By Words without Borders, May 6, 2021. Interviews.
In recent years, a proliferation of books in translation for children and young adults has brought imaginative stories from around the world to new readers. We’re speaking with some of the extraordinary publishers who make these books possible about their experience working in this vital field.
For the tenth installment in the series, we spoke with Karen Li, publisher of Canada-based Groundwood Books.
WWB: Could you tell us about the history of Groundwood Books (and your own history with the press)? Has translated literature always been part of its vision?
Karen Li (KL): Groundwood Books published its first children’s books in 1978. At the time, it was easier to find English-language books from the US, the UK, and even Australia than from Canada. From the start, the company’s founder, Patricia Aldana, was interested in creating a body of Canadian children’s literature, with a focus on authentic stories for and about children who might not otherwise see themselves reflected in the pages of a book.
For Patsy, who was born and raised in Guatemala, translated literature was always part of the vision. Groundwood has a strong reputation for publishing bilingual and Spanish-language books, as well as a long-standing interest in publishing stories for and from the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Sheila Barry and Semareh Al-Hillal, who followed as Groundwood publishers after Patsy’s retirement, continued and expanded this vision. When I joined the company in June last year, I was drawn to a publishing program that strongly reflects global and underrepresented perspectives—and one that has won much international acclaim over the years. I hope to fill some pretty big shoes!
WWB: Is there a particular theme, focus, or aesthetic that the children’s books published by Groundwood share?
KL: Our list reflects an interest in social justice and underrepresented voices while engaging a child’s sense of joy and wonder. We seek to make books that will influence a child’s understanding of the world and their engagement with their community. We don’t shy away from tough or controversial topics, but we do try to publish books that approach these topics with childlike curiosity and, of course, hope.
I think the visual quality of Groundwood books also stands out thanks in large part to our art director, Michael Solomon, who has been with the company since almost the beginning. It’s been a pleasure getting to know Michael and his wide-ranging knowledge of music, literature, film, art, you name it! And I think he brings that appetite to each project, seeking to understand, reflect, and amplify what makes every story special through illustration and design.
As an example, one creative duo that Michael has worked with for a long time is author Jairo Buitrago and illustrator Rafael Yockteng, with translator Elisa Amado. They are the team behind Jimmy the Greatest! (six starred reviews), Two White Rabbits (three starred reviews), Walk with Me (three starred reviews, Kirkus Prize shortlist), Lion and Mouse (two starred reviews) and, most recently, Cave Paintings. Every one of their projects feels different, looks different, and sounds different, and that’s something we love at Groundwood!
WWB: What are you looking for in a children’s story as a publisher and as a reader? What do you think draws a child into a story? Do you think that a good children’s book will always have some appeal for adults as well?
KL: Yes, I think a good children’s book will always have some appeal for adults, too. When I read with my kids, they enjoy all the same things I look for as a book publisher: characters that surprise and move us; writing that is playful and delicious to speak out loud; illustrations to lose ourselves in. Those are the books that I don’t mind pulling from the shelf over and over again for the pleasure of reading. And, importantly, for the pleasure of reading together.
WWB: What have been some of the most exciting aspects of the undertaking so far? What, if any, have you found to be the most challenging aspects of publishing children’s literature (as opposed to literature for adults)?
KL: I haven’t worked in adult publishing, so unfortunately I don’t have that point of comparison. But I think the most exciting thing about working in children’s publishing is the idea that our books count among a child’s first experiences of art and literature. What an inspiring idea—and also a great responsibility! This ties into the reason we highly value the international titles on our list: Kids should see that art and great storytelling can be found around the globe. It’s a part of the human experience.
The cover of Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh / This Is How I Know by Brittany Luby, illustrated by Joshua Pawis-Steckley and translated by Alvin Ted Corbiere and Alan Corbiere.
WWB: Are there any underrepresented languages or countries that you’re particularly drawn to, and are there literary traditions in children’s literature from other countries that you’re keen for Groundwood to share with Anglophone readers?
KL: Closer to home, we continue to learn about the rich diversity of Indigenous cultures and languages across the country, the role of storytelling in these communities, and their connection to the land. Not all of this can be translated into the pages of a book. But publishing Indigenous perspectives, writing, and artwork has long been important to Groundwood.
One book we released this spring that we’re excited to share is Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh / This Is How I Know. This is a bilingual story-poem written in English by Brittany Luby, translated into Anishinaabemowin by Alvin Ted Corbiere and Alan Corbiere, and illustrated by Joshua Pawis-Steckley. It follows an Anishinaabe child and her grandmother as they explore the seasonal wonders in the place they call home, which was inspired by the northern reaches of Anishinaabewaking, around the Great Lakes.
Something else I think Groundwood does well is to make space for books that don’t necessarily follow the individual-driven, conflict-resolution structure typical of Western/North American literature. One great example is Impossible by Isol, translated from Spanish by Elisa Amado, which we published in March 2021. The impossible child in this story is two-year-old Toribio, but the story is as much about his exhausted parents. They enlist a specialist for help, and the results she delivers could also be called impossible! What happens next is open to interpretation and very funny.
WWB: Do you think there has been a general upsurge in children’s publishing in recent years? What do you think has brought it about?
KL: Children’s books have always been culturally important. Looking at children’s literature from different periods, we can see what society most feared, and what it most hoped for. What did they warn children to pay attention to? Who did they want their kids to be?
But I think—and I’m hardly the first to say this—the recent upsurge of interest is likely tied to the startling financial success of certain children’s book properties, led by the publication of the Harry Potter books in the late 1990s and early 2000s. When companies, in particular general-interest multinational houses, saw there was money to be made, they directed greater investment toward their children’s categories, which resulted in the flourishing of the whole ecosystem: authors, illustrators, editors, designers, agents. The competition has only grown stronger and stronger in the last two decades, which has resulted in an impressively high quality and quantity of artistic and commercial output.
WWB: What is a new or forthcoming title that you are looking forward to sharing with readers?
KL: Another new Groundwood title in translation that might interest your readers is The Big Bad Wolf in My House by Valérie Fontaine, illustrated by Nathalie Dion, and translated from French by Shelley Tanaka. This is a moving story about domestic violence in which the protagonist compares her mother’s new friend to the Big Bad Wolf. Although the child is using the language of fairy tales, the story does end realistically and on a note of hope. The book is already sparking a lot of conversations.
WWB: What’s next for Groundwood?
KL: This might seem vague, but as a new publisher looking over the Groundwood list, I think the books that do best for us, in terms of both sales and critical acclaim, are the ones that are the “most Groundwood.” I’m excited to lean into a list that is beautiful, joyful, and unafraid of tackling difficult questions.
Groundwood Books is an independent Canadian children’s publisher based in Toronto. Our authors and illustrators are highly acclaimed both in Canada and internationally, and our books are loved by children around the world. We look for books that are unusual; we are not afraid of books that are difficult or potentially controversial; and we are particularly committed to publishing books for and about children whose experiences of the world are underrepresented elsewhere.