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MOMBIAN Pushing for inclusivity in children's books, one publisher shows how
by Dana Rudolph
2019-08-21

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Orca Book Publishers of British Columbia, Canada, is an independent publisher with the goal of offering "reading material that represents the diversity of human experience to readers of all ages." Among other titles, they have produced two of my recent favorite LGBTQ-inclusive children's books: Pride Colors, by Robin Stevenson, a bright board book for the youngest tots, and A Plan for Pops, by Heather Smith and Brooke Kerrigan, a poignant story about a two-grandfather couple and their gender-ambiguous grandchild. Publisher and owner Andrew Wooldridge was kind enough to speak with me recently about the 35-year-old company and its commitment to diverse books.

Orca had started actively looking for more inclusive stories nearly two decades ago when they launched several series geared for struggling readers, Wooldridge said. Finding authors to create diverse content "happened pretty organically," he explained, "which is, I think, why it's been successful." As authors such as Stevenson and Carrie Mac ( both queer parents ) approached Orca, the company began "figuring out what was important" to these writers.

"Our focus has slowly become more and more about diversity and compassion and indigenous stories as well," he said. Much of their success, he feels, comes from finding authors who can write from their own experiences. "It really is about helping them tell their stories," he believes. When it comes to nonfiction, he said, books about subjects like Ramadan or Passover, for example, should reflect "somebody who isn't just knowledgeable about it, but actually has lived these things. I think the same thing goes for LGBTQ content."

For their LGBTQ-inclusive books, Wooldridge explained, they sought to include characters who would be broadly appealing and tried to avoid "really basic" coming out stories. Another important factor, he said, was offering "stories across the spectrum that present issues without banging people over the head with them." With A Plan for Pops, for example, "We could easily have done that book about a heterosexual married couple and it would have been a similar kind of story, but I think it's much more effective [as an LGBTQ-inclusive story] when it doesn't have a big billboard on it. It just lets people read it and treat it as 'This is who we are.' We see the same thing with presenting stories with a multicultural cast of characters without making it about somebody's race."

In addition to their diverse fiction books, Orca this year launched Orca Issues, a series of "critical-thinking nonfiction for teens," tackling sometimes contentious topics such as feminism, abortion rights, and ( in September ) assisted dying. This didn't mean offering a platform for bigotry, however. "It became clear pretty quickly that there aren't two sides to a lot of these issues," he said. "You don't present a balanced view of something like reproductive rights or feminism because as far as I'm concerned, the way we publish, there's only one side to these things, really."

This approach has occasionally given rise to backlash. Stevenson had a few events cancelled over her middle-grade nonfiction book Pride: Celebrating Diversity and Community. And after her Orca Issues book about abortion rights, My Body, My Choice, came out, Wooldridge said, "I've seen pushback from schools who've said, 'We've bought every other book that you've published, but we never will again because of what you've done,' which I think means that we must be doing our job right. But in some ways, that's why we're doing it, to get people to actually pay attention."

"I welcome a little bit of controversy about what we're doing," he asserted. "There's this saying in publishing: There's nothing better than having somebody attempt to ban a book, because it just gets the book talked about." He added, "We have the luxury in some ways in that we have a successful publishing program and can take chances on things if we're not sure what the market looks like or what the reaction will be."

He contrasts this with some educational publishers who "publish safely so that you don't offend anybody." The publishers making a difference, he asserts, "are those ones who are independent and able to take the risk." At times, he said, "You do see major publishers, some of the multinationals, taking chances on some of the things they publish, but they have to answer to somebody. I'm lucky that I don't have to answer to anybody. So we can take a risk on some things, doing it just because we believe it's a story that needs to be out there."

That need remains strong, especially given the recent political climate in the U.S., where Orca sees most of its sales. Nor is Canada immune. "I see the same pressures here as well," he asserted.

Wooldridge finds a silver lining, however. "I think one of the benefits of the current political situation in the U.S. is that it's forcing change faster than it would have happened otherwise. We're seeing it in the way we publish and the media we read," he said. "Many more people are engaged now than they were four years ago and many more people are thinking about things that they never would have before."

Wooldridge has also been motivated by his own experience helping his own three sons find diverse content and "realizing we need to be doing more of it for everybody," he said. "The focus has really become on being as inclusive as possible, but also trying to push that as far as we can."

For more on Orca and its upcoming titles, visit orcabook.com ( Canada ) or us.orcabook.com ( U.S. )

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian ( Mombian.com ), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.


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