Rick Wilks, director of Annick Press, believes that his publishing company’s Canadian identity might produce a little more compassion for the underdog, “for those trying to make their way in the margins of society,” he says. He quickly adds that these are values cherished by many cultures, but the children’s books that Annick Press produces come from a place where there is a “natural sympathy for youth as they wrestle to find their place in a complex, often difficult adult world.”
I recently discussed with Wilks just how Annick Press manages to speak the sometimes-cryptic language of middle grade readers in its award-winning books, along with how a company founded almost forty years ago can stay relevant to new generations of young people.
Annick Press was founded in 1975. That’s somewhere around the Pleistocene era from the point of view of your target readers. How do you stay current and relevant?
The best writers are in touch with their own visceral understandings of childhood, and many are in contact with kids on a regular basis. Annick maintains strong connections with youth culture and the professionals who serve kids. We work with librarians, educators, and community groups and pursue our own engagements with civil society. We will also invite guests into our editorial meetings to talk about issues and themes.
Annick Press believes that every reading experience has to resonate with kids. Young readers have a remarkable radar for the truth; if something doesn’t feel absolutely authentic, it won’t strike the right chords. We never talk at kids or set out a didactic agenda; we talk with them. We believe in the power of storytelling. The oldest form of communicating has not lost its power. Once we know we’ve established a strong thematic connection, a story has the power to deeply resonate and open up readers to a myriad of possibilities.
One of your current books, Erebos, is about an online game that “knows a lot about the players and begins to manipulate their lives.” Sounds eerily similar to recent news about Facebook. Is this theme part of your overall goal to reflect real teen experiences?
We do try to stay ahead of the curve in terms of themes that engage youth. Erebos, which is a buy-in from Germany, was published several years ago. What appealed to us, first and foremost, was its powerful storytelling, which hooks even the most reticent of readers, and the profundity with which the story described some of the issues that emerge with online gaming. Teen lives are filled with struggle. We want to acknowledge that and to suggest that there are others who share their experiences and that coping, and even working for change, is not only possible but achievable.
Again, that message has to be delivered with honesty and integrity. Without hope, life can be overwhelming, but by depicting kids wrestling with the challenges that confront them, we can tell stories that show youth responding, fighting back, and even achieving some successes. We want to be realistic, to fully acknowledge the isolation and anxiety experienced by so many youth, but also to suggest that life can improve and even be “figured out.”
Middle grade is tough for parents to figure out. Their kids are too old for picture books, but too young for more-mature adult themes. What do parents need to keep in mind when buying books for their kids in those middle years?
Our main commitment to the middle grades takes the form of illustrated nonfiction. We have a very specific take on how we communicate with youth. We tell them stories that will fascinate, intrigue, and entertain, all the while making sure that there is a “wow” factor. Middle-grade readers are discovering their world. If we can bring them stories that not only stimulate their interest but also help them make sense of the world, then we’ve achieved something.
The single most important factor in reaching middle-grade readers, as it is with all ages, is to ensure that there is a joy of the reading experience packed into the pages of the book. If there is, they’ll be motivated to continue. We are successful if our audience is reading for pleasure, with the bonus that they are learning at the same time. We feel strongly that when a book offers both an opportunity to learn and a joyful reading experience, the parent can’t go wrong. Nor can the classroom teacher, who will see his/her students respond enthusiastically to a curriculum topic.
There’s a great deal of talk these days about diversity in children’s literature. How important is it to depict children of diverse backgrounds? Is it more important than simply telling a good story?
A good story can never be neglected as the highest priority. And a good story is one that mirrors the world we live in by offering undeniable truths. One such significant reality is that we live in diverse communities. I believe that youth today are more open and comfortable with diversity than previous generations. But myths and misunderstanding continue to exist, and it’s important that barriers are addressed and challenged. It’s a problem that so much North American children’s literature does not fully reflect our diverse society.
We’ve taken on the issue in publications such as It’s Not All Black and White: Multiracial Youth Speak Out, in which youth talk about being in bicultural relationships. Native Americans are featured in a number of our publications, including the award-winning Fatty Legs: A True Story, about life in a residential school. We also take a more subtle approach by ensuring that the characters in our publications reflect the everyday world of youth.
Your books deal with issues such as bullying or how the beauty industry targets customers. Do all your books need to have an important underlying issue or message?
Our books need to be relevant, pose questions, encourage critical and analytical thinking, and open up minds to new ways of perceiving issues and other people. These are the goals that excite us as publishers. Nonfiction publications such as Made You Look: How Advertising Works and Why You Should Know reveal much of their content through storytelling, so readers experience riveting stories and learn at the same time.
Other books that encourage speaking out or standing up for yourself, such as People Who Said No: Courage Against Oppression or Robert Munsch’s classic The Paper Bag Princess, first and foremost tell a good story. No matter how worthy the message, it can’t overwhelm the story or tell that reader what to think. We lay ideas out for them and encourage the reader to put the pieces together to draw their own conclusions. The process of learning and reflecting is the path to building self-knowledge and awareness.
You emphasize multimedia and social media. Are promotional videos, tweets, and Facebook posts just as important as the traditional publishing process?
It’s all about communication. The message remains the same; what changes is how we converse with our audience. Kids, parents, and educators are finding new ways to interact with the world. We need to be there to be a part of that conversation.
What are some upcoming titles you’re excited about?
To This Day: For the Bullied and Beautiful by Shane Koyczan, illustrated by various artists. This passionate anti-bullying poem has electrified the world. The animated video has gone viral, racking up close to 14 million hits. We’ve adapted it into a moving and visually arresting book that is illustrated by thirty talented artists from around the world.
Dreaming in Indian: Contemporary Native American Voices, edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale. Over fifty emerging and established Native artists have contributed poems, essays, photographs, stories, art, and music that provide a unique insight into a community often misunderstood and misrepresented by mainstream media. This beautiful book is a testament to the strength, creativity, and resilience of Native youth.
In Your Face: The Culture of Beauty and You, by Shari Graydon, illustrated by Karen Klassen and Katy Lemay. A seminal book about the power, myths, and pressures surrounding the culture of beauty. Readers are encouraged to think critically about the beauty industry hype that tries to “sell” us the image of the perfect man or woman.
The End of the Line, written by Sharon McKay. Award-winning author Sharon McKay has created a powerful novel for younger readers with this moving story about a Jewish girl living in Amsterdam in 1942 during the Nazi occupation. A foreword by the author explains the term “Righteous Gentiles,” a term used to honor those who put themselves and their families in danger by helping Jews escape certain death.