Christopher Myers: Children’s publishing and re-invention

Seira Wilson on August 07, 2020

Christopher Myers: Children's publishing and re-invention

Christopher Myers is a highly acclaimed artist, and an award-winning author and illustrator. The son of multiple prize-winning author and former National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Walter Dean Myers, Christopher Myers' love for children's books runs deep.

In 2019 Myers started a publishing imprint with Random House Children's Books called Make Me a World, which is dedicated to bringing new voices to storytelling for young people. One of Make Me a World's inaugural titles, Pet, was nominated for a National Book Award for Children's Literature and we've chosen a number of books from his imprint as Best of the Month: Kids and Young Adult.

I wanted to get Myers' take on the long-overdue acknowledgement that the world of children's books still has catching up to do, so that every child can find themselves in books. I sent him some questions about this, his imprint, and what else he might be working on (a man of many talents, to be sure):

Seira Wilson, Amazon Book Review: You wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times in 2014 called "The Apartheid of Children’s Literature" and the lack of diversity, especially in children’s books, has clearly been an issue for a long time.  When did you decide to approach Random House about creating your own imprint to answer that need (or did they approach you)?

Christopher Myers: Sometimes when you ring an alarm bell, people come to you and ask what should be done next. In 2014, Pop and I rang an alarm, an alarm that had been ringing at various levels since at least the mid-1960s, if not in the minds of concerned parents for generations before. I found myself in the position of having a fair amount of folks coming to me asking what I thought should be done. I spoke to Barbara Marcus at Random House when we were both at the Bologna Book Fair. We talked about how the problems with diversity in children’s literature were not quick fixes, were not simple matters of just signing up new authors, and working within preexisting models. It was refreshing to talk with someone who saw that the problems needed deeper thought, time to develop new strategies, solutions that would require investment over time. Our partnership developed from those conversations.

There is a similarity to the ways in which the most recent alarms ringing for racial inequity and justice, have birthed a thousand mission statements and well articulated intentions. Lots of folks across all fields asking for advice as to “what we should do next.” And while all the good intentions and hand wringing are nice to hear, I wonder how many of these institutions will be willing to do the deep thinking, the development over time, and the investment in experimentation needed to really address the problems. I have very little faith in the change that can be wrought by an endless parade of panel discussions, Zoom conferences, and Twitter threads.

A couple of other publishers have also established diverse voices imprints. Are you in touch with the authors behind those imprints, like Kwame Alexander’s Versify, to talk about the work you’re doing and the road ahead?

I am unequivocally excited by the work others are doing to re-frame and remake the way the publishing industry thinks, the way the literary community thinks. I am especially excited by the differences in our approaches. Of course I talk to Kwame, and Namrata Tripathi at Kokila, as well as writers and creators who are thinking well about these issues, Jason Reynolds, Jacqueline Woodson, and really anyone who is as passionate about seeing untold stories celebrated, promoted, shared, and published. What I have found is that the questions of diversity in literature for young people are in fact a mask for layers and layers of questions about everything from “How do we imagine what it means to be a child?” to “What stories are more useful to young people than others?”

That is one thing I have always loved about making things for young people, that one must engage with some of the biggest questions, about identity formation, or the uses of history, or the beauty of language and art. When we are doing it well, this community of writers, artists, and makers is asking the most important questions in the simplest of ways.

Your imprint, Make Me a World, had a fantastic inaugural year in 2019, and 2020 is also shaping up to be a great year for your books. Where do you see the imprint five years from now?  Do you want to remain flexible about how many titles you will publish each year?

One of the pitfalls about traditional ways of thinking about race and culture in the United States is to see everything in demographic terms. Owing, of course, to the pioneering work of social scientists, we often borrow their tools to talk about publishing or literature as a numbers game—this many books were published with Black protagonists, or there were this many images of queer characters. I’m hoping to find new languages to apply to what I am doing with this great experiment, outside of the metrics and statistics.

So many books are published that may serve the statistical purpose of having a Black protagonist for example, but do little to change the prevailing ways that Black lives are held in the popular narrative imagination. At Make Me a World I’m trying to publish books that expand the narrative imagination of what our lives can be, so it’s less about filling a hole, and more about creating a place where there wasn’t a place before. That place is intersectional and imaginative, it sees that all of the narrative absences that have so plagued the book world are interrelated, that by erasing women with certain kinds of agency we also erase African-Americans, that by not addressing class we ignore queerness.

In the end, I am still, myself, a storyteller, and the goal is to expand the universe of stories that are being told. The old stories are told and retold, we hear their echoes in every book that is sold as being just like (insert successful franchise here) but more (insert ethnic or gender identity here.) All the historical echoes, and misery obsessions also stem from that same tired landscape. These stories break no new ground even as they write their own tag lines. But great art rewrites the landscape itself. Each new story opens up space, possibility, and I hope makes a slew of new stories possible. In five years, in 10 years, I will still be trying to build that landscape, to make a place for all the stories that have yet to be told, even the ones I can’t yet imagine.

