In this edition of Canadian children’s publishing news: wordless picture book Sidewalk Flowers will bring a universal message to Syrian refugees; Orca’s new nonfiction series gives background and context to cultural holidays; the Queen of Plasticine will be the Honorary Chair for Family Literacy Day; and Alligator Pie poet Dennis Lee teams up with an award-winning illustrator.

Copies of Sidewalk Flowers Going to 5,000 Syrian Refugee Families

The wordless picture book Sidewalk Flowers has already been a huge success for publisher Groundwood Books, as they printed more than 30,000 copies in 2015 and sold rights in 11 territories. It also won the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award for illustrated picture books and was named one of the 10 Best Illustrated Books of 2015 by the New York Times.

Now Groundwood Books is working with the Canadian arm of the International Board on Books for Young People to give free copies of the book to 5,000 Syrian refugee families. Those families will also receive a postcard with instructions in English, French, and Arabic on how to find the public library and get a library card.

“The purpose was to give every refugee, adults and children, some information about what a public library is, and that it’s a safe place, that it’s free, that you can get information and help there, but also entertainment and things that are fun,” says Sheila Barry, publisher of Groundwood Books and member of IBBY Canada’s executive committee.

Barry said she thought there was something nice about a book that has received an award from the head of Canada’s government being given to people arriving to become Canadians. “This book has really struck a chord. It’s wordless, which makes it very easy to share with any child, whatever language they speak,” she says. “It’s also a beautiful introduction to urban Canada.”

The book, with concept by children’s poet JonArno Lawson, illustrated by Sydney Smith, tells the story of a father and daughter taking a walk through the city, while she picks flowers and gives them to strangers as gifts.

Lawson and Smith both agreed to waive their royalties for the 5,000 books that are being given away, while Toronto-based printer WebCom did the job for free on a tight timeline. The books and postcards were shipped to a warehouse just before the holidays, where the Department of Canadian Heritage will assemble the welcome kits for refugees and distribute them later this month.

Orca’s Origins Series Explains History of Cultural Holidays

After a number of teachers and librarians asked why there were so few resources available to teach kids about Chinese New Year, Orca Books publisher Andrew Wooldridge decided to do something about it. In fact, Orca’s new series, called Origins, will feature two young adult books per year (ages 9-14) offering an introduction to many cultural festivals and holidays, including Ramadan, Diwali, Pow Wow, and Christmas.

The first in the series, due out in February, will be Passover: Festival of Freedom, by YA author Monique Polak. It contains not only a breakdown of the history and traditions of the Jewish holiday, but also historical photos as well as some of the author’s personal photographs and stories.

Polak is a Jewish woman living in Montreal – where tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors settled after World War II – but she grew up in a non-observant Jewish family. She writes about how her mother was never observant, and after surviving a Nazi concentration camp, “she was even less interested in religion afterward.” And so now, as an adult, Polak seeks to broaden her own understanding of Jewish traditions.

“We’ve tried quite hard to find the right person [to write each book], says Wooldridge, “someone who is active in that community and also understands that festival and has a personal story to bring to it.”

The obvious market for the series, he says, is schools and libraries, but he also thinks there’s a trade market as well. And following the company’s successful nonfiction YA series Footprints, which focuses on different aspects of environmental sustainability, Wooldridge says they have discovered a real niche for themselves.

“[Both series feature] more in-depth, more trade-friendly children’s nonfiction,” he says. “It’s not just beating people over the head with facts, but actually giving some context for these stories, which I think is more important.”

Barbara Reid Named Honorary Chair of Family Literacy Day 2016

Every year since 1999, on January 27, the nonprofit organization ABC Life Literacy Canada has organized events to celebrate Family Literacy Day. This year, they’ve named acclaimed author and illustrator Barbara Reid as Honorary Chair.

Reid, the Governor General’s Award-winning artist known as the Queen of Plasticine because of her talent with modeling clay, will be the ambassador for the event, which consists of schools and libraries across the country planning fun activities to promote literacy. She recorded a video promoting Family Literacy Day, suggesting families read a book together or create an alphabet using plasticine. Reid herself will be visiting the Fairview branch of the Toronto Public Library to teach kids about her signature art form.

“[My role is] mostly about being super positive and sharing the fun of reading and literacy with all kids “,” she says. “My head just keeps exploding with new ways to do activities with kids.”

She says that manipulating the clay and telling stories with pictures is especially effective because it’s universal – especially for kids who may be new to Canada or don’t speak fluent English. “It just touches different parts of the brain, and for some kids, the physical activity is just another way they can communicate and learn, rather than just reading,” she says. “It’s a terrific bridge.”

In a lucky stroke of timing, this month publisher Scholastic Canada reissued her 2003 board book Read Me a Book, containing simple rhyming verse about the joys of reading to kids. For the new release, Reid had the chance to create a whole new plasticine cover image.

“Books that kids have in their homes are amazingly powerful, and the attachment to something they read when they’re little, they carry it their whole life,” she says. “So it was exciting for me to freshen it up and use that book again.”

Two Beloved Children’s Book Creators Team Up

Anyone who grew up in Canada is likely to know the words to Dennis Lee’s iconic 1974 poem “Alligator Pie,” from the children’s poetry collection of the same name, by heart: “Alligator pie, alligator pie / If I don’t get some I think I’m gonna die.” Since then he has published dozens of collections for children and adults. This April, HarperCollins Canada will publish a board book reissue of the poem “The Wizard,” from last year’s collection Melvis and Elvis.

The reissue, called Zoomberry (because of the words the wizard uses in his spell), features illustrations by Serbian artist Dušan Petričić. He also illustrated the book Mr. Zinger’s Hat, which last year was given away by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre to every Grade One child in Canada – more than 550,000 kids. In Zoomberry, a boy is drifting off to sleep, and speaks to a wizard who teaches him how to fly using an incantation: “Zoomberry, zoomberry, zoomberry pie / zoomberry, zoomberry, now I can fly.”

“[The poem evokes] that experience of going to bed and being in that glorious few moments halfway between awake and asleep, when you’re conscious enough that you can feel yourself sinking down, but the rest of the world is starting to dissolve,” says Lee.

The artwork, predominantly black and blue to reflect nighttime, shows the boy floating higher and higher, first surrounded by butterflies, then by birds and kites, then by airplanes of all kinds, then by planets and stars, and finally, he’s floating among fantastical creatures like dragons, witches, and a flying unicorn. Lee says that Petričić really picked up on the fact that the wizard is a “grumpy, gruff” old man who glares and growls at the boy. “I didn’t want the wizard to be just a benign, happy fairytale figure.” And he states that he’s “enchanted” by Petričić’s illustrations. “His sense of visual drollery is just lovely.”