Telling stories is a very human act. It is meant to form connections with the people around you. With our books, we’ve been able to reach out to readers all over the country—readers who are looking for a touch of wonder in their day-to-day lives. But, given the myriad titles out there, the big question is why readers should pick up a book released by Believe in Wonder, our youth-focused publishing company based in Beaverton, Ore.
As kids, my wife, Josie Parker, and I both found escape in books but were always left wondering why we never saw people like ourselves in stories of adventure, mystery, or magic. The experiences of people of color in the stories we read were always stuck in a cycle of oppression, and we wanted to break out of that mold. Let our fiction be as aspirational and inspiring as the poetry of Maya Angelou or as expansive and amazing as Octavia E. Butler’s.
We started our business in 2015 so we could share our love of stories with a new generation of readers, all while bringing more diversity to the industry and the stories being told. We set our sights on making stories that speak to the experience of outsiders: heroes who feel that they don’t fit in, but have amazing potential just waiting to be tapped. What is magic if not the ability to change the reality around you, to defy the expected and find your own destiny? These kinds of stories have the ability to open the minds of young readers and challenge them to see the true heroes inside themselves.
This is a transformative act, especially for underrepresented groups and people of color. Be it the antics of the new monsters in town in The Pawsons Move In, or two genius foster kids discovering a magical world with their whimsical nanny in The Wonderous Science, Believe in Wonder Publishing makes stories for kids who may have never seen themselves as the heroes of their own adventure.
Making the books comes naturally to us. Josie and I are book lovers, authors, and illustrators, so the creation process is a joy and the kind of work we dive into with excitement. As a Black author-illustrator team, most of the work that we publish is generated in-house. Sure, we take the occasional book project that really speaks to us and our mission, such as A Bucket Full of Dreams by Valarie Pearce. Primarily, though, we have enough stories in our heads and hearts to keep us busy for many years to come. My background in graphic design and illustration and publishing, combined with Josie’s flare for color and storytelling, allow us to work together to bring our own dreams to life.
We have our mission, and we have our work—now we need readers. Getting eyes on the books we’ve created is an entirely different kind of work filled with challenges all its own. Building an audience is one of the toughest tasks for a small publisher. It’s a challenge that we face every day, whether posting on social media, getting our catalog in the hands of booksellers and librarians, applying for book awards, going to events, or updating our website. Since the pandemic hit in 2020, our adaptability, creativity, and passion have better allowed us to pivot and use our talents and resources to expand our business in ways we never imagined.
Working from home while parenting, especially during the most trying times of the pandemic, has not been easy. Scheduling time for family and creative work doesn’t always work out, not to mention the financial burdens of keeping this enterprise afloat with commissioned work and teaching. Despite the hardships, we were able to complete four titles during lockdown, including our most successful book release to date: The Epic of Nicholas the Maker: Book 1. Work became a way of dealing with the anxiety of lockdown and sharing some joy with our readers and supporters.
As proud as we are of the catalog of middle grade books, graphic novels, and picture books we’ve created, the opportunity to connect with our community has been one of the greatest joys that our work has brought us. We’ve been able to partner with nonprofit organizations such as Black Parent Initiative, SMART Reading, Oregon Post Adoption Resource Center, and Literary Arts to talk with young audiences and connect through storytelling.
We also conduct classes to help young people through the creative process, writing and illustrating their unique stories and finding their own distinctive voices. These are the kinds of opportunities that Josie and I would have leaped at when we were in grade school, and we are excited to support and encourage this new generation of storytellers whenever we can. Seeing a young person at an event reading our books with wide eyes, or timidly sharing their sketchbook to our encouraging applause, is what really makes this work worthwhile.
As we slowly come out of pandemic times, we have big hopes for Believe in Wonder. We’re encouraged by our recent successes with grants, fellowships, and residencies, which bodes well for our sustainability. However, getting more eyes on the work we are doing is always needed. Marketing a small press is a big undertaking, but not one we shy away from.
Whenever we find ourselves in the position where we must cringingly self-promote (which is very difficult for creatives, as you know), we just remember why we do this work in the first place. We remember the eyes of those young readers who discover that they, too, can be the heroes of their own adventures, and that they can write their own stories. So, be it a library event, comic con, writers convention, or middle school class visit, we will continue to put ourselves out there. Making engaging books is only one part of our mission. Believing in and sharing our wonder is more than just our name or a slogan—it is a call to action.
Brian W. Parker is the cofounder of Believe in Wonder along with his wife, Josie Parker.