Kokila Editor Joanna Cárdenas is on faculty for this year’s SCBWI-L.A. Working Writers Retreat (WWR). She has worked on critically-acclaimed award-winning books such as The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez and The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya. Prior to joining Kokila at the launch of the Penguin Random House imprint last year, she was an editor at Viking Children’s Books.
Joanna is also on the steering committee for Latinx in Publishing, a nonprofit organization that promotes literature by, for, and about Latino/a/x people, and is a co-founder of the Representation Matters Mentor Program for aspiring editors of color. She’s here today to share her advice for authors, talk about Kokila, and tell us about what she’d like to see in her inbox.
Farrha Khan: We’re excited to have you at this year’s Working Writer’s Retreat! As an editor, what are you hoping to accomplish at these kinds of events? And what are you excited to see or learn?
Joanna Cárdenas: Thank you for inviting me to participate! For me, conferences and retreats are an opportunity to get to know writing communities across the country. I’m excited to learn more about your needs, what inspires you to write for young readers, and to hear your perspectives about how publishers can be better partners. I’m at a new imprint, so I’m also excited to talk about our books and how Kokila is looking to build community with creators.
FK: Kokila launched about a year and a half ago focusing on “stories from the margins and making space for storytellers to explore the full range of their experiences.” Could you expand on what that means?
JC: The book publishing industry flourishes because of new voices, but not all voices have been supported in the same way. Some have been relegated to the margins, and at Kokila, these stories and voices are the focus of our publishing program. Our aim is to open the doors to welcome and support a wider range of storytelling. This includes creating an environment where storytellers can explore anything that inspires them and not just the stories our industry expects them to tell.
FK: As a writer of color, I’ve dealt with a lot of self-doubt regarding my stories and sharing my experiences through writing. Having worked with many authors from diverse or marginalized backgrounds, what advice would you give for those who feel similar doubt about their work?
JC: I hear you. When you look at the data compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Council — that only 23 percent of stories in 2018 were about children of color and of that 23 percent, only 7 percent were written by authors of color — it’s easy to doubt whether the work you want to do will be supported by this industry. But I encourage you to remember that none of that has anything to do with your talent, creativity, passion, and worth. Finding community can be transformative. Over the years, it’s community that has helped fortify me as I continue this work. If you’re a creator of color, consider looking at the POC in Publishing Writers and Illustrators Mentorship Program or WNDB Mentorships. Connect with others online and in-person through networks like Latinx in Publishing, InQluded, and @writersofcolor. Initiatives like #DVpit were created to increase visibility for marginalized voices, and the support you’ll receive for your pitch from other creators will fill your cup.
FK: Do you have any advice for writers who want to be more inclusive but are worried about risking cultural appropriation or co-opting someone else’s story?
JC: Sometimes when writers ask me for advice on this topic, what they’re looking for is permission. So I just want to preface my response by saying that I can’t give that to anyone. I’m glad we’re all becoming more conscious of what’s appropriative or co-opting. When we write outside of our experiences, there should be a healthy amount of reflection and interrogation throughout the process. I understand the discomfort involved in being asked to do this work when you haven’t been asked to do it before. What’s this work? Some of it is research and some of it is engaging and listening and empathizing. I recommend reading and thinking about a piece by Jacqueline Woodson called Who Can Tell My Story.
FK: What does your wishlist for Kokila look like? And on a personal level, what other stories are you excited about?
JC: My wishlist for Kokila and the stories I’m excited about on a personal level are one and the same! I acquire and edit books across age groups and formats. I love stories that aren’t so much about finding your voice as they are about figuring out what you’re going to do with it. I’m more likely to be drawn to something plot-driven with a strong hook — I have books on my list about surfers, freedivers, stand-up comedians, punk musicians, community organizers, welders, and oral storytellers. And I’m interested in stories that shed light on the conversations our respective communities feel uncomfortable having. Humor is a powerful tool, and I welcome it.
FK: And finally, do you have any other appearances or projects you’d like to share with us?
JC: To keep up with Kokila — our books, our growing community of creators, and our staff — please follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @KokilaBooks. Don’t miss our exciting fall releases: At the Mountain’s Base written by Traci Sorell and illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre and Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Pérez.
FK: Thank you for chatting with us, Joanna!
JC: Thank you for the opportunity!
Registration for WWR has sold out, but you can still sign up to be placed on the waiting list!
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Farrha Khan is the Managing Editor of Kite Tales, a Los Angeles Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators board member, and a freelance journalist and writer. When she’s not advocating for better representation, diversity, and inclusion in the arts and entertainment, media, and tech industries or championing everyone to tell their own stories, she writes YA and short stories. Connect with her on Twitter: @farrhak.
Author image provided by Joanna Cárdenas. Book covers from Penguin Random House.