Editor Interview: Sheila Barry on Kids Can Press

Sheila Barry on Sheila Barry:

The Personal

“I am 44 years old, and I live in Toronto with my husband, our daughter, our cat, and some fish.”

The Professional

“I have worked in publishing for sixteen years. I have been editor-in-chief at Kids Can Press for almost five years, and I still wake up many mornings excited to go to work.”

Kids Can Press (KCP) is a children’s book publishing company in Toronto, Ontario. It was founded in 1973.

Were you an avid young reader, or did you come to this love later in life?

I devoured books as a child, mostly looking for material to fuel my incredibly active fantasy life. Stories about orphans or boarding schools (or even better, orphans in boarding schools) were my favorites.

What inspired you to enter the field of children’s and young adult publishing?

I started my publishing career as a production editor working on college textbooks. I learned a great deal about editing and budgets and the production process (and of course, since this was my first real office job, I learned how to get along with difficult people without becoming one myself), but I realized after a few years that once you have worked on 50 books that are mostly text with maybe a graph or photo here and there, there really isn’t much left to learn.

And then, I discovered illustrated books and a whole new world of complexity and beauty. Children’s books are so much richer than other printed materials–you never have that “been there; done that” feeling. And you get to work with the most wonderful, talented, creative and committed people.

What challenges and opportunities did you encounter at KCP?

Kids Can Press is a wonderful place to work, but it’s hard to get rich working anywhere in children’s publishing. And often the projects we are most excited about are the hardest to make work from a financial perspective. Still, we persevere, and by and large, we are pretty proud of what we do.

How would you describe the list? What sorts of books do you publish?

Every season, we aim to publish innovative picture books (Mr. Maxwell’s Mouse by Frank and Devin Asch and Alphabeasts by Wallace Edwards (author interview) are good examples of the breadth of our picture book list); non-fiction that opens up the world for children (for example, If the World Were a Village, written by David Smith and illustrated by Shelagh Armstrong); and fiction that delights and entertains (The Strictest School in the World by Howard Whitehouse is just wonderful fun).

If you had to highlight three recent titles that would give us a feel for the list, which would you choose and why?

Melanie Watt‘s Scaredy Squirrel (author-illustrator interview), the tale of a little squirrel who is neurotically afraid to leave his nut tree, is original, witty, visually stimulating, and emotionally satisfying–everything a picture book should be.

One Hen, written by Katie Smith Milway and illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes, shows that there is no subject you can’t make accessible for children. This non-fiction title describes the transformative potential of micro-loans through the true story of a young boy in Africa who receives a small amount of money–just enough to buy one hen–and manages over the course of the book to provide food for his family, go to school, and eventually use his knowledge and hard work to help his entire community.

Exploits of a Reluctant (But Extremely Goodlooking) Hero by Maureen Fergus is a funny and irreverent novel, perhaps even a bit tasteless at times. It’s the story of a boy with no redeeming qualities who, by the end of the book, shows barely a glimmer of a moral sense.

Which would you recommend to writers for study and why?

Picture-book writing seems to me to be one of the highest art forms. A good picture book is like a poem (and sometimes it really is a poem) in its use of language distilled to a pure essence. Some of my favorite Kids Can Press picture book texts are: Bella and the Bunny, written by Andrew Larsen and illustrated by Kate Endle; Stanley’s Party, written by Linda Bailey and illustrated by Bill Slavin; and Rosie and Buttercup, written by Chieri Uegaki and illustrated by Stephane Jorisch.

In each of these books, the beautifully told narratives employ a full range of emotions, from joy to despair and back to joy again–although in the case of Stanley’s Party, about a canine house party gone wrong, the emotional range is that of a dog rather than a human. I think a writer could learn a great deal from any of these books about story structure and how to craft a sentence.

What do you see as your jobs in the publishing process?

As editor-in-chief, it’s my job to make sure we have books on our list each season–and ideally, they will be the right mix of books, the right balance of picture books, non-fiction and fiction, the right ratio of riskier titles to safer titles. I do this by working with our publisher and our editors to decide which projects we should focus on, which ones we should drop and which ones we should attempt to contract.

I also do some hands-on editing myself each season, which is a welcome break in a workday that could otherwise be consumed by emails and meetings.

What are your challenges?

The hardest part of my job is having to say “no” so many times in a day or week. We turn down far more manuscripts than we publish (we probably reject 100 manuscripts for every one we accept), and I write more rejection letters than I can count.

Many of the projects we turn down are perfectly publishable, but they just aren’t exactly right at this particular moment for Kids Can Press, and it can be hard to keep finding ways to say: “We like your work, but we don’t like it quite enough to contract.” I’m almost always impressed by the graciousness of the people I turn down. But I still don’t enjoy doing it.

What do you love about it?

The three things I love most about my job are: 1. My coworkers, who are smart and funny and creative. 2. Our creators, who are also smart, funny and creative, even if some of them aren’t always punctual. 3. Our books, which I love to share with children I know, and which I love to imagine being enjoyed by children I will never have the chance to meet.

How has publishing changed–for better and worse–since you entered the field?

Advances in technology mean that a lot more illustrators are producing their work digitally. Their work isn’t better or worse than conventional illustration, but it is different.

The other big change I’ve seen in children’s publishing over the last decade or so is that production values are consistently much higher. Again, because of changes in technology, it is possible to make books that are much more heavily designed, and it is possible to print more and more four-color titles.

Only twenty years ago, most non-fiction for children was visually a bit on the dull side, with fewer illustrations and only one or two colors on the page.

Now, almost everything, with the exception of fiction, is four color, and there are more and more visually stunning books published each year.

Every now and then I get a bit nostalgic for the days of simple black line art, but for the most part, I think the quality of children’s books is higher now than it has ever been.

Do you have any thoughts on the state of youth literature publishing in Canada? How about around the world?

There is an enormous number of books being published each year for children (and for adults), both in Canada and around the world. I hesitate to say there are too many books out there, but it certainly is a challenge for small, independent publishers like Kids Can Press to make sure their books get noticed and their authors and illustrators get the attention (and the sales) that they deserve.

What qualities do you look for in a manuscript?

This is one of the hardest questions to answer, but of course it is a question that gets asked a lot. I guess that I look for a manuscript that surprises or enlightens me in some way. It is true that there are no new stories out there to be told, but it is also true that there are always new ways to tell a story. So I look for freshness, for originality of thought, for something in the use of language, whether it’s in the voice or in a turn of phrase, that suggests this manuscript was written by someone who really has something new to bring to children’s books.

I also look for some evidence that the person writing the manuscript likes children, remembers being a child, and thinks of his or her work as being first and foremost an art or craft–not just a medium for teaching children lessons.

I don’t think that the point of children’s literature is to teach morals or math or even reading. The point of it is to introduce children to words and images that have come together to create a work of art. So I guess I look for manuscripts that have been written as art, not as teaching tools.

How can writers/illustrators submit their work for consideration?

Our submission guidelines are available on our website– We are currently only accepting submissions from Canadian authors and illustrators.

What do you do outside the world of children’s and young adult books?

I nap with the kind of commitment that more energetic people might apply to marathon running.

Cynsational Notes

Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers (CANSCAIP): “a group of professionals in the field of children’s culture with members from all parts of Canada. For over twenty years, CANSCAIP has been instrumental in the support and promotion of children’s literature through newsletters, workshops, meetings and other information programs for authors, parents, teachers, librarians, publishers, and others. CANSCAIP also has over 500 friends–teachers, librarians, parents and others –who are also interested in aspects of children’s books, illustrations and performances.”

SCBWI Canada: see both the Eastern and Western Canada chapters.