Jelani Memory came into publishing through the back door.
That’s one of the first things he said in “Rapid Response: How Quick Turnaround Publishing Keeps You in the Cultural Conversation,” his moving presentation at the Bookseller Children’s Conference. His talk, and his publishing company, A Kid’s Book About, question our ideas of how books are made, and who gets to make them. Jelani Memory does not consider himself a writer or designer, but rather someone who saw a need and filled it.
A Kids Book About publishes books that deal with complex, real-world topics. Some of their titles include A Kids Book About Racism, A Kids Book About Feminism, A Kids Book About Empathy, and the list goes on. The aim is to help kids understand the complicated issues they’re dealing with, issues that their parents may struggle to explain.
“The Cat in the Hat doesn’t cut it,” said Memory. “It doesn’t respect their experiences. It doesn’t speak to who they are at their center.” This is an especially poignant observation during a global pandemic that has uprooted every child’s life in profound and unparalleled ways. After all, there is no The Cat in the Face Mask or Oh, The Places We Can’t Go.
In creating A Kids Book About, Memory did not let traditional publishing structures fence him in. “Coming from the outside in, I was going to be able to bring some new ideas to the table,” he said. One of those new ideas is a unique approach to the genesis and creation of a book—in A Kids Book About, books are written in a collaborative, one-day process. The goal was to change both how books were made, and who made them, “to really get at what those books were about” and to give space to those who have often been left out of the conversation.
“We as publishers, we can do better,” said Memory. “How many publishing CEOs look like me? Not a lot. Not a lot.”
This trailblazing model raises some crucial questions. Do we have to do things the same way we always have? What can we change to open the doors of publishing and reading, or to take them down completely?
I think the answers lie in the three core ideas that Memory shared at the end of his presentation:
- “Kids books can be a collaboration.”
- “Representation in kids’ books truly matters.”
- “There are more stories to tell for kids.”
Of course, a presentation given at a children’s conference will be focused on children, but his words can be applied to all of publishing. Books can be a collaboration. Representation truly matters. There are more stories to tell.
The last one in particular should be a mantra for every publishing house. There are more stories to tell. What stories are we telling? What stories are we not telling? How can we make space for those stories, and for the people who write them?
Jelani Memory came in through the back door. But maybe there shouldn’t be a back door, or a front door, or any door at all. A door implies a lock, a barrier, when what this industry needs is a sign that says, There are more stories to tell. All are welcome.