IMAGINATIVE | Philip Lee

By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly

Philip Lee is no stranger to the publishing business. Beginning in 1977, for seven years, throughout high school and college, he worked in a number of bookstores. Another seven was spent in marketing in the magazine publishing business at Conde Nast Publications in New York. He has worked for Glamour, Mademoiselle, Vanity Fair and GQ magazines. However, despite greatly enjoying the business, Lee wanted to work somewhere that reflected his culture.

He met Tom Low in 1989 and left magazines in 1990. They spent that year researching another aspect of the publishing industry: children’s books. In 1991, they officially launched Lee & Low Books, an independent children’s book publisher specializing in diversity, with their first three books being printed in the spring of 1993.

Lee was able to fulfill his desire to do work that reflected his culture as well as capitalize on his background in the publishing industry. Low’s background lay in personnel and the temp business, which gave him knowledge of the business aspect of their endeavor — creating a balance with Lee’s editorial knowledge.

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As for choosing children’s books, Lee said, “At the time, there was a lot of interest in multicultural books.” He also said that a lot of what was being published was based on folklore though, not reality. The co-founders wanted more contemporary stories that took place in the U.S. rather than long ago in far away places — the usual case in folklore.

Lee said that for children, books portray “a self-image and it is difficult to have a good self-image if you cannot see yourself in what you read.” It is also difficult to relate to someone if his or her story takes place somewhere that is different from where you are from.

“My goal was to portray how people of color live in America,” Lee said.

Since being founded 17 years ago, Low’s son Jason — who joined the company in 1997 — said that Lee and his father’s original goals for the company have not changed. They still focus on “great stories that have not been told before.”

“Our approach to finding great stories is a simple one,” he said. “If we are moved by a story, it is our belief that others will be moved by it as well.”

As co-founder and former publisher of Lee & Low Books, Lee has since retired and sold his part of the company to the Lows. In 1998, Lee moved to the Seattle area for family reasons, but continued with the company before his retirement in 2004. For his contributions to the industry, he is being honored at the annual Asian American Living Pioneer Dinner and Auction.

“I’m very honored,” he said. “It’s far beyond just me. It’s really what it stands for. It’s recognition for the little guy.”

Another way Lee & Low Books has helped the “little guy” is that it has also made it a goal to focus on publishing new authors who had not been published before and to create opportunities for them to have a voice — especially authors of color, since many multi-cultural books were still written by white authors.

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Nowadays, the company remains in the family as Low’s sons, Jason and Craig, are running the day-to-day business of the company now that Low himself has considerably scaled back his responsibilities. Even though neither of the company’s co-founders are playing as major of a role as they used to, Jason said that their legacy lives on as Lee & Low Books continues as a pioneer in presenting a world for young readers that looks and sounds like the one we live in.

“Our responsibility lies in running a business that will allow these diverse stories a chance to be heard,” he said. “Even though I am not one of the founders, I believe in what we do and our goals today are aligned with the original mission the company was founded on.” ♦

For more information on Lee & Low Books, visit www.leeandlow.com.

Samantha Pak can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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