This edition of News From the North features a publisher instilling a love of reading through a wordless story, kids’ funny bones, diversity in books, and a silver anniversary for a bald cartoon toddler.

Wordless Picture Book Gaining International Attention

It took six months for Sheila Barry, publisher of Groundwood Books in Toronto, to accept the picture book proposal from award-winning children’s poet JonArno Lawson. His proposal for Sidewalk Flowers, which will release in March, was a bit of an anomaly – it had no words.

“He came in with this tiny little booklet, index-card-sized, that only had little pictures in it, of a child on a walk with a father, picking flowers. And they were so faint sometimes you could hardly even see them, and he said he wanted this to be his next picture book project,” says Barry. For Barry, the project took a bit more time because of the unusual nature of a wordless picture book, especially considering the author is an acclaimed children's poet.

Lawson’s vision, which Barry describes as a “sweet and profound poem without words,” was brought to life by illustrator Sydney Smith using pen and ink and watercolor. It depicts a girl in a hooded red coat walking with her father. As she spots flowers growing out of the sidewalk cracks, she begins to give them away as gifts: on the chest of a dead sparrow on the sidewalk, in the shoe of a man sleeping on a bench, tucked in the collar of a dog they pass by, and so on.

The book is already getting a warm reception: it has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Quill & Quire, plus it’s been chosen as a Junior Library Guild selection. And Groundwood has sold rights to the book in nine different territories – including the U.K. and the Commonwealth, France, Quebec, Germany, Portugal, Mexico and Central America, Korea, China, and Japan – with more deals in the works. The title for Sidewalk Flowers will be reimagined in different markets all over the world: in the U.K., it will be published with the title Footpath Flowers, and in Portugal, it will be called Flores Mágicas.

Barry is thrilled with the international interest. “It probably isn’t unusual for certain kinds of highly commercial authors [to sell so many international rights so soon], but for a one-off picture book, it’s pretty unusual,” she says. “There are marvelous children’s books being published every day, but there was something that just went deeper with this one. There was a depth to the story that I couldn’t get out of my mind, and that I think the finished book does convey pretty nicely.”

New Publisher Clockwise Press Focuses on Diversity

The founders of Clockwise Press, a new Canadian children’s publisher, were inspired to take action by last year’s We Need Diverse Books movement. That grassroots movement took off in reaction to the announcement of an all-white lineup at New York’s BookCon event last year. The hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks took off on social media, and the movement has since become a non-profit organization that promotes diversity and equality in publishing.

Next month, Clockwise Press founders Solange Messier and Christie Harkin – both of whom formerly worked at Fitzhenry & Whiteside, though Harkin was more recently at James Lorimer & Co. – will publish their first-ever book, following their mission to focus on diversity.

“When we started our publishing company, we wanted to focus on books that would be inclusive,” says Harkin, the press’s fiction and picture book editor. “I’m not just talking about racial diversity, but also different abilities, gender issues, kids who are bisexual, transsexual – anybody who is underrepresented. We want kids to see themselves in our books.”

Their first title will be Fragile Bones: Harrison & Anna by Lorna Schultz Nicholson, the first book in the One-2-One fiction series. Each book in this series is based on the real “Best Buddies” school program, where students with intellectual disabilities are paired up with volunteer “Buddies” to take part in social activities. In this case, high school student Anna is paired up with Harrison, a teenager with autism.

In the fall, they will release three more books, including Stay Strong: A Musician’s Journey from Congo to Canada by Natalie Hyde, kicking off the narrative nonfiction series Arrivals. Stay Strong tells the true story of a young African refugee who came to Canada with his family, built a successful music career, and founded nonprofit organizations for at-risk youth.

“We want to show good news stories, and show that kids who are coming to Canada have a lot to offer. We want to create empathy for what they’ve been through before they got here,” says Harkin.

#PenguinLOL Aims for Kids’ Funny Bones

How do you build a lifelong reader? Start early, and make them laugh. That’s the idea behind #PenguinLOL, the new campaign for young readers by Penguin Random House Canada. While looking over the list for the year, the marketing department realized they had an abundance of funny titles, so they’ve decided to shine the spotlight on laughter.

The campaign features 15 children’s books, divided into three categories: picture books for preschool to grade 3 (including B.J. Novak’s The Book With No Pictures), early chapter books for grades 2 to 5 (including Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Handlon), and middle-grade books for grades 4 to 7 (including Random Acts by Valerie Sherrard).

“I think when something is humorous, it is innately enjoyable, and I think proving to kids that reading is enjoyable is the biggest step in having a commitment to literacy,” says Vikki VanSickle, marketing and publicity manager for the Penguin Canada Young Readers program. “So if we can show them that books are fun, and they’re funny, and they’re engaging, they’re more likely to keep reading, and they’re more likely to be lifelong readers.”

The publisher is handing out brightly colored posters and stickers that allow teachers and children to divide their books into six different playful categories on the “LOL-meter”: snort, guffaw, snicker, giggle, chortle, and cackle. And at the recent Ontario Library Association Super Conference and the Reading for the Love Of It literacy conference, the publisher held a contest for a class to win a workshop or special comedy performance of Second City Toronto School Show, Meme, Myselfie, and I. “They don’t talk down to kids at all, and it’s quite funny,” says VanSickle.

Up next, Penguin Random House Canada is planning a group author event in April – National Humor Month in several countries – at which authors will read from their favorite funny books, in an attempt to inspire not just literacy, but a love of reading.

“When you look at some of the children’s choice awards lists, a lot of those winners tend to have more humor in them [compared to adult awards lists],” says VanSickle. “That says to me that we’re onto something, and that kids are liking those funny books.”

Chouette Celebrates Caillou’s 25th Anniversary

Canada’s favorite toddler with no hair, Caillou, has been starring in picture books for 25 years, and Montreal’s Chouette Publishing is celebrating with a year’s worth of festivities. The Caillou books for babies and toddlers have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide (including more than five million in the U.S.) and spawned an animated TV show that premiered in 1997.

Chouette began the celebration last fall, publishing a 25th-anniversary edition of the Caillou Storybook Treasury, embellished with foil edges and a glittering cover, and featuring 10 bestselling Caillou stories, such as Caillou at the Zoo and The School Bus. The series’ original creators were author (and Chouette founder) Christine L’Heureux and illustrator Hélène Desputeaux – the latter of whom is seeking a settlement from Chouette over ongoing copyright issues – but now, the many books are written and illustrated by a variety of people.

Simon Payette, Chouette’s licensing and business development manager, says Caillou’s appeal is that he shows kids the world from their own point of view. “I think that Caillou speaks to children because he lives daily life situations,” he says. “He faces the same challenges, the same fears, and he succeeds like them, after all, because they all manage potty training, and eating, and going through the night without waking up. These are steps they all need to go through, and Caillou is kind of a friend who helps them go through these phases.”

Chouette is also publishing several new Caillou books this year: seven this spring, and another nine in the fall. One of the fall titles, Emma’s Extra Snack, was created in partnership with the American Diabetes Association to help children better understand Type 1 diabetes. Other fall titles include Baby Caillou: Bathtime and Bedtime (both vinyl, bath-friendly books), a book about overcoming bullying, and Caillou Waits for Santa, which comes with an advent calendar with stickers.