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BookTalk with the LEE & LOW'S New Voices Authors

Ken Mochizuki photo Patricia Smith photo Jeri Hanel Watts photo
New Voices Authors from left to right: Linda Boyden, Therese On Louie, Patricia Smith and Stan Terasaki

Any author will tell you that breaking into publishing is no small feat. "Like most published authors, I was desperate to break through the publishing conundrum," says author Linda Boyden. "Agents don't want you unless you're published, and publishers don't want you unless you're agented. But LEE & LOW offered a golden opportunity."

For more than ten years, LEE & LOW BOOKS has been striving to publish quality multicultural children's literature. In the year 2000, the company decided to proactively reach out to authors by introducing the The New Voices Award contest, which encourages unpublished writers of color to submit their best work for a chance to be published. "The New Voices Award contest is a great way for us to discover talented new children's book authors of color," says LEE & LOW editor Jennifer Frantz. "The contest encourages people who might not otherwise try their hand at writing for children to do so. The response has been strong, and nothing makes us happier than being given the chance to celebrate new voices."

To date, LEE & LOW BOOKS has published four books which were either winners or honors in the New Voices competition. They are The Blue Roses by Linda Boyden, Raymond's Perfect Present by Therese on Louie, Ghosts for Breakfast by Stan Terasaki, and Janna and the Kings by Patricia Smith.
So what made our published authors submit to the New Voices contest? "I submitted to the New Voices Award contest because I could!" says Linda Boyden. "I qualified!"

Author Therese on Louie found out about the competition from an instructor and children's author, Mary Quattlebaum. "She always encouraged me to enter writing contests, since that is how she got started in publishing," says on Louie. "She told me about LEE & LOW's New Voices contest. I liked that the company published contemporary multicultural books and that they were well respected."

For Patricia Smith, entering the contest began merely as a way for her to improve her writing. "When I saw the notice for the New Voices contest—on a listserve for African-American writers, I printed it out and moved it around on my desk for a month or so," says Smith. "It was the first contest of its type that I'd heard of—and I hoped that if I sent in a manuscript, I would get some type of feedback to guide me toward further work. I never even considered winning."

Stanley Terasaki had been writing for some time, and was part of a writer's group that fellow LEE & LOW author Alexis O'Neill, author of Estela's Swap, belonged to. "The group helped me strengthen and tighten my story," said Terasaki. "I'd submitted it to several publishers at that time, but to no avail. Then I put 'Ghosts' on the shelf for awhile. When I heard about the New Voices contest, I was very excited. I dusted off 'Ghosts' and looked at it one more time."

Just before the holidays in December, the acquisitions committee at LEE & LOW sits down with the manuscripts that are chosen as finalists for the New Voices competition. Jennifer Frantz adds, "One of the things that makes a New Voices winner stand out is a very fresh voice or tone to his or her writing. We look for manuscripts that are different and unique. When we're looking at a huge batch of manuscripts a fresh idea and writing style really have a way of standing out."

The hard part is picking the winners. The easy part is calling the winner to tell them that they won. "When I first learned that the manuscript had been chosen for publication, I felt a mix of excitement, awe and fear," says Therese on Louie. "It was such an incredible feeling to know that this story was going to come to life as a picture book. The character of Raymond had become a real person to me, and I felt I was giving him a chance to tell his story."

"I had written a play which was being performed at my church at Christmas one year," says Stan Terasaki. "I was at rehearsal when my wife called and said that someone had phoned from New York and said I had won the New Voices Honor. I called and spoke with Louise May, and that was an incredible feeling, almost like a dream."

Patricia Smith recalls feeling nothing but excitement. "'I won?' I screeched into the phone," says the author. "I then dropped the phone, picked it up and screeched again. Winning was magical-partly because ‘Janna’ was very much a personal story, a story drawn from a life I had lived and missed terribly."

Linda Boyden's first reaction to learning that she had won the contest was sheer disbelief. "I received the news of winning via an answering machine message, which I'd assumed was a prank played by one of my adult kids…they have been known to stoop to such levels." The author laughs. "A few hours later I was connected with the editor and my disbelief turned to joy. Elation."

So what happens after you become a published author? What changes? The winning authors shared some of the trials and triumphs that came after the fanfare. "The transition from writer to published author has been a challenging one," says Therese on Louie. "It has been hard to find a balance between writing, promoting, working, spending time with my family and pursuing other interests. All these things take time, and prioritizing can be tough. But when I was unpublished I sat around wondering what it would be like to be published. Now that I know, I try to help other writers in my writer's group by sharing my experiences with them. It’s a great way to maintain my enthusiasm and to keep the ideas flowing."

Patricia Smith, a writer who wears many hats including that of a journalist and a poet, had previously published works in other genres at the time that Janna and the Kings was selected for publication. "Although I was already familiar with the publishing world, the publication of Janna has been like discovering another throat that I possessed but was afraid to use. It's hard not to drop everything and just write for children. I see so many stories now, and I can't wait to tell them."

Linda Boyden speaks of how being published has helped her to reach a new level in submitting work to other places. "I receive a very high caliber of rejection letters now, ones that are addressed to me personally and actually give reason why my work was not chosen for publication and pointers for improvement," says Boyden. "Another thing that being published has made me realize is that selling a manuscript is simply a question of finding a match. Imagine a long hall of doors. Behind each door is an editor, and my manuscript is a key which will open one. So I keep trying." Boyden also comments that being an author means that she is invited to schools to read her book and talk to the children about being an author. "For me, that's the best part of having a book in print."

Stan Terasaki has felt the impact of being a published author on many levels. "I've relished the opportunities to share my book," says Terasaki. "In the first eighteen months that Ghosts for Breakfast has been out, I've had over fifty opportunities to speak, do readings, classroom visits, and sign books. I've traveled all over southern California, and have also been up to San Jose and San Francisco. I've also had the chance to speak at the SCBWI Writer's Day. I've loved the experience of being a published author."

When the New Voices Award contest was launched in 2000, Carole J. McCollough, Chair of the Coretta Scott King Task Force wrote: "I have just learned about the LEE & New Voices Award and would like to commend LEE & LOW for initiating this search for writers of color. Your efforts speak volumes about the importance of aggressively seeking diversity in publishing. . . . On behalf of the Coretta Scott King Task Force, I hope your efforts will quickly result in LEE & LOW submissions for consideration by the award committee." For more information about the latest New Voices Award click here.

...learn more about the
New Voices Award Books
The Blue Roses
Raymond's Perfect Present
Ghosts for Breakfast
Janna and the Kings

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