Calls for more diversity in books this year have echoed north into Canada. While publishers in the country acknowledge that there is still work to be done to produce books that reflect current racial and cultural realities, they also draw attention to their long history of working toward diversity and offer a few examples from their latest books.
Diversity is a real and important issue, says Rick Wilks, director of Annick Press. “When kids are looking at books, [the books] are not that reflective of what you see in the classroom and the societies they live in.”
Recent discussions about diversity have been productive, he says. “People are really looking out for it now in a new and re-energized way... I think it caused a lot of people to go back and look at their collections, look at the books, make sure that the various constituencies that they are serving really are reflected in the literature they have on offer.”
He adds, however, that there is some disparity between Canada and the U.S. on the issue. “I’m not being critical of the States, but Canadians seemed to be more attuned to this, and we’ve been paying attention to this for a long time,” he says.
Sheila Barry, publisher of Groundwood Books, notes, “The rise of Canadian-owned publishing houses in the 1970s grew out of a realization that all Canadian voices—of whatever race or ethnicity—were minority voices in a market dominated by American and British houses. Perhaps that has made us more inclined to seek out different voices.” Speaking to PW when Groundwood celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2013, founder Patsy Aldana said she was concerned about the lack of diversity in Canadian children’s literature in the company’s early days, and publishing minority voices became one of the company’s specialties, beginning with groundbreaking titles such as Paul Yee’s Tales from Gold Mountain and Thomas King’s controversial A Coyote Columbus Story, a folkloric take on 1492 told from the native North American perspective. Aldana, a past president of the International Board on Books for Young People, also brought to Groundwood an interest in publishing diversity in a global context.
Kids Can Press, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, began with a mandate to reflect a modern Canadian identity, particularly in urban and multicultural stories. One of the press’s earliest successes was with Angela Wood’s The Sandwich, which was about an immigrant child’s wish that her lunch would be just like that of the other kids in her class.
James Lorimer and Company, which produces fiction for reluctant readers, has been publishing a series of teen fiction called Sidestreets for about 15 years. “We’re veering toward a more urban feel to our teen fiction,” says Christie Harkin, associate publisher, children and teens. “And in Canada we think of urban fiction... as anything set in the city that is multicultural because our cities are really multicultural, and so we have a lot of diversity in terms of the representative characters.” In the company’s fiction series, Harkin explains, “race is not the story. Naturally, a person’s ethnicity and cultural background has a part in who they are, but that’s not the story. Being black isn’t a problem, it just is. In Double Play, the character has two moms, and again, it’s not the story.”
The houses that began in that socially progressive era in Canada have continued that motivation into their present-day publishing programs.
Government grants to help the fledgling Canadian publishing industry get started in the 1970s were vital to many publishers’ existence, and government support remains important. But asked if contemporary government support makes it possible for Canadian publishers to take risks on publishing books on themes that might not sell in huge quantities, Barry, of Groundwood, says that the grant system exists “not so that we can publish unprofitable books, but so that Canadian publishing can survive —profitably, one hopes—in a landscape where the Canadian sector could easily be swallowed up by giant multinational houses.” In Groundwood’s case, both Aldana and Barry say that the diversity in their publishing helped their books stand out in the market, particularly when Groundwood began selling into the U.S. “One way to compete is to differentiate ourselves from the competition, and in a children’s publishing environment where more and more success stories are about adult-style blockbusters with mass appeal, I think Groundwood has made the right choice in focusing on other voices and points of view,” says Barry.
Diversity by the Book
Here’s a sampling of the kinds of diversity to be found in Canadian children’s lists this year.
Kids Can president Lisa Lyons Johnston says the company has “made a concerted effort because people are asking for diversity.” That’s visible in its fall release of the book Families Around the World, by Margriet Ruurs and Jessica Rae Gordon. “It has all kinds of families, families with two mothers, families where the kids are adopted, so we’re really making an effort so everyone can see themselves,” says Lyons Johnston. This book is the third in a series that began with Donata Montanari’s Children Around the World, which Kids Can published a decade ago. Kids Can’s popular Citizen Kid series, which aims to cultivate a world-mindedness in kids and includes such books as David J. Smith’s If the World Were a Village and Rochelle Strauss’s One Well, offers global views of diversity. And, the fall picture book Hana Hashimito, Sixth Violin, by Chieri Uegaki and Quin Leng, features a little girl who is inspired to play the violin by visits with her grandfather in Japan; but the plot doesn’t revolve around the family’s ethnicity—it’s only in the background.
