The Coretta Scott King Awards breakfast is always the highlight of my ALA conference trip. This year was even more special as I watched Jason Low’s face and demeanor shine with joy and pride when Caldecott Winner and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Winner Javaka Steptoe applauded the dedication to diversity from Lee & Low’s publishing house. Steptoe said:
“For those of you who believe multicultural titles do not sell, I say this to you: I have received checks for over fifteen years from every book I have published with Lee & Low. They have taken the time to find places outside the system where diverse communities exist. They are invested in keeping their backlist alive and do not throw money away on projects they will not support. They publish a spectrum of multicultural books without concern about competition. I understand that you don’t want the head to compete with the tail, but you have to at least support the books in your backlist about people of color that are succeeding.”
Jason Low is a strong voice behind the movement for more diverse books. He not only seeks out new diverse authors, but he also puts in the time to write articles, lead panels, contact publishers, create surveys, and fund data studies to share with the publishing and library industry. One of his recent initiatives was Lee & Low’s infographic series, which illustrates the lack of diversity in many industries, including publishing, film, television, theater, and politics. Several infographics have gone viral and were picked up by outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Huffington Post. The first infographic, on the lack of diversity in children’s books over a twenty-year period, is now used in articles, college classes, and reports to illustrate the problem.
Low recently created the Diversity Baseline Survey, a landmark study that measures different aspects of diversity among publishing staff and reviewers. The study is the first of its kind in scope and subject, looking at racial diversity and gender, sexual orientation, and disability among employees.
Jason Low was a featured speaker at the Texas Library Association Diversity Summit in April 2014. I continue to see Low inconspicuously sitting in a corner or stopping for a brief visit at diverse author events. His presence at the Brown Book Shelf presentation in San Antonio brought a smile to the faces of Kelly Starling Lyons and Gwendolyn Hooks. He does not tolerate librarian excuses such as “my community will not support that type of book” but, on the contrary, gently seeks to change the minds of those who are not supportive of the ALA Core Values. He has made more than a few uncomfortable challenging the slow movement toward changing the statistics of diverse books and author representation in this publishing field.
Javaka Steptoe’s words resonate with all of us. Jason Low’s pleas and passions come alive in his voice, gentle laugh, and a mighty pen. Low remains optimistic and channels his energies into concrete, actionable steps. The world has changed, and Jason Low sets the example of leadership in this change. When children and adults enter libraries or bookstores and can read books and see illustrations in these books about people like themselves, we can thank Jason Low and his publishing house for continuing this uphill struggle and for being a friend to all.
Post by Mary Jo Humphreys
Mary Jo Humphreys is a retired school librarian and administrator who continues to be active in the Texas Library Association. She served as Coordinator of the Texas Bluebonnet Committee and Chair of the Texas Association of School Librarians.