MAKING OUR OWN MARKET: Cake Literary on Writing Diversity and Spicing Up High Concept Fiction

May 15, 2014

CAKE logo+2.7.12

Honoured to welcome Cake Literary to The Brown Bookshelf today! Writers, activists and entrepreneurs who “believe that crafting a good read is like baking a great cake — rich, fresh, delectable flavor with a healthy dose of heart”, the founders of Cake have already transformed the publishing landscape with a mission to engage readers and writers from all walks of life. From their Web site: “Co-founded by New School MFA grads Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, Cake Literary is a creative kitchen whipping up decadent literary confections for middle grade, young adult, and women’s fiction readers.”

These women are awesome. Let me just get out of the way:

Guest Post: Making Our Own Recipe – CAKE Literary on Writing Diversity and Spicing Up High Concept Fiction

Black people don’t often view writing as a viable career path.

A professor in my first MA program told me this during an advisory meeting. He said it so casually, as if he was talking about the sky being blue or water being wet. He waited for me to affirm his conclusion: to shake my head up and down, acknowledging that he’d made an astute social observation, or to start crying while launching into my story of overcoming adversity to get into college, and now, against all odds, into a specialized graduate program in children’s and young adult literature.
I gnawed at my bottom lip, kneading my hands in my lap, and waited anxiously for him to hand me back my paper on religious programming in children’s fantasy fiction, so I could leave. There was no story to be told to validate his belief. I grew up a spoiled nerd in the suburbs of Washington, DC, with my nuclear family (minus the dog), and an endless pile of books.

I said nothing.

My professor wasn’t a racist who had a closet full of white KKK robes. Instead, he was a deeply intellectual widower with a quiet, almost granola, hippy-ish energy, and this made the whole thing even worse. He was kind and supportive. He was smart and well-read. Yet his observation of me (and my people) was so limited and reductive.

I should’ve corrected him. I should’ve told him that I stand on the words and pages and books of others who paved a road for me: Alice Walker, Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Virginia Hamilton, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Andrea Pinkney, and many more. That I wouldn’t be knee-deep in unsubsidized federal school loans if I didn’t see being a writer as a viable career path.

To make sure I didn’t come off as the aggressive/overly-spirited/feisty/sassy/angry black woman, and to make sure he didn’t feel uncomfortable around me (or with my blackness), I stayed silent. I smiled, sipped a cup of tea, and I let his statement stand. I stayed in the safe-zone.

I should’ve said something.

The phrase still replays in my head. Dhonielle Clayton photo
I failed those who had taken the risk to put pen to page, who had fought to get published. Over the last six years, this moment became a little suitcase of shame that I carried around, where his words and the way I felt were neatly packed inside like layers of folded shirts and matching socks and starched dresses.
I should’ve said something.

When I met Sona Charaipotra, a super smart and savvy woman who I connected with on the first day of class at The New School, I knew she was going to become a major part of my life. Over endless chats and shared stories of invisibility (and not the kind that comes with a cloak) and being TV/film junkies and a collective well-spring of great ideas that we wish were on the shelves, we knew we’d stumbled upon something that was missing from the books we read as kids and teens, and the books and media circulating now.

sonaheadshotWe discussed the books we wanted to write, those that we thought would be awesome, and tinkered around with starting a venture that used diversity as a spring-board to great story-telling in a fun, sexy, page-turning, un-put-downable way. And CAKE Literary was born.

CAKE Literary is a literary development company that focuses on high concept fiction with a strong commitment to diversity.
What exactly does that mean? We’re not a literary agency, or a publisher. We’re a packager cooking up decidedly diverse book ideas, manuscripts, and proposals, and providing work-for-hire opportunities to authors in order to bring those books into reality.

What’s high concept? That book or movie or TV show you can describe in one-line. An orphaned boy discovers he’s a wizard and must destroy the evil warlock who murdered his parents. A feisty girl takes her sister’s place in a televised death game in a dystopian America. Two sick teens fall in love and confront the fault in their respective stars. Sound familiar? These are the kind of books we’re aiming to create. Big stories with heart, delicious concepts, a compulsive energy, and a healthy dose of diversity. We have a secret recipe that you’ll have to stay tuned to learn more about.

