This year, Kids Can Press marks its 50th anniversary. That’s 50 years of publishing inspiring children’s books that help to spark a lifetime love of reading. PW chatted with Kids Can Editorial Development Director Yasemin Uçar; Senior Editor Patricia Ocampo; and Editors Katie Scott and Kathleen Keenan about the significant milestone, how Kids Can came to be, and what it’s like to now work at the place that had published so many of the books they loved as kids.
Congratulations on KCP’s 50th! What does being part of such a long, storied publishing tradition mean to you?
Patricia Ocampo: It’s inspiring. Other long, storied publishing traditions started, well, traditionally, with one or two men pooling their money to print and distribute books. Right from its inception Kids Can Press did things differently. Frieda Forman, a women’s studies prof at an art college, along with a few students — most of them female — started the press as a summer project. They applied for a government grant to cover four months of work, and they just kept going. That trust in slow and steady work, that spirit of “for the people by the people” informs our ethos today. I see a direct line between the ideals of Kids Can’s founders and our approach to publishing high-quality books for kids on their way to becoming witty, worldly citizens.
Yasemin Uçar: There really is something special about working for the publisher of books you grew up with. When I was starting out in publishing, KCP was where I dreamed of being hired. It was a long and winding road to get here, but it has been every bit as rewarding an experience as I’d imagined. While KCP and the children’s book market have gone through many changes over the decades, KCP has never wavered in its commitment to readers and to Canadian authors and illustrators, and has continued to publish books that surprise, delight and inform — both at home and in the classroom.
I’m going to assume that Kids Can books were a part of your lives long before you joined the KCP team. Can you share any memories of books you loved from KCP as kids?
Kathleen Keenan: I loved many KCP books as a kid, so sometimes it feels a bit surreal to be working next to Franklin and Scaredy Squirrel! One of my favorites was A Pioneer Story, written by Barbara Greenwood and illustrated by Heather Collins. It was this blend of fiction, non-fiction and at-home activities, all centered around a Scottish family who’d moved to Canada in the 1840s. As a kid, I loved the fictional stories about the family and found myself learning about the practicalities of living on a backwoods farm almost by accident. Looking back, I think that book is an example of what KCP still continues to do well: high-concept non-fiction paired with storytelling, the kind of book you won’t necessarily find anywhere else.
Katie Scott: One of my favorite memories after joining Kids Can Press happened one day in our archive. We have a room at the office where we have a copy of every book that Kids Can Press has ever published — it’s a pretty great place! I was familiarizing myself with our backlist and came across Valerie Wyatt’s The Science Book for Girls (and Other Intelligent Beings). It was one of my favorite books as a kid, but I hadn’t thought about it in decades. It made me feel like I had found my place at Kids Can Press. I got to work alongisde Valerie before her retirement and shared with her how much I loved that book as a kid. Today, we still have an incredibly strong offering of STEM books for kids, although instead of positioning certain books as “for girls,” we like to think that all of our books are for all kids.
YU: When I turned ten, my aunt gave me the book Cat’s Cradle, Owl’s Eyes and Other String Games by Camilla Gryski as a birthday gift. I loved those string games — both the solo ones and Cat’s Cradle. I took my red string with me a few years later to Expo ’86 when my choir travelled there to perform. My fellow choristers and I played Cat’s Cradle to pass the time on the long flights, train and bus rides. And my go-to party trick was the Fisherman’s Net, which I perfected with lots of practice, and which I can still pull off to this day. It’s like we always say, a KCP book stays with you.
From your perspectives, what truly sets a Kids Can book apart from other titles on the proverbial shelf?
KK: What I admired most about KCP before I started working here was the breadth of the list. We publish all kinds of picture books, non-fiction, graphic novels, fiction — a little of everything, for every kid. There’s no one “type” of KCP book; we’re focused on making every book the best version of itself. We’re the home of picture books about a villainous bird (Chickadee: Criminal Mastermind) as well as a little girl experiencing depression (Dark Cloud), and funny non-fiction about germs (Germy Science) as well as narrative non-fiction about saving a whale (Orca Rescue!). Every book on the list is allowed to be its own unique, special self, and the whole team from editorial, design and production to marketing and sales works hard to preserve the vision for each book.
KS: In terms of non-fiction, we always talk about “content with context.” That means packaging a book in a way that provides connections and context that can’t be found anywhere else. This is especially important when you consider how much research kids conduct online — we always want to make sure that our books provide value beyond what’s found in other books or websites. Polar by L. E. Carmichael and Byron Eggenschwiler is a wonderful example. The book compares how animals survive in similar ways in the Arctic and Antarctica, with comparisons of species that truly are nowhere else in print. Combined with Byron’s incredible art, that book really is the full package!
