DISTILLING INFORMATION & TELLING GREAT STORIES
Type talks to Owlkids Books publisher Karen Boersma
OWL is an institution. Many a Canadian kid (this one included) will tell you it was their very first and very favourite magazine.
Founded by Young Naturalist Foundation members Annabel Slaight and Mary-Anne Brinkmann in 1976, it began as a blend of nature and science features — OWL was an acronym for “Outdoors and Wildlife” — and was designed to make children aged 8–12 “think beyond the printed page.” Distinctly Canadian, the magazine was designed to develop a love of the environment and scientific discovery in its readers. Eventually, OWL expanded into the world of books, as well as new magazines Chirp and Chickadee for younger readers.
Owlkids Books established themselves as an information-based, non-fiction publisher. Releasing close to twenty new titles a year, timely children’s non-fiction has been coupled with brilliantly illustrated stories. Re-releases of beloved bestsellers — like Catherine Ripley’s Why? — are published alongside new classics (and Type favourites) like Elin Kelsey’s You Are Stardust.
Type talks to Owlkids Books publisher Karen Boersma about dark children's books, an aversion to sentimentality, and telling really great stories.
What is the first book you remember loving?
Oh! An illustrated edition of the Little Mermaid. It had an almost holographic, lenticular-like cover, and lavish full-plate illustrations inside. It was so beautiful. I still have it someplace in my house. It was quite dark and kind of scary. It wasn’t a Disney-fied version, she dies at the end. I loved it so much. I read it over and over and over again. I don’t even know where I got it from – it was a gift from somebody. I also had a massive copy of Brothers Grimm fairy tales that had a cloth cover, with the illustration set into it, you know? It is totally ragged and falling apart now.
Do you think that children’s books have moved away from that kind of darkness?
I think there have been times where we have shied away from it. I mean, there have always been authors who were not afraid of being dark - William Steig, Tomi Ungerer, to some extent Roald Dahl. Maurice Sendak. But for the most part it's the adults who are bothered by it, not the children. I think children are much less frightened than adults are of dark stories. Children take it in stride. They can very clearly distinguish between reality and fiction, in a way that parents worry that kids can’t. Kids just laugh. They don’t take it to heart. In the same way that I don’t think children are particularly sentimental.
We published a book last year called The Flat Rabbit By Bardur Oskarsson. There was never any doubt we wanted to publish that book. But, we knew there would be a mixed reaction out in the public. If you look it up on Goodreads, it gets a solid 2.5 - people are rating it either a 0, or a 5. People either love it or hate it. It’s about death. It’s about roadkill. It’s also completely unsentimental. But at the same time it’s so warm, it's so much about empathy, and about thoughtfulness. Kids love it because it’s really funny. And totally weird, but in a great way. It’s a great way to approach the topic of death. A classic example where parents are freaked out by it, but children are not at all.
How did it do?
It did really well. It was probably one of our bestselling books that year, partly because it did get many positive reviews. With kids’ books, there’s a whole variety of gatekeepers. There’s librarians, there’s teachers, there’s parents… and the librarian community absolutely embraced it. That’s huge for us. It’s a big part of our market, but also it reassures parents if they know a librarian is behind it.
I saw it was featured on Brainpickings. Is that like a Colbert Bump? Do you notice it?
Yes! [laughs] It is like a Colbert Bump. The people who follow Maria Popova have such respect for her taste, her ability to curate. There is inherent trust. So yes, you always will see a bump in sales.
In general, how much do book reviews matter to you?
They matter to us because they matter to our audience - those gatekeepers. Do kids care about book reviews? No. Kids could not care less. But the people who read reviews are often the ones who will put books into the hands of children. Booksellers are different. Booksellers make their own decisions. If they read the book and they love it, they’re going to recommend it. That is classic hand-selling, nothing is ever going to replace that. I’m not sure how much booksellers really worry about reviews if they love a book. Librarians will absolutely make decisions on their own as well, but reviews are a shortcut. It’s a way to get though all the clutter there is out there.
I really loved Edward Keenan’s book, The Art of the Possible, that just came out. Can you talk me through how that book came to be?
