When Women Speak: Cheryl Willis Hudson

Recently, a few friends remarked over the cliché ‘giving voice to the voiceless’ that ignores the fact that ALL people have a voice. There are numerous ways to speak, we sometimes need to adjust our hearing. Cheryl Willis Hudson writes about another way professional women speak aloud particularly in publishing through their skills, talents and abilities. She reminds us of the cooperative, unified voices of Black women.

Kelly Starlings Lyon: How Do Women Use Art As Resistance?
Zetta Elliott: Nice Is Not Enough
Traci Sorell: Why Do You Speak Out?
Justina Ireland: There is A Minefield and You Will Become a Demolitions Expert
Ambelin Kwaymullina: On Being Loud and Hopeful
Laura Jiménez: Static Bodies in Motion: Representations of Girls in Graphic Novels
Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez: Don’t Call Me Strong
Maya Gonzalez: What Do I Speak Out? True Power Rises
Sujei Lugo: When Women Speak
Neesha Meminger: I Want to Talk About Power


“As an independent publisher I can say that the success of Just Us Books’ efforts clearly came directly from owning our own press, curating our own publishing lists, selecting our own authors, commissioning our own illustrators and handling all aspects of publicity, marketing, promotion and distribution.”

The presence and persistence of women in independent publishing remind us that creative and quality publishing is not reserved for large commercial houses. The mark of women’s has been indelible, particularly in children’s literature via the independent publishing movement.

From Jessie Redmon Fauset’s editorial direction of The Brownies Book during the 1920s to a multitude of works by self-published authors in 2017, women have always been a positive and steady force. Organizations like Black Women in Publishing forged efforts of individual women during the late 70s and 80s. Women were key participants in Black Creators for Children, an organization active in providing guidelines and mentorships for black folks interested in gaining a foothold into trade publishing, also during the 70s. They were instrumental in creating clear criteria for crafting authentic stories that were centered in the African-American experience.

In fact, works by authors such as Eloise Greenfield’s BUBBLES (1972, DRUM & SPEAR PRESS); Gwendolyn Brooks’ The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves or What You Are You Are (1974, THIRD WORLD PRESS), and Mari Evans’ Singing Black, (1978, REED VISUALS) are picture books that had a profound impact on my own growth and development as a creator and publisher of books for children. I love the fact that these literary gems were thumbnail_Cheryl Willis-Hudson - Head Shot (Author) 07-23-17_0007 created by black women and that they were also published by independent black presses. They were among the first books I purchased for my personal library.

It is remarkable that each of these authors center black children and values (#ownvoices) firmly and securely within his/her community/world. The children (and animals) within the stories are not marginalized or stereotyped. The stories are realistic while at the same time vibrant, positive, affirming, playful and even celebratory. It is noteworthy that Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Gwendolyn Books left a larger New York commercial house to publish her work at smaller independent presses located in the Midwest. Although her picture book features a tiger, the theme of the allegorical story relates directly to black pride in being one’s authentic self, and is grounded in black pride.

In the mid-1980s, the independent black feminist Kitchen Table Press was co-founded by a college friend, Barbara Smith and its quality and success was a grounding impetus when Wade and I published our first title in 1987 and when we established JUST US BOOKS, INC. a year later. Kitchen Table Press supported our early efforts with book reviews in its newsletters. As independent publishers, we supported each other in associations and as vendors at conferences, trade shows and book fairs.

So when AFRO-BETS ABC book was released, JUST US BOOKS’ publishing efforts were squarely set on the shoulders of powerful and prolific women and the combined efforts of independent presses that made our work available through both conventional and alternative channels.

That being said, the independent press movement always brings to mind two favorite quotations which in principle confirm our beliefs in building our own voices and publishing institutions.

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” —A. J. Liebling

“We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly…”   —Freedom’s Journal, March 16, 1827

Because diverse communities have long hungered for authentic and self-affirming books for their children and because statistics have shown that books by people of color are only a small fraction of the books published by the industry as a whole, we knew that Just Us Books could not wait for larger publishing companies to validate the potential marketing value of our authors and our books. Titles such as Bright Eyes, Brown Skin, or Book of Black Heroes from A to Z or Jamal’s Busy Day or AFRO-BETS First Book About Africa or One Million Men and Me were not deemed marketable by other houses. So we published these books ourselves.

What is the take away or lesson learned about women and their work in independent publishing? As an independent publisher I can say that the success of Just Us Books’ efforts clearly came directly from owning our own press, curating our own publishing lists, selecting our own authors, commissioning our own illustrators and handling all aspects of publicity, marketing, promotion and distribution. Our efforts were not solitary. We were also cheered on by the informal support of other sisters in the struggle; writers, editors, librarians, teachers, artists, etc. who also advocated for more equity and diversity in mainstream companies while simultaneously strengthening their own independent efforts.

What an independent ride this has been for us!

“With regard to Just Us Books, I believe that our legacy is that we showed up and persisted within a historical line of independent presses.”

