Lee & Low Kids!
This one I can’t really answer because our Lee & Low editors came up with the titles.
Why do you think a book's characters, even in those for the earliest of readers, should reflect the diversity seen in real life settings?
Diverse characters in real life settings are very important for young readers to see at an early age because they can identify with these characters on a universal level. Of course there are important children’s books that deal specifically with issues of diversity and discrimination and racism, but it’s also equally important to show diverse characters dealing with universal stories so children of all backgrounds can identify and relate with them.
Did you create character sketches for Lily, Henry, Mei, Padma and Pablo? If so, what distinctive qualities did you created for each one?
The characters already existed from the Lee & Low series template. They hired me as the writer for the first two books in the series (there are other authors also involved with different books in the series). I was honored to be selected for the first two books, so I was very conscientious of making sure we knew each character’s personality right away.
I was given brief descriptions of each child--Lily is very inquisitive and compassionate, Pablo is a shy bookworm, Mei is an active yet clumsy girl, Henry is an enthusiastic musician who likes to get everyone involved in projects, and Padma is a strong and outspoken girl.
In trying to show these characters, we brainstormed scenes and storylines in which these qualities could shine and push the story and character relationships forward. For example, when Lily moves to her new home, she notices Pablo loves to read. So she visits the local library and quietly joins him on the steps to read books with him. To me, story IS character. All story plots are inspired by the characters’ personality traits and motivations. It was fun to imagine what these kids would do next!
What was your reaction when you saw your characters and their world illustrated to life by Shirley Ng-Benitez?
For a lot of books that are heavily illustrated, it’s always such a joy and surprise to see the final art work. Some authors and illustrators work closely together, especially if they are a team, but it’s standard to have the writer and illustrator work separately. I assume this is so the writer can focus on the words and the artist can concentrate on the art! :) But when I saw Shirley’s work, I was so touched by her playful and gentle style. She’s incredibly talented and there’s a warmth and emotional glow to her art. I felt I had known these character forever when I saw her illustrations--she truly captured their essence!
What factors must you keep in mind while crafting an enjoyable story for emergent readers?
I am first and foremost a novelist and a screenwriter and then a picture book author, which means I write A LOT of words. My picture books are unusually long for the genre because they are non-fiction biographies geared to an older elementary school audience. So when I was invited to write the first two books of the Confetti Kids series, I thought it would be fun. But I had no idea how much WORK it would be. The writing is like mastering the art of haiku poetry. You have a VERY limited amount of text to write, so each word has to shine like a jewel. Just like in haiku, not one word can be wasted.
With early emergent readers, you are also writing with an educational angle to teach the process of learning how to read. So there is also a strict vocabulary and sentence structure you must use. Compound and complex sentences are too complicated for this age group. I had to learn how to STRIP DOWN my writing and get to the very essence of the story--the bare bones, if you will. And yet at the same time, I also had to make sure the characters were compelling and the plot exciting and engaging.
In a nutshell, writing these books was THE HARDEST THING I HAVE EVER DONE. LOL! Oh the irony! :) But I’m grateful for the experience because I learned so much and it actually had a great influence on my other areas of writing. I became a much tighter writer as a result. Lesson learned--not one word wasted. :)
What do you appreciate about publishers like Lee & Low Books?
I have been with Lee & Low Books since my first picture book, SIXTEEN YEARS IN SIXTEEN SECONDS: THE SAMMY LEE STORY (illustrated by Dom Lee) was published in 2005 after winning the 2003 New Voices Award. I love Lee & Low’s mission to raise more awareness of diversity in children’s literature, to promote diverse stories AND diverse authors and illustrators, and the incredible quality of their work. It’s no surprise this publisher’s books have won many prestigious awards over the years--getting published here is a big deal. The editors are impeccable with their insights and editorial advice. These books are carefully constructed and edited and revised before hitting bookstores. Us writers are put through the wringer! But it’s worth it because you can stand by your book when it finally launches!
I also appreciate and admire Lee & Low’s recent activism in raising awareness about diversity issues in the media, especially with their famous surveys and statistical reports that have gone viral and actually caused huge waves in the publishing industry and influenced future changes in policy and editorial decisions regarding more inclusivity for multicultural stories and writers. They were ahead of their time and only now is the rest of the country catching up to their mission statement! It is truly an honor and privilege to work with this ground-breaking publisher.
Paula Yoo is not only a children's book author and novelist, she's also a TV writer and producer. Her newest titles, LILY'S NEW HOME and WANT TO PLAY?, are both Junior Library Guild selections. Her picture-book biographies include: TWENTY-TWO CENTS: MUHAMMAD YUNUS AND THE VILLAGE BANK, a 2014 Junior Library Guild selection that is illustrated by Jamel Akib (Lee & Low Books 2014); SIXTEEN YEARS IN SIXTEEN SECONDS: THE SAMMY LEE STORY, an IRA Notable non-fiction title (Lee & Low Books, 2005); and SHINING STAR: THE ANNA MAY WONG STORY (Lee & Low Books, 2009), a winner of the 2010 Carter G. Woodson Award from the National Council for the Social Studies. Her young-adult novel, GOOD ENOUGH (HarperCollins 2008), was a 2009 Honor Book of the Youth Literature of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. Paula is currently adapting the popular Israeli teen drama, THE GREENHOUSE, for Netflix. Her other television credits include NBC’s THE WEST WING, SyFy’s EUREKA and DEFIANCE, and Amazon’s MOZART IN THE JUNGLE. When she’s not writing, Paula teaches, plays her violin and hangs out with her three cats. You can find her online at paulayoo.com and Tweeting @PaulaYoo.
