Annick Press co-founders Anne Millyard and Rick Wilks’s hard work is so ingrained in their company’s DNA that its name is literally a portmanteau of their two names. Forty years after the Canadian children’s publisher was founded, Millyard, 87, is 16 years into retirement, while Wilks, now 64, is steering the ship solo.
But he maintains the same priorities the pair lived by in 1975, when they created a publisher called Books By Kids, before christening it Annick Press about a year later. Wilks’s parents were among Millyard’s best friends, so the two have known each other since Wilks was about 11 years old. Neither had a background in book publishing, but they both had experience working with kids, and their ambition was simple: to publish books that would inspire a love of reading in kids.
“We didn’t publish for critics; we published for children,” Millyard told PW. “We wanted to publish books that children would choose themselves – I think that was it in a nutshell. I think we succeeded in publishing books that children chose.”
Wilks added that he felt there wasn’t enough in the children’s marketplace back then that reflected the values and the diversity of voices he wanted to see. “The books were very much focused on the adult buyer and not directly connecting with kids. But we knew virtually nothing about publishing, and my sense in those early days was, ‘Sure, let’s do this, it would be fun to publish a book or two.’ And that’s how we started out.”
For the first few years, the two of them worked out of Millyard’s north Toronto home, with a large desk in the basement, a room to store their unsold books, and two Remington electric typewriters. They had very little money – they licked their own envelopes, grew vegetables in the backyard, and didn’t pay themselves a salary for several years. “I don’t regret a single day,” Millyard said. “We worked very hard, but we were very fortunate.”
One of the earliest authors published by Annick was Robert Munsch (now one of Canada’s best-known children’s authors), whom Millway recognized as really capturing the voice of a child. Munsch, an American-born writer who moved to Canada in 1975, wrote such bestselling picture books as Love You Forever and The Paper Bag Princess – the latter having sold more than 12 million copies for Annick since 1980 in various formats.
Gillian O’Reilly, who just retired this past spring, spent 20 years as the editor of the magazine Canadian Children’s Book News (and published two books with Annick, in 2004 and 2007). She pointed to Annick’s 2008 YA book The Bite of the Mango, written by teen author Mariatu Kamara (with journalist Susan McClelland), which won the CDN$10,000 Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction, as an example of the type of inspiring books Annick has published. It tells Kamara’s true story of the girl from Sierra Leone who faced a violent attack by rebel soldiers, lived alone in a refugee camp, and finally made her way to Toronto and established a foundation to support victims of Sierra Leone’s civil war.
O’Reilly also noted that more recently, Annick has published several notable books about Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. “In recent years, they have done some really remarkable books about Indigenous Canadians: the Inuit people, the First Nations, and residential schools. There’s a lot of really interesting and visionary stuff in a book called Dreaming in Indian that came out a couple of years ago. That just blew me away when I saw it.”
A New Headquarters and the ‘Achievement of a Dream’
These days, the publisher is working out of a much more suitable office. In 1986, the publisher bought an old 10-room house in north Toronto, which Millyard describes as perfect for a children’s publisher. The family that lived there previously raised seven kids there, and “when the For Sale sign went up, I just about fainted, because we never thought the people who lived there would move,” Millyard said.
And in 1999, they expanded with an office in Vancouver, B.C., headed by associate publisher Colleen MacMillan. The company now publishes about 30 books a year, a mix of picture books, fiction, nonfiction, and books for teens.
This September, Annick will embark on a major partnership with educational publisher Pearson Canada. “Our books will provide a really strong joy of reading for kids, and the bonus is they have curriculum connections,” Wilks said. The deal will see a selection of more than 125 Annick books in every classroom across Canada, with collections of fiction and nonfiction books for kindergarten to grade 12 students organized into curriculum-related categories such as Aboriginal Studies, Science, Adolescent Issues, and even Fun and Laughter.
“It’s the achievement of a dream I’ve had ever since coming into publishing, which is creating Annick collections that will have a relationship with curriculum and promote inquiry-based learning,” Wilks said. “So they’re not reading textbooks, they’re reading fun trade books, but it’ll get them thinking about what the curriculum wants them to be thinking about.”
“We don’t need another study to tell us how important reading is,” he added. “Kids who read just do better. They do better academically and socially, and they have more empathy. So if we can put out literature that contributes to a joy of reading, that’s it. That’s what I aspire to.”