Children's Book Publishing in the New Millennium: Compassionate Capitalism

A monthly spotlight on Children's Book Publishers who enrich their readers, their communities, and our World. This month: Childrens Book Press
This month's feature addresses community activism in publishing. A San Francisco-based non-profit publishing company, Children's Book Press (CBP), demonstrates how a publisher can act as a socially responsible community activist, providing their community with quality multicultural literature and conducting extensive outreach programs.

Since its inception in 1975, CBP has been a pioneer in the publishing of multicultural and bilingual children's literature. In 1975 many inner-city youth had never seen a book in their native language or with characters reflecting the experiences of children of color. CBP provided books where inner-city children could see people like themselves reflected in literature for the first time.

For 25 years CBP has continued to provide quality multicultural literature. The result is two-fold: the literature contains positive role models for at-risk youth, and it provides economically advantaged youngsters with exposure to other cultures. One of CBP's main goals is to promote a society where people know about many different cultures and everyone's culture is valued.

CBP works closely with teachers of language arts. Publishing decisions are based on providing books that will be useful to teachers for building curriculums that will inspire youngsters. Since CBP considers itself first and foremost a community activist organization, and secondarily a publisher, it also decides what books to publish based on an assessment of what works best for the CBP outreach programs. CBP has produced more than 60 award-winning picture books of traditional and contemporary stories primarily written and illustrated by multicultural authors and illustrators. Some CBP authors and artists are nationally recognized; some are published for the first time by CBP. CBP also strives to preserve oral stories from other cultures. Such stories, never before written down, are valuable as cultural histories.

Even as a non-profit corporation, CBP derives over $1 million dollars in annual sales to schools, libraries, bookstores, and to large educational publishers that buy rights to reprint various CBP pieces. "Through the ongoing support of those who buy our books and the funders who believe that art and literature can improve the lives of children, we have been able to grow as a premiere publisher of multicultural and bilingual books for children," says CBP's founder and Executive Director, Harriet Rohmer. "When a child opens a book and sees someone like himself or herself, it has the power to change that child's life and create an ongoing relationship to reading."

For 25 years, CBP has conducted literacy outreach programs in California by donating its books to inner-city schools and community centers. Inner-city children who otherwise wouldn't receive these materials because of economic reasons have access to them through these outreach efforts. CBP involves its authors and artists in the schools, helping teachers develop lesson plans around CBP books. The new millennium sees CBP's community activist efforts stretching from coast to coast via the Internet.

In 1998 CBP launched an innovative multicultural literacy outreach program called LitLinks. LitLinks provides CBP literature and art to twelve selected California-based schools, libraries, community-based organizations and caregiver support groups. LitLinks sites in California are chosen on the basis of student body need and the availability of enthusiastic educators. Students personally relate to the multicultural stories because the student populations are predominantly Chicano, Latino, African American, Asian American, and Native American. This highly successful literacy outreach program has attracted such prestigious funders as the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the Wells Fargo Foundation and the Mary A. Crocker Trust.

Children in the LitLinks program use the stimulating CBP books as jumping off points for their own creative projects under guidance from teachers and up to 24 CBP authors and artists who participate with certain classrooms. Children's' specific projects involve various forms of children's original writing, artwork and computer graphics where they explore the theme of a CBP title, writing an original but related story or poem. Themes for student projects include artists talking about their lives, brave women and girls, history through literature, immigration and migrant education, music, folklore, poetry, books that deal with prejudice, and stories about childhood and family, environment, nature, science stories, mixed races, and intergenerational issues. This season all LitLinks projects are based on the book Honoring Our Ancestors: Stories and Pictures by Fourteen Artists, where artists' extraordinary artworks are accompanied by touching memories of elders who inspired and nurtured them. LitLinks projects, related to the book, help children celebrate people who most influence their lives, and bring children in touch with their own families, heritages, and personal histories. An example of a LitLinks project is the educator who coaches her students how to interview their elders. She tells them how to walk into the room, how to show respect and how to get respect. The children then conduct interviews and find extraordinary stories in their own ancestors' ordinary lives.

LitLinks staff is currently developing a web site for students' finished works. The project will bring children's voices to a broad public by publishing participants' reflections of themselves and their cultures on-line. Additionally, LitLinks participants are involved in public performances attended by their families at local libraries where they take turns reading their work. This year they honored mothers, fathers, and grandparents. One boy read a poem about his father who is a waiter and a plumber. The poem began: "I see my father as a hero. Others only see him as a man." By the end of the poem the boy's father had tears in his eyes. Other facets of the LitLinks program are as follows:
1. CBP has also developed a LitLinks Internet program. In this outreach program, each participating student has a space on the World Wide Web where he or she works with a CBP author or artist throughout the school year. The student's space contains his or her online e-mail dialogs with the CBP author or artist, critiques of the student's work, and revisions of the student's writings based on the feedback given in the critiques. This creative program also develops students' communication technology skills along with their reading and writing skills. The Internet allows CBP authors and artists to reach many students at five sites located in San Francisco, Ca., Mountain View, Ca. in the Silicon Valley where schools have children with 25 different native languages, Los Angeles, Ca., Austin, Tx. and Oyster School in Washington D.C. which is nationally known as a model bilingual school. The yearlong Internet residencies allow children to build broader deeper relationships with authors and artists. Thus the World Wide Web technology enriches human interaction. Classroom visits by the authors and artists are also part of the lengthy Internet based residencies. When urban youth consult with authors and artists face to face in school visits, the authors and artists become role models, opening doors for what's possible, turning students on to what they can do and who they can be.
2. CBP is also in the process of developing the yearlong LitLinks Internet residencies into 3-year programs where the CBP authors and artists work with the same students from 4th-6th grades, thereby providing continuity.
3. CBP is currently considering development of an on-line teacher's guide, which would include suggested creative projects teachers and authors have mutually developed. An example of one such project was: children wrote letters to their unborn great grandchildren that were put in a time capsule -- the students imagined themselves as ancestors and wrote about the legacies they wanted to leave.
4. An interesting spin on the LitLinks program is the development of a forum for students to provide feedback to CBP authors on the authors' next projects they're doing with CBP. Teachers have told CBP that their students are honored to be critiquing famous authors who have critiqued the children.
5. Another innovative LitLinks program works with adults. At the Austin Academy CBP books are used as texts in an adult literacy program. In the future LitLinks plans to work with children and families together. CBP will partner the adult and child programs at existing sites.
6. Family Saturdays is another community activist outreach program started by CBP at the beginning of 1999. It is a series of ten arts education programs designed for families of color. At each two-hour event a well-known literary or visual artist of color published by CBP makes a presentation to the audience, young and old alike, and conducts an experiential workshop that engages families in a specific literature or visual arts project. The idea for Family Saturdays evolved from CBP's desire to extend its LitLinks program to the entire community.

"As a result of participation in LitLinks, we anticipate that many students will improve their reading and technology skills," says David Schecter, Director of the LitLinks program. "The number of literacy materials in the home, the amount of home reading, and opportunities to discuss reading are all related to reading proficiency. LitLinks promotes all of these things by providing students and their families with quality literature and their cultures," he adds.

CBP has been and continues to be a pioneering socially responsible publisher providing community services and giving every American child a sense of his or her culture, history, and importance. CBP Publisher and Executive Director Harriet Rohmer seems to relish the role, stating, "It's a privilege to do this work, to create these books, create these relationships, and create social change."