The KidLit Boom
Canadian authors and illustrators are producing more—and better—children's than ever
At Edmonton’s Bishop Greschuk Elementary School, Halifax poet Sheree Fitch is entertaining a gaggle of fiveto-seven year-olds with what she calls “utterature,” her performance poetry. Line by line, the 40-yearold author of such hits as Sleeping Dragons All Around and Mabel Murple entices the delighted students into reciting bits of her tonguetwisting nonsense poems. Waving her be-ringed hands over the seated group, Fitch breaks into a few verses of There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen!, which won the 1993 Mr. Christie Award for Best Canadian Children’s Book. Soon, nearly all 100 children are giggling and shouting out the lines “It’s a national, irrational, primordial disaster. ”
Sheree Fitch's reading was one of hundreds of events staged during the 19th annual Canadian Children's Book Week. The festival sent 22 authors and illustrators crisscrossing the country from Nov. 18 to 25 to engage the hearts, minds and eyes of children and adults with their work. Organized by the Toronto-
based Canadian Children’s Book Centre, a nonprofit promotional body,
the annual read-in allows nearly 30,000 children to meet Canadian writers and artists in the flesh. Bishop Greschuk principal Marie Whelan says that merely meeting a real author encourages children to discover the pleasure of books and to think that they, too, can write. ‘We want to keep books alive for our students,” said Whelan. “Kids can read a book on the bus or in bed. We don’t want them looking at screens all the time—we want them to be open to the richness of reading.” During the past 20 years, that richness has included an ever-increasing number of books by Canadian writers and illustrators. Before 1975, only a handful of children’s books were published in Canada. Ten years later, there were 150 titles, and this year the number of children’s and young-adult books tops 400. Not only are there a lot more books, but they are much better—funnier, deeper, more daring and more visually appealing—than they once were. With a few exceptions, it used to be a patriotic chore to review Canadian children’s books,” says Michele Landsberg, a Toronto Star columnist and member of a children’s books panel on CBC Radio’s Morningside. “Now, it’s a pleasure. The books be ing produced in this country are some of the best in the world.”
A number of factors came together to seed the creative and entrepreneurial boom in Canadian children’s books. First, there was the market of educated baby boomers with money to spend on their kids, and a recognition of the role of books in raising bright, imaginative children. Meanwhile, public policy in the past three decades has favored creating a distinctive Canadian culture in the face of overwhelmingly foreign competition (in 1975, for example, the Canada Council began to offer funding support for Canadian children’s titles). The result is a homegrown industry—and a body of work that both reflects Canada back to its audience and sells abroad. “When we started 20 years ago, we had a very strong desire to create terrific books for kids that embodied the voice and values of Canadians,” recalls Rick Wilkes, co-publisher with Anne Millyard of Torontobased Annick Press, which counts mega-seller Robert Munsch and award-winning illustrator Stéphane Poulin among its stable of authors and artists. “And without being too self-consciously chauvinistic about it, we also knew that anything good enough for the Canadian child would be good enough for the universal child, and would travel beyond Canada.” Today, Annick is one of a handful of publishers that dominate the children’s publishing scene in Canada. Groundwood Books, Kids Can Press and Owl Books in Toronto, as well as Montreal’s Tundra Books, are small hands-on, steadily growing companies with annual gross revenues from $1.5 million (Tundra) to $4.5 million (Kids Can). There are several smaller outfits, including Kingston, Ont.-based Búngalo Books (The Búngalo Boys), a two-person operation formed in 1986 that recently sold its millionth copy. Meanwhile, Lester Publishing, Stoddart Publishing and Somerville House in Toronto, Orca in Victoria, Whitecap Books in Vancouver and Red Deer College Press in Alberta have recently started up or expanded children’s lists. Faced with formidable competition from
American and British companies whose economies of scale they could never equal, they have survived and even thrived by devising innovative strategies at home and abroad. “Making picture books means making art books at mass-market prices—it’s an
expensive business,” says Tundra’s May Cutler, who has published such perennial best-sellers as Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater (1984) and Ann Blades’ Mary of Mile-18 (1971), as well as the winner this year of a Governor General’s prize for illustration, The Last Quest of Gilgamesh. Those strategies include marketing books through nontraditional avenues: Kids Can, for one, has sold through the Avon catalogue, at craft and toy stores. And, of course, there are also the promotional benefits of the annual literary extravaganza that is Children’s Book Week.
