Just Us Books Founders Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson
IBPA: Do you have recommendations of books that people can read in honor of Black History Month and/or books that you think are a great representation of diversity in children’s and YA literature?
Wade Hudson (WH): There are quite a few. Rather than list titles, we would rather share several links where a wide variety of diverse books for children and young adults are featured as well as the writers and illustrators who create them.
IBPA: Can you explain how We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices came to be? Why was it so important to you to create this book now?
WH: We are living in a very challenging time. Much of the progress that has been achieved in so many areas of American life is under siege. Those of us who recognize that we must continue to fight to create a country that lives up to the ideals expressed in some of its founding documents, must assume the responsibility to fight to keep that progress as we push to achieve even more. Those ideals, initially, were reserved essentially for white male land owners. Over several centuries many struggles have been waged, and lives have been given in those struggles, to ensure that the fruits of those ideals are enjoyed by all Americans—women, Black Americans, Native Americans, children, workers and so on. We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices is an anthology that speaks to today’s struggle and challenges.
The idea to produce a book like this was born in November 2016, following the presidential election. We felt the need to publish a work for children to address the negative and divisive culture developing around and because of the newly elected president and his supporters. We knew there were other children’s and young adult book creators who felt the same as we did about what was taking place. So, we decided to do an anthology and allow them to share their thoughts and stories that we felt would help to encourage our young, offer them love and support, and hope for the future. In January, we drafted a proposal and started sending it to the authors and illustrators we had targeted. The response was phenomenal. By May 2017, we had contracts signed with more than sixty percent of the contributors and many of them had already sent us their contributions. At BookExpo that year, I ran into Phoebe Yeh, VP and Editorial Director at Crown Books, whom Cheryl and I have known for decades. She asked what we were doing at Just Us Books. I told her about the anthology and she was very excited. After several meetings, we decided a partnership with Crown Books would enhance the creative potential as well as market penetration. We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices was officially released in September 2018. So, it actually took about a year and a half to publish it.
IBPA: What has been the response to the book—especially in terms of parents’ responses to reading the book and having discussions with their kids about current events and the topics raised in the book (racism, bullying, sexism, etc.)?
Cheryl Hudson (CH): The response has been incredibly welcoming and reassuring. Children and parents and educators write to us and often communicate their reactions via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. The essays and letters and visuals in our anthology have struck a chord in helping to provide answers to questions about those very topics that many children are confronted with on a daily basis. How do you talk about the lack of kindness, friendship, reaching out from yourself, dealing with bullying, racism and self-esteem and yet speak from a place of positive energy? Our authors and artists provide concrete answers to these questions. Their contributions give affirmative ways to deal with troubling questions in a variety of voices. A review in Kirkus called We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, “A love song from children’s literature’s brightest stars to America’s Indigenous children and children of color, encouraging them to be brave and kind.”
IBPA: For We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, you worked with Crown Books (an imprint of Random House) and you’ve worked with Scholastic in the past as well. Sometimes with indie publishers there’s a “them vs. us” mentality against the Big 5 publishers. Can you describe your experience partnering with larger publishers?
WH: Partnering with a major can afford greater opportunities to penetrate more markets because of its reach. But we are very strategic when we consider collaborating with a major publisher. It must be the right project. Having a good, solid relationship with the company, especially the editor, is also important. We have known Phoebe Yeh, vice president and publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers, who acquired We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, for a number of years and have worked with her and beside her on issues of diversity in the industry. We have also known Barbara Marcus, president and publisher at the Children’s Division at Random House, the parent company of Crown Books, for more than twenty years. She was formerly at Scholastic with whom we collaborated on a few previous projects. These are people who respect what we have accomplished in the industry and recognize and honor the expertise we have developed and bring to the table. So, there is mutual respect. Without that respect, we wouldn’t partner with anyone. Just Us Books is not only a publishing company, for many in Black communities and communities of color, we are an institution—representative of what these communities can produce and accomplish. So, it is crucial that in any collaboration, we maintain our identity and independence. Of course, an agreed-upon royalty is always determined by the back and forth, give-and-take in contract negotiation.
IBPA: Can you share some key lessons you’ve learned about how one can succeed as an independent publisher?
- Do the research. There is so much information that is available now for those who are considering publishing as a venture. So, it is important to learn as much about the industry as possible.
- Develop a marketing plan. A marketing plan is essential to any business. Plotting marketing strategies ahead of time can help the publishing venture run more smoothly and enhance the opportunities for success.
- Establish relationships with others who are also in the publishing industry. There are organizations such as IBPA that offer the opportunity to be part of a community where resources, contacts, feedback and general networking are plentiful. It is extremely difficult to run a company in isolation.
- Don’t try to do it all by yourself. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses and employ to help.
IBPA: How has it been beneficial to you to be a member of Independent Book Publishers Association?
CH: We first joined IBPA over 25 years ago when it was known as PMA
(Publisher’s Marketing Association) and it was extremely beneficial to our growing
company in terms of networking with other indies. IBPA provided and continues
to provide affordable marketing programs, strategies, resources, and educational
programs that helped us to gain more nationwide exposure for our titles very
early on. We have participated in programming, been a part of the publishing
university, and have also won several IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards for our work
through our membership. We highly recommend IBPA for independent publishers whether they have one self-published title or more than a hundred. The benefits are
IBPA: Thank you, Cheryl and Wade, for sharing your expertise and insight about the publishing industry with the IBPA community, and for your years of work promoting diversity in literature and publishing!
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