Children's Literature Alumna Shares Fresh Perspectives for Children's Books
Stephanie Seales '09MA has touched many aspects of publishing throughout her career, and is using her understanding of the industry in her works as an author, career coach, book reviewer, and authenticity reader.
What led you to study children's literature at Simmons?
I've always loved children's literature, especially young adult novels. I took a couple courses in college, and after graduation I searched for master's programs in children's literature on a whim. I found only two programs, and one of them was at Simmons. The Children's Literature degree at Simmons has been around a long time; plus, my mom attended Simmons as an undergraduate. I'm from southern California and I thought it would be nice to live in a different part of the country. All of these things lined up and led me to Simmons.
Tell us about your debut picture book, My Daddy Is a Cowboy, illustrated by C.G. Esperanza, coming Spring 2024 from Abrams.
The story was sparked by my friend, Ariel Richardson, who sent me an article about the Compton Cowboys, urban cowboys who have a ranch and offer programming for kids, among other things. I had known about them for years, but hadn't thought of writing a book about urban cowboys until Ariel brought it up. I wrote the manuscript, centered on a little girl who goes on an early morning horseback ride with her dad around her Compton-esque town, enjoying their 'just us' time, and how her town feels different in those early morning hours. It's a "quiet" book, mostly internal, focused on her experience and her feelings.
The book sold within a month of sending it out to editors. Authors often feel like they have to adjust what they write according to the market. If you write what you need to write, there will be a home for it. If you're writing what's in your heart, there is always a place for that in the world.
What has been your experience as a sensitivity reader?
If there is a character in a book whose identity differs from the author's or illustrator's identity, we want to be sure these characters are being represented in an authentic way. Many in the industry are using the term authenticity instead of sensitivity, to better understand the goal: not just to be sensitive to communities that have been marginalized, but to make sure characters [from those communities] are authentically represented. It's more of an ideological shift.
Publishing, as an industry, is very white, straight, and able-bodied, etc. We need more diverse voices in houses, but even when that change happens, authenticity reads will still be helpful. It's important that the person doing the authenticity read has a connection to these identities. We can never cover everything, but it's a step toward caring about how people are represented – though they can't be the end-all for anyone in publishing. No one [identity] is a monolith.
Tell us about the coaching services you offer.
Everything I do emphasizes racial equity and justice; my authenticity reads and coaching have that same foundation. My goal for coaching is to work with anyone, but particularly with people from groups who have been underrepresented in publishing. Understanding how the industry works allows creatives to work toward creating an industry that is more just and equitable in the long run.
I have a really wide breadth of experience in the children's book world: not just a master's and my own book contract, but I've also interned at publishing houses. I've worked in four different bookstores in three states as a bookseller, a manager, and a book buyer. I've worked in libraries, been a teacher, and I've been a book reviewer for Kirkus for over ten years. All of these experiences have taught me different aspects of the industry, and an ability to think about it holistically.
I've found that a lot of creatives don't have a foundational understanding of how the industry works. This is really valuable information I can offer to people, especially people interested in equity and justice. Even if your book isn't an "issues" book, my hope is that I can help guide creatives to be more successful and fulfilled. There is a lot of nostalgia about children's books, and people forget that it's a business. If you don't know how to navigate it, you're not going to do as well. There are so many things you can do as a creative to help yourself and your book.
Future plans for your writing?
My debut is a picture book, but I think of myself primarily as a novelist. I'm very interested in the world of young adult fiction, I'm seeing more diverse representation there. In 2015, Kirkus started naming the race of characters in their reviews. This was before other people were talking about it, and the blowback was extreme. My editor received hate mail. The reason for the change was to avoid the white default, that characters were assumed to be white [unless otherwise stated]. It made it so visible that most of the characters were white. In the years since, there's been positive change in other aspects of the industry as well. Everyone has a part to do.
One place where we need to see improvement is fat representation: we don't see a lot of fat characters. We're seeing more than we used to, but the assumption is still that a character is thin or straight-sized. I would love to see that [assumption challenged] in the text of young adult and middle grade novels. It's up to the industry to not uphold problematic societal norms - books reflect but also inform our culture. They can be making changes instead of waiting for society to change and hurrying to catch up.
How did Simmons prepare you to be a leader in the field?
Simmons prepared me by giving me a really good critical thinking lens, which is valuable as a reviewer and as a person. I'm a better critical thinker and am able to look at societal issues and recognize them, which is a real gift. At the time, there wasn't a lot of support in place for first-generation college students or graduate students. I'm proud that I graduated, but it was a near thing. Having that support in place would have helped me navigate that road.
Another good thing I gained from Simmons is my network in the children's book world. There are so many Simmons alumnae/i, from my cohort and years around me, who I know as friends and as colleagues. You get different perspectives on the industry from people doing different work. I've watched their careers over the years, and it's special to go through school with someone and see them succeed.