But I digress. In spite of all the financial, intellectual property and distribution challenges, independent publishing has been our strength. Collectively, independent publishers have been risk-takers, publishing new authors and emerging illustrators; presenting books with gender diversity, promoting cross cultural friendships and featuring more books centered on social justice. Just Us Books in particular, has spearheaded efforts to increase efforts to bring back into circulation previously out-of-print titles via its Sankofa imprint.

With regard to Just Us Books, I believe that our legacy is that we showed up and persisted within a historical line of independent presses. Other individuals and companies have been encouraged by the successes of Drum and Spear Press, Black Classic Press, Africa World Press, Lotus Press, Third World Press and Kitchen Table Press. Others who have been empowered to publish a wealth of diverse books for children include Polychrome Press, spearheaded by Sandra Yamate; Colorbridge Books, headed by Bernette G. Ford; Open Hand Press, headed by P. Anna Johnson; Rosetta Press founded by Zetta Elliott; Reflection Press headed by Maya Christina Gonzales, Pomelo Books led by Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell and most recently Bolden Books/Agate Publishing directed by Denene Miller.

Clearly, women in independent publishing have been a lifeblood of creativity and diversity in children’s book publishing. We applaud these efforts and we welcome more to come.

Women Lead the Independent Publishing Movement copyright © 2017 by Cheryl Willis Hudson

CHERYL WILLIS HUDSON is an author, editor and publisher of children’s books. She is co-founder and editorial director of Just Us Books, Inc., an independent company that focuses on Black interest books for children and young adults. Cheryl has authored over two dozen books for young children including Bright Eyes, Brown Skin, (with Bernette Ford) AFRO-BETS ABC Book, From Where I Stand (Marimba Books); Hands Can and Construction Zone (Candlewick Press); and My Friend Maya Loves to Dance (Abrams).

A member of the Children’s  and Young Adult Committee of PEN America Cheryl has served as diversity consultant to a number of educational publishers. Outside of her full time immersion in children’s books, Cheryl enjoys a cappella singing and creating handmade story quilts. Visit her online at  cherylwhudson.weebly.com  also  http://justusbooks.com

16 thoughts on “When Women Speak: Cheryl Willis Hudson

  1. Thank you for your important work in publishing authentic voices and providing a long-term alternative to the large corporations who would turn away from diverse, own voices books the minute a couple of them failed to sell. Small presses are also uniquely positioned to pursue nontraditional channels for putting books in the hands of readers and building reading communities. May you have many more years of great books!


  2. I love this and agree with everything Lyn says above. Thank you for your efforts.

    As I have said before, begging big publishers to bend to social and publishing justice always seems bizarre,like NWA or Sugarhill Gang hypothetically blowing gaskets over Atlantic or Capitol Records not producing their earliest records. Let’s face it. Those early hip hop groups didn’t beg, chide, scold, and seek to convince the closed minded. Instead, they chose to do their own thing with labels like Sugar Hill, Profile, and Tommy Boy. The most powerful musical voices made those small labels thrive, and proved there was a huge, enduring market for the music.Then, change came.

    The parallel in kidlit would be if the most powerful POC and Native nations authors like Angie Thomas, Meg Medina,Jackie Woodson, Malinda Lo, Jason Reynolds, Matt de la Pena, Cynthia L. Smith, et al. would would wield their considerable power and decide as a group that their next books will be only with small, socially conscious presses like Just Us Books or Lee and Low Those presses could not pay as big advances as the Big 5, but there could be larger participation than usual in royalties as inducement to the authors.

    These presses would thrive and grow, and be able to provide more opportunities to new authors. The Big 5 would suffer and maybe even ultimately change.

    What is the downside?

    p.s. Happy Thanksgiving Edi and thanks for everything you do for our children!


    1. Hi Penelope even if Jackie, Jason and all the other decided to give up their advances and have their book published by an indie press, there are other excellent Black authors available for the “big five” to publish. All Black writers would need to choose to publish with Black presse, which does not seem likely.


      1. Hi Troy, I think you are making a fundamental error which is to be opposed to something that is good because it is not perfect. Don’t you think it would make an enormous difference in the publishing terrain if Jackie, Jason, et. al. moved their next books to small indie presses? They are the ones among us with big power here who can wield it in a way to make a gigantic and immediate difference. Shouldn’t we who have been such supporters of these writers urge them to do that? (I ask that of everyone, not just you).

        Then we can worry about getting the Big 5 to publish more newer less known writers.

        Thank you for responding!


  3. Just Us Books not only creates fine books.for children; they are a pillar of the Black Book Ecosystem. They not only provide opportunities for writers and illustrators, but they also provide opportunities for indie booksellers, agents, publicists, distributors, printers and more.


  4. […] Become a Demolitions Expert Ambelin Kwaymullina: On Being Loud and Hopeful Cheryl Willis Hudson: Women Lead the Independent Publishing Movement Laura Jiménez: Static Bodies in Motion: Representations of Girls in Graphic Novels Maya Gonzales: […]


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