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My first books: Groundwood publisher Semareh Al-Hillal on her kidlit favourites past and present

Groundwood publisher Semareh Al-Hillal (Meaghen Seagrave)

Semareh Al-Hillal joined Groundwood Books as publisher in May 2018, in time to celebrate the house’s 40th anniversary and its spectacular recent run of accolades and prizes, including a Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature in the illustration category to Jillian Tamaki for They Say Blue and the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award for Town Is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith.

But behind the scenes there remains a great deal of sadness over the November 2017 death of beloved publisher Sheila Barry. “Sheila and I were friends and colleagues for 25 years,” says Al-Hillal. “I actually lured her to Kids Can Press to take my maternity leave when I had my second child. It’s an extra level of honour to come in here [as her successor].”

Al-Hillal was at Kids Can for 18 years, most recently as associate publisher, before taking on this new role. “People ask am I going to come in and change things,” says Al-Hillal. “Excuse me, it’s Groundwood. How lucky am I to come into this environment and its history with all these well-established people, a place with such a clear mandate. I’m going to be a steward and listen and learn.”

To understand Al-Hillal’s influences as a kidlit publisher, we asked her about her favourite children’s books, past and present.

What do you remember your parents reading to you?
My parents read and sang lots of nursery rhymes to me when I was little. We also read “Chicken Little,” all manner of fairy tales, and the Ladybird early readers. One of my aunts reminded me that we read lots of the Mr. Men books by Roger Hargreaves. Can you tell my early years were spent in the U.K.?

What were the first books that made an impact on you as an emerging reader?
I had two reference books on birds and birds’ eggs that I pored over, with tissue-thin paper and wonderful illustrations. I loved Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree trilogy. And once I moved to Canada at age eight, I read all the Little House on the Prairie books and in Grade 5 Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH made a big impact.

What books do you give to new parents?
Since new parents are likely to receive board books as gifts, I like to give books that the new baby might enjoy a little further down the road, at toddler age.

But lately I’ve been thinking I should start carrying a stack of books when I’m travelling for when I encounter an unhappy baby or toddler. I often wish I had a book to give them to help distract them from their usually totally valid grumpiness.

Name your favourite author-illustrator pairings of all time?
Some who come to mind are Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith, Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault, Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark. I’m sure I’m leaving out many, many wonderful collaborations that are escaping my memory bank temporarily.

What were your favourite books to read to your children?
Among our favourites for repeat readings were: Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi; The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats; We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury; and Bear on a Train by Julie Lawson and Brian Deines. I can literally recite Goodnight Moon – as I’m sure you can. I was not particularly fond of the art in Goodnight Moon but when you read that book a lot, you realize why it’s such a tried and true classic – the cadence of it is quite brilliant.

What is the last kids book that made you laugh, or cry, or surprised you?
I am lucky to be struck by those emotions often in the kind of work I do. There is a passage in Bitter and Sweet [Groundwood, 2018], written by Sandra V. Feder and illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker, that made me tear up a little. It’s the spread where Hannah is seen looking out the back car window at the town she is moving away from and says, “There is nothing sweet about leaving everything I know.” I moved often as a child and I had a moment of recognition when I read that.