2013 Preview Interview: Groundwood Books
Few publishers are as bold as Canada’s Groundwood Books. I got in touch with Groundwood publisher Shelia Barry to talk about the books they have coming out this spring and beyond.
Travis: Thanks for taking my questions, Sheila! My passport expired, so I can’t visit Canada right now (I gotta get on that), what’s the latest?
Sheila Barry: Hi Travis! Maybe if you have a new passport by July, you will be just in time for spring here in Toronto—we have been waiting a long time for some warm weather. But in the meantime, we have been busy, as usual, making lots of books.
Groundwood puts out a lot of unique books – how do you choose what to publish?
We are a small, independent Canadian publishing house, and we take a certain amount of pride in the fact that our list is not obviously commercial. That is not to say that our books aren’t successful, but it is true that the first question we ask when considering a project is “Does this book have something original and important to say to children” rather than “How much money will this book contribute to our bottom line.” We look for books that are unusual, and we are not afraid of books that are difficult or potentially controversial. We are particularly committed to publishing books for and about children whose experiences of the world are under-represented elsewhere.
Alright, 2013 book time. What do you have for the picture book K-2nd grade (pardon me, grade 2) crowd this spring and beyond.
In case the little manifesto with which I answered your previous question made Groundwood sound incredibly earnest, let me start by describing What a Party! (out now), a book that is funny and raucous and completely happy-making.
Written by Ana-Maria Machado and illustrated by Hélène Moreau, this book describes what happens when a little boy asks his mother if he can invite a friend over just before his birthday. The mother, perhaps unwisely, says the child can invite anyone he likes, and things spiral out of control from there, as each child invites another child and another child and so on. The subsequent party, which includes foods from all over the world, lasts all day and well into the night, and what I love about the story is the way it celebrates neighbours and cultural diversity, not to mention spontaneity, salsa dancing and reggae bands.
Looking further ahead to the fall, The Voyage jumped out to me, what’s the story on that book?
The Voyage (out Oct. 15) is a book from Norway that is sweet and touching and a little bit wistful. It is the story of a dear little duck who finds himself blown away from everything and everyone he knows. At first, he doesn’t understand anything about this new strange place–in fact, he is so dislocated, that he can’t really remember who or what he is. But eventually, he makes a friend, and after that, he adjusts more easily. By the end of the book, when another strong wind has blown away all his new friends, he is resilient enough to be able to help others who are now in the same situation that he was once in. At one level, this is a book for any child who is put in a new situation–so any child who is moving to a new neighbourhood or starting kindergarten or maybe entering a language immersion program. But what is marvelous about the book is the way that it also would work for children who have experienced more potentially traumatic disruptions in their lives. It’s a gentle book and an understated book, but I think one that carries a very powerful message about how time and kindness can help us adapt to change, no matter what the change might be. And did I mention that our little duck protagonist is one of the sweetest characters I have ever seen in a children’s book?
Any chapter books or middle grade (grades 3-5)?
Black Flame (out now), by the Chinese writer Gerelchimeg Blackcrane, is a fantastic adventure story for middle-grade readers.
We describe it inhouse as being a cross between Black Beauty and White Fang, which I think is about right. It’s the story of a brave, intelligent and noble Tibetan mastiff and his adventures as he tries to find a good home. At the end of the book, the dog is reunited with a beloved master, and the two of them move to Inner Mongolia, where Black Flame ultimately saves four children from perishing in a terrible snowstorm. There are still very few children’s books from China available in English, and this book is eye-opening in its depiction of Black Flame himself and also the world he inhabits.
How about nonfiction?
For young adults, we have I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr. (out now).
This book is a nearly indescribable collaboration between African-American writer and blues singer Arthur Flowers and Indian scroll painter Manu Chitrakar. The book has a graphic-novel format and combines two very different storytelling traditions in a way that is almost hypnotically beautiful— and also, at times, almost unbearably raw.
In the fall, we will be publishing Looks Like Daylight: Voices of Indigenous Kids (out September 12), a new book by Deborah Ellis, author of the Breadwinner series.
For this book, Deb travelled across the continent to interview fifty Native American and aboriginal kids, letting them tell their own stories, some of which are heartbreaking, some of which are inspiring, all of which are fascinating. I think this will be a big book for us, and I think it’s a book that everyone should read.
Are there any books for younger kids (ages 0-4)?
For the very young, I give you Night Sounds (out now), written by Javier Sobrino and illustrated by Emilio Urberuaga.
