CAKE Literary: We’re On A Diversity Mission – Here’s Why!

Posted on 23 May 2014 Friday


One of my recent blog posts ending with

Over the next few weeks, I hope to introduce you to few players who are recreating the game for the sake of our children. That’s what we have to remember, this is for our children.

I do have a couple of these posts, but I soon realized that Brown Bookshelf had the same idea and they have done a rliidh27sfn6xh6n76hw_400x400fantastic job of reaching out to individuals who creating amazing possibilities in kidlit. This week as part of their Making Our Own Market series, they feature self publisher authors and closed the week by asking readers to post the names of self published books they’ve read.

Last week, they began their series with CAKE Literary. Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, the ladies behind CAKE Literary are creative, energetic and forward thinking entrepreneurs. Their recipe for success is creating quite a stir! I was able to catch up with Sona lately and she was gracious enough to write the following post. I think what strikes me most as I read the various posts she and Dhonielle have written, is how their passion for diversity in YA lit grew from rather negative situations but is blossoming into something positive. Their passion is their energy. Here’s Sona!

When my daughter was two, her favorite book series was Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells’s That’s Not My collection of board books. There were so many creatures to contemplate: dinosaurs, puppies, lions, oh my. But one in particular stood out. It was a book called That’s Not My Princess, populated by princesses in all shapes and sizes – and even a few different colors. One princess quickly became my favorite. She was small and brown, wearing what very much appeared to be Indian princess regalia (which, of course, as a small brown girl myself, once upon a time, I’d grown up coveting).

Sona Charaipotra

Sona Charaipotra

She rocked a long, flowing purple lengha, with a bright, jeweled top, and a rich, velvety chunni that she’d cinched at her waist. On her wrists were golden bangles, just like the ones my mother got me for my wedding. She was a princess after my own heart.

Naturally, that’s the princess I convinced my daughter Kavya to choose every time. At two, it was easy. This little brown princess was just as glittery and pretty as the others, and she was decked out in Kavi’s favorite colors, pink and purple. What more could we ask for? But as Kavya grew older, it became harder and harder to get her to stick with our princess. It’s not that she was particularly interested in this princess or that princess. It’s that she figured out the narrative structure of these books: the final fill-in-the-blank was always the right fill-in-the-blank. The one to be chosen. Alas, in this book, this particular princess was white and blonde, with blue eyes and an admittedly sparkly tiara. And, I’d quickly learn, that was to be the case with most princesses we’d encounter in future books.

So I shouldn’t have been all that surprised when Kavi’s Disney princess fixation came to a head. She’d coveted them all: the put-upon Cinderella, the delicate (and needy) Snow White, the sheltered (and objectified) Jasmine, and of course, Rapunzel, with her long flowing golden hair. And I swear, that golden hair will be the death of me. At 4, just weeks before her Princess Tea Party celebration (and in the wake of her idolization of two other very blonde princesses, Anna and Elsa of Frozen fame), Kavi realized something, and it shattered her, just a little bit. She needed to be golden. She needed that hair, pale and light and, apparently, all that is good. She needed it, and she needed it now. It would have been easy to write this off as just another tantrum. After all, who doesn’t want what they can’t have. But thinking back to that little brown princess I’d tried so hard to get her to adopt, I realized that, despite it all, I’d failed her.

But it wasn’t all my fault. As my husband Navdeep Singh Dhillon, a fellow writer, pointed out in his piece here, institutional racism is so ingrained, we often don’t realize that it’s there – and that it’s having a devastating effect on our little ones. Some 30 years ago, I remember keenly feeling like I never saw myself in books – and I remember just as keenly the toll it took on my self-esteem. I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t important enough, to have my story told, to have my voice heard. It hurt. And 30 years later, as I watch my daughter go through the same exact thing, it hurts even more.

Dhonielle Clayton

Dhonielle Clayton

This, at its crux, is why my writing partner Dhonielle Clayton and I decided to co-found CAKE Literary, a boutique book packaging company with a decidedly diverse bent. Over the course of our two years together at the New School, where we both got our MFAs in Writing for Children, we had countless conversations about the startling lack of diversity in books for kids and teens, a problem that continues to persist despite the fact that it’s now 2014, and by 2042, the “minority” will be the majority. We already make a strong effort to diversify our own personal work, and the work we create together. But that’s not nearly enough. The idea behind CAKE is that if something is a deliciously written story with strong, well-developed characters and an intriguing plot, people will pick it up. So if you infuse those kinds of stories with diversity – in race and ethnicity, class and culture, gender and orientation, ability and disability – then the market can’t argue. People will pick it up. And slowly but surely, the marginalized will become the mainstream.

What exactly does CAKE do? We create those stories: high concepts that are fun reads, but have a strong dose of diversity without making that diversity the central focus. The plot is the focus. Our debut, Tiny Pretty Things, due next summer from HarperTeen, is a good example of this. The story is a mystery set at a cutthroat ballet academy in New York City, where three girls – one black, one white and one half-Korean – are all competing for prima position. Their backgrounds definitely inform their experiences at the school and in the world of dance (and also in the world at large). You can feel their experience. But the plot is what propels you forward (we hope!).

So why is CAKE a packager and not a publisher? We have so many ideas, stories that we think deserve to be told. Ideas that deserve to be on shelves, ideas will become books that readers out there are looking for – the #WeNeedDiverseBooks call to action confirmed that! But we don’t have time to write all of these books – nor do we have the authentic background or voice to do them justice. That’s where CAKE comes in. CAKE comes up with the concept, fleshes out, then finds that authentic voice to put the meat on the bones. If it’s a book about a Mexican-American family in Texas, then damn straight that’s what we’re aiming to find in our writer. And that is not my background, or Dhonielle’s. We work with the writer throughout the process of drafting, and once we have the proposal or a completed manuscript, CAKE’s agent takes it out to publishers. Some packaging companies get a bad rap for being notoriously stingy – but because we’re writers ourselves, we aim to make CAKE a highly writer-friendly company.

In the end, that CAKE story aims to be fun and delightful and will no doubt thrill some little girl one day when she picks it up, and lo and behold, finally sees herself reflected on the page. Because books should be mirrors, as well as windows. I wish I could be there to see it.

What I do know is this: we all have our reasons for what we do. Dhonielle and I both had this experience growing up, and we’ve heard stories from countless others – writers and non-writers – who’ve felt the same. In propelling forward CAKE’s mission to diversify our shelves (and you can learn more about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign to do just that here!), my reason is these days is my children. I want their reflections in the books they read, and I want them to be able to read about people from all different backgrounds. I can’t wait for the day when the dark-haired princess is the one Kavya picks from the line-up, because she realizes that the princess that looks at her is just as golden as the blonde-haired one.

Want to learn more about CAKE and our mission? We’ll be looking to hire writers this summer, so connect with us at CAKELiterary.com or via CAKELiterarySubmissions@gmail.com. You can also find us on Twitter: @CAKELiterary

 

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Posted in: Diversity Issues