Two of Canada’s children’s publishers recently brought in fresh talent at the top. Karen Boersma is the newly appointed publisher at Owlkids Books, and Sheila Barry is now co-publisher at Groundwood Books. On the eve of the Bologna Fair, we spoke with each of them about the joys and challenges of making a big move mid-career.
Sheila Barry began her work at Groundwood Books in the newly created position of co-publisher in January. She had been editor-in-chief at Kids Can Press but left last summer to work freelance. “It feels different in wonderful ways to be at a smaller house,” Barry says with enthusiasm. “One of the reasons I left Kids Can when I did was that I was feeling that I was too far away from working with real books and authors and illustrators. It was becoming more and more of a management position, which is fine, but I’d been doing it for a long time. so I left to work more closely on a freelance basis with authors and illustrators. And now again, being at a smaller house, you can really be involved with the books in a hands-on way and I love that.”
Barry says she feels lucky to be at Groundwood, which is part of House of Anansi Press. “It’s a beautiful list, so for me it is very exciting,” she says. She doesn’t expect to make any big changes to the list, aside from trying to find some series fiction. “It’s a very diverse picture book list and that appeals to me,” she says. “And on the fiction side, again it is a very strong young adult list, so I’d be looking for maybe a little bit more middle fiction and middle fiction in series form,” she says.
“It’s wonderful to work with Sheila and to watch as she brings her own discernment to Groundwood’s list. I think we are very compatible,” says Groundwood founder Patsy Aldana. She decided to bring on a co-publisher to maintain the long-term quality of Groundwood’s list, because her work with the International Board on Books for Young People and with the National Reading Campaign in Canada often takes her out of the office.
These are not easy days for the Canadian market, Barry says. “Libraries are underfunded, school libraries are not doing as well as we would like, the teacher librarians don’t exist in the way that they should and that they used to. That said, I think if you have a strong enough list, you will find a home for your books.”
The News from Owlkids
At Owlkids Books, Karen Boersma is preparing for Bologna after only a week in her new office. She is looking forward to a creative challenge of building a list and expanding what has been a small book publishing program at a company better known in Canada for its three children’s magazines: Chirp, chickaDEE, and OWL.
“We decided about six months ago that we really wanted [Owlkids] to develop a full book publishing program, and so we needed someone fulltime to focus on it,” says group publisher Jennifer Canham. “I’m a big fan of Karen’s. She knows an incredible amount about all aspects of publishing, and especially international rights, which is something we really want to develop, but she can also speak to editorial and sales and marketing and digital strategies and so I think she’s the best person to help us grow strategically.”
Boersma says, “The decision to leave Kids Can was partially because I had been there for 14 years and I was ready for a change, but also [my new position] is a real chance to build a list, which is great fun. And it is a chance to do so in a company that has these amazing magazines with really strong brands and tons of great content. It is going to be fun exploring ways that we can work together.” Boersma adds that she sees “huge potential” for digital content for both the books and the magazines and is excited about the challenge of building Owlkids Books’ presence in the U.S.
“I think Owl really recognizes and appreciates the value of a good book for kids, in much the same way they appreciate the value of a great magazine for kids,” Boersma said.