November 17, 2017

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How Canada Publishes So Many Diverse Children’s Books

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The message above is printed in Arabic and English (or French) on a card sent to Syrian refugees all over Canada, along with the wordless picture book Sidewalk Flowers (2015) by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith, to encourage library use. The effort shows the inclusivity of—and the collaboration between—the publishing industry and public libraries in Canada.

Librarians wandering the publisher displays at the big U.S. conferences often seem surprised to discover that so many of their favorites are Canadian. But word has gotten out. Groundwood Books, which released Sidewalk Flowers, was named the best North American children’s publisher of 2016 at the Bologna Book Fair, the largest international trade show dedicated to children’s books. The award is for distinguished creative and publishing excellence. In fact, three of the five publishers nominated were Canadian. Quietly but surely, publishers in Canada are building a worldwide reputation for originality, quality, and diversity in children’s literature.

Left photo (from left): publicity and marketing coordinator Sylvia Chan, marketing manager Pamela Osti, associate editor Jessica Burgess, associate publicist Anne Robinson, editorial assistant Peter Phillips. Right photo (left to right): publishing director Lynne Missen, associate editor Jessica Burgess, publisher Tara Walker, editor Samantha Swenson Photos courtesy of Tundra Books

Left photo (from left): publicity and marketing coordinator Sylvia Chan, marketing manager Pamela Osti, associate editor Jessica Burgess, associate publicist Anne Robinson, editorial assistant Peter Phillips. Right photo (left to right): publishing director Lynne Missen, associate editor Jessica Burgess, publisher Tara Walker, editor Samantha Swenson
Photos courtesy of Tundra Books

A unique environment

Since the nation has two official languages, English and French, the structure of the industry is naturally different from the United States. One of the oldest book prizes in Canada is the Governor General’s Award for Literature, which divides winners into English and French. Children’s illustration awards are split as well. Only a few English books are translated into French every year, and when they are, they are usually released by a different publisher.

Considering that the entire Canadian market is about the size of the market in California alone (roughly 36 million), publishers must rely on sales outside of the country. Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Scholastic, Harlequin, and Penguin Random House are the main U.S. publishers of children’s books created by Canadians. The number of non-Canadian books promoted, though, vastly outnumber Canadian titles in their Canadian catalogues; some Canadian books never make it into those publishers’ international markets. Teresa Toten, author of the best seller Beware That Girl (Delacorte, 2016), had a number of books released in Canada through a multinational company that were not sold in the U.S. market.

Tundra Books, a 50-year-old independent publisher whose lists feature books showcasing a variety of cultures, recently became part of Penguin Random House Canada. Tara Walker, publisher of the children’s group, says, “Tundra offers our authors and illustrators the opportunity to work with a boutique publisher for guidance and support and the infrastructure of Penguin driving sales, promotion, and distribution. It’s the best of both worlds.”

From left: president and publisher Sheila Barry, marketing manager Fred Horler, illustrator Sydney Smith Photos courtesy of Groundwood Books

From left: President and publisher Sheila Barry, marketing manager Fred Horler, illustrator Sydney Smith
Photos courtesy of Groundwood Books

Independents and diversity

The majority of children’s books published in Canada come from 20 or so independent publishers. Changing demographics in the country, especially Toronto (the BBC crowned it the most diverse city on earth in May), have clearly had an impact on the diversity of Canadian books. Here are the big names in Canadian-owned publishers and their priorities.

Celebrating diversity. Of the many Canadian publishers displaying a diverse world through children’s books, Groundwood Books is a leader. “We are keeping the tradition of not considering sales and marketing,” says Sheila Barry, president and publisher. “We concentrate on making the very best book.” The strategy has worked. Groundwood titles are highly respected. In addition to the Bologna win, it has garnered awards in all the major book competitions in Canada.

Inspiring feminists. Also nominated for the publishing award in Bologna, Second Story Press has a history of books inspired by feminism. After 25 years in publishing, Second Story has become a global presence in the areas of women, human rights, equality, and ability issues. Its book Hana’s Suitcase (2002), a Holocaust story by Karen Levine, is a best seller in 40 countries.

KCP Loft editorial director at large Kate Egan (left) and publisher Lisa Lyons Johnston Photo courtesy of Kids Can Press

KCP Loft editorial director at large Kate Egan (left)
and publisher Lisa Lyons Johnston
Photo courtesy of Kids Can Press

Growing global citizens. The third Bologna-nominated publisher, Kids Can Press, is known for titles that are “fresh and relevant to today’s children,” says president Lisa Lyons Johnston. Alongside its hugely popular series, such as “Franklin” and “Scaredy Squirrel,” the continuing “CitizenKid” series has been showing children how they can improve the world. An upcoming imprint, KCP Loft, will be aimed at readers age 14 and older.

Making nonfiction fun. The first year the Bologna prize was awarded, Annick Press was a nominee. Sounding a similar note to Groundwood’s Barry, Rick Wilks, director of Annick Press, stresses that his is an editorially driven company. “Annick needs to survive, but we want to publish books that make a difference,” he says. Annick’s recent lists have featured nonfiction narratives that are as exciting as fiction. It’s had significant success with its contemporary tales from indigenous peoples. A prime example is Dreaming in Indian (2014; an SLJ Best Book), edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale.

