Janine Macbeth has just released her debut picture book Oh, Oh, Baby Boy!. Macbeth is the writer, illustrator, *and* the publisher. Blood Orange Press, “a literary home for diverse readers,” is her newly-founded independent press.

The result is gasp-worthy. Truly; I saw this reaction to my review copy from several readers.

Oh, Oh, Baby Boy! follows the life of a boy through the eyes of his loving father, from infancy to adulthood. At first, the baby is swaddled and cupped in his father’s hands- oh oh Baby Boy- then in the bath and cooking with the father nearby- smells of spice Baby Boy. 

The boy grows and we feel the father’s presence even when he is absent from the frame. It seems as if we are seeing  the boy splash, play superhero, and laugh with friends up close through the father’s own eyes. The boy becomes a distant profile in the mountains- explore and grow Baby Boy- then nearby again, gently helping a man with a cane off a crowded city bus- strong and kind Baby Boy. 


Soon the young man is preparing to become a father himself. He welcomes a new baby boy into the world– a very unique and beautiful picture book spread that actually depicts childbirth. (You have to get the book to see it for yourself.)

The story winds down with the three generations together, closing with the new father kissing his little son- oh, oh, Baby Boy.

Oh, Oh Baby Boy! is strong visual storytelling. Macbeth’s art pops with bright brush strokes and requires only seventy rhythmic words. An illustrator friend pointed out something about these paintings that is so seamless I didn’t see it at first: brown paper grocery bags are the medium, providing the warm skin color of the characters and crease lines that add extra depth. (Macbeth disclosed they are Berkeley Bowl bags.)

The book has other lovely physical qualities as well, including foil-stamped shiny stars on the end pages and the detail of a nameplate with the words This book celebrates.

The book is wonderful, not only for the sweet and loving story it shares– it should become a baby shower gift favorite – but for the other stories it brings to life as well. 

For one, Macbeth painted her own path to publication. The book was funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign supported by an impressive 260 people.

Macbeth also established her own independent publishing company, Blood Orange Press, with the vision that: children and adults of all ages should have access to stories that recognize and lift up their individual power, dignity, and beauty.

Blood Orange Press is committed to the value of first voice: We support the creation and sharing of stories based on one’s own heritage, experience, and community of origin. We speak for no one but ourselves, knowing that self-representation is an act of power.

What bold and important statements for children's publishing today.

Oh, Oh, Baby Boy! also includes an author’s note about engaged fatherhood: We’re evolving into new terrains where fatherhood isn’t solely an economic role that occasionally ‘helps’ mothers. Fatherhood is increasingly becoming an equal parenting partnership, whether or not parents are romantically connected.

Yes.

I recently spoke with Macbeth to learn more about the backstories. Here is her bio from the Blood Orange Press site:

Janine Macbeth’s dream to create children’s books first took root in second grade. Since then, she has contributed to a dozen picture books while at publishing companies and as a freelance artist. She has also worked for over a decade at social justice nonprofit organizations. Blood Orange Press is the alchemy of Janine’s passion for books, art, and racial equity. She identifies as a multiracial artist and woman of color with Asian American, African American, white, and Native American heritage. Janine is also mom of two mancubs, and wife and life partner of their awesome, engaged, and loving father.


Author Interview: Janine Macbeth


How did this story come about?

When I was pregnant with our second son, it struck me how vulnerable a time parenting can be for moms. There is a lot we can do, but we need support too. If my husband can take care of the baby, or do the laundry, or wash the dishes, or cook while I get more rest, then I am able to do so much more. 

I was totally inspired noticing the active involvement of some dads. And I saw the beauty of watching my own husband engage with my boys with so much love and compassion. I wanted to lift that up and celebrate that this is possible.

My mom didn’t have that kind of support when I was little. All moms deserve a viable parenting partner if they want it, even if they are co-parenting or in another kind of relationship with the father.

How did you first get involved in children’s publishing? At what point did you decide to create your own publishing company? 

I’ve always loved books. In second grade my classmates said that I would write and illustrate children’s books. But since I couldn’t find authors with my skin tone and characters with my heritage I didn’t think this was a realistic goal.

In college, I studied racial justice and saw this gap in children’s books as something I wanted to fill. Why shouldn’t I make books?

I attended a summer publishing program at NYU. After working at ColorLines Magazine I landed at Children’s Book Press (CBP).  CBP was a multicultural publisher based in San Francisco that was founded in the 1970s and focused on publishing first voice stories. They've since become an imprint of Lee & Low Books in New York. CBP was my dream publisher and I volunteered there with the goal of learning how to start a children’s publishing company. I worked there until my first son was born. 

Around this time, I shopped a children’s book I had written to publishers but the process left me feeling demoralized and disempowered. For Oh, Oh, Baby Boy!. I decided to take the plunge and self-publish.

What are your hopes for Blood Orange Press? What are some of the other stories you want to draw attention to?

