Writer in Residence

Why are Canadian kids’ books so darn good? (And they are!)

We Canadians are pretty good at downplaying our accomplishments. “Cutting down the tall poppies” and “familiarity breeds contempt” should perhaps be emblazoned on our coins and flag.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that, in the field of children’s publishing, Canadian children’s books are widely regarded as among the best in the world. Witness the “Best Children’s Publisher of the Year” awards, given out by the Bologna Children’s Book Fair (the premiere industry event). Canadian publishers won the North America category six times in the last eight years. Talk about punching about our weight! Yes - our tiny country, beat out the Americans, on the international stage. Year, after year. After year.

Now I’m not a social scientist or researcher, so my views on why this has happened is open to debate. But I have been part of Canadian publishing since the age of the dinosaurs. And here are my top reasons for why Canadian kids' books are so good.


  1. Canadian books have a unique perspective.


We are absolutely “not American.” Canadian authors see things differently from authors south of the border. And that makes for books that are quirkily unique, like Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watts (Kids Can Press) or Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault (also Kids Can Press).

  1. Multiculturalism wins.

    The fact that Canada is made up of people from so many parts of the world, and has a “mosaic” sensibility (even when it doesn’t always live up to the reality), means that Canadian books offer cultural diversity and varied point of view. Consider The Tiffin by Mahtab Narsimhan (DCB) or Stolen Words by Melanie Florence, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard (Second Story Press).

  2. The Quiet Canadian

    Our market has been flooded with American books, many of which are supported by huge marketing budgets. How to compete? While we also write fantastic pop fiction, like Beware That Girl by Teresa Toten (Penguin Random Canada), we cannily slip into niches the Americans don’t bother with. Books perfect for classrooms. More thoughtful, “quieter” stories. Super, duper, high quality art, editorial and text. Consider When Molly Drew Dogs by Deborah Kerbel, illustrated by Lis Xu (Owlkids).

  3. The Personal Touch

    Much of U.S. publishing has been subsumed into what’s familiarly called “The Random Penguin,” the big five (or is it now four?) multinational megacorps. Canada, meanwhile, still has a very strong independent publishing core. And even our local multinational branches remain small and intimate compared to their counterparts in other countries.  That means authors and editors within Canada have strong personal relationships. And that, in turn, makes for better, more original, and more thorough books. I offer up as examples my own Alice and Gert, illustrated by Dena Seiferling, and edited by with flair by the amazing Karen Li (coming this fall from Owlkids) and Emmy Noether:The Most Important Mathematian You Never Heard of, illustrated by Kari Rust and edited with aplomb by the brilliant Stacey Roderick (Kids Can Press).

  4. Collaboration is key

Many of us Canadian authors and illustrators know each other. We belong to a variety of supportive organizations, like CANSCAIP or the Canadian Centre for Children’s Books. We also help and support each other at every step of the book creation process. We read and critique each other’s work. Share advice and resources. Brainstorm together.
This creative collaboration, I believe, is rare in today’s ultra-competitive world. It’s also the secret sauce that makes us great. I personally owe a great debt to my science writer peeps at Sci-Why, my #Torkidlit peeps, my picture book critique group peeps, and all the friends and colleagues who’ve discussed books and craft with me over coffee or a pint.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Buy the Book

Pirate Queen

The most powerful pirate in history was a woman who was born into poverty in Guangzhou, China, in the late 1700s. When pirates attacked her town and the captain took a liking to her, she saw a way out. Zheng Yi Sao agreed to marry him only if she got an equal share of his business. When her husband died six years later, she took command of the fleet.

Over the next decade, the pirate queen built a fleet of over 1,800 ships and 70,000 men. On land and sea, Zheng Yi Sao’s power rivaled the emperor himself. Time and again, her ships triumphed over the emperor’s ships.

When she was ready to retire, Zheng Yi Sao surrendered — on her own terms, of course. Even though there was a price on her head, she was able to negotiate her freedom, living in peace and prosperity for the rest of her days.

Zheng Yi Sao’s powerful story is told in lyrical prose by award-winning author Helaine Becker. Liz Wong’s colorful, engaging illustrations illuminate this inspiring woman in history.

An author’s note provides historical context and outlines the challenges of researching a figure about whom little is known.