Friday, June 3, 2011

Operation Marriage: How One Gay Marriage Picture Book Is Becoming A Reality

So Craig Wiesner of Reach and Teach is publishing Author Cynthia Chin-Lee and Illustrator Lea Lyon's picture book about gay (well, lesbian) marriage and they're financing it in a non-traditional way - by teaming up with a non-profit to raise the funds needed. I had the cool opportunity to correspond with all three of them about the project, and am excited to share those discussions with you.

My interview with Cynthia:

Lee: Why was this story you had to tell?

Cynthia: Kathy and Lee Merkle-Raymond have been friends for several years. I know them through our church, First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, a more light church. They told me the story of how they got married one weekend. But I was perplexed because I considered them as "married" and didn't think about the fact that as a gay couple, they didn't have the legal right to marry for the most part and that if Prop 8 passed, they would lose the small window in time where they could get married. At the urging of their children, Alex and Nikki, they decided to marry even though they already had almost all of the legal protections in place anyway. I thought about it from their daughters' point of view and my heart was moved. I know as a heterosexual, I take my legal rights for granted! However, I may be more sensitive than others as I grew up as a minority (an Asian American) in the 60s in Washington, DC.

Lee: You've had five picture books previously published: "A is for Asia," "Almond Cookies & Dragon Well Tea," "Amelia to Zora," "Akira to Zoltan," and "A is for the Americas." Do you think if you had done a gay marriage picture book as your first title that would have limited you in terms of what people thought you could do?

Cynthia: Probably. There's often the issue of typecasting.

Lee: Did you experience that same resistance given that four of your books are non-narrative alphabet/biographies when you were trying to find a publisher for "Operation Marriage?"

Cynthia: Perhaps. I didn't seek publishing at many publishers for this story because I knew Reach and Teach was beginning to publish children's books and I know the owners/editors personally. It seemed like the right book to bring to them and I'm so glad they were open to it.

Lee: Working with a smaller publisher, has there been the chance for any give and take with the illustrator?

Cynthia: Definitely. With a small publisher, I get to have more influence with the whole project and it's been eye-opening to work with Lea Lyon, the illustrator. Lea likes to have models pose for the characters in the book so we got a group of kids (including my 9 year-old) and adults together; some are members of my church and the gay community. We had a potluck at my house and posed for the scenes in the book. Lea took photos and will use them as the basis for her watercolors. It was great fun. She's a terrific artist.

A rough sketch of an interior page of the picture book

My interview with Lea:

Lee: You've illustrated a number of picture books that are very issue-driven. "Playing War" (about the impact of playing war and real war on children), "Say Something" (about bullying), and "Keep your ear on the ball" (about a blind student in school.) Do you need an emotional connection to the story when you take on illustrating a picture book?

Lea: To tell you the truth, I’ve always had a strong emotional connection to the books I’ve been asked to illustrate. I don’t know how I would react to a book to which I didn’t connect emotionally. I was extremely fortunate to have as my first publisher Tilbury House Publishers in Gardiner, ME. All the children’s books they publish are about social issues. That suited me fine! And they hired me for three of them – and they each won an award. When Audrey Penn, author of the “Kissing Hand” books, asked me to illustrate her Hanukkah book that connected to me too. Now I’m so lucky to be illustrating “Operation Marriage.”

Lee: What is your connection working on "Operation Marriage?"

Lea: My connection to this book is my connection to Craig and Derrick the publishers, who thrilled me by asking me to illustrate this important project. Their Reach and Teach is wonderful and they have sold my other social issue books.

Lee: Have you felt any internal or external resistance as you've been bringing this story to life?

Lea: I have felt no internal or external resistance to this project. I have fallen in love with all our “models,” who were members of the church that Cynthia Chin Lee and Craig and Derrick belong to. The more I draw and paint them the more real a family they are becoming. I can only hope that shows in my illustrations.

