Helping to bring contemporary African storytelling to a larger audience, Norton Young Readers has launched a partnership with Accord Literary, an initiative that cultivates and mentors African-based children’s book authors. As part of the agreement, Norton has acquired the North American rights to six novels, which will begin rolling out this spring.

The idea for this program has been in the works over the last two years, when Accord Literary’s founders, London-based Sarah Odedina and Accra-based Deborah Ahenkorah decided to collaborate with Norton Young Readers’ publishing director Simon Boughton. “They had been developing a program for African authors for a while, and I felt that their mission and goals were consistent with mine for Norton and would be a good fit for Norton’s profile,” he said.

While Boughton appreciates the richly diverse U.S. children’s book market, he believes these new works can offer readers a unique perspective: modern fiction set on the African continent, written by African writers. “There’s a tendency in the West to publish [African] folklore and traditional storytelling,” he explained. “We want to bring contemporary storytelling with middle grade themes to a wider market.” Drawing upon the recent success of African authors in the U.S. and U.K. adult trade market, including Maaza Mengiste and Marie NDiaye, Boughton is following that model as a guideline for the new program.

A Team Effort

Working in conjunction with Norton as the exclusive U.S. publisher, the Accord team is responsible for identifying and working directly with writers, as well as introducing them to a broader demographic. Boughton likens Accord’s work to acting as both packager and agent. “Sarah and Deborah make the initial editorial decisions and we endorse them,” he explained.

Focusing on their shared interest in finding books that entertain, inform, and represent universal childhood themes, Norton and Accord have chosen the first three books for publication. The first title, Crossing the Stream (May 2021), is a middle grade novel set in Ghana that follows a child coming to terms with the death of his father. This book is followed by Playing a Dangerous Game (August 2021), an adventure-mystery about boys getting into trouble. Rounding out the line-up is a YA novel, Even When Your Voice Shakes (winter 2022), which explores the sexual violence and class tensions experienced by a servant girl who is targeted by a young man in a wealthy household. “It’s about what you do when you are disadvantaged and powerless,” Boughton said.

To help promote these titles to the U.S. market, Norton is planning to assemble a group of panels and virtual events connecting these authors and publishers. (The tentative date is between May and August, coinciding with the first and second books’ publications.) “It’s not just to talk about the books, but the experience of publishing this way,” Boughton noted. “We think the gatekeepers and readers are interested in the lives of the authors and having them introduced in person.” He is quick to point out that these books will be published as standalone titles—not as a collection.

While Norton and Accord’s initial agreement is to publish six books over the course of two years, Boughton looks upon this opportunity as a long-term investment. “We very much want to see this grow from there,” he said. “Norton prides itself on publishing books that are part of a national conversation, and this speaks to a real opportunity and interest in the market.”