Stacy Whitman is the editorial director of Tu Books, which specializes in multicultural fantasy, science fiction and mystery for children and young adults. Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low, just launched this fall, and I asked Stacy to tell us a bit about how Tu Books came to be and what her thoughts are on diversity in children’s and YA literature.
Malinda Lo: You launched Tu Books on your own without knowing that it would eventually be acquired by Lee & Low, a New York-based publisher. What inspired you to start a publishing company that focuses on multicultural fantasy and science fiction?
Stacy Whitman: When I was acquiring at Mirrorstone (which was an imprint of Wizards of the Coast until recently), I actively sought out diversity in the books I acquired. Later, as a freelancer, I was looking for a way to get back into acquiring, considering whether to move to New York. At my friend’s weekly anime-watching night, we were watching a show set in an ancient China-like world. I LOVED the characters, the setting, the culture, the magical-realism worldbuilding (the anime is The Story of Saiunkoku, for anyone interested). My friend mentioned it was based on a series of novels published in Japan, and I lamented that they weren’t published here in English—even if I could order them from Japan I couldn’t read them. She made what I thought was a joke: “We could start a small press and publish them here ourselves!” I said something to the effect of, “Are you nuts?” She was serious enough to want to play around with a business plan and see if it was feasible.
At the same time, a huge discussion on the internet now dubbed Racefail was happening, in which many readers of color were discussing how they felt marginalized by the relatively white world of fantasy and science fiction. Most of the conversation concerned adult fantasy and SF, but I could see how those discussions could be applied to children’s and YA books. This became the focus for our small press project, which for many months was mostly just an exercise of what-if: what if I could create a job for myself and do some good in the world at the same time?
My friend eventually moved on to other projects, but I forged ahead with the business plan and fundraisers, and as you know, soon after Lee & Low noticed what we were doing and the attention it was getting on blogs and Twitter, and eventually I brought Tu with me to the company.
ML: While there have been New York Times children’s bestsellers that feature main characters of color (Rick Riordan’s Red Pyramid, for example, and Simone Elkeles’ Perfect Chemistry series), I think there is still a perception that books about minorities are a tough sell to New York publishing companies. What do you think?
SW: I think you’re right that the perception is still there, though at the same time I feel like it’s been lessening within the last year or two. Or perhaps it’s just a function of me being in thinking-about-diversity mode every day? But when I go into a bookstore, I notice more diversity, and I’m seeing bloggers and reviewers with a renewed sense of diversity’s importance, especially when it comes to genre fiction. I don’t know that it’s MORE awareness than, say, we had in the ’90s when everyone was talking about diversity, but it feels more “mainstream,” if that makes sense, to care about diversity beyond a few token books. In other words, “mainstream” culture is looking beyond traditional WASP culture that’s been historically considered the face of “mainstream.” I hope this trend continues!
It’s also a growing reality that our audience—kids—is increasingly diverse. We’re nearing the point at which half of K-12 students in the U.S. are people of color, if we haven’t passed it already. So it’s a market reality that we must acknowledge in publishing for this audience.
ML: Where do you see the children’s and young adult book market going in the future with regard to multicultural titles?
SW: As I said, the demographics of kids in the U.S. is changing. So I think it can only grow.
I also think that we’re moving more toward stories that are about something besides the “experience” of being a minority. Hopefully, more and more books will be more about the adventures of a person who happens to be from a particular race/ethnic background, rather than about their trials as a person of a certain ethnicity (i.e., it’s so tough being X). Their ethnicity will inform many parts of the story, and might affect the choices they make or the influence of family and friends—or even enemies—but it’s not the whole story. That’s what we’re working toward at Tu.
ML: Can you tell us a little about why you acquired the three books that will be premiering this fall on Tu’s first list?
SW: A launch list is a challenge, because you want it to reflect the mission of the imprint. You have to show its breadth and its depth—we’ll be publishing middle grade and young adult books for both boys and girls. We will publish fantasy and science fiction, and we also want to publish books featuring a variety of cultures and ethnicities. We also want to showcase experienced authors and discover new talent. So our first three books needed to reflect all those goals.
The main reason I acquired these books is because they’re awesome, exciting reads. But it’s also nice to know that these books reflect that breadth of experiences and genres and depth of quality we’re looking for at the same time.
Galaxy Games: The Challengers features Japanese American and Japanese point of view characters who are boys. There’s a lot of humor that middle grade boys will love, action, adventure, and strange aliens from outer space. While gatekeepers might consider it more of a “boy book,” I think girls will also enjoy it. Author Greg Fishbone has published one book before, but he’s well known in the children’s book community for his work with SCBWI.
Tankborn will probably appeal more to teen girls, though we hope guys will like it too. Its influence is mainly Indian (through the caste system), though there are strains of other cultural influences as well, seen through both postapocalyptic and dystopian lenses. Karen Sandler is new to YA, though she’s written almost 20 adult titles and screenplays.
Wolf Mark brings us back to the present with a Native American main character in a more urban fantasy/paranormal story, with strains of spy intrigue, suspense, and mystery as well (I like to call it “Burn Notice with werewolves,” except the werewolves are Abenaki skinwalkers). Joseph Bruchac has been working in children’s and YA books for several decades and his picture books and novels are both acclaimed and beloved, so we’re happy to have the chance to work with him.
And for those who love their romance, we’ve got that too, in both Wolf Mark and Tankborn.
ML: What are your goals for Tu Books in the future?
SW: For the next couple of years, I want to continue as we are right now, publishing great books, showing that there’s a definite place for diversity in genre books for young readers, and broadening our reach. As time goes on and the imprint gets more established, I’d like to grow the list, of course, but I’d also like to make sure that we’re covering a wide variety of cultures and experiences, that we’re discovering new writers of color (we have been discussing a Tu-based New Voices contest for sometime in the future), and that we’re adapting as publishing changes—after all, with the way publishing is changing right now, who knows what the face of publishing will look like in five or ten years? I want us to be technologically adept and to reach the readers where they are, whether that be on e-reading devices or on something we haven’t yet predicted, let alone invented. However we deliver the content, though, the most important thing is that we publish fun, exciting, adventurous tales that are, as the Lee & Low company motto says, “about everyone, for everyone.”
For more on Stacy Whitman, visit her website. For more on Tu Books, visit their website.