In an early interview about Make Me a World you said that “when we talk about diversity, we make the mistake of thinking of demographic diversity rather than storytelling diversity”—can you tell me a little more about your approach to diversity when you’re looking for new titles?

I follow the artists, the writers, the storytellers, more than I follow any demographic impulse.

Today we have so many more platforms for storytelling, the sheer amount of images, television, film, theater, visual art, that we have access to is staggering. So I listen to the stories that interest me, everything from Michaela Coel’s or Leigh Dana Jackson’s television writing, to comics of Greg Pak and Brian K. Vaughn, Bollywood films and Cantonese Opera, poets and memoirists. Even scientists and athletes are involved in a narrative project to some extent or another. My own tastes are borderless and steeped in a love of story first and foremost, and all the ways of telling story. Then I try and ask those folks, what is the story that you would have needed when you were a young person, lets publish that.

What do you think booksellers and publishers can do better to bring more Black voices and stories to readers—not just in this moment of awareness and activism but looking ahead, so future generations don’t even have to ask this question?

Future generations will always ask these questions and that is a good thing. First and foremost I’d like to celebrate the asking of these questions, and see the project of changing the faces of publishing as an ongoing task.

Great literature has always been about re-invention, it helps you discover yourself and the world around you anew. The books I publish strive to be that kind of great, that kind of full of re-invention. What’s odd to me is how much angst people have about re-invention, about shedding skins. Every generation will necessarily find yesterday’s literature inadequate in some way, and it is our job to support all the voices that are born from that impulse.

Re-invention requires a level of looking at oneself, and this is what booksellers and publishers can spend more time doing. They must realize that their demographic flatness will necessarily result in a flatness to the stories that they choose to promote—that the singularities of culture that they choose to support are in fact choices that they are making, and not accidents of association.

In concrete terms, this means that, of course, publishing should hire more Black editors, and designers, and publicists, and then, and this is the unused key, they should listen to those people that they hire. I think every African-American I have ever worked with in publishing has some version of the same story, where they begged and cajoled and admonished in order to give a book a certain kind of chance, and were subsequently ignored.

Also we should all be reading more. It’s the kind of thing that we all say, personally. We all have the unread books on our nightstands. But I want us, for whom books are life, to take that as a professional responsibility as well. Toni Morrison, for example, is a very different writer, when we read her work in the context of her contemporaries, when we look at Fran Ross or Gayl Jones or Bessie Head and countless others. It seems sometimes that when it comes to Black letters, we get reduced to the greatest hits albums.

Who are some of the new voices you’re excited about publishing this year and into 2021?

As I said before, storytelling is at the center of so much of our lives, when I see the endless bar graphs detailing the progress of the pandemic, or a group of protestors, or the renaming of a professional sports team, I see all these different kinds of storytelling.

Scientists as storytellers have always fascinated me. Child of the Universe is a picture book distilling the wonder of a top level scientist, Dr. Ray Jayawardhana, a world renowned astronomer, alongside the prodigious talents of Raul Colón, whose work I’ve loved for years. Together they talk about the entirety of existence, planets, stars, and galaxies and how all of that space material eventually ends up in our very bodies, and the bodies of the children who read the book.

More traditional wordsmiths are also exciting to me, especially when they step out of their discipline to try to do something for young people. The poet Safia Elhillo first came across my radar in a series of poems to a classic Egyptian film star. Her novel in verse Home Is Not a Country is an epic poem to those of us who live in more than one world, the past and the future, the country where our family comes from and the country that we live in, the world that could have been and the world that is. There is a vogue in the young adult world for novels in verse, but I wondered what that form would look like coming from a person who had devoted their practice to poetry, as opposed to just including sporadic line breaks in sparse prose.

You are an incredible artist, author, and innovator—what are you dreaming up next?

The pandemic has given me an opportunity to reflect and care for some of the pressing questions that I rarely have space to ask. I have been thinking a lot about what Black joy looks like, as an antidote to the increasingly dystopic visions we receive from news broadcasts and outside our windows.

There’s still a part of me that believes that we as storytellers cast spells, and in the stories we tell, we make the realities we eventually encounter. I wonder how much of our contemporary predicaments were planted as seeds by decades of dystopian fiction. In the current moment, there is this feeling of eerie prescience with the writings of Orwell and Octavia Butler, and others. I wonder if I can write or draw or make a better future, that hopefully years from now someone will say, “Man, this time of care, love, and hope was eerily presaged by that novel, picture, play or tapestry Christopher Myers made.”

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