Some 250 guests gathered at the Toronto Public Library’s Lillian H. Smith branch on November 9 to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Groundwood Books, one of Canada’s oldest children’s book publishers. Recent years, marked by school and library cutbacks, have not been easy, particularly for independent publishers, so the company has good reason to celebrate this milestone. In addition to the party, Groundwood is marking the anniversary with reissues of some of its classic books, a Facebook contest for original artwork from illustrators, and a new Web site.

At the party, where about 100 children snacked on cookies decorated with the Groundwood logo mouse, several of Groundwood’s newer stars read from their work. Author-illustrator Matt James presented Northwest Passage, which brings to life the history of Arctic exploration using his paintings and the lyrics of Stan Rogers’s folk song of the same name. (Later in the week, James was awarded a C$25,000 Governor General’s Literary Award for children’s illustration for the book.) Cybèle Young read from Out the Window/ A Few Blocks, Cary Fagan from Oh Fey, So?, and Griffin Ondaatje from his first children’s book, The Camel in the Sun.

Ondaatje told PW that he had read and admired much of Groundwood’s backlist when he submitted his manuscript to the publisher. “When you look at Groundwood’s wide range of books,” he said, “they seem to have developed into one of the most creative publishers of books for young people anywhere.” With one book published and a second title, the chapter book The Mosquito Brothers, slated to be published in 2015, Ondaatje praised founder Patsy Aldana’s sharp editing of his work and the overall experience of working with the company. “The approach of people there is focused, thoughtful and even courageous, he said, “so authors feel they’re part of a very generous-hearted vision.”

Aldana officially stepped down from her role as publisher in January 2013 (though she continues to work on some Groundwood projects) and handed the reins to Sheila Barry. When her appointment was announced in October 2012, Barry told PW, “Patsy has been a remarkable and completely unique publisher in the kinds of books she has done, so I’m trying not to think too deeply about just what an act it is to follow her.” Today, with the benefit of working with Aldana for a year before she left and nearly a year of being at the helm solo, Barry said she’s feeling pretty comfortable with the company and its upcoming lists, which she said include a number of young authors publishing their first books. “I’m excited about seeing that new generation come along,” she said. “But I think people would recognize the list,” which, with about 30 new titles per year, still includes a lot of established creators as well.

To honor its history, Groundwood is reissuing six picture books with their original artwork, and also debuting audio-enhanced e-book versions of those titles with high-profile voice talent. For A Salmon for Simon, which was on Groundwood’s launch list and received a Canada Council award for illustration in 1978, Groundwood enlisted First Nations actor Graham Greene, perhaps best-known internationally for his role in Dances with Wolves. Paul Yee’s Ghost Train and Laurel Croza’s I Know Here are both narrated by Canadian singers, and because, Barry added, “there is something special about hearing someone read a book she or he has written and/or illustrated, we were delighted that Tim Wynne-Jones was available to record Zoom at Sea, Ian Wallace could read The Huron Carol, and Marie-Louise Gay agreed to read Caramba.”

Groundwood is also hosting a Facebook contest that gives fans a chance to win one of several pieces of original artwork from illustrators Matt James, Cybèle Young, Marie-Louise Gay, and Isabelle Arsenault, or one of two signed prints from Ian Wallace. “It’s meant to be a thank you to all the people who have loved our books over the years,” said Barry. “Because we have fans all over the world, it is a nice way to be able to reach people in Canada, the U.S., and further afield.”

How an Indie Publisher Built an International Reputation

Groundwood founder Aldana had to miss the party, which had been timed to fit her schedule, when she had to make an unexpected trip to China: she is launching an imprint for China Children’s Press and Publications Group, the country’s largest children’s book publisher. Upon her return to Canada, she expressed to PW her feelings about the company she launched 35 years ago. “I’m very proud of the list this year, and obviously it’s in my heart,” she said.

She said she founded Groundwood in response to a dearth of Canadian children’s titles. There were books such as Anne of Green Gables and Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie and others, but aside from Tundra Books, Aldana said, there were no publishers specializing in children’s literature. “Because I worked at a children’s bookstore and I was working at the Women’s Press,” she said, “I could see that there was a real hunger and need for Canadian children’s books.”

She had to battle a broadly held perception at the time that Canadian children’s books were not good and would not sell. “I remember a conference in Vancouver, and all these people were going around saying Canadian books are terrible,” she recalled. “That was before Groundwood actually started, and I remember thinking, ‘Well, we’ll show them.’ ”.She believed that if a publisher published high-quality Canadian children’s books, there would be a market, and she was right.

The early 1980s turned out to be an excellent time to publish Canadian children’s books. Children’s bookstores could be found in most major Canadian cities, Aldana recalled, adding that it was also ‘the great heyday of Canadian school libraries. Every school felt they had to have a library, and the librarians were properly trained and they were interested in Canadian authors.”

In the mid to late ’80s, attention turned to the question of authenticity of voice, and Aldana said she realized there was a lack of diversity in Canadian children’s literature. Though U.S. houses were publishing very good books by black authors and about black children, Aldana said, in Canada, there was hardly anything by any minority authors. “That’s where we found a niche that was different from other people, and it became a specialty for Groundwood,” she said, citing Paul Yee’s Tales from Gold Mountain, about the exploitation of Chinese immigrants, and Thomas King’s controversial A Coyote Columbus Story, a folkloric take on 1492 told from the native North American perspective, as titles that helped build Groundwood’s reputation.

The company’s early years coincided with what Aldana called “a real golden age, which unfortunately came to an end, mainly because school libraries were cut when the [economic] crisis happened in the early ’90s.” Groundwood’s responses to that crisis helped further define the publisher’s identity and aided its survival. The company had been selling rights to many of its books in the U.S., and had been fortunate to catch the attention of influential editors such as Margaret K. McElderry, but the broader economic crisis of the 1990s also caused that market to dry up, Aldana said. That forced Groundwood to start publishing books directly for the U.S. market in 1996.

Entering the U.S. market allowed Groundwood to follow one of Aldana’s interests: publishing international books from markets beyond the traditional English-language territories, particularly books in Spanish. (Aldana was part of the executive committee of the International Board on Books for Young People at that time, and became its president in 2006). “That was how we distinguished ourselves from the U.S. houses,” said Aldana.

Groundwood’s reputation for publishing books on difficult topics also got a large and unexpected boost when Deborah Ellis’s second book, The Breadwinner, was published. A previous book on Afghanistan that Groundwood bought from a Swedish publisher hadn’t sold well, but Aldana said they decided to publish Ellis’s novel about an Afghan girl living under the rule of the Taliban anyway. “We sort of published it thinking that it was going to be a financial disaster but that it was an important book,” said Aldana. “That was in the spring of 2001, and then it happened to be the book that was used to explain to kids what September 11 was about,” she said. Publishing such a timely title helped raise the company’s profile, she added, as did publishing the commercially successful series of Stella picture books by Marie-Louise Gay.

In 2005, Aldana sold Groundwood to Scott Griffin, who also owns the House of Anansi Press and created the annual C$130,000 Griffin Poetry Prize. Following the bankruptcy of three distributors and amid ongoing insecurities for publishers, Aldana said, she wanted to find a safe home for Groundwood and assure its future.

“At this point in publishing,” Aldana said, “you have to be something identifiable, especially if you are a small house, because you cannot compete with the giant mass producers of commercial product. I hope [Groundwood] continues to publish international books, and I hope it retains its distinctive quality.”