It’s bedtime in the jungle, and all the animals are settling down to sleep when they are disturbed by someone crying in the darkness. The story involves all the animals trying to figure out what this little creature could want—a drink of water? A mango? A blanket, maybe? Finally, Tiger realizes that every little elephant (and little human) wants its mother, and when baby and mother are reunited, peace is restored. Like every good bedtime story, this one ends with a kiss—and what more could anyone ask for than that?
What’s the most unusual book you have coming out in 2013?
I have never read stories quite as strange and wonderful as those in Amazonia: Indigenous Tales from Brazil (out now), written by Daniel Munduruku and illustrated by Nikolai Popov.
Often when I read folktales from other cultures, I’m struck by the commonalities between these stories and the ones I grew up with. With Amazonia, however, I’m struck by just how very different these stories are from anything I’ve ever encountered. The book is full of shape-shifters and surprising transformations, and I think it will appeal to readers of all ages.
I’d also say Danny, Who Fell in a Hole is pretty unusual – or maybe quirky is more accurate?
Danny, Who Fell in a Hole (out now) is the second book on this season’s list from the incredibly quirky (and perhaps unusual) mind of author Cary Fagan. (His other book in Spring 2013 is Oy Feh So?.) Danny is a resourceful boy who runs away from home when he learns his family is planning both to move and, unforgivably, to sell the family dog. But he doesn’t manage to run very far away, because a misstep sends him into the bottom of a construction pit, where he is forced to spend the weekend with only the contents of his backpack–and a mole who not only speaks but also quotes poetry–to help him to survive. It’s a perfect early chapter book–a funny adventure, with just a hint of philosophy (thanks to the mole). Shelley Tanaka, the book’s editor, calls it our Robinson Crusoe story, and I think it’s one of those books with great appeal for young boys.
What’s your biggest crowd-pleaser?
Well, the one picture book that no adult seems able to ignore at conferences and trade shows is called Oy, Feh So? (out now).
It’s written by the (aforementioned) very funny Cary Fagan and illustrated by Gary Clement, and it’s the story of three children who dread the weekly visit from their terrible relatives, Aunt Essy, Aunt Chanah and Uncle Sam. As the title would suggest, this is a story about a Jewish family, but the reaction to the book so far has assured me that most of us, Jewish or not, have some relatives we would prefer not to see on a Sunday afternoon. And the children in this book are better than I am, because they eventually find a way to bring out the best in Essy, Chanah and Sam, and so the story ends, as it begins, with laughter.
Any gap fillers? These are books that fill a particular need, or tread on seldom-covered ground in children’s literature.
Given our ongoing commitment to “the ground less covered,” you could perhaps describe our entire list as being made up of “gap fillers.” But if I have to pick one book for this category, it would be I Dreamt…A Book about Hope (out now).
This book was written by Gabriela Olmos and illustrated by twelve different Mexican artists, and it is a response to the violence caused by the ongoing drug wars (and war against drugs) in Mexico. The book allows children to imagine a future without violence and fear, and while it is not a book for every young child, it is a book that many young children will appreciate and even cherish.
How do you view Groundwood moving forward?
I am relatively new at Groundwood, having joined the company’s founder, Patsy Aldana, as co-publisher in January 2012. In January of this year, Patsy stepped aside as publisher, leaving me to continue the work she has done for the past thirty-five years. So I think there will be some changes to the list over the next couple of years, just because Patsy and I are different people and we are bound to like somewhat different things. That said, I really do intend to maintain Groundwood Books as a publishing house known for having a list that is unusual, and beautiful, and courageous.
Anything we missed?
I cannot talk about 2013 without talking about Jane, the Fox and Me (out September 10), a middle-grade graphic novel written by Fanny Britt and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault.
This is one of the most beautiful books I have ever worked on, and I’m incredibly proud to have it on our list. It’s a story about a young girl who has been made to feel lonely and ugly and sad. She finds consolation in the pages of Jane Eyre and, touchingly, through a brief encounter with a wild fox. This is a book not to be missed.
And of course, I mustn’t miss the opportunity to thank you for letting me talk about some of our books. There is practically nothing in the world that I would rather do, and I’m incredibly grateful! Now, go get that passport sorted out so that you can plan a visit to our office in Toronto.
I will, I will – thanks for taking my questions, Sheila!
Filed under: Previews
About Travis Jonker
Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.
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