Lee & Low's Catalog Description: "Lily and her parents move from their suburban neighborhood to New York City. Lily is used to living in a house on a quiet street. When they arrive at their new apartment, Lily notices the amount of activity all around. Kids play jump rope on one corner. Buses and taxis zoom by. Lily feels like a small ant on such a busy block and worries that she’ll never feel at home. As she and her parents explore their new, multicultural neighborhood, Lily discovers that sometimes change can be a good thing."
The first time I read Paula’s manuscript, I pictured Lily in her new environment and how worried she must have been. Lily moves from the suburb to a big city, and I put myself in her shoes as I read. I thought of Lily’s worried face, so I started to sketch Lily, first and foremost, and then the images of her new city surroundings. Maria Mercado, a freelance book designer who works with Lee & Low, gave me wonderful art direction, and through two or three iterations, we came upon the exact Lily character, as well as Lily’s new neighborhood friends. Developing New York’s avenues and apartment buildings and stores were next. The buildings and details of the apartment buildings were challenging to create, but I had great fun researching “New York apartments” and “New York streets” and seeing the details on doors and banisters to try to give the book authenticity.
Did you create character sketches for Lily, Mei, Pablo, Henry, and Padma? If so, do tell us about each one.
Yes, each character came with art direction from Lee and Low.
Lily is an African-American girl and an only child. She's a little shy at first, but once she's comfortable, she likes to ask a lot of questions. Pablo is a Latino boy and a New York native, he's the only boy in a family of three sisters. He's a bit of a bookworm and can often be found sitting on a corner reading a book. Mei is a Chinese-American girl, and much to her dismay, she's a bit klutzy. She has an older sister and lives with her parents and grandmother. Henry is a Caucasian boy who, like Lily, is an only child. He likes to play sports, play the drums, and motivates others to participate in different local events. Padma is a South-Asian girl, who's a bit sassy and outspoken. She lives with her parents, older sister, and younger brother.
In Lily's New Home, your urban setting seamlessly reflects diversity, both in the people and in the places depicted. How do you go about creating such authenticity in your drawings?
I am so grateful to Maria and to my Lee & Low editor, Jessica Echeverria, for such great art direction and guidance. I sketched neighborhoods, buildings, street scenes, and even a map of where the characters lived in relation to one another. I believe this greatly helped my thinking about all of the kids and their relationship to the city. I loved the scene of the community garden and enjoyed thinking about how the kids could pass by it on their way to school. Research on the internet helped as well and I was able to further develop Lily’s new neighborhood which is patterned after a borough in New York.
What medium did you use in creating the art for Lily's New Home and Want to Play?
I used a mixed-media medium consisting of pencil, watercolors, gouache, colored pencils, and final highlights and small details in Photoshop.
Why do you think emergent readers should see characters in books that look like they do or come from similar cultural backgrounds as they do?
I feel that emergent readers would absolutely love to see themselves reflected in books they’re learning from. If there were many, many books from which to choose, all the better in my opinion! As my children were learning to read, there were very few books with cultural-specific hero characters. More often than not, the heroes were animals or Caucasian. Along with those heroes, I think that it would’ve been exciting and inspiring for them to have a selection of books with heroes from diverse cultural backgrounds, so that they could envision themselves or their friends as heroes in the books that they were learning from.
What do you love about working with publishers like Lee & Low?
This was my first opportunity to work with Lee and Low, and it has been an incredible honor and delight. From the initial stages of sketches and tight layouts, to the final printing and then marketing of the books, I received great art direction, editing, production guidance, and marketing & promotional insight. Their commitment to publishing contemporary diverse stories that all children can enjoy, and their pledge to make a special effort to work with unpublished authors and illustrators of color, is admirable and inspiring and I’m proud to have worked on this new line of books. I am very excited to have another opportunity with Lee & Low, and am currently working on two new titles in this series.
Shirley Ng-Benitez loves to draw! Nature, family, and fond memories of her youth inspire her mixed-media illustrations. Since ’98, she’s owned gabbyandco.com designing, illustrating, and lettering for the technology, greeting card, medical, toy, and publishing industries. She’s living her dream, illustrating and writing picture books in San Martin, CA with her husband and two daughters. Shirley is honored to have illustrated Paula Yoo’s Dive Into Reading early emergent readers, LILY'S NEW HOME, and WANT TO PLAY? (Junior Library Guild Selections for 2016), published by Lee and Low Books. You can find her online at shirleyngbenitez.com and Tweeting @shirleysillos.
Lee & Low's Catalog Description: "It’s a warm, sunny day, and the gang heads to the neighborhood playground to play. What should they play? Henry wants to play basketball, and Padma wants to play Follow the Leader. Finally Pablo comes up with a great idea: to play pretend. It’s a game that everyone can do easily. They can pretend to be archaeologists, astronauts, and explorers. There’s no limit to what they imagine they can be!"
Illustrations used with permission. (c) Shirley Ng-Benitez and Lee & Low Books, 2016.