At the elementary school in the small town of 100 Mile House, 180 km northwest of Vancouver, Tim Wynne-Jones is reading from The Maestro, his young-adult novel that just won a Governor General’s Award in the juvenile category. Waving his arms as if to conduct, he acts out a scene in which his 14-year-old protagonist, Burl Crow, meets up with a musician in the middle of the bush—a pianist whose eccentricities recall the late Glenn Gould. WynneJones , 47, explains to the 35 Grade 4-to-6 students gathered in the school library that, for him, a book always begins with an image. The Maestro, he says, started with a mental picture of a piano being hoisted by a helicopter and hovering in midair above a beautiful northern lake. One boy, eight-year-old Christopher Janzen, asks about Zoom the Cat, a picture-book trilogy based on Wynne-Jones’s own pet, Montezuma. Yes, his cat, like Zoom, really did playgames with a dripping faucet, the author says, but the rest was fantasy. “I’m a fiction writer, so I often tell lies,” the author says with a grin.
The most important strides in the domestic children’s book industry have come through international sales, whether by licensing foreign publishers to release their own editions or by directly selling finished books abroad. Companies that were once ignored at Italy’s annual Bologna Book Fair, the première showcase for children’s books, are now besieged by prospective buyers. Besides the United States, Canadian children’s publishers have sold their products in almost every major European country and language. Now, Asian and Latin American nations are becoming increasingly important. Some of the deals are surprising: after years of trying to break into the Japanese market, Annick recently sold four of its titles to a company that plans to give them away as prizes in pachinko parlors—places where whole families go to play a pinball-like game.
Children’s publishing is arguably the most vital segment of the Canadian-owned industry, accounting for 29 per cent of those publishers’ domestic sales in 1993. And once such specialties as Harlequin romance publishers are factored out, children’s books made up 28 per cent of foreign sales by Canadian publishers that year. Yet, for all its success, it remains a fragile industry. With small profit margins, publishers are vulnerable on several fronts, from rising paper costs to cuts in government subsidies to diminished library and school budgets. Federal heritage department programs for assisting publishers have been slashed by $25 million in one year—a 55-per-cent cut. And in Ontario, where the industry is concentrated, the Conservative government has eliminated loan guarantee programs, trimmed the budget of the Ontario Arts Council by 29 per cent over two years and made other cutbacks that will diminish school and library funding. ‘We sell 50 per cent of our books to institutions,” says Patricia Aldana, president and publisher of Groundwood, which produces picture books and young-adult novels. “Many public libraries and schools have already gotten rid of their children’s librarians. And with the latest round of cuts, there will be no budgets to buy books.”
The diminished buying power of schools and libraries is also a threat to book wholesalers. Judy Sarick, owner of the Chil-
dren’s Book Store in Toronto, the oldest and largest children’s-only outlet in North America, reports that her institutional sales have decreased 20 per cent since 1990. “In some ways, it was easier when we opened in 1974,” says Sarick. The store recently expanded to include book-related CD-ROMs for
children. “It’s a way to compensate for that loss of income from schools and libraries,” says Sarick, who adds that she has 1,000 teachers in her Teachers’ Club, and “they are buying books for their students out of their own pockets.”
Ironically, the retrenchment at home comes at a time when the profile of Canadian children’s books has never been higher. Guelph, Ontbased author Munsch has some 20 million books in print, including Cantonese and Armenian versions of his 1980 hit, The Paper Bag Princess (page 48). Sales of Franklin the Turtle, a character created in 1986 by Toronto writer Paulette Bourgeois and Port Perry, Ont., illustrator Brenda Clark, just keep getting stronger (page 50). And many lesser-known Canadian writers and illustrators have been steadily reaping honors. As well as winning major prizes in Canada, Montreal illustrator and author Pierre Pratt became, in 1992, the first Canadian to win the prestigious UNICEF award at the Bologna Book Fair and followed it up with the 1993 Bratislava Golden Apple Award for Follow That Hat! And this fall, Wynne-Jones received the coveted Boston Globe-Horn Award for a short-story collection, Some of the Kinder Planets, recently released in the United States.
