"Capturing Lightning in a Bottle" Naseem Hrab on the Magic of Kids Can Press Turning 50
Naseem Hrab is one of the definitive "how does she do it?" people in Canadian publishing: a Governor General's Literary Award-winning writer for young people and former librarian, she also serves as Kids Can Press's Associate Publisher, Creative (and, we're proud to say, is a former Open Book columnist).
Naseem and the rest of the Kids Can Press (or KCP) team are taking time to look both back and forward this year as the press marks a milestone anniversary: 50 years publishing titles for young readers, from picture books to young adult offerings, both fiction and nonfiction.
We spoke to Naseem about what it means for a Canadian publisher to hit the five decade mark, about KCP's efforts to support and celebrate Black storytelling through their participation in parent company Corus’ Black Write incubator program, and about their partnership with beloved children’s entertainment company Nelvana, a unique relationship that sets the press apart in the children's creative content space.
Naseem told us about current projects she's excited about, including the CitizenKid book line, where titles are developed with one or more of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in mind; about how her unique title of Associate Publisher, Creative guides her work; and about the essential, practical work KCP is doing to mitigate the "many systemic barriers that exclude Black authors and illustrators" from the children's publishing space.
This is a huge milestone anniversary and a chance to look both back and forwards for Kids Can Press. What are you most proud of about the press’ current initiatives or projects? What are you most excited about for the future?
I’ve worked at Kids Can Press for nearly fourteen years and it’s for very good reason: I get to work with some of the most talented, passionate, kind, and fun people EVER! Many of my colleagues (including myself!) grew up reading Kids Can Press books and the whole team feels an immense responsibility to continue this legacy of creating great books for kids. So, I’m most proud of the incredible team that I get to work with every day. And I should underscore that I’m including our amazing authors and illustrators in this team!
I’m genuinely hard-pressed to pick one initiative or project that I’m most excited about... can I mention a few? There’s the latest book in the CitizenKid collection: Lion on the Inside: How One Girl Changed Basketball (September) by Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir and Judith Henderson and illustrated by Katherine Ahmed. It’s the inspiring true story of basketball player Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir who had to make a choice between wearing her hijab and playing her favourite sport. Each CitizenKid book is developed with one or more of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in mind and Kids Can Press is a proud signatory of the SDG Publishers Compact. The Compact is designed to accelerate progress to achieve the Goals through various actions, including publishing books that support positive change. It’s incredible to be a part of such meaningful efforts to change our world for the better.
There are also a few Ashley Spires books to look forward to this anniversary year: Burt the Beetle Lives Here! (June), The Most Magnificent Maker’s A to Z (September) and we’ve even got a Binky the Space Cat Top Secret Collection box set (May). Ashley is one of the nicest, most talented people in children’s books and I can’t believe I get to, like, just email her whenever! I’m also pleased that new paperback editions of Afua Cooper’s My Name is Henry Bibb and My Name is Phillis Wheatley, two historical novels about enslavement and freedom, will be releasing this May. These editions have stunning new covers by Nadia Fisher.
Your title is Associate Publisher, Creative. What does that mean and how does it guide you in your work?
As Associate Publisher, Creative, I mostly work with the editorial teams and design teams to determine the creative vision for our list and help make our books. Every day is different! Some days, I’m reviewing our books at different stages of publication, navigating any number of highlights and hiccups with our team related to the development of our books, or working on grants. Other days, I’m working with our Publisher and President, Lisa Lyons Johnston, and our Editorial Director, Yasemin Uçar, to ensure we have the right balance of picture books, nonfiction, graphic novels, and fiction on our list. Most days, I’m sitting in meetings and responding to what feels like hundreds of emails.
I started my publishing career as the librarian at the Canadian Children’s Book Centre. At the CCBC, there’s a very small staff and few resources. Some might see this environment as restrictive, but that role inspired me to see limitations as an asset. Now I see having limited resources leads us to breakthroughs we never thought were possible. So, I try to be as imaginative, collaborative, and accessible as I can at Kids Can Press. It’s important for me to know that my colleagues feel comfortable to reach out to me for support, ideas, or a laugh whenever they want.
Kids Can Press has a unique relationship with children’s animation studio and entertainment company Nelvana. Why is this partnership important for the press and how does it intersect with your publishing program?
We work closely with our colleagues at Nelvana to find projects that lend themselves to both animation and books. We all want to find compelling stories that have strong characters, original plotlines, and most of all, emotional appeal, so we work towards those goals together. Nelvana is as passionate about telling great stories as we are at Kids Can Press, so it’s easy and fun to work with their team.
Sometimes, it can feel like capturing lightning in a bottle to land on those projects that work perfectly in both mediums. And that’s when you get to watch shows like Agent Binky and soon Millie Magnificent on screen. Both shows were inspired by books by Ashley Spires, who clearly has a gift for creating best-selling books that land in that sweet spot! There’s nothing like getting to see your favourite characters come alive on the page and screen.
As part of Corus’ Black Write incubator program, you’ve been able to expand and foster Kids Can Press’s work with Black creators. Can you tell us a bit about the program and how and why you’ve worked to make this happen?
Kids Can Press and Nelvana worked together on a talent incubator called Black Write Edition to discover, support, and mentor emerging Black storytellers. Given the many systemic barriers that exclude Black authors and illustrators from publishing stories for children, and we wanted to create a program that would help to open doors.
KCP received about 90 submissions total and of those submissions, three authors were selected for mentorships: Heather Beaumont, Chaka V. Grier, and Esta Lemon. Editors Kathleen Keenan, Patricia Ocampo, and Katie Scott were each paired with one of the writers, working with them over several months. We’re thrilled to announce that Heather Beaumont’s When We Go Home has been contracted for publication. When We Go Home is a lyrically written, moving testament to the power of expanding our idea of home that was inspired by Heather’s childhood experiences of family trips to Jamaica.
Currently, we are working towards reaching Indigenous storytellers with a second talent incubator in partnership with Nelvana. The Corus steering committee is excited to launch this program later this year.
As Kids Can Press continues to redefine and innovate after 50 years of publishing, how would you describe the press’ identity today in one sentence?
In collaboration with our world-class authors and illustrators, we want to continue creating entertaining, fun, inclusive and innovative books that kids will remember fondly well into adulthood. Who knows, maybe one of those kids will end up part of the KCP team in years to come!
Kids Can Press, part of the Corus Entertainment family, is celebrating its 50th Anniversary in 2023. A recipient of the distinguished Bologna Prize for the Best Children’s Publisher, North America, Kids Can Press is known for its acclaimed literary picture books, character-driven franchises with global and crossover appeal and award-winning STEM– and social issues–based nonfiction. The publisher’s catalog includes an active list of over 700 titles for children and young adults enjoyed by young readers around the world. Kids Can Press is among some of the industry’s leading publishers distributed by Hachette Client Services and is a proud signatory of the United Nations Publishers Compact. For more on our books and creators visit kidscanpress.com.
Naseem Hrab has worked in children’s publishing for over fifteen years. She’s the Associate Publisher, Creative at Kids Can Press, a former librarian, and a Governor General’s Literary Award-winning children’s book author.