Q&A with Patsy Aldana, founder and publisher of Groundwood Books


Established in 1978, Groundwood Books is a small children’s book publisher, associated with House of Anansi Press, that specializes in Canadian authored books (with a special interest in books by First Nations authors), bilingual books in English and Spanish, translations from around the world, and a non-fiction line aimed at young adults. Their catalog features a long list of award-winning titles that reflect individual experiences and are of universal interest.

Patricia (Patsy) Aldana, founder and publisher of Groundwood Books (and president of IBBY, the International Board on Book for Young Readers, since 1997), answered our questions about My Little Round Rouse, one of the seven titles selected for inclusion in our Spirit of PaperTigers Book Set Donation Project; her commitment to publishing books by First Nations authors; the multicultural titles on their Fall list, and more.

In our series of interviews with the publishers of the books selected for our Spirit of PaperTigers project, I normally start by asking how the book in question came about as a project for the publisher. Since we already know the answer to this question in relation to My Little Round House, both from our interview with author Bolormaa Baasansuren and from translator Helen Mixter’s article, My Little Round House: The Journey of a Picture Book from Mongolia to Canada, we’ll start by asking…

PT: What in particular attracted you to My Little Round House?

PA: I thought it was a really special book about people whose lives are very different from ours. I also thought it was a very unique look at a baby’s life, a life that despite being nomadic seemed wonderfully cosy and safe.

PT: The books you publish often tell the stories of people whose voices are underrepresented. What first motivated you to start on this path and how do you manage to stay true to your mission?

PA: Being a Guatemalan, I guess that seeing the world through the eyes of the marginal has always come naturally to me. There are so many books published from and for the mainstream that, for me, focusing on underrepresented authors and illustrators was one way to justify being a publisher. As a small Canadian house, this focus has also been a way for us to distinguish ourselves from the huge multi-nationals with whom we have to compete.

PT: How did the decision to stop selling rights to the American market and to start publishing your books in the US come about?

PA: As US publishing changed from the editor-driven houses that I first came to know (Margaret K McElderry, Dorothy Briley, Susan Hirschman, Phyllis Fogelman, etc.), it became harder and harder to sell rights to our books in the US. At the same time Canada began to cut funding to school libraries and as a result our domestic market really shrank. We had to publish ourselves in the US or die. And that meant we had to bring our best books to the US in order to establish our list. We had very little money, but we had the quality of our books and needed to show our whole list in order to make our way.

PT: Since 1998 Groundwood Books has been publishing stories in English and Spanish by people of Latino origin under its Libros Tigrillo imprint. What motivated the creation of this imprint, and how has this part of the business grown since then?

PA: Libros Tigrillo was made possible by our move into the US market. While there are excellent books for children published in Spanish, I felt there was room for a list that was oriented toward North American Latinos. What has been a crushing disappointment, however, is the virtual disappearance of the Spanish-language market in the US. We have had to abandon Spanish-only books and start publishing bilingual books.

I have always been opposed to the use of bilingual books, however given that Spanish-only books hardly sell at all, I have had to accept that books in Spanish can only reach Latinos if they are bilingual. This goes against everything I believe and know to be true about language instruction, the joy of reading in your mother tongue, and what I believe to be the wishes of the Spanish-speaking population. I find it shocking that such a large population of Spanish speakers are not served properly by bookstores, teachers and even (although this is less the case) by librarians.

PT: A 2005 Publishers Weekly article quotes you as saying: “Given that people are so interested in visual media, like graphic novels, I keep wanting to put illustrations into books for older children and older adolescents.” Have you been able to act on your desire to add illustrations to middle reader and young adult books?

PA: I have been able to, sometimes successfully, as in the case of Skim, and sometimes less successfully. But I will keep trying. We have a thrilling new graphic novel coming out in the Fall, Harvey by Herve Bouchard and Janice Nadeau, a very unconventional book that can be read by middle readers and yet has enormous adult appeal. I have high hopes for it. I have also just published a beautiful 96-page illustrated version of the Ring Cycle by Jorge Luján, called Brunhilda and the Ring, that adults have been enjoying, but that hasn’t been favorably reviewed by children’s book reviewers. They don’t seem to realize that it’s not aimed at children, that just because it has pictures it’s not necessarily for children.