They join the ranks of other celebrated creators, including writers Janet Lunn (The Root Cellar), Brian Doyle (Angel Square) and Sarah Ellis (Out of the Blue) and illustrators Barbara Reid (famous for her plasticine images) and Ian Wallace and Stéphane Poulin, both of whom were nominated for the Swiss-based Hans Christian Andersen Award, known as “the little Nobel” prize. In 1990, the Bologna Book Fair hosted a special exhibition of the work of Canadian illustrators,
and next November, the Guadalajara Book Fair in Mexico, the largest such event in Latin America, will showcase Canada’s book artists.
More than 300 people are gathered in the ornate Imperial Room of Toronto’s venerable Royal York Hotel on a recent Saturday night. They sip wine, munch hors d’oeuvres and look at the pictures displayed around the room. The event is a fund-raiser for the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, and each of them has paid $50 for a chance to bid on 140 pieces of art donated by children’s illustrators. Later, when they take their seats,
auctioneer Alison Reeve urges the bidding higher on a Ted Harrison acrylic painting. And as the brilliantly colored canvas is going, going, gone for $2,700, the audience cheers and breaks into applause. Julia Conn Watt, president and CEO of Tech Data Canada Inc., a Toronto-area computer company, buys a watercolor by Rhian Brynjolson from The Yesterday Stone. A Texan transplanted to Ontario and an avid collector of children’s illustrations, Conn says: “I had no idea there was so much wonderful Canadian art available. It’s a real eye-opener for me. ” The evening nets $60,000 for the Book Centre.
Writing for children is hardly a lucrative profession for most.
Toronto-based Linda Granfield, 45, specializes in nonfiction, a category that is growing. (Kids Can and Owl Books have made a specialty of it, with works including craft books by Camilla Gryski and playful science tomes by “Dr. Zed,” respectively.) But Granfield, who has written eight books since 1990, says that even with foreign sales, her income averages only about $15,000 a year. “It’s a luxury for me to be able to write,” says the author, a mother of two children, Devon, 14, and Brian, 12. “And I can only do it because I have a husband [systems consultant Cal Smiley] who is the main breadwinner.” Granfield loves to shock kids during school visits when they ask, as they invariably do, how much she earns. ‘When I tell them that I make about 59 cents on a $10 book, they’re aghast. One boy piped up in class, ‘Sh—, she can’t even buy a bag of chips with that’ ” Still, like most of the Canadian KidLit community, Granfield has a kind of missionary zeal about her work. “I have to do it,” she says. “There’s a world of ideas out there, a world of kids to discover them, and if s as if I’m the go-between.”
In Tattletales, a newly opened children’s bookstore in Dartmouth, N.S., 16-year-old trumpeter Chris MacAulay plays reveille to introduce Granfield. She is addressing about 150 Grade 5 and 6 schoolchildren, telling them about the research she did for her recent picture book, In Flanders Fields: The Story Behind John McCrae’s Poem, illustrated with paintings by Janet Wilson. Three local war veterans listen and nod their approval as the author discusses life in the trenches of the First World War. She tells them how 15-yearold boys lied about their age in order to join up. She talks about how the soldiers were required to be cleanshaven and often had to use cold tea to lather their faces. When she describes how the troops were forced to urinate into handkerchiejs to protect themselves during poison gas attacks, the children respond with, “Oh, gross,” and, “It’s disgusting, but I guess I’d do that to survive.” At the end of the session, the trumpeter plays The Last Post The vets stand at attention, and then the children begin to ask Granfield and the three men to autograph their books. Afterward, Grade 6 student Joey Bou-Daher, 11, says: “It’s good to have a book like this to tell you about the war. It gives you details about the trenches and really tells you how the men lived. ”