News and Interviews

Groundwood Books Celebrates 40 Years of Innovative Children's Publishing

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In Canada, Groundwood Books is synonymous with the highest quality books for young readers. Their track record is studded with innumerable awards (including the Bologna Prize for Best Children’s Publisher of the Year) and their authors include beloved favourites like Deborah Ellis, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, and Mary-Louise Gay. The press has had a focus on diversity of voices and international publishing since its earliest days and is consistently on the forefront of publishing for young people.

This year, they're celebrating an incredible 40 years of publishing, and we're very excited to hear from them on what this milestone means and what will come next for the venerable press, which is partnered with House of Anansi Press.       

Today we're excited to welcome Publisher Semareh Al-Hillal, who was at Kids Can Books for 18 years, most recently as Associate Publisher, prior to taking up the mantle at Groundwood Books from the late Sheila Barry (who in turn took over from founding publisher Patsy Aldana).        

We're excited to congratulate the whole Groundwood crew on their success and to speak today with Al-Hillah, who explains the meaning of the press' name, tells us about what defines a Groundwood book, and gives us a peek into the future of the press. 

Open Book:

What does hitting 40 years mean to Groundwood? Will there be celebrating in any way?

Semareh Al-Hillal:

We are grateful and proud to be celebrating 40 years. Founder Patsy Aldana grew Groundwood into a company that became renowned internationally for the quality of its publishing program. Sheila Barry joined the company in 2012 and took the helm as publisher a year later, deftly carrying on the legacy that Patsy had built. Sheila’s untimely passing in November 2017 means this has also been a year of reflection and transition for Groundwood.

We’ve been fortunate to celebrate with a number of recent accolades for our books. The Funeral, written and illustrated by Matt James, was selected for the 2018 New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Books Award; They Say Blue, written and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, was awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature – Illustrated Books; and Town Is by the Sea, written by Joanne Schwartz and illustrated by Sydney Smith, was awarded the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award.


Tell us a little bit about the founding and early days of Groundwood.


Groundwood was founded by publisher Patsy Aldana in 1978. Patsy was inspired to start the company when she recognized that Canadian children had access to English-language books from the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, but almost none from Canada. So Groundwood was one of a few independently owned children’s publishers that emerged at the time, dedicated to creating a body of Canadian children’s literature. Along with this came Groundwood’s growing commitment to publish stories and illustrations that spoke with authentic voices, while also being beautiful books that would engage children’s minds and hearts.


Where did the Groundwood name come from?


The name, which comes from a kind of paper, may have been suggested by Peter Martin, co-founder of Peter Martin Associates, after a brainstorming session at the publishers’ old offices.


How would you describe a "Groundwood book"? What is unique about the Groundwood list?


Groundwood has been publishing inclusive and diverse books since its inception.

Inspired by the belief that children’s books can be important and necessary without sacrificing warmth, beauty, playfulness and humour, the list is characterized by its emphasis on fiction and non-fiction about and for children of all ages whose stories might not otherwise be told. 

We’re known for books that reflect the experiences of children both in Canada and around the world. Over the past 40 years, we’ve published a range of award-winning authors and illustrators with unique stories to tell, including many titles in translation. We look for books that are unusual and don’t shy away from those that are difficult or may be controversial.

Something we often hear from booksellers, librarians and teachers is that our books look different from those of a typical children’s book publisher. One reason may be the long tenure of Groundwood’s art director, Michael Solomon, who approaches each book on its own merit. There is no cookie-cutter system — each title is treated as a unique project and the design reflects the story within its pages as well as the aesthetic values of its creator(s).


When and how did you join with Groundwood? Tell us a little bit about your role and history with the press.


I joined Groundwood in the role of publisher this past May. So my history with the company has been all of six months! But of course I have long admired the books that Groundwood publishes, and it is a great privilege to now be working with the staff, the authors and the illustrators who create those amazing works. One of the great things about being publisher is that I get to be involved in all aspects of the publishing process.


What do you foresee and hope for in terms of the future of the press?


We’re looking towards 2019 and beyond with a sustained commitment to publishing books for and about children whose experiences of the world are under-represented elsewhere. We’re very proud of the work we’ve done over the last 40 years and look forward to continuing our work with innovative creators to publish important, diverse and imaginative books that provide both windows and mirrors for young readers.


Groundwood Books is an independent Canadian children's publisher based in Toronto. Our authors and illustrators are highly acclaimed both in Canada and internationally, and our books are loved by children around the world. We look for books that are unusual; we are not afraid of books that are difficult or potentially controversial; and we are particularly committed to publishing books for and about children whose experiences of the world are under-represented elsewhere.