PT: PaperTigers is currently focusing on the theme of Canadian Aboriginal Children’s Literature. Can you tell us something about the books by aboriginal authors and/or illustrators on Grounwood’s list?

PA: Everywhere in the world First Nations people suffer terrible discrimination, poverty and exclusion. I am especially interested in making sure that these people have a voice, and so Groundwood has always published as many aboriginal people as we can.

In Canada, not only did First Nations people lose their land and in many cases have had to make do with terrible, isolating living conditions on reserves, there was the systematic destruction of these peoples’ way of life through the system of enforced residential schools. These schools not only abused the children within them, they broke people’s contact with their elders and with the land, further rendering a traditional way of life almost impossible. The residential-school process strikes me as a kind of crime against humanity, and Canada is still a very long way from coming to grips with it and the consequences of it, much less in making adequate reparation for it.

Most manuscripts we receive from Canadian First Nations people are about the schools or, perhaps even more important, about what was lost—the kind of glorious natural world from which the schools terminally separated them.

Leo Yerxa, Larry Loyie, Shirley Sterling, Ninegeokuluk Teevee and now Nicola I. Campbell, who is the child and grandchild of school survivors, all deal with these themes. There is also Tom King, a great satirist and
humorist who is an important author of ours.

PT: You have recently announced the release of Teacher’s Guides for your bestselling Groundwork Guides series. Are there any plans to develop teacher’s guides for other books as well?

PA: Yes, if teachers find them useful.

PT: How, if at all, do you think the public’s attitude toward multicultural books for children has changed since Groundwood was established, in 1978?

PA: I think the biggest difference is that it is now widely accepted in North America that these books are a part of our national literatures. While there are many, many things in North America that one can decry, we have grown more accepting of a multi-cultural world in which we have got to live together, tolerate each other and like each other. Our European and Asian friends are far behind us in this. I also think we are much more critical about books and expect excellence no matter who they are written or illustrated by, though now that quality has to include authenticity. Tokenism no longer works.

PT: What would you say are the biggest challenges you face as a publisher of children’s books, and in particular of multicultural books? What are your hopes for the future?

PA: I don’t see challenges, but opportunities. As for my hopes for the future, they are:

-That public institutions continue to be adequately funded, because we live and die by libraries and school libraries and the librarians who are such passionate advocates of our type of publishing.

-That we continue to instill in children a love of reading by giving them great books that speak to their own lives and give them knowledge about other worlds.

PT: Could you please give us a taste of your Fall catalog?

PA: These are the “multi-cultural” books on the Fall list:

No by Claudia Rueda, a Columbian author-illustrator, is a classic picture book about a little bear who doesn’t want to go to sleep.

Hello Baby Board Books by Jorge Uzon show the major stages in his baby’s first year. Jorge is an internationally recognised Chilean photojournalist.

Doggy Slippers is a wonderful book of first poems about pets by Jorge Luján and Isol, an award-winning team.

Arroz Con Leche / Rice Pudding, the second book in our bilingual cooking poem series, features a poetic text by Jorge Argueta and wonderful illustrations by renowned Brazilian artist Fernando Vilela.

Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged by Jody Nyasha Warner, and illustrated by Richard Rudnicki, is a remarkable true story about a Canadian black woman who in 1946, almost a decade before Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat in a whites-only section of a theater. The Nova Scotia government has just apologised for her arrest.

On the fiction front, we have…

No Safe Place, a gripping new YA novel by Deborah Ellis about teenage refugees in Europe.

Harvey, the graphic novel I mentioned earlier, by Hervé Bouchard, illustrated by Janice Nadeau.

Between Sisters, a wonderful novel about a fifteen-year-old girl in Ghana, by Ghanaian Canadian authorAdwoa Badoe.

PT: Wow. It sounds like we have lots of gems to look forward to! Thank you, Patsy, for taking the time to answer our questions. We are very grateful to Groundwood Books for donating copies of My Little Round House in support of our Spirit of PaperTigers project, and we wish you continued success!

To find out more about Groundwood Books, visit their websitefacebook and twitter pages.