Our first project, formerly called DARK POINTE, now TINY PRETTY THINGS, follows the journey of three ballerinas at a cutthroat ballet academy. Each girl has a different background, mirroring the natural (and sadly, often hidden) diversity in the ballet world. But it’s not the primary focus of the book. It’s about ambition and dance and what one is willing to do to be the best. But these diverse characters are not tokens either – with just their skin color or hairstyle described one or twice to remind the reader of their “otherness.” Their otherness is innate, integral. Readers won’t forget how their backgrounds inform parts of their everyday experiences – the very way it shapes both Sona and I as we navigate our realities.
What’s cooking in CAKE’s kitchen? We’re working on several projects, and busy trying to find talented writers to join us on this mission. We hope to have more news to share soon.

We’re hopeful that, with the recent articles being written about the dearth of diversity in YA and children’s book publishing, and Ellen Oh’s fabulous #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, our colorful world will start to be reflected in the books written for children and teens, and that more authors of color realize that their voices are needed.

I am lucky because CAKE Literary is helping me finally say something.

Interested in learning more? We’ll be looking to hire writers beginning this summer, so connect with us on or via You can also follow us on Twitter @CAKELiterary.

MAKING OUR OWN MARKET: Creating Our Own Publishing Houses

May 12, 2014

Wade Hudson QuoteThe kidlit world is currently abuzz with many loud, strong, and unified voices crying out, “WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS!” The cry has been made before, but this time there appears to be an organized activism accompanying the noise.

In that same activist spirit, we at The Brown Bookshelf reached out to a variety of experienced individuals involved in the creation of children’s books written and/or illustrated by African Americans and asked them to share the wisdom they have attained as they’ve worked to make sure these books not only make it to publication, but also reach the widest audience possible.

Today, on the first day of Children’s Book Week, The Brown Bookshelf adds our contribution to the movement via a series called MAKING OUR OWN MARKET. We begin with the voices of Wade and Cheryl Hudson, founders and publishers of Just Us Books, in a guest post entitled, Making A Difference Through Publishing.


Wade and Cheryl Pic

Making a Difference Through Publishing
by Wade Hudson & Cheryl Willis Hudson

From May1-3, 2014 in response to the #WENEEDDIVERSEBOOKS campaign, Wade Hudson posted this:

“The lack of diversity in children’s books is a problem that has been around for decades. Every few years or so, someone issues a clarion call for change. But too often, very little happens other than a few weeks of heated discussions and written exchanges. Then it’s back to business as usual. Perhaps now, we will REALLY do something about the problem. Not only does the industry need to publish more children’s books that reflect our nation’s diversity, the diverse books that ARE being published need to be supported. We all must be involved in this important cause—book creators, educators, librarians, booksellers, reviewers, and of course, parents.”

We founded Just Us Books, Inc., in 1988 because we recognized how crucial it was to have books in the body of literature for children that reflected our nation’s diversity. We had already begun to address this need by writing stories and working as an art editor and art director for educational publishers. But this need became more personal when we became parents.

Just Us Books really began as a self-publishing effort. We were the authors of the first few titles. But early on we began to be recognized as a viable children’s publishing company and important to institution building in the Black community. Not only could we tell and share our own stories, but we owned and operated an institution, a business that would bring more diverse titles to the marketplace—from acquiring manuscripts, publishing them as books, getting the books to the marketplace to lifting up the importance reading.
In 2004, we started the imprint SANKOFA Books to bring classic Black-interest children’s books back into print. In 2009, with our children, Katura and Stephan, we introduced MARIMBA Books, a multicultural press.

just us books logo

marimab books logo

After more than 25 years of operating Just Us Books, we remain resolute in continuing our mission to publish books for children that are more representative of who we are as a nation. But it is also clear that after 25 years of publishing (along with the efforts of other independent publishers such as Lee & Low, Arte Publico, Cinco Puntos Press, Polychrome Press and others which are no longer in operation, as well as larger publishers) that much more still needs to be done.

From a publisher’s perspective, we know how important these books are! We have seen the faces of African-American children light up when they see the African-American children on the cover of Bright Eyes, Brown Skin. We know that there are black youngsters who have become more interested in reading after having been introduced to books in the Kid Caramel series or the NEATE series. Many children have been engaged by the relatable story and characters in The Secret Olivia Told Me.

bright eyes coverkid caramel cover

The Secret Cover


Children of color need books that offer them the opportunity to see themselves reflected in books. White children—all children really—need to be exposed to books that help them see the world as it really is, peopled by different ethnic, gendered, cultural and racial groups, people with whom they must interact. Children’s books are great vehicles for helping children understand their communities and their world. And they can be fun and entertaining.

