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Reading Rockets’ children's literature expert, Maria Salvadore, brings you into her world as she explores the best ways to use kids’ books both inside — and outside — of the classroom.
Books are key to the future: an interview with Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson
We hear a lot about diversity and inclusion these days, often as it relates to books for young readers. Just as publishing for children and teens has evolved over the years, so has adults’ perception of youth and what is appropriate for them.
Thanks to the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, it is widely recognized that children’s books are mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. They allow children to see their reflection, peek at other experiences, or encourage a reader to walk into another place, time, or world that an author has created.
Other pioneers in children’s publishing continue to have a significant impact on literature for young readers. Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson are two of them.
Raising two children in northern New Jersey, Wade and Cheryl noted that there were precious few books that featured children of color. They decided to do something tangible about it. Not only did they begin writing, they founded a publishing company. Just Us Books has been in business for more than 30 years now and has been widely recognized for its contribution to publishing.
In addition, this husband and wife team — which also includes their adult children on the writing, design, and publishing side — Cheryl and Wade also write and edit for other publishers.
Tell us about the genesis of Just Us Books, including when and how you started it.
Wade: We started Just Us Books as a corporation in 1988. Prior to that, however, Cheryl had created a concept that utilized Black kids forming the letters of the alphabet. She used this concept on posters and nameplates for children that she sold to friends.
We recognized early on the market potential for the characters, so we narrowed them to six and, gave them names and their own look and personalities. Thus, the AFRO-Bets Kids were born. They made their print debut in the AFRO-BETS ABC Book. We printed 5,000 copies that sold within several months.
After another printing of 5,000 sold quickly, we moved to form a publishing company. We chose the name Just Us Books because, in the beginning, it was just the two us. A counting book, AFRO-BETS 123 Book followed the AFRO-BETS ABC Book, then the Book of Black Heroes From A to Z, our biggest seller.
The response to our initial publishing efforts was tremendous, especially in Black communities. We were the only Black owned company that focused exclusively on publishing books for young readers that spotlighted Black experiences, Black culture and Black history at a time when only a few such titles were available in the marketplace.
The publishing house and your own work have received a number of accolades. What do these awards represent to you and to the field of publishing and/or children’s literature?
Cheryl: Receiving awards and accolades in the children’s book arena means that in some measure, Just Us Books is achieving what we set out to do; that is to create and publish good books for children that capture, affirm and represent the diversity of our Black heritage and culture. Recently, the Children’s Book Council recognized Just Us Books’ overall impact in the industry as an active, longtime advocate for diversity and inclusion in children’s book publishing.
Receiving the Jane Addams Peace Award honor is an indication of how the subject matter of our books promotes justice and impacts peace in literature for young people. The Coretta Scott King honor for The Secret Olivia Told Me (Just Us Books), is a recognition by librarians of excellence in illustration about the African American experience. The Madam C.J. Walker Award by the Hurston-Wright Foundation is recognition for our role in being entrepreneurs and pioneers in the industry.
Starred reviews for books such as We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices have praised Just Us Books for publishing authentic and diverse voices by a wide range of authors and illustrators and book creators. These are public awards and accolades but the best kind of feedback comes from children and parents who tell us, “I love your books!” or “That story is really about me!” or “That picture looks like me!”
You conceived of and edited the book you just mentioned, We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices (Crown). Tell us a bit more about that.
Wade: The idea for We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices was born following the presidential election in 2016. I was grappling with the result. I started venting on social media, sharing my fears about what I thought was to come. While on Facebook, I ran across a post by my niece, Kelli, who shared how her daughter Jordyn, then only six years old, was devastated as well about the future under the new president. Jordyn had heard demeaning things said about women, people of color, immigrants, those with disabilities. So, she was frightened, terribly frightened. That caught my attention. I had not thought much about the impact that the vitriol dominating the media was having on our children and young people.
For a few days, I thought about my niece’s post. I am one who normally looks for solutions, answers to problems. So, we came up with the idea of an anthology that could be used to encourage, offer support, words of wisdom, and love for them. An anthology would, we thought would provide a platform for many voices to join in this mission of reassurance and hope. An anthology would also allow many of those who had already written and illustrated for and connected with young people through their creative works.
We chose as a working title "What Shall We Tell Them?" And drafted a proposal for the project that we sent out to some of our friends and fellow children book creators. The response was phenomenal. Like Cheryl and me, most of them were looking for ways to address and share their concerns and perspective about the state of our nation. Although we eventually changed the title to We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, I think the initial title (What Shall We Tell Them?) provided the vehicle for a central theme — a “voice” if you will — for the anthology.
The book is a veritable who’s who of children’s authors and illustrators — including the current National Ambassadors for Young People’s Literature, Jason Reynolds, and Jacqueline Woodson, the immediate past Ambassador. How did you decide whom to ask to contribute?
Wade: As I noted earlier, children and young adult authors and illustrators were concerned about the turn of events, too. It didn’t really take much to get them on board. Many were friends with whom we had worked and with whom we had relationships.
There is rich variety in the styles of both written word and artistic styles in this book. How does an editor edit this?