Absolutely. An editor we work with, John Crossingham, had the idea to do a book on politics for kids. We had done a book on conflict, Niki Walker’s Why Do We Fight? , and that did very well. John wanted to do something similar for politics, and he knew from the start that he wanted Ed to do it. John was a huge fan of Ed’s work. He had a gut instinct that Ed would be able to do it which was a bit of a risk because Ed hadn’t written anything for kids previously. But we knew he had young kids. If a writer has kids, and they have a subject that they are passionate about, sometimes you can talk them into doing a book for kids. It can be a tough transition. It’s not a textbook, but it still needs to fit into the curriculum. You have to figure out a way to distill information but still keep it detailed enough that they are learning something. How do you do it without talking down to them? That’s really the trick. How do you keep it interesting, informative, educational, fun, but clear? Figure out what’s important and what’s not? How do you convey the information? What do you do in the main body of the text? What do you do in a sidebar?
Like a magazine.
Yes exactly! It’s pretty deliberate. If there is a term you need to define, you pull it out into a sidebar. The editor and the designer work closely with the author to distill it all down, and making sure you are pulling things out as you need. It’s a puzzle in a way. We have to start with a really strong outline to help shape it, especially if the author isn’t used to writing for kids.
When you read Edward Keenan’s journalism, you get the impression that his politics are left-leaning. But when you read his book, it doesn’t push any one kind of politics.
That’s very deliberate. It’s not easy, but any time you do a book like that... they can't be polemic. They are meant to be a straight-forward introduction, and then to give kids the tools to make their own decisions. Politics is a complex subject, and it has a huge impact on their lives, whether they are aware of it yet or not. It can be a little bit of a wake-up call – this is going on all around them, and they can have an influence, even now.
What is your origin story? How did you find yourself in children’s publishing?
It's a bit of a sideways story. I have a master’s degree in English and I knew I wanted to work in books. But I also knew I didn’t want to teach, and I didn’t want to do a PhD. My first job was as a publicist at Doubleday Canada. But I totally thought I wanted to be an editor, so I went to University of Toronto Press as a production editor, and then into their acquisitions department. From there, an opportunity came up to go Frankfurt and to take over UTP’s rights. While I was there Groundwood was looking for someone to do their rights sales and their export sales, and that’s how I ended up in children’s publishing.
I had never even thought about kids' books, it felt like exactly the right fit. At that time Groundwood was distributing Douglas & MacIntyre, and also Candlewick, which were both amazing lists. The perfect deep dive into kids' books. I eventually wound up at Kids Can as their rights director,eventually the associate publisher, then publisher. I was there a total of 13 years. And then in 2012 I moved over to publisher of Owlkids Books.
How has marketing kids books changed since you started?
It’s going to be less than you think it is. It’s funny, I was recently out at SFU, lecturing to their publishing program, and one of the things they asked me to address was reaching readers in a changing marketplace. It was hard to answer because it's so different for us. First of all, we almost never reach our readers directly. We are almost always going through a gatekeeper, so our customer is totally different from our readership. So social media has changed our relationship with our customer base, it hasn’t impacted our readers at all. The online community we are creating is with parents, teachers, and librarians.
Owl Magazine is so beloved by generations of children and has a strong sense of community. How is the magazine side related to the book side?
You’re right, kids have a very strong connection to our magazines, they often move from Chirp to Chickadee to Owl. They love getting a magazine in the mail that’s just for them. And we know they read it. They will get their magazine and they will read it four, five, six times and keep them all lined-up in a box in a room. For a publisher that's a huge advantage, we are always talking to the magazine editors. It definitely does inform what we are doing.
The difference is that we can probably take a little more chances in the kind of stories we can tell in the books, because we’re not sending them directly into someone’s home. The magazine is the brand. But with each book, each one stands on its own. It’s still an Owl book, but it's it's own thing too. We are very conscious never to publish anything that we think would violate the brand. For example, we will probably never publish YA. I love it, our editor Karen Li loves it, we love the idea of publishing YA... but we will probably never go beyond 13, 14, which is where OWL ends in terms of reach. That’s the brand.
In the end, we are all focused on producing great content…as much as I don’t love the word “content”, that is what we are doing. It’s all about great stories and information. Great writing.
interview & photography by Serah-Marie McMahon