I have always supported same-sex marriage rights and was distraught when Proposition 8 passed. I am surrounded by friends and family who feel the same. My husband is excited about this project too. In fact, the only questioning I got about this book was from a friend who said that her four year old daughter has friends with two mommies and she doesn’t want this book to make her daughter think this is unusual. She already accepts it as a given part of life. Would that everyone did. I thought that was the best reason I could think of to not want this book around. I have found that even people who are a bit taken aback when I tell them about this book I am illustrating, hesitate to make any comment other than “good.” It almost feels as if it would be politically incorrect for them to say anything negative. But, I live in Northern California, so I’m sure I have a skewed view of the population of this country.

Thanks so much, Lee, for talking about our book. Hope you love it as much as we do.

Interior art!

My interview with Craig:

Lee: Tell me about Reach and Teach and what you're trying to do.

Craig: Reach And Teach works to transform the world through teachable moments. We create and distribute books, music, DVDs, toys, games, curriculum, parent/teacher resources, and other products that promote a more peaceful, inclusive, and healthy world. We imagine ourselves as the "Discovery Store" of peacemaking.

Lee: What was the journey for "Operation Marriage" to end up being published by you? How did you find the manuscript, choose the artist, etc...

Craig: Our journey includes our own marriage story. My husband Derrick and I were the first same-gender couple to be married in the First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto over 20 years ago. Then, during the brief window in California history when we could get legally married, one of the ministers from our ceremony 20 years earlier was able to sign our marriage certificate. Within the congregation was another family, two women, who have two daughters. During the battle over Proposition 8, one of the daughters saw a "Yes on Prop 8" sign on a good friend's lawn. That meant the friend's family was against gay marriage and it hurt. The daughters wanted their moms to get married while it was still legal and convinced their moms to do it. Cynthia Chin-Lee, also a member of that church, knows the family and decided that it would make a wonderful children's book. Reach And Teach had been selling Cynthia's other award-winning books, Amelia to Zora and Akira to Zolton, for a few years and she offered us the opportunity to publish "Operation Marriage." We jumped at the chance! We are treasure hunters, gathering peace and social justice oriented products from small publishers and organizations around the world. With our partnership with PM Press, we're also able to publish our own titles, and are especially drawn to projects that might otherwise not get launched.

Lee: Reach and Teach has teamed up with a non-profit to raise the funds to publish "Operation Marriage" - that seems very groundbreaking. Can you tell us more about the decision process behind that and how it's going?

Craig: Publishing a full-color, hardcover, children's picture book is very expensive, especially if you want to do the printing in North America. Breaking even or making a profit on these books can be difficult, if not impossible. For this title, which we hope will be a huge seller, coming up with the up-front expenses to pay for advance-royalties and printing was going to be tough. Those expenses can be prohibitive enough to keep a small publisher from taking on such a project. With the issue of gay marriage being a critical social issue today and we believe for the next few years, publication of this book can have a great impact on the conversation children and adults have about marriage in the coming years. Inclusion and equality are key issues for the non-profit that is helping raise money for the book. We've raised about half of what we need and are confident we'll raise the rest by the time we have to go to print.

The interesting question people often ask us is why Reach And Teach isn't a non-profit. We may be naive to believe this but, we truly do think that we can do something that is wonderful for the world and do so as a for-profit business. Being for profit helps us keep our voice. Partnering with a non-profit when our missions align, though, feels quite right.

Full Disclosure: I am also on the board of MicahsCall, the non-profit helping to raise funds for this book. I, of course, recused myself from the board's vote on whether to help raise money for this project. MicahsCall will get paid back for the funds disbursed on the book when/if the book is profitable, and MicahsCall will use those funds for further work on the issues of gay marriage, inclusion, equality, and social justice.

Lee: How can people help?

Craig: People can donate money and pre-order copies of the book through this link. They can also tell all their friends, family, and colleagues about this project.

...And I'd say that's a pretty fascinating road to publication for this picture book celebration of our queer families and our right to marry.


1 comment:

Cynthia Chin-Lee, Author and Speaker said...

I've gotten some "push back" from family and friends on the book, but I welcome that. At the least, I hope the book will open people's eyes. Eventually I hope it will move their hearts.
Cynthia Chin-Lee, author