Last February, Agate introduced Denene Millner Books, a line of childrens books within our Bolden imprint dedicated to telling the everyday stories of black children and families. This week we published its first offering: My Brown Baby: On the Joys and Challenges of Raising African American Children, a collection of essays from Denene's award-winning parenting blog of the same name. In celebration of the first book in the new line, here's a look back at how it all came to be. As Denene puts it, “This [line] is a love letter to children of color who deserve to see their beauty and humanity in the most remarkable form of entertainment on the planet: books.”
Q&A with Doug Seibold, president of Agate, and Denene Millner about My Brown Baby and the launching of Denene Millner Books
Denene Millner: So Doug, as we prepare to bring out our first books together: What initially interested you in adding a children’s book line to Agate’s broad range of imprints? And why take a chance on me, specifically, as your partner in this venture?
Doug Seibold: This is something I’m always thinking about—sensible ways to grow Agate and do worthwhile things. I’d first become interested in publishing books for young readers about five years ago, when it was looking like the rise of ebooks might substantially alter the whole book world. I thought that books for kids—always one of the strongest categories in publishing, if not the strongest—could be a hedge against a rapid and massive shift to digital. I didn’t see picture books, in particular, going away anytime soon. But I couldn’t figure out a good way to integrate this into our existing business—until I realized something that should have been obvious from the beginning, which was that it would be a natural complement to our existing Bolden imprint. If Bolden has a mission, beyond publishing great writing, it’s to provide stories illustrating the diversity of African American life. Extending that to books for young readers just made sense.
And as far as working with you goes—what “chance”? I’m just thankful I got to meet you via my work with your husband, Nick Chiles, when Agate published his book Justice While Black. As I got to know more about you and your work, I couldn’t believe how well your expertise and sensibility fit with what I’d envisioned. And as I got to know you better personally over the time we spent putting this project together, I really got an appreciation what a great partner you’d be. But what got you interested in doing this?
Denene: I’ve always loved children’s books—the illustrations, the color, the whimsy, the beauty of the stories. As a child, though, the numbers of books that featured kids who looked like me seemed nonexistent. The same was still true when I had my first child in 1999; there were a few black children’s books, but not nearly enough to fill the library I’d planned for my baby. It was a gift from a dear friend of mine—The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats—that inspired me to make it a personal mission to collect books that speak to the human experience of African American children, beyond the typical subjects saddled on them, like the civil rights movement, slavery, and the lives of sports and music icons. Don’t get me wrong: I love those kinds of books, too. Our history deserves an airing with children. But so, too, does the everyday beauty of being a little human of color. Black children believe in the tooth fairy, get scared when they contemplate their first ride on the school bus, look for dragons in their closets, have best friends who get into mischief with them; in other words, they have the same universal childhood experiences that any other human revels in as a kid. Black children deserve to see themselves reflected in those kinds of stories. Denene Millner Books aims to add to that small but important canon. I have a lot of favorites, but if I had to mention only a few, they would be: Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach, Debbie Allen’s Dancing in the Wings, bell hooks’s Homemade Love, Jacqueline Woodson’s We Had a Picnic This Sunday Past, Patricia McKissack’s Precious and the Boo Hag, and Derrick Barnes’s Ruby and the Booker Boys series.
From your vantage point as a publisher, what made this particular moment in time ripe for Denene Millner Books?
Doug: Meeting you was really what catalyzed something I’d been trying to figure out for a few years. I think it was a good time for Agate in terms of my desire to expand the company and a good time for you in terms of your interest in expanding the breadth of your already hugely successful career as an editor and writer. I feel like I had a good idea, and you responded eagerly and intuitively to what it would take to make it a reality. For my part, I’ve always felt the value of the kinds of books Agate publishes through Bolden is self-evident. But not long after we started working on it (just to show how great the need was for what we’re doing), the We Need Diverse Books movement just exploded into greater prominence. By now, I think everyone in the book world is more aware of why this moment is ripe. It’s certainly calling on the full scope of your own abilities.
Denene: Whoo boy: it’s something else to wear both hats! I worked for some time as a magazine editor before dedicating my writing exclusively to books, so I’m familiar with what it takes to be both a writer and an editor. But being an author and a book editor is something else entirely. I can’t say that I was ready for all of the responsibility that comes with being an editor: acquiring projects, negotiating contracts, doing profit and loss analysis, putting together marketing and publicity campaigns. Being a book editor isn’t just about . . . editing. I raise my hand and admit, finally, that simply writing the book and handing it in is a lot easier. But working on this side of the business is exhilarating. It’s stretching me creatively in a different way, and for that, I’m grateful. I’m most proud of the fact that my work as an editor is opening the door for African American authors and illustrators whose work deserves to be seen. And these days, I kinda live for our regular Friday talks about the business; in the two years since we met, and the year we’ve been working on the new line, I’ve learned so much from you. Why do you think our relationship works?
Doug: For starters, we probably have a lot more in common than most outside observers would think. To the world, you are the social-media postin’, selfie-shootin’, highly prolific and highly engaging persona behind not just MyBrownBaby.com—and your new inaugural title in the Denene Millner Books line based on the blog—but also dozens of bestsellers across multiple genres. You are a very public person; by contrast, I am a 100-percent behind-the-scenes kind of guy, and even if you do penetrate my wall of bland, you will find that I might be the straightest white man in America. Our differences are obvious. But we were born only a few years apart, both had religious upbringings, and both grew up on Long Island less than 20 miles away from each other. Both of us have been married once, both have two kids (and love being parents), and both have had careers that saw us jumping among a variety of different roles in publishing and writing. I think we respect each other first and foremost, but we like each other, too. The latter is great, of course, but I think it’s the former—and the deep trust that’s come with it— that’s really what allowed us to make this project flourish. We both care an enormous amount about what we do, we both believe in the tremendous value of bringing these kinds of books to the reading public, and we both are having a great time doing so.
We have a good thing going here, I think. Agate has no board, no investors, no corporate parents; it’s just me stopping the buck here, and we were able to set up this venture in a way that gives you maximum freedom. This allows us the opportunity to have complete control over what we want to do, as partners. I think it’s already working in terms of the great projects we have in the hopper for 2017—I hope it works in terms of finding a big audience of readers, too. What are your plans for how to reach that big audience of readers for Denene Millner Books?
Denene: I know that there is a readership of black parents and parents of children of color that is thirsty for titles like those Denene Millner Books has to offer. I meet them every day on MyBrownBaby.com and across the vast MyBrownBaby social media footprint. I’m counting on them to represent by supporting the stellar works we are producing. I’ve planned an extensive email campaign with updates on the books’ progress, and will communicate the same on MyBrownBaby’s social media channels. A few of the offerings are also natural fits for audiences in venues that are important to black folk: churches, barbershops, black parenting organizations, and the like. I’m also prepared to get down and dirty and do hand-to-hand combat, bringing our Denene Millner Books authors and illustrators directly to the people—the children who I know will love them and want to engage the art. I’m rolling up my sleeves and trusting that the audience I love so very much will dig in with me. In the meantime, as we prepare the first of our books for young readers to appear later this spring, I’m grateful that you recognized the jewels that make up My Brown Baby. Why’d you put your money behind this project, and what do you think will make this book a standout in the parenting space?
Doug: The fact that you wrote it, first and foremost, and that your strong and singular voice comes through on every page. I think it’s a terrific introduction to the entire Denene Millner Books project because, in essence, it establishes your bonafides as a parent and literary sensibility in one very readable package. And I think readers will agree.