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I love books. Anyone that has been following this site for more than a day can tell that too. But things get really exciting and rewarding for me when I am able to interview thought leaders and innovators in the world of multicultural children’s books. Publisher, Philip Lee, is one of those thought leaders. Philip was kind enough to set aside some time out of his busy day to let me bend his ear and pick his brain on How Readers to Eaters is changing how kids eat and read.
As one for the original co-founders of the largest diverse children’s book publishers in the world, Lee & Low Books, Philip Lee knows books and the importance of getting those books into the hands of young readers. When Lee & Low was founded in 1991 and Philip was the “Lee” in the “Lee & Low” company. After launching this wildly successful company with co-founder Tom Low, Philip left the company in 2004 and later started his own publishing house, Readers to Eaters, with his wife, June Jo Lee, in 2009.
“In 1996 I moved back to the west coast and started raising my family but it became increasingly difficult to run Lee & Low from thousands of miles away. In 2004, I left the company and began creating and being part of several radio shows on diversity.”
Philip also noted that around 2007 there was a new trend coming to the forefront; the food movement. Books were being published about the U.S’s broken food system and Americans were taking notice. In 2009 Michelle Obama launched the White House Garden Project and that’s when a need for a “food dialogue” became glaringly obvious to the ambitious publisher.
“I also talked to educators during that time and they pointed out that, when it came to the achievement gap, there wasn’t necessarily a learning problem, but there was a public health problem,” he shared. “These educators saw kids who were on the opposite ends of the spectrum on a daily basis. There were the kids struggling with hunger and the kids who were struggling with obesity. I knew I needed to find a way to bridge the gap with kids while also raising awareness of the food movement. I also knew that I could potentially marry food and education together by publishing quality books on the topic and get those books into the hands of young readers.”
To this day, Philip and June Jo continue to be committed to helping kids and families have a better understanding of what and how they eat. The business started off as a pop-up bookstore that could be found at farmers’ markets and harvest festivals. Readers to Eaters is also a stand-out at conferences for science and reading teachers, librarians, nutritionists, food activists, and chefs. The team also created unique initiative like using #FoodHeroes to get kids interested in where food comes from. At the center of the books of #FoodHeroes is Farmer Will Allen; a former basketball star turned urban farmer and educator.
Will Allen is no ordinary farmer. A former basketball star, he’s as tall as his truck, and he can hold a cabbage–or a basketball–in one hand. But what is most special about Farmer Will is that he can see what others can’t see. When he looked at an abandoned city lot in Milwaukee he saw a huge table, big enough to feed the whole world.
No space, no problem. Poor soil, there’s a solution. Need help, found it. Farmer Will is a genius in solving problems. In 2008, the MacArthur Foundation named him one of his innovative urban farming methods, including aquaponics and hydroponics.
Farmer Will Allen is the first book in the Food Heroes series and it was selected by Points of Light Foundation to set a new Guinness World Record for the most children reading the same book across the globe to promote literacy. Nearly 300,000 participated. “Our mission at READERS to EATERS is to promote food literacy stories about our diverse food cultures, ” Philip added. “FARMER WILL ALLEN AND THE GROWING TABLE is a wonderful example of this. We are also proud and excited about our newest #FoodHero, Chef Roy Choi.”
The latest of the series is CHEF ROY CHOI AND THE STREET FOOD REMIX an immigrant story about the well-known LA chef that was kicked off the national food truck movement for giving Korean and Mexican food a culinary “remix” and also creating worthy jobs in hungry communities. This book has appealed to kids from elementary age to high schoolers in a big way and is also the recipient of the Robert F. Seibert Award Honor Book for Most Distinguished Informational Book 2018 by the Association of Library Services for Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association.
Literacy is a frequently used term to describe the basic knowledge of reading and writing. Literacy is the foundation of communication. Yet, this foundation is often missing in the discussion of our food habits. We believe that by gaining basic knowledge about where our food comes from, we can have a better appreciation of what we eat, make better food choices, and make a positive impact on our body, our community, and the world. After all, interest in food has no boundaries. Together, we can create and celebrate a rich, healthy, diverse, and inclusive food culture.