I have a list of books I would like to work on. One of my next steps is to map out a pipeline for the next few years. 

Even with the Kickstarter campaign, I am still in debt. Ultimately I would like to sign other authors and illustrators; it's important to me that I can pay them.

I want everything to be based in a strong critique of what stories are missing and put out positive responses that don’t sugarcoat issues but can help people feel good and create change from a place of vision and love instead of a place of anger. I want to incorporate magic, beauty, and dignity.

Can you tell me about the childbirth image? It is fairly unusual to show childbirth in a picture book. 

I am glad you asked about this one since it is one of my favorites. It was one of the fasted, most effortless and passioned illustrations to create. It came fluidly. The hands catching the baby are the dad’s. Both our sons were born at home, and this spread underscores the importance of a partner's role ensuring that moms feel safe. 

You include a booklist on your website of “Recommended books for People and Children of Color, White Allies, and Progressive Families.” What are some of your favorites?

I love books by Leo and Diane Dillon and Kadir Nelson. Ellington Was Not A Street by Ntozake Shange is one of my all-time favorites.

But one of my sadnesses is that children’s books about people of color often get pigeonholed. In my opinion, too many children's books depict slavery and poverty at the expense of other historically rooted and realistic narratives. Many of the books that spark curiosity and imagination don’t feature kids of color as protagonists. I look forward to the day when children's books represent a full range of possibility and emotion.

Where can people buy Oh, Oh, Baby Boy!?

On the Blood Orange Press Website, through AK Press (my distributor), and Amazon. The books is also available to educational and library markets through Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Ask for it at your local bookstores; they should be able to order it as well.

Thanks Janine!

I recently spoke with JL Powers, author of two novels for young adults, The Confessional and This Thing Called the Future. She is also the editor of That Mad Game: Growing Up in a Warzone, an anthology of essays.

I first learned about her work when I spotted The Pirate Tree, a blog about social justice literature for children. The blog is a fantastic resource and Powers is one of its co-founders. I chatted with her to explore the concept of social justice in her own work and find out more about how the blog came about. 

Can you tell me about your background, and in what ways your writing life intersects with your commitment to social justice?

My dad is a geologist and took a job in El Paso in the early 1980’s. My parents are very religious and made some interesting choices about where and how they wanted to live. We moved into a barrio near the US-Mexico border, so all of our neighbors were recent immigrants, many undocumented, and refugees. This is how I grew up.

I remember in high school, my mom walked a family through the documenting process. It took a decade. The family lived in a chicken coop, trying to raise seven kids on $25 a day. The documenting process could be onerously expensive, so my parents would lend people money for the paperwork and then hire them to pay it off. My parents have always been very aware of the systemic problems that prevent people from living legitimate lives.

I am often drawn back to the work my parents are doing. My parents are immersed in their community, and when problems come along everyone does their bit. This has really influenced my work as a writer.

As an adult, the issues that have been in my heart are homelessness, hunger, immigration, economics and politics of disease, war and conflict, and how children are impacted as the most vulnerable members of the human race. I don’t set out to write social justice books but what captivates my own heart and the questions I feel like I have to pursue. 

When I wrote my first book, The Confessional, I was living in El Paso and teaching at a high school. Many of the boys at my school had crossed over the border and it was interesting to see the dynamics among them and their national loyalties. Violence could so easily start. There were many questions swirling around about “us” versus “them,” - of class, race, sexual identity, and citizenship.

My second novel, This Thing Called the Future, began during the time when I was working on my PhD in African History and spending extended periods of time living with families in South Africa. I started to think about what it would be like to be a young person growing up in a place where many people are dying of an illness that is transmitted through sex, and the political and community ramifications of HIV.

I’m really captivated by forces of exclusion and inclusion. Growing up in an immigrant community surrounded by people who were legal and “illegal,” though I am white and American, created the trajectory of my writing career.

You blog at The Pirate Tree, “a collective of children's and young adult writers interested in children's literature and social justice issues.” How did the blog get started? What are your hopes for the site?

Around the time I gave birth to Nesta (he’s 2 and a half) I thought I’d like to do something to highlight social justice issues in children’s literature. But I didn’t want to carry it alone, so I contacted a few writer friends.

I was already in touch with Ann Angel, Lynn Miller-Lachmann and Nancy Bo Flood. They invited the others (Varian Johnson, E.M. Kokie, and Peter Marino).

All of us are very concerned about literature not only as entertainment, or important educationally, but as something that has the potential for transforming individuals and entire groups of people. Literature is fundamental to how people grow, and grow as citizens. There is probably no more effective way to transform the hearts and minds of people than art.

I am not interested in didactic books. I don’t ever want to say that social justice books are the ones that should be published. Any book can be analyzed for how it supports or tries to tear down and transform the status quo into something better. At The Pirate Tree we’re trying to look at the best books. We want the site to be a useful place for educators, teachers, parents, and other writers to find books that are dealing with tough issues in good ways.

