Meet the Publisher: Groundwood Books

Today we learn more about Groundwood Books, an independent Canadian publisher of beautiful and thought-provoking children’s books. WKL co-editor Jackie Friedman Mighdoll speaks with publisher Karen Li.

Jackie Friedman Mighdoll: I’m a huge fan of so many Groundwood books. From the serious subjects (like assisted dying) to the humorous informational ones, I appreciate both the the risks you take and the creativity. Can you tell us more about Groundwood and your mission?

Karen Li: Patsy Aldana founded Groundwood Books in 1978, with the goal of publishing stories that were traditionally underrepresented in Canada. At the time, our market was filled with American and British books—very little that reflected the lives of Canadian children. Being Guatemalan, Patsy also sought to translate the work of pre-eminent authors and illustrators from South and Central America, as well as publish Indigenous voices from across the continent.

Thankfully, the value of hearing traditionally under-published voices has become more recognized of late. But there is still so much we can do to fully represent the rich and varied lives of children. Kids from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. Kids with different abilities and disabilities. Kids—as you say—with loved ones who have chosen assisted dying. So Groundwood endeavours to publish beautiful children’s literature that is ahead of the curve and justice-oriented in that sense, while also being joyful, hopeful, and rooted in a child’s point of view.  

JFM: How do you think about translated titles as part of your list? What are you looking for in your translated titles? 

KL: Translated titles expose us to new authors and illustrators and the richness of global cultural diversity. Part of growing up is learning how to be in the world, and translated titles show us that there are so many different ways to be—none more or less valid than the other! So we’re hoping to expose readers to new experiences, ones that decenter the North American perspective.

Conversely, something that is foreign on the surface can reveal something deeply familiar. You’re a translator, so I’m sure you enjoy collecting untranslatable words! A recent favourite for me is kuchisabishii, which (I gather) is Japanese and loosely refers to eating, not because you’re hungry, but because your mouth is lonely. That surprising flash of recognition you can feel in a language that is not your own? That is also what we look for in our translated titles. 

JFM: Where and how do you usually find your translated titles? Can you tell us about one or two of your favorite discoveries?

Our editors are in touch with our international publishing partners and foreign literary agents throughout the year. And Groundwood usually has a presence at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the Guadalajara Book Fair, where we meet with publishers and rights agents from around the world. People should know more about the amazing work that Rights agents and Rights staff do to represent their authors and illustrators abroad. They are passionate and inexhaustible global matchmakers!

One recent picture book discovery is Iceberg: A Life in Seasons (September 2022), written by Claire Saxby and illustrated by Jess Racklyeft, originally published by Allen and Unwin in Australia. With beautiful poetry and illustrations, it follows the life of an iceberg in Antarctica, then reminds us that—whether in the northern or southern hemisphere—climate change is rapidly destabilizing these unique ecosystems.

Another discovery is the Speak Out series, which was originally published by Akiara Books in Spain. The first half of each book features a famous speech in its entirety. The second half analyses what makes that speech so compelling. We started by publishing Severn Speaks Out (September 2022) by Severn Cullis-Suzuki, with analysis by Alex Nogués, and we’re following that with Malala Speaks Out by Malala Yousafzai, with analysis by Clara Fons Duocastella. Both books were translated by Susan Ouriou. These books are incredible proof of the power of language to shape our thinking.

JFM: I love the challenge of translating picture books. And I imagine that you face an even greater set of challenges – and satisfaction – on the publishing front. Can you tell us about some of the interesting challenges that you’ve faced recently?

Yes! We recently Boobies by Nancy Vo (August 2022), and it was, without question, Groundwood’s most requested title at the Bologna and Frankfurt book fairs. People found both Nancy’s cover and concept irresistible. But there was also an obstacle. The book opens with a pun about the blue-footed booby, which only works in English. And the very structure of the book relies on this English colloquialism—boobies!—as a catch-all way to refer to a variety of mammary glands, from breasts to udders.

It’s a testament to Nancy’s hilarious and taboo-busting work that so many foreign-language publishers were keen to take on that translation challenge!

JFM: Louis Undercover is one of my all-time favorite graphic novels, so I was overjoyed when Forever Truffle came out this year! Can you tell us about some recent and upcoming titles that you’re excited about?

If you liked Truffle, you’ll also like A Place for Pauline, which is a picture book in sequential art about the eldest child of a busy family who longs for some peace and quiet.

You mentioned Last Week by Bill Richardson and illustrated by Emilie Leduc, which follows a child who tries to cherish every last second before their grandmother’s medically assisted death.

Two other illustrated middle-grade titles in that style that I recommend: The Prisoner and the Writer by Heather Camlot and illustrated by Sophie Casson. It powerfully tackles the Dreyfus Affair—in which a famous writer puts his life and career on the line for a Jewish army captain who has been falsely accused of treason.

Burying the Moon by Andrée Poulin and illustrated by Sonali Zohra is another beautifully illustrated novel in verse about a young Indian girl who bravely tackles the taboos around sanitation—particularly for women—in her village.

JFM: Is there anything else that you’d like to tell our readers? Are there ways that we can support you?

Just a big thank you to all your readers who support us and other indie publishers! We pride ourselves on taking risks that the giant multinational publishers will not—bringing readers exciting new ideas, foreign authors, marginalized voices, contemporary poets—and we accomplish this with just a percentage of their budgets. So next time you love a book published by an indie publisher, take a look at their backlist. You’ll surely find more gems!

And if you’d like to be published by an indie publisher like Groundwood, visit their website. Multinational publishers generally accept only agented submissions while we are open to the writing public. You can find Groundwood’s submission guidelines here:

Thank you for your interest and support!


Karen Li is the publisher of Groundwood Books, home to groundbreaking books and award-winning authors and illustrators, such as Deborah Ellis, Marie-Louise Gay, Isabelle Arsenault, Sydney Smith, Jillian Tamaki, and Naseem Hrab, among many others. When she’s not reading, she’s happiest tromping through the woods with her kids.

Jackie Friedman Mighdoll writes books for children. She is passionate about discovering and sharing the diversity of the world with children. She translates from Japanese to English. In a prior career, she founded a program teaching world languages to children starting with newborns. She loves to explore through travel, language, literature, and dessert!