Sheila Barry on Publishing Children’s Books That Matter

In Opinion & Commentary by Guest Contributor

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Sheila Barry

Sheila Barry of Canada’s Groundwood Books, discusses the challenges of consistently publishing an engaging variety of children’s books for all ages.

By Sheila Barry

On a bad day in the office, I can feel as though my primary role as a children’s book publisher is to keep books out of children’s hands.

At Groundwood Books, we publish about 30 books from the 1,500 or so submissions we receive each year. For every book we contract, there are 49 others that won’t appear on our list. Day after day, there I am, saying no. Sometimes I say no regretfully, simply because our list is so small and we just can’t publish everything that’s good. But I also say no to books that don’t offer an original approach to a given topic or genre.

I say no to books that I feel I have read a thousand times before. I say no to books that are morally narrow, that offer simplistic solutions to complex problems. I say no to books that condescend to children. I say no to books that use a hammer or another blunt instrument to deliver a message.

I say no to books for all kinds of reasons, but I never say no to a book because I think its subject is inherently inappropriate for children.

Groundwood Books

So enough about the books that don’t make it onto our list. Let me describe some of the books that Groundwood has published and why.

For young adults, our Groundwork Guides non-fiction series includes books on democracy and hip-hop, but also on pornography, contemporary slavery, and genocide.

Our young adult fiction list includes books about LGBTQ issues (Jilian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki’s Skim, Paul Yee’s Money Boy), books about teen pregnancy, child prostitution, and relationship abuse (Martha Brooks’s True Confessions of a Heartless Girl, Martine Leavitt’s My Book of Life by Angel, Elise Moser’s Lily and Taylor), books about war and survival (Leah Bassoff and Laura DeLuca’s Lost Girl Found, Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner), and on and on.

True Confessions of a Heartless GirlWe know that young adults and middle readers want books that take serious subjects seriously, books that take them seriously both as readers and as people in the world. We know because their parents, librarians, booksellers and teachers tell us, and we know because less frequently — but often enough — children and teenagers tell us themselves.

When we turn to books for much younger readers, things get a bit murkier.

We are not born knowing that books can teach us counting and the alphabet, can make us laugh, and can reflect our joy in being alive. We are not born knowing that books can offer comfort as well as entertainment. And we certainly aren’t born knowing that books can help us make sense of our deepest fears or most terrible experiences.

For very young children to learn all that books can do, adults have to read all kinds of books with them. But first, someone has to publish all kinds of books.

Groundwood has published picture books about children living under oppressive political regimes (Antonio Skarmeta’s The Composition), First Nations children being taken from their homes and sent to residential schools (Nicola Campbell’s Shi-shi-etko and Shin-chi’s Canoe), and children who have been maimed by war both physically and emotionally (Ahmad Akbarpour’s Good Night, Commander).

We published these picture books and others like them not because we want to frighten children or push them into the big world before they are ready, but because we know that young children are already living in the big world, whether we like to admit it or not, and some children are already frightened, at least some of the time.

We apply the same principles whether we are publishing a picture book on a light-hearted subject or a potentially difficult subject. The book should be as well written and as beautifully illustrated as possible. Before anything, it should be a work of literature and a work of art.

Whatever sequence of events it describes should be seen from a child’s point of view. The book should depict children as active participants in the story. And it should emphasize the fundamental human rights all children are entitled to, even if it also shows that sometimes those rights are not respected by adults.

A picture book about war does not have to solve the problem of war, any more than a book about annoying siblings needs to solve the problem of siblings. But the book does have to suggest to young readers that hope is possible. No child should finish reading a book and feel more alone and more afraid than she did before she started it.

It would be lovely to think that every book with something important to say will find its way easily to the reader who needs it most. But children do not necessarily know what books are available to be read, and the younger the child, the harder it can be for him to find out.

If bookstores display only bestsellers, then parents might not know how many other books are out there and how broad is the range of subjects. If parents are not regular library users, then their children might not know the wealth of material available at a public library.

Many children are not free to visit a public library or bookstore independently, but every child is required to go to school. And this is why school libraries must ensure that all Canadian children have access to all kinds of books.

Like many children’s book publishers, I have a bit of missionary zeal for the importance of publishing books that will give children access to information or stories or insights that they might not be able to find elsewhere. If we don’t have librarians in our schools who are able to purchase these books and then recommend them to (or read them with) the children in their care, then publishers’ efforts are wasted and our children are deprived.

At the risk of preaching to the converted, I would like to close this essay with a bit of a manifesto.

Every Canadian school should have a library and a librarian.

School libraries should be open every day that the school is open.

Children should be able to visit the library both with their classes and on their own at recess or lunchtime.

School libraries should contain a wide range of reading material on a wide range of subjects.

If we can say that all these conditions are met in our schools, then we will be able to say that Canadian children are free to read. But without properly staffed and properly stocked school libraries that are open every day, our children do not have freedom of access to books, they do not have freedom of choice in what they read, and their right to read exists only as an abstraction.

And while we publishers might produce the most wonderful books imaginable, we will be publishing books that not nearly enough children are reading.

Sheila Barry is Publisher at Groundwood Books. This article was written for the Book and Periodical Council’s Freedom to Read Week. Freedom to Read Week is an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.