Cheryl: In some ways, working on the editorial side of We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices was one of the easiest editorial jobs I’ve ever had — and the most fun. We selected amazing storytellers and poets and paired their work with master illustrators and image makers, for example:
- Jacqueline Woodson and Javaka Steptoe
- Margarita Engle and Rafael Lopez
- Kwame Alexander and Ekua Holmes
- Bernette Ford and George Ford
- Wade Hudson and Floyd Cooper
- Jason Reynolds and Andrea Pippins
- Sharon Draper and Eric Velasquez
Curating the order in which the contributions were arranged was a challenge but ultimately the final anthology emerged via collage, watercolor, iPadology, oil painting, prints, photographs, music and fabric art. With the help of our skillful executive editor, Phoebe Yeh and a super design team, I think we created a powerful vehicle for voices and images of affirmation and love for children.
How have things changed — and what do you hope will change — in the world publishing for young readers since you started Just Us Books?
Cheryl: Publishing our first book, AFRO-BETS ABC Book over 31 years ago took a big leap of faith. Originally self-published, its success was due in part to our grassroots efforts to get one title, (which had been rejected by mainstream commercial children’s book publishers) into the hands of children and onto bookshelves. It was financially challenging and we had to handle every aspect of the creative process, production, manufacturing, promotion, distribution and sales.
We proved that it could be done independently and it could be done well. The success of the AFRO-BETS series helped lay the groundwork for the establishment of Just Us Books as an institution. Today, there are mainstream publishers who have established diverse imprints within their corporations to address some of the same concerns we address as authors and founders of our independent press. Many more diverse authors and illustrators are being published by publishers large and small. But the numbers are still not where they should be.
Put on your soothsayer hats for a minute. Where is the field heading? What is most needed in world of publishing for children and young adults now?
Wade: On one hand, I am encouraged because there certainly has been progress in the push for more diversity in children’s book offerings. More writers and illustrators of color are being published. Recently, writers and illustrators of color have won some of the most prestigious awards in children’s publishing. A few of our friends and colleagues, namely Kwame Alexander, Christopher Myers, and Denene Millner have established publishing imprints with major publishers.
There are others that are targeted at inclusion and diversity. So, there has been some progress. Much of it has occurred as a result of the hard work and dedication of advocates for greater diversity, including writers and illustrators of color.
On the other hand, we must remain vigilant and focused so that this progress doesn’t become just another trend and we fall back to the same old default tradition. I am reminded of an article written by the late celebrated author Walter Dean Myers entitled “I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry.” Published in the The New York Times in 1986, Walter lamented the failure to continue the progress that had begun when he first entered publishing. That progress was short-lived. There have been other peaks that faltered. So, we cannot rest.
There is still so much that needs to be done. We need more people of color involved in all aspects of publishing, editorial, marketing, sales, etc. We need more reviewers of color. The major difference I see today is that there are more people of color and more supporters engaged in this struggle. That gives me hope that the progress will continue and there will be sustained growth.
Of all your accomplishments, of what are you most proud?
Cheryl: I think we have demonstrated that authentic African American voices are valid, creative and worthy of representation in children’s literature. As such, these good books make a difference. They are highly marketable because they do speak to the identities and worth of millions of children who deserve to see themselves reflected in the stories that they read. We’re proud that our work has encouraged more book creators to take a leap of faith to write, illustrate and share their stories.
There are tough topics in books for young adults and for younger children as well. Is there anything that is off limits (or should be) in books for young readers?
Cheryl: I think publishers should be open to all types of stories — history, nonfiction, fantasy, poetry, novels in verse, rhymes, tall tales, songs, graphic novels and perhaps forms yet to be created. Rather than thinking of some content or subjects that should be off limits, publishers need to be expanding the canon of what is considered the best possible in excellent children’s literature.
That means recognition of authentic voices of indigenous creators and people of color. That means being open to acquiring manuscripts that are not necessarily seen through a traditional western lens. That also means avoiding “whitewashing” or creating materials via a white gaze. That means yes, authors can talk about race and sex and truth and love and what may be considered tough topics.
Tell us about the book coming out in the fall. Why did you decide to develop this concept?
Wade: The Talk (Crown) is a follow-up to We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices. In this powerful anthology, thirty diverse and award-winning authors and illustrators capture frank discussions about racism, identity, and self-esteem. Contributors include: Selina Alko, Tracey Baptiste, Derrick Barnes, Raúl Colón, Adam Gidwitz, Nikki Grimes, Wade Hudson, Minh Lê, E. B. Lewis, Grace Lin, Torrey Maldonado, Meg Medina, Christopher Myers, Don Tate, Duncan Tonatiuh, Renée Watson, and many other notable creators. It is scheduled for a September 29, 2020 release.
Honest and serious discussions about important issues that impact us and often divide us are always crucial, but more so in today’s climate. These honest discussions in The Talk can shed light, promote understanding and offer needed opportunities for empathy. That’s what We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices helped to do. We know The Talk will as well.
What will be next for Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson?
Cheryl: Just Us Books has several picture book projects in the works including a wonderful story by Marilyn Nelson and another by Useni Perkins. We are also adding to our list of middle grade fiction titles. One of my personal projects is completing a book about African American story quilts.
Wade: I have a collection of poetry for the adult market that will be released at the end of March 2020. Journey will be published by Third World Press, the oldest Black-owned publishing company in the country. I am also writing a coming of age memoir that will be published by Crown in 2021.
So, we continue to be quite busy. There is still so much to uncover and discover and to share with readers, especially young ones. We embrace the opportunity and responsibility to do so.