Here are a few other reasons why diverse books are important:

1. A more diverse body of children’s literature confirms that we live in a global village and that the world is pluralistic and made up of many different kinds of people.

2. They help to develop self-esteem in all children through inclusion rather than exclusion.

3. They provide knowledge and information about people from all parts of the world.

4. Diverse books can change the way children and young people look at their own particular society and the world by offering varying perspectives or different ways of viewing the same situations.

5. They can promote/develop an appreciation for diversity in all of its facets.

6. They can help children think critically and to ask questions.

7. Like all literature, multicultural titles can provide enjoyment and appreciation for unity and variety in the human experience.

8. They can reflect the cultural diversity within the classroom and community

9. They can provide positive role models.

10. They can create a bridge between student’s real-life experiences and intellectual learning.

Conrad CoverWhat did abuela say coverPlaces I love to go cover







The #WENEEDMOREDIVERSEBOOKS social media buzz has been great for creating awareness. But creating awareness has happened before. In a September 11, 1965 edition of the Saturday Review, librarian Nancy Larrick highlighted the issue in an article titled “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, a professor emeritus at The Ohio State University, addressed it in “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” originally published in Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom. Vol. 6, no. 3. Summer 1990. Walter Dean Myers, whose recent article in the New York Times has generated heated discussion, wrote about the lack of diversity in children’s books in a November 9, 1986 article titled, “I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry,” also published in the New York Times. Many others have added their voices to the clarion call for more books that reflect our diversity.


It is crucial that these discussions translate into concrete actions that really make a difference in advancing the cause of a more diverse offering of books for children and young adults. We believe this time that will happen.

We would like to share a few things that all of us can do to help advance the cause of equity and inclusion in our body of children’s literature.

“Imagine if we all made a year-round commitment to:

1. Each year, introduce 10 different children’s books that reflect our nation’s diversity to educators, librarians, bookstore managers, and parents—anyone who has the influence and/or power to help increase the number of these diverse books within the body of children’s literature.

2. Purchase at least 5 of these books to share with children other than our own— whether they are our neighbors’, friends’ or co-workers’ children; children at our places of worship or local youth organizations; or for donation to other organizations in our communities.

3. Give at least 2 or 3 of these books to children who might not normally have diverse books in their homes.

4. Make a special effort to buy some of these books from independent publishers, bookstores and vendors—particularly those operated by people of color.

5. Lift up the importance of having books that reflect our nation’s diversity at every opportunity we have—not just within our circles but outside our ‘diverse circles’ too.”


Together, we can produce and get more diverse books into the hands of as many people as possible. They are sorely needed in a country that has become more polarized and whose schools, in too many cities and towns, remain extremely segregated.



We Need Diverse Books diversity campaign goes viral

May 2, 2014

TATE DIVERSE BOOKSFor a few years now, The Brown Bookshelf  has talked about the need for more diversity in children’s and YA books. Our focus here has been books by and/or about African Americans. Our voices are strongest during the month of February, when we host our 28 Days Later campaign.

Thankfully within recent months — and particularly this week — others have begun to discuss some of these same issues. Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers wrote stellar pieces in the New York Times. The issue has also been talked about on CNN, EW and others. But it was probably BookCon’s all-white lineup (and poor response to the outcry), that really inspired a grassroots effort to bring attention to the issue.

Twenty-two authors, publishers, and bloggers launched a three-day, visual social media campaign called “We Need Diverse Books.” It began on May 1 and runs through today. The campaign called for participants to tweet, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook or blog photos that addressed the question “ We need diverse books because . . .” And the campaign went viral.

Please see the “We Need Diverse Books” website for more information about the campaign, which ends with a call for people to put their money where their mouths are and purchase diverse books.

Several of us here at the Brown Bookshelf contributed to the campaign. The following are some of our contributions to the cause:


#WeNeedDiverseBooks to remind us that *other* people exist and matter too.

two boys reading MOOD

girl reading book



























Observations about books for children and teens from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center

School Library Journal: Culturally Diverse Books Selected by SLJ’s Editors

Publisher’s Weekly: Diversity Social Media Campaign Goes Viral