A year ago, in 2015, as politicians hoping to replace President Obama began positioning themselves, two published poets who met as graduate students – Chad Reynolds, who lives in Oklahoma City, and Alexis Orgera, who lives in Savannah, Ga. – launched Penny Candy Books to, they declared, “make a difference. We want this country to be a better place, a place that embraces the best parts of our humanity – kindness, inclusion, complex thinking, global citizenship.” After the election on November 8, when businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump received more Electoral College votes than Hillary Clinton, the two say that Penny Candy’s mission statement has become “a moral directive.”
“We can’t afford to be silent,” Reynolds and Alexis told PW during an interview. “More than ever, we need to create a platform for people whose stories haven’t gotten out there, to get out there. We want to help people see that the world is more complex and diverse than they would have thought.”
And, indeed, with the results of the 2016 presidential campaign and election still reverberating, Penny Candy’s list seems almost prescient. Its debut title in October, with a 5,000-copy print run, was A Gift from Greensboro by Quraysh Ali Lansana, illustrated by Skip Hill, the story of a friendship between an African-American boy and a white boy set against the backdrop of the 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. One dollar from the sale of every book is being donated to the Southern Poverty Law Center during the month of December.
Next February, Penny Candy is publishing The Hunt, a wordless picture book by French illustrator Margaux Othats, in which a girl builds a sculpture out of rocks, but each time she makes progress, two hunters with guns destroy her creation. And in April, it will release The Blue Pool of Questions by Maya Abu-Alhayyat, who is Palestinian, illustrated by Hassan Manasrah, the story of a man nobody understands. When his questions flood the city, the man must harness his bravery, dive into a pool, and seek out a solution.
The two co-publishers are planning on releasing five to seven Penny Candy titles each year, as well as books under the Penelope Editions imprint that “don’t fit into the Penny Candy mold,” Reynolds said, such as an adult coloring book called Nuveau: The Future of Patterns. Reynolds and Orgera also plan to publish in conjunction with Penny Candy’s 2017 releases illustrated poetry broadsides under an imprint they are calling Poets for Social Justice. The poems subsequently will be collected and published as an anthology.
“Language really matters,” Reynolds said, “Poetry is one of the only vehicles for changing hearts and minds. All of our releases have to have some element of poetry.”
The two said that they were inspired to publish such books by a perfect storm in 2014: Walter Dean Myers’s op-ed in the New York Times, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?,” his son Christopher Myers’s Times op-ed “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” the Cooperative Children’s Book Council’s report on the lack of diversity in children’s books and their authors, and the emergence of We Need Diverse Books.
During a visit in early 2015 by Orgera to Oklahoma City to visit Reynolds and his family, Reynolds recalled that he told Orgera that he’d always wanted to publish books from around the world in the U.S. Orgera recalled that she responded to his disclosure by telling him that she’d always wanted to become the publisher of a press that she would name Penny Candy Books. “In the penny candy shop of our imaginations,” she said with a laugh, “There’s something for everyone.”