As 2013 drew to a close, Toronto-based Kids Can Press wrapped up its 40th anniversary celebrations. In light of this milestone, PW took the opportunity to look back on the publisher’s development, from its early days as a summer project for a group of idealistic artists to the present.
It started in 1973 with Frieda Forman, a professor at the Ontario College of Art. According to Forman, the founding of Kids Can Press was an outgrowth of the political climate of the time. “In the ’70s,” she told PW, “Canada was enriched by various progressive movements, and among the changes championed was a sense of nationalism.” Very few Canadian books for children were being published at the time, she explained, and people wanted books that reflected a Canadian identity, particularly urban and multicultural stories. Also, she added, the women’s rights movement was creating a demand for what she referred to as “non-sexist” material.
Forman and her students applied for a government grant to publish books and received funding for nine writers and illustrators for four months at a salary of $90 per week. Foreman came up with the name Kids Can Press. “We wanted ‘kids,’ and we thought ‘can’ was an affirmation that children can do things,” she said. And we also wanted ‘Can’ to stand for Canadian, so Can was a double entendre and it stuck,” she said.
They published several books that summer, and Forman remained involved for the first year. After her departure, her students—Ann Powell, Rosemary Allison, and Ian Wallace, along with Priscilla Carrier Fitting and Claire Watson Garcia—continued to run KCP as a collective. They brought in author-illustrator Angela Wood in 1975. “At the first meeting, we sat in a circle on the floor and came up with story ideas,” Wood recalled. “I had this idea about a child struggling with identity in Toronto. Ian Wallace liked the idea and suggested they work on it together. The Sandwich was later shortlisted for a City of Toronto Book Award and became the company’s first bestseller.
In those early days, Wood said, the members of the collective did everything themselves: burning the plates, inking the press, printing, putting the covers on. That approach extended to sales and marketing as well. “I remember walking around with a cardboard box with our books inside and going into Coles and asking to see the book buyer,” she said.
Wood was one of a handful of creators who stayed with KCP beyond 1975. Members of the collective established KCP as a non-profit corporation, and started working with typesetters, printers, a production company, and a distributor. Soon, Wood and Carrier Fitting were the only two left; Valerie Hussey joined in 1978. By 1981, both Wood and Carrier Fitting had left the company, leaving Hussey to run KCP as a one-woman operation until she was joined by Ricky Englander in 1982. In 1986, KCP became a privately owned, for-profit company, with Hussey and Englander as co-owners and co-publishers. It was also in 1986 that KCP published Franklin in the Dark by Paulette Bourgeois, illustrated by Brenda Clark, the first book in Kids Can’s most successful series to date. Globally, 65 million books about Franklin the turtle have been sold in more than 30 languages.
Englander retired in 1998 when KCP was acquired by the Canadian animation company Nelvana. When Corus Entertainment acquired Nelvana in 2000, Hussey remained, only stepping down in 2006.
According to Lisa Lyons, who has been Kids Can’s president since 2007, the company’s “commitment to books with social responsibility” continues, though the focus may have shifted from Canadian concerns to global ones. She pointed to the company’s growing Citizen Kid series, which aims to promote “social consciousness and world-mindedness” among its readers. In 2008, Lyons noticed that backlist titles such as If the World Were a Village and Tree of Life continued to have strong sales, and that a new title from Katie Smith Milway, One Hen, was selling very well. She asked her team to come up with a publishing program that could capitalize on the success of those books, and Citizen Kid was born. Lyons said that Citizen Kid is a double-digit percentage contributor to KCP’s overall growth; Rochelle Strauss’s One Well, she noted, sold 85,000 copies last year.
The past year has been Kids Can’s most profitable in the last decade, said Lyons. “What we’ve done well is cultivate brands,” she said. Whether it is Franklin, Mélanie Watt’s Scaredy Squirrel series, or the Citizen Kid line, Lyons said that brands are an important key to KCP’s success. “Let’s face it, in a very cluttered and competitive environment, brands are what’s going to cut through and become recognized.”
Aside from keeping up KCP’s original goals, Lyons said the current team of 25 employees also shares the original members’ adventurous spirit. They are “very open to trying new things, and I think that is really critical in a time of flux in the industry,” she said.