Fuelled in part by government grants – but mostly by idealism, nationalism, feminism, youthful optimism, and an urgent sense that children and children’s books mattered – the 1970s was the era that launched Canadian kidlit.
The decade opened with a bubbly feeling of national pride created by the 1967 centennial celebrations, but it was the passionate conversations about the country’s literary future elicited by the 1970 Ontario Royal Commission on Book Publishing that transformed the sentiment into real action. There was an increasing feeling that “our” stories mattered, that Canadian children needed and deserved good, contemporary, relevant stories, and that Canadian-owned houses should be the ones to find and publish them.
There were already redoubtable nationalists at work, like Peter and Carol Martin of Peter Martin Associates (later PMA Books, where Carol nurtured a generation of publishers and authors). Montreal’s Tundra Books, founded in 1967 by the fiercely energetic May Cutler, also was an early producer of groundbreaking children’s titles.
As each new company came into being, the possibilities expanded. In 1972, established educational publisher Clarke, Irwin hired Janet Lunn as its first dedicated children’s book editor. Women’s Press also launched that year, followed by the 10-person collective that was Kids Can Press, in 1973. Anne Millyard and Rick Wilks initiated a project in 1975 to publish writing by children before establishing Annick Press, a parallel company for kids’ books by adults.
Annabel Slaight and the Young Naturalists Foundation published the first Owl magazine in 1976, followed two years later by the company’s first books. Newfoundland’s Breakwater Books and Alberta’s Tree Frog Press had small hits with their kidlit titles, and Patsy Aldana founded Groundwood Books in 1978. My own employer at the time, NC Press, also took a step into children’s books, publishing English translations of Ginette Anfousse’s groundbreaking Jiji series (a year before running out of funds and laying off staff).
Booksellers such as Judy Sarick, who founded Toronto’s Children’s Bookstore in 1974, was one of many advocates who spurred publishers to produce better books that could compete with the thousands of titles from the U.S. and U.K. flowing into Canada each year.
That an illustrated Canadian children’s book could sell was proven when Macmillan of Canada took a huge risk in 1974 and published Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie, with expensive, full-colour illustrations by noted designer Frank Newfeld. Within five years, the poetry collection had sold 100,000 copies and showed that Canadians wanted to read verses about Kamloops, Napanee, and William Lyon Mackenzie King.
But not all books had the same production values. For every aspect of publishing, from editing to production to marketing, it was a matter of learning by doing. Budget constraints often meant black-and-white drawings or two-colour art designed to give an impression of more colour (such as Margaret Atwood’s Up in the Tree, published by McClelland & Stewart in 1978). The results varied from amateurish to charmingly naive.
The energy and enthusiasm that characterized the publishers was mirrored in the development of an infrastructure that supported and emphasized the importance of publishing books for kids: the Canada Council Children’s Literature Prizes, Canadian Materials magazine, the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, several independent children’s bookstores across the country, and a host of other initiatives.
Although it might not have felt that way at the time, it was a period of remarkably rapid growth. Early in the 1970s, Canada was producing 30 to 60 children’s books a year; by the end of the decade, the figure was 60 to 100 books, and publishers were looking ahead to what would prove to be an exciting next decade. – Gillian O’Reilly, editor of Canadian Children’s Book News