Saturday, September 25, 2010

Children's Book Press Turns 35

Congratulations to Children's Book Press on their 35th birthday! Here's an interview by e-mail with director Lorraine Garcia-Nakata.

[Uma] Welcome Lorraine, and congratulations on this major milestone for Children's Book Press.

As I understand it, Children's Book Press began with a commitment to authentic retold tales from communities of color. How has that vision guided the organization, and how has it been expanded over the years?

[Lorraine] Founded by Harriet Rohmer in 1975, Children’s Book Press entered a stubborn U.S. social landscape. On the heels of the 1950s, when individuals in the U.S. were expected to set aside their ethnic and cultural identity, the 1960s and 70s were nudged forward by cultural movements offering a platform of self-discovery, recognition of cultural history, and a fundamental redefinition of community. In the field of education, literary tools hadn’t yet begun to reflect the cultural spectrum of the students they were charged to serve.

It was a very different environment when Harriet Rohmer began stirring the children’s literary soup. During a conversation, Harriet shared those beginnings:

“My children were young and I told them stories. It was a natural thing to do because there weren’t books at that time that were relevant to their experience or to the other children in their lives. Once our first books were printed, teachers and librarians liked them because the kids responded so well to them. Those that were having a hard time with our books said they were ‘nice, but they are not children’s literature’ ––at least children’s literature as they knew it. These new publications were not in the ‘tradition.’ Children’s books at that time used subdued colors, pastels for kids.  Bright colors were considered peasant or unsophisticated. Of course that changed. Kids love colors. What a surprise.”

Intent on changing the landscape of children’s literature, Children’s Book Press became the first U.S. nonprofit independent press focused on publishing first voice multicultural and bilingual books for children. Through their own stories, art, and home languages, underrepresented African American, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Native American communities could finally speak for themselves, in first voice. While some US publishers now offer bilingual books for children, countless educators, parents, childcare providers, and librarians keep coming back to Children’s Book Press.  And why is that? It is because most of our books are authored and illustrated from within the communities represented in our books. It makes a difference in the stories’ content, who is telling them, and what is depicted in the illustrations.

Children’s Book Press continues to inspire kids to read while also changing the publishing landscape.  Currently, a growing number of literacy initiatives are exploring not only how children acquire language, but also how learning styles are unique to various cultures. Superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District Carlos A. García shared that a young child’s “enthusiasm to read and parent participation in the support process, is increased when they can see themselves reflected in books they are provided.” This is how Children’s Book Press moves to the front of the line. When you see yourself reflected in the reading experience, you feel you are a part of that experience.

[Uma] What do you see as the next frontier in multicultural publishing?

[Lorraine] Children’s Book Press continues to explore the dynamic cultural terrain unique to the United States and this will continue to be key in “multicultural” publishing. Now rounding midway toward its fourth decade, our small but influential press is gaining steam because the message of “culture as asset” is once again important given the mercurial nature of current national commentary and public exchanges on race and identity. While everyone is still standing and blinking or worse yet injecting ill-founded assertions about cultural populations, home languages, and outright deletions of history, Children’s Book Press keeps moving forward publishing yet another book that will make a difference. As the push and pull over the American cultural identity continues, it becomes more evident that our many cultures are in fact the foundation of the American identity. This is an avenue that multicultural publishing in this country is yet to fully grasp. Interestingly enough, the rest of the world recognizes the pluralism of the American face. However, as a country, we are still coming to terms with who we really are. But, I have faith it will be recognized and we will continue to work with that in mind. To think otherwise stunts the vision and the potential of this country and our relationships here and abroad.

[Uma] Anything else you want to add?

[Lorraine] Children’s Book Press is in the business of illuminating ideas, cultures, and interrelationships that were formerly unrecognized or considered. Over three decades, this award-winning press has illuminated diverse cultural perspectives and experiences so that young children, their families and community, can explore their own cultures and those of other cultures of our nation.

So, from one day to the next, from year one to the celebration of our 35th anniversary, Children’s Book Press will continue its forward momentum. It is a miracle that such a small Press can influence the national arena to the extent that it has and also survive for so long, during tough economic times, while remaining on the “A list.” With all the bad news we are hearing and the good sense that is so easily traded away for anxiety and just getting mad, we need to hear about what is working. So, take a deep breath, a really deep one. Then, clear a spot, a great big area, to sit, share, and enjoy the children’s books that continue to read wise and change the world through words and pictures.

Thank you, Lorraine! I'll be there in spirit. It's a privilege to join in the virtual cheering for this 35th birthday bash.

Lorraine Garcia-Nakata in a 2009 video on the role of CBP in contemporary children's publishing.

More to follow: conversations with Dana Goldberg, Executive Editor at Children's Book Press, and Janet del Mundo, Sales and Marketing Manager.

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