|The Spark Award-winning middle grade novel
|Award-winning author Laurisa White Reyes
Lee: Congratulations on The Storytellers winning the 2015 SPARK Award! Please tell us about your award-winning book!
Laurisa: Set in the early 1990s, 12-year-old Elena Barrios' father has AIDS. Rather than face certain ridicule and ostracism, Elena tells her friends anything but the truth, fabricating stories about him being a writer and researcher. But the reality is Elena resents her father’s illness and can’t face the fact that he is dying.
When Elena is befriended by an older woman named Ang, who tells stories about her own father and the history of prejudice against African Americans in the years before the civil rights movement, Elena is transported into these stories, allowing her to experience them first hand.With Ang's help, Elena gains the courage to stand up to the bully at her school, mend her relationship with her father, and finally say goodbye.
Lee: What's the story behind the non-traditional publishing of The Storytellers?
Laurisa: The idea for The Storytellers began twenty-two years ago while I was working at Huntington Hemophilia Center in Pasadena, CA. The office was also an AIDS clinic, and its doctors were on the cutting edge of developing treatments for the disease. In the early 1990s, there was a huge stigma attached to HIV and AIDS, and society's pervasive fear and ignorance often led to victims of the disease being ostracized. Working in that clinic allowed me to see the human side of AIDS. Men and women, fathers, mothers, children. I saw the devastation of AIDS in their faces. My mother taught me that every person has value; every person has a story. I knew I had to tell their story.
I began writing the book in 2007, and it took eight years and more than a dozen drafts to complete. I worked with a leading developmental editor and several beta-readers to get it right. Yet submissions resulted in nothing but rejection. One agent even replied by saying, "Why would today's kids want to read about AIDS in the 90s? It doesn't apply to them." This took me off guard. To me, she was essentially saying that people being mistreated thirty years ago is of no interest to today's generation. But if that is true, why do authors still write about the Holocaust, or the Civil Rights Movement, or slavery?
Since there didn't seem to be a place for The Storytellers in the traditional marketplace, I decided that I would self-publish it. It didn't matter to me if a single person ever read it, this story deserved to be told. And if I was going to tell it, I was going to create the best quality book I possibly could--not because I hoped to sell it, but for the sake of the story itself.
Lee: What do you see as the biggest challenge of publishing outside the ‘traditional publishing’ structure?
Laurisa: I think the biggest challenge to self-publishing is the temptation to cut corners and minimize costs in a book's production. As the Editor-in-Chief of Middle Shelf Magazine, thousands of books crossed my desk, including titles from the biggest houses, indie publishers, and self-publishers. The biggest problem I saw with too many self-published titles was their sub-standard quality. The covers were often amateurish, and the texts were in dire need of professional editing. It's a shame because many of the stories were great, but when a book screams "self-published," who wants to open the cover and read it?
This is not meant as a criticism but as a wake up call. When it comes to adult and young adult self-published books, it's often hard to distinguish them from traditionally published books. I would love to see self-published middle grade books reach that same level of quality. This is one reason why I founded Skyrocket Press, a cooperative publishing venture that connects authors to professional artists, editors and designers, so that the end results are top quality books.
Lee: What’s the biggest advantage?
Laurisa: Control. Of everything. For example, I had an idea of what I wanted the cover of The Storytellers to look like, but I don't have an artistic bone in my entire body. So first, I researched other middle grade books with silhouette covers. Then I hunted for the right artist. I found Jessica L. Barnes via her Etsy shop, iillume, and hired her. The result was exactly what I'd hoped for and more.
With self-publishing, it's important to distinguish the difference between being in control and doing it all ourselves. Being in control means we, as the authors, have the final word on how the book is executed. But we can't and shouldn't do it all ourselves. To create a quality book requires teamwork, just like in traditional publishing.
Lee: Anything else you’d like to share?
Laurisa: Receiving the Spark Award came as a huge shock (I can still hardly believe it), but it also validated my decision to self-publish The Storytellers, a story that didn't quite "fit" in the traditional publishing world. I am deeply grateful to those who had a hand in bringing it to life: Jessica Barnes, Katie Reed, Deborah Blum, Dorine White, Cheryl Sena, Carissa Reyes, Pat Brown, and Emma Michaels. And of course, I'm so thankful to SCBWI, not only for choosing The Storytellers for the Spark Award, but for also being my biggest support through every stage of my writing career.
To find out more about Laurisa and The Storytellers, visit Laurisa's website here.
Want to win a copy of THE STORYTELLERS? Leave a comment in the next two weeks, and we'll randomly select a winner!