PO: I like to think of our books as “stories+.” Every Kids Can Press book — even our non-fiction — tells a story, and each one offers opportunities for further connections, whether it’s to emotional learning, larger social issues or curriculum. And I’m not just talking about backmatter. The stories we choose to publish and the way we present them encourage each child reader to understand themselves and their world a little better. You’ll get something more than just a great story when you pick up a KCP book.
Regarding submissions and acquisitions, what are you each looking for in the next great book?
KK: I’m looking for picture books, graphic novels and non-fiction that shed new light on the familiar. In picture books, I like highly visual storytelling, sly humor, lyrical writing and strong characters. In non-fiction for all ages, I’m drawn to untold stories and groundbreaking approaches, whatever the topic. I’m also the lead editor for our CitizenKid collection, which is a collection of books that inform children about the world and inspire them to be engaged global citizens. When acquiring new CitizenKid books, I look for stories that advocate for the seventeen themes represented by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals while making complex, challenging topics accessible to younger audiences.
KS: I’m eager to see more picture books that have something to say — that leave readers with a big idea to think about long after they turn the last page. I love stories where the big idea is something that I myself didn’t learn until adulthood — about how to exist in the world, how to show up for yourself, how to be there for others. It’s exciting when a book can be a guiding light in that way. And it’s thrilling when that can be done within thirty-two pages.
PO: I want to be surprised! Every editor is haunted by the old adage “There are no new stories.” So we think, How can we tell that story in a new way? Who hasn’t told that story before? Is playing with format, with details, with character enough? This is why I’m drawn to stories from creators who have not traditionally been published. By nature, their stories haven’t been widely heard, so it’s a revelation to listen to them. And there’s nothing quite like being surprised by a great joke. Humor is so hard to write well, but it’s the easiest way to surprise me.
YU: I’m looking for stories that make me feel something and that surprise me with that feeling. I am particularly drawn to irreverent humor, which could be a bit dark or absurd — but other feelings work on me too! And I’m always looking for a distinct voice, unforgettable characters and, more generally, books that will catch people’s attention in a highly competitive, crowded market and invite repeated readings.
Can you each share a new book you are especially excited about?
KK: I’m excited about the picture book Benjamin’s Thunderstorm, written by Melanie Florence and illustrated by Hawlii Pichette. It just published in September and it’s a classic rainy-day tale that kids will delight in, with Cree words and powwow-inspired imagery woven into the story. Then there’s the picture book Garbage Gulls, coming in Spring 2024. It’s a wholly original story about two brothers and a flock of seagulls on a hot summer day — to say more would ruin the surprise! Author Dorson Plourde and illustrator Isabella Fassler are both so talented that it’s hard to believe this is the first book for both.
KS: I can’t wait for people to read Beatrice and Barb from debut author Kate Jenks Landry, illustrated by Vivian Mineker (Fall 2023). It’s a gem of a story about a girl who wants a pet but instead gets a Venus flytrap named Barb. At the story’s core is a wonderful message about how to take care of those we love. Looking ahead, Queer History A to Z: 100 Years of LGBTQ+ Activism by Robin Stevenson and Vivian Rosas is one not to miss (Spring 2024). It’s an invaluable resource about queer history in North America — a book that should be in every library!
PO: I am so proud of The Cricket War, a gripping middle-grade novel inspired by co-author Thọ Phạm’s experience as a child refugee who, at the age of 12, fled Communist Vietnam by boat. I have an 11-year-old daughter, and as I was editing the novel I’d sometimes look at her and think, Would you know how to outwit pirates? It’s a powerful story that Thọ and his childhood friend, Sandra McTavish, crafted with particular care for authentic detail and heart. And coming in Spring 2024 is picture book A Crocodile Should Never Skip Breakfast. Author-illustrator Colleen Larmour has created a relatable, hilarious character in Crocodile, who wakes up too late to have breakfast and grows hangrier by the minute. Kids and their adults will snap this up!
YU: We’re launching a new chapter book series in Spring 2024 that I can’t wait for readers to discover. Frankie D, Vegan Vampire stars a lovable vampire named Frankie, whose family has just relocated from Transylvania, gone vegan and given up their old vampire ways. Now Frankie has to figure out how to navigate school and life in an unfamiliar world — a pretty tall order for a deathly pale, fanged fourth-grader who is afraid of the sun and has superabilities, a special talent for taxidermy, a pet wolf and a talking parrot for a nanny!
How do you see Kids Can evolve over the next 50 years?
YU: I’ve seen a lot of change at KCP already in the eleven years I’ve been with the company, and also enormous change in the market more generally throughout my career, so predicting what will happen over the next fifty years feels impossible (and possibly ill-advised) … But two things have remained constant at KCP: 1. The dedication, talent and passion of the people who work here never seems to change — each person bringing something meaningful and unique to the work we do; and 2. KCP’s aim has always been to publish books for kids that reflect the world around them, and we have evolved with our audience and the times. So, no doubt our list will grow and change, but KCP’s core values have endured for five decades and I expect them to continue to guide us for decades to come.