Taking a similar global approach is the latest book in a series of picture books Eric Walters is writing for Tundra Books. Illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes, Hope Springs is set in Kenya, where Walters runs a charitable orphanage that has inspired many of his recent books. When water runs short in the village, the children in the orphanage must build their own well.
Groundwood has a picture book from debut author and illustrator Kellen Hatanaka, Work: An Occupational ABC, which features a quirky selection of jobs from A to Z. “It has the most diverse cast of characters. There are characters of every color, race, gender, nongender, size, age,” says Barry. “This is by an author who is himself mixed race and who is so young himself, that I think... this is just his world. It’s not a message book at all, it’s just this is our world. Except it’s not our world, because we aren’t all yogis and wedding singers.”
A new novel from Deborah Ellis, The Cat at the Wall, is also on Groundwood’s list for fall. Ellis might be a “poster author” for diversity and giving voice to those who struggle to be heard. She has an extensive list of nonfiction books in which she interviews children in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Israel, and most recently, for Looks Like Daylight, she interviewed Native American kids across North America. Her fiction similarly aims to express the realities of lives of children in varied locations around the world. Her most well-known work, the Breadwinner trilogy, set in Afghanistan, just got a big boost and validation when Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, said in a recent interview with the New York Times that Ellis is one of her favorite authors who “beautifully captures childhood in war-torn Afghanistan and Pakistan.” This spring, Ellis also published a novel with Toronto-based Pajama Press. Moon at Nine is based on the true story of two young Iranian girls who fall in love and are arrested for the crime of being homosexual. The Cat at the Wall, written after Ellis made a return visit to Israel and Palestine, is set in a house in the West Bank that two Israeli soldiers have commandeered, but beneath the floorboards a young Palestinian boy is hiding.
Margie Wolfe, publisher and owner of Second Story Press, says she was pleased that some of the company’s books received favorable mention in a report on diversity published by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Second Story’s Every Day Is Malala Day, a book of letters from girls around the world expressing their “sympathy, sisterhood, and admiration” for Malala Yousafzai, has sold in 11 territories and will be published by Random House in the U.S.
On a subject closer to home, Second Story publishes a First Nations series for young readers, and Wolfe says she plans to announce a First Nations writers’ contest for a children’s book (in Canada, the term “First Nations” is used to refer to indigenous aboriginal people). “Because there was such a dearth of material, we’re just beginning to catch up.... One of the projects we have in the works is a narrative nonfiction work about a child in a residential school written by her granddaughter. There’s just been no literature in this area. It’s something that excites us,” says Wolfe.
Inhabit Media is the only Inuit-owned publisher in the Arctic, and its raison d’être is to publish Inuit and Northern stories, which was not happening in significant way before Inhabit’s started in 2006. Inhabit publishes about 10 books per season in English, each of which is also published in at least one dialect of Inuktitut. This fall, Sweetest Kulu, a bedtime book written by well-known throat singer Celina Kalluk and illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis, about the gifts that the animals in the Arctic could give to a newborn baby, is expected to have broad appeal, says project manager Kelly Ward.
One of Penguin Canada’s lead Razorbill titles this fall is Laura Langston’s The Art of Getting Stared At, about a teen girl who finds bald spots in her hair and is diagnosed with alopecia. That subject alone contributes to diversity, but Lynne Missen, publishing director for Penguin’s Young Readers’ Group, notes another element: the protagonist’s “great, sexy” love interest is of mixed race. Missen underlines that his mixed-race identity “is very much not the issue,” it is merely an aspect of the character.Annick Press offers an expression of diversity from an international perspective with its fall title Escape from Tibet: A True Story by Nick Gray. Annick director Wilks saw a documentary film that Gray made about children who were trying to escape Tibet, and says he knew he wanted to do a book on the story.
“It fits with our ambition to tell great stories that also open kids’ eyes because in the course of this amazing adventure story, the [kids] walk with virtually bare feet across the Himalayas to escape and they are captured several times and beaten,” says Wilks. “Kids are reading this amazing story, but they are also learning so much about Tibet and the culture and what’s going on in that part of the world, and also about the Dalai Lama [who wrote a foreword for the book], and his ideas about Buddhism.”
On the domestic side, Annick is also publishing Dreaming in Indian, a collection of essays, poems, and art work gathered about the immediate world of aboriginal people. “There is a wide range of stories being told,” says Wilks. “The contributors include [author] Joseph Boyden, visual artists, comedians, musicians, youth, all kinds of people from all over North America.... We’ve set it up to really feature successes, art work, paintings, poetry. It’s an honest and [positive] look at where aboriginal culture is today.”