What are some of your favorite children’s books with social justice themes?

My all time favorite young adult novel is Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. It is set in 1969 in a small barrio in New Mexico and is about the lives of very poor teenagers during the draft in Vietnam. I’ve read it a dozen times.

I also love A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer and Deborah Ellis’ work.

What issues would you like to see more attention given to in contemporary children’s literature?

When I moved to the US-Mexico border at age eight, I was an avid reader. But I was always reading about other places. No one wrote about the border or about immigrant communities. So I wanted to go to a “real place” like in the books I read.

I didn’t grow up in “the mainstream.” I couldn’t read about the place where I was from and that made me feel bad about myself. This experience has shaped why I write about places that aren’t mainstream.

Often, the books that are published are written to provide a window into a world outside the mainstream for kids who don’t have that experience. There’s a belief that the kids who live in the communities these stories are about aren’t going to be reading the books. It’s really tragic. Literature is about creating citizens of our nation. These children are going to be the majority in the United States and we will regret if we don’t make books a part of their lives.

Have you seen hopeful developments getting these narratives published and into the hands of more children?

From teachers and librarians there is a real hunger for these books. Part of the problem is getting information about these books in front of the people who are looking for them. 

I think the Common Core is helping, since it gives teachers the ability to buy books, both fiction and nonfiction, that they didn’t have before. It is opening up avenues for teachers to use these books in classrooms. I have heard from small independent publishers that there is a noticeable rise in their sales.

Are there sites or resources you would highlight for writers and parents interested in social justice and multicultural children’s literature?

Here are some of the publishers I would recommend:

The International Board of Books for Young People is a great organization that gives awards and provides funds to support children’s publishing around the world.


Thanks Jessica!

Diversity is a concept with many vantage points. Here is one that is startling: In 2012, only 216 of 3,600 children’s books published in the United States were by authors and/or illustrators of color. Only 271 children’s books had significant content about people of color. That’s only 6 percent of authors and/or illustrators and less than 8 percent of content.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which gathers these figures, notes the situation was even more discouraging in 1985 when they started to keep track:

        When CCBC Director Ginny Moore Kruse served as a member of the Coretta Scott King Award
        Committee that year, we were appalled to learn that, of the approximately 2,500 trade books that
        were published that year for children and teens, only 18 were created by African Americans, and
        thus eligible for the Coretta Scott King Award.

Match these numbers up with the demographics of our country– the majority of young people will be people of color in just 5 or 6 years– and the urgency for greater racial diversity in children’s literature is more than apparent. Add to this the layers of other types of diversities needing greater representation in books, such as class, gender, and sexual orientation, and it’s clear that children’s publishing will need to make a significant push.

We need all of our children to be able to find books that share characteristics of themselves and their families when they visit the library. It’s so powerful to get to see a part of yourself, your family, and your culture in books! AND, we need all of our children to find books about many, many different life experiences. It’s so powerful to get to know people through books! (Author Mitali Perkins has a great post and discussion on her site about the idea of books as "windows and mirrors.")

Thankfully, the CBC Diversity Committee is drawing needed attention to this issue. The Committee encourages “diversity of race, gender, geographical origin, sexual orientation, and class among both the creators of and the topics addressed by kid lit" in addition to other significant goals. (Take a look at this Publisher’s Weekly article about its launch.)

On May 16th I attended a panel that the Committee co-hosted with Charlesbridge in Watertown, Massachusetts. It was titled “Diversity on the Page, behind the Pencil, and in the Office” and featured author Mitali Perkins, illustrator London Ladd, editor Katie Cunningham of Candlewick Press, editor Monica Perez of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and editor Alyssa Mito Pusey of Charlesbridge. Ayanna Coleman of the the CBC Diversity Committee moderated.

It was a lively discussion that touched on definitions of diversity in children’s publishing, barriers that currently exist in the industry for producing more diverse stories, and strategies for getting more multicultural books into the hands of more kids. I was grateful to attend and look forward to future discussions. Since then, I've also found the Committee’s website is a helpful hub of information on this topic, including articles, links, and booklists.

Even if we don’t sit at the editor’s desk, all of us who have a relationship to children’s books have an ongoing role to play in shifting these statistics– whether as parents and friends of children who decide which books to purchase and share, or as writers and illustrators who choose which characters we include in our stories.

In my next few posts I’ll pick up on this theme through interviews with two children’s book creators who have taken inspiring steps toward inclusiveness in their own work: author JL Powers and author/illustrator/publisher Janine Macbeth. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, take a look around the Committee's Goodreads booklist for some terrific book recommendations.

Also- here's a great opportunity from publisher Lee & Low Books for new children's writers of color: The winner of their New Voices Award receives a cash prize and a publishing contract. Submissions are due by September 30th.