Inside Tu Books, a new publisher focusing on multicultural SF and fantasy books for kids

Science fiction and fantasy books for younger audiences are booming — but they still mostly feature white heroes and are aimed at white audiences. So Stacy Whitman is launching Tu Books, a new publisher of multicultural children's and young-adult SF.

Whitman, a former editor with Wizards of the Coast imprint Mirrorstone Books, decided to start Tu Books as an independent small press — so she put up a Kickstarter campaign and raised $10,000. But that campaign got enough attention that Tu was acquired by an independent children's press, Lee & Low, and became a Lee & Low imprint. (The $10,000 in donations are being returned to donors.) Now Tu Books is gearing up to publish its first three books in 2011.

The books that Whitman has acquired include:

  • a YA paranormal thriller, tentatively called Wolf Mark, by Joseph Bruchac, author of Codetalker and Skeleton Man. "When Lucas King's covert-ops father is kidnapped and his best friend, Meena, put in danger, Lucas's only chance to save them is hidden away in an abandoned, monster-guarded mansion: a skin that will let him walk as a wolf."
  • Galaxy Games by Greg Fishbone, a MG science fiction comedic space adventure trilogy about an incoming asteroid that turns out to be an alien spaceship, visiting Earth to recruit a team of kid athletes to compete in the upcoming Galaxy Games Tournament.
  • Tankborn by Karen Sandler, a YA science fiction dystopia about "best friends Kayla and Mishalla, genetically engineered slaves on the planet Loka, whose developing friendships with higher-status boys lead them to question the strict caste system of their world."
  • Vodnik by Bryce Moore, "the story of a Roma boy who returns home to Slovakia after a devastating fire, and discovers his roots extend deeper into the country of his birth than he ever imagined." (This one is coming in Spring 2012).

We spoke to Whitman about getting into publishing, and why she felt like there was a need for multicultural YA and children's SF books.

How did you get into doing this?

You may know that I started Tu Books as a small press, which was then acquired by Lee & Low, a children's book publisher that specializes in multicultural books. I was freelancing when a number of factors came together in just the right way for me do something about diversity in children's fantasy.

When you raised over $10,000 on Kickstarter, what do you think it says about the need for multicultural YA fantasy?

First, on a personal level, I've had roughly twenty roommates who were people of color and/or from other countries, so I've often thought about issues of diversity. I learned a lot from them that I didn't know as deeply before, such as the reality of white privilege. In fact, I hesitated to start a publishing company dedicated to diversity because I thought, "Who am I, a white girl who grew up on a farm, to try such a thing?" But with the encouragement of friends and writers and readers, things worked out.

Publicly, awareness was high because of Racefail and whitewashing — of various book covers, and even the movie version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. It wasn't just me that these issues mattered to. The enthusiasm from those who donated to our Kickstarter was the beginning for Tu, but Lee & Low has had customers asking them for books for older readers for some time. And diversity is something the SFF community has been talking about for a while. So when our Kickstarter campaign to raise initial capital was so successful, that got Lee & Low's attention. And now I'm in NYC, and we've acquired four of the planned six books for our first year.

I see on the Tu Books site that you say that you're not aiming to publish "niche" books or aim at just one community — do you think that multicultural fantasy can appeal to a wider audience?

If you ask how many people of color enjoy reading fantasy and science fiction, you'll find that it's not a large number, though there are some. I don't think it's because fantasy and SF stories don't appeal to a wide swath of people. I think part of it is that it's a genre historically dominated by white heroes, meaning that often young readers who don't see themselves reflected in the genre might turn to other books that mirror them more fully. By reaching out with "mirror" books to readers of color who could enjoy fantasy, we share the joy of a great genre with those who will hopefully grow up to become lifelong readers and writers of SFF.

That's not to say, though, that our books will be only for people of color. While multicultural books are often considered "niche" books, I think that can pigeonhole them. Fantasy often asks its readers to walk into a world completely unfamiliar to them, so why not a world influenced by a non-Western culture, or featuring main characters of color? It's not a new idea—some SFF authors have always kept this in mind—but it's something we need more of.

So in *addition* to marketing to a core "multicultural" audience, we'll market to a core genre audience — that is, it's not an either-or. What matters to me is the story — note how in our rights report we didn't mention that the main character of Joe Bruchac's book above is Abenaki, or that the star of Galaxy Games is Japanese American, etc. These details are important, but ultimately the stories are about much more than just the race of the characters. The fact that the main character in Galaxy Games is Japanese American *does* inform who he is, but so does the fact that he's a boy who has an asteroid named after him that's hurtling toward Earth, destined to doom us all. :)

What's it like to go from working at Wizards of the Coast to running your own imprint?

Working at Wizards was a fun time — I got to work on a number of great books and in a company that has a fun, laid-back culture. But it's also been a blast to start my own imprint and to have a hand in every part of the process. I have the freedom to work in a variety of worlds, including stand-alone novels like Wolf Mark and longer series. I learned a lot about consistency and the detailed rules of epic fantasy while at Wizards, and hopefully that helps my authors as I edit their work.

And while Wizards was owned by Hasbro—so in a few ways we had a bit more of a corporate environment — the books department was a small, tight-knit group that had a very similar feel to the cameraderie at independently-owned Lee & Low. Different worlds, but so much in common. In Lee & Low's case, it's a tight-knit group of people whose mission is to publish great books for kids with a wide diversity of characters. It's the perfect fit for Tu.