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Creating Books in 2020, The New Normal, with Jelani Memory

Interview with Jelani Memory, Publisher and Author, A Kids Book About

By Jennifer Durrant

Our world has shifted in significant ways since the pandemic emerged in March. Then the needle moved even further away from “before” to a whole new normal in June with Black Lives Matter protests erupting across the nation. As a freelance book designer and someone who’s creative, I was curious about how creative leaders in publishing have been responding to the shifts and wanted to find out how these issues might be affecting their creative process.

This series presents interviews with three creative leaders throughout August 2020.


Jennifer: Thank you so much for talking with us. You are fairly new to publishing. Tell us how you started your publishing company, A Kids Book About.

JelaniJelani: I wrote A Kids Book about Racism back in 2018 just for my kids. All six of them. They were the sole audience. I showed the book to a handful of friends who were parents, and they loved it. Apparently I had something pretty special on my hands. Once the seed was planted that I could possibly do more than just one book—a hundred? two hundred? a thousand?—I knew I had to chase it. I’ve always followed my passions in my work, attempting to find both creative and professional satisfaction in whatever I called my job. Building A Kids Book About into something more became more than a want; it became a call.

Jennifer: How did the pandemic and this question of what’s essential affect your thinking? What was your initial reaction to current events in the way you design books and direct or think about creative strategy?

Jelani: The pandemic helped me understand how important the work we were doing really is. Something about the drama and speed of the onset of the pandemic allowed my mind to see our books in a new light. Parents, like myself, were going to have scared, nervous, and unsure kids stuck at home 24/7. What would parents say to those kids? How would they parent? What would they do to take care of their kids? I knew our books could play an important role in helping parents navigate their new lives sheltering in place with their kids.

 Jennifer: How did the shelter-in-place immediately affect your booklist? What topics have surfaced and seem relevant? What books do you think people will want to see in nine months?

Jelani: We immediately began to revise our upcoming titles. Since we make our books quite quickly, it wasn’t an issue for us to rearrange our second half of the year to focus on some of the emotional needs we knew kids had. We even made a book on COVID-19 within a couple of weeks of going into shelter-in-place. We wanted to put more emphasis on things like emotions, change, anxiety, and death.

Jennifer: What are some specific ways that you had to creatively pivot to adjust to the new normal?

Jelani: Fortunately for us, we’re not a traditional publisher. We write all of our books in a single day via workshop with the author. And we had already done about a third of our workshops via Zoom. Transitioning to doing all of them via Zoom was actually quite easy.

 Jennifer: Just as we were adjusting to the shelter-in-place, the world shifted again drastically with the death of George Floyd and the BLM movement. How again has this altered your design, strategy, and ideas and the book titles you’re currently working on?

Jelani: The day after the George Floyd video was released, our book on racism got a lot of visibility. Parents were watching what was happening in the world and were wondering how they could talk to their kids about it. We ended up selling out all of our inventory in a handful of days. But we wanted the content to be available to anyone, so we began promoting our free YouTube reading of the book with the author. We also put a couple of new books into our pipeline for the end of the year to tackle more issues around social justice and privilege.

 

Jennifer: In what ways have you found yourself creatively pivoting to adjust to the Black Lives Matter movement?

Jelani: In a lot of ways, we as a publisher were designed for a moment just like this. We already had a strong emphasis on social issues, a wide range of diverse authors, and a mission to tell important stories to kids. As other publishers scrambled to get “diverse content” into their pipeline, we, as a publisher run by a person of color, were already creating lots of that content.

 

Jennifer: Overall, where have you been finding inspiration? What are you reading?

Jelani: I find inspiration in lots of places. One of my favorite things to do is to pull something from another industry into the industry I’m working in. That can be movies, magazines, music, and even the news. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of speculative fiction. I feel like the work we’re doing as a publisher is a little bit like trying to tell the future. Like, what will be important two months from now? Two years from now? And then we make a book to fit the needs of those times.


INTERVIEWS BY JENNIFER DURRANT,  Jennifer Durrant Design
Jennifer has been designing books and covers since 2008 for Ten Speed Press, Weldon Owen, Cameron+Company, New World Library, McGraw-Hill, and Callisto Media. She is the owner of Jennifer Durrant Design, a full-service design firm. She joined the PPN board in 2020 to help promote PPN’s mission to educate and offer networking opportunities for those who love books. You can contact Jennifer at jenniferdurrantdesign.com.