From the left: Annick’s (literally) homey office; a staff meeting Photos courtesy of Annick Press

From the left: Annick’s (literally) homey office; a staff meeting
Photos courtesy of Annick Press

1608_Moose_Orca_PrideRallying reluctant readers. Based in British Columbia, Orca Books is beloved for its Hi-Lo series books, while its nonfiction encourages kids to be socially responsible. Pride: Celebrating Diversity and Community by Robin Stevenson (2016) highlights gay pride celebrations with the same treatment you’d see for any international festival. Orca Books focuses on producing titles with broad appeal, while retaining a sensibility emphasizing wellness and the environment.

Tapping kid insights. While developing new Canadian talent, Owlkids has showcased international authors with books such as The Flat Rabbit (2014), a touching story of death from a Faroese writer, Bardur Oskarsson. Its singular advantage is direct access to children’s opinions through its magazines, Owl, Chirp, and Chickadee.

Room at the table. Established in 2011 with three books, Pajama Press has a fall 2016 list boasting 11 new titles. Authors include industry favorites, such as Deborah Ellis and Marie-Louise Gay, as well as first-timers, including librarian Theo Heras.

The survival strategy

How are Canadian publishers able to prioritize the caliber of their titles over the potential bottom line? Grants help. With at least 60 percent of book sales going to U.S. companies, Canada needs to help its homegrown industry flourish.

Heritage Canada is the biggest provider of federal publishing grants, which are awarded based on past success, measured by sales. Another federal provider is the Canada Council for the Arts. Its mandate for grant recipients is that they foster arts and culture for Canadians. On a provincial basis, arts councils also offer grants.

The industry has another financial ally in the TD Bank Group. “Supporting a love for reading is a priority for TD,” says Alan Convery, TD’s director of community relations. The winner of the annual TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award gets $30,000; another $20,000 is divided among the other nominees. Awards are given to both an English and French book, and publishers receive additional funds to promote the winners. The associated galas rival the American Library Association’s annual Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder Banquet for excitement.

Left: Geraldo Valério shows off original art from his book, Moose, Goose, Animals on the Loose! Right: publisher Karen Boersma Photos courtesy of Owlkids. Boersma photo by Serah-Marie McMahon

Left: Geraldo Valério shows off original art from his book,
Moose, Goose, Animals on the Loose!; Right: Publisher Karen Boersma
Photos courtesy of Owlkids. Boersma photo by Serah-Marie McMahon

Librarian life

The Canadian Library Association held its last conference this past spring, and it is in the process of transforming into a “Federation of Library Associations of Canada,” with the aim of giving librarians a national voice. Regional conferences and associations offer an opportunity for librarian involvement, yet some say enthusiasm for rigorous discussion of books isn’t what it used to be, and not at the level seen among U.S. librarians.

That’s at least partly because large Canadian libraries now rely on wholesalers to stock their collections using branch profiles. In-depth knowledge of books rests with buyers, the A-List invitees to publisher events. These wholesalers offer automatic release plans, which get the most in-demand books into branches at the same time that they arrive in bookstores. Librarians then gauge reviews and customer demand to decide if more copies of any titles, or titles that weren’t in the automatic delivery, should be ordered. Supporters of this approach note that the time saved in selection can be used for collection maintenance and promotion, as well as community outreach.

“Canadian independent children’s publishers have a long history of cooperation, which makes them a powerful group,” sums up Kate Edwards, executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers. “All have their particular strengths, but one they share is a willingness to collaborate on research, collective marketing, and advocacy initiatives. This has contributed to shared success.”

The only question is: Who will win at Bologna next year?

Ken Setterington is the former children and youth advocate for the Toronto Public Library. His most recent book, Branded by the Pink Triangle (Second Story, 2013), was a Stonewall Honor Book.

Oh, Canada!

These Canadian publishing resources provide contact information, historical background, and useful tips:

Association of Canadian Publishers
The national collective voice of English-language Canadian-owned book publishers. www.publishers.ca

Book and Periodical Council
The umbrella organization for Canadian associations involved in the printed word. www.thebpc.ca

Canadian Children’s Book Centre
A national nonprofit dedicated to supporting and promoting the writing, illustrating, and publishing of Canadian books for young readers. www.bookcentre.ca

Canadian Publishers Council
The country’s main English-language book-publishing trade association. www.pubcouncil.ca

National Reading Campaign
A national nonprofit building a nation of readers. www.nationalreadingcampaign.ca

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Comments

  1. Great piece by Ken Setterington and so glad he called out the incredible work TD Bank has done to support such a robust Canadian Children’s Publishing community and strengthen it’s reach .

  2. As a Black child growing up in Canada, I had very limited access to “mirror” books that reflected my reality–and my research shows that that hasn’t changed much over the past 40 years. I’m very familiar with the glowing rhetoric about Canada’s supposed commitment to multiculturalism, but would be happy to provide a copy of my study of the representation of Black identity in Canadian children’s literature (published in The Centennial Reader in 2011). The photos accompanying this essay reveal the overwhelming, persistent whiteness of the Canadian literary scene and publishing industry–which recently prompted a Black Canadian author to launch the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD). I left Canada in 1994 and would not be an award-winning children’s book author today if I hadn’t relocated to the US–things are FAR from perfect here, but at least there’s a conversation about the need for improvement instead of endless back-patting. I’d like to see Canada maintain its own statistics on race in children’s publishing comparable to those gathered annually by the CCBC and Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey; with only 500 books for children published annually in the Great White North and so few presses, that shouldn’t be hard to do.