In this roundup of Canadian children’s publishing news: a longtime social justice book publisher tells her family story; a compendium of tales about trail-blazing women, from a famous Inuk throat singer to the first African-American first lady of the United States; a new graphic novel from an Eisner Award-winning team; and a YA novel that delves into the Indigenous youth suicide crisis.

Margie Wolfe Tells Her Family’s Holocaust Survival Story

When Margie Wolfe first brought Second Story Press’s latest Holocaust picture book, The Promise, to the Frankfurt Book Fair last year to sell international rights, she kept the name of one of its two authors a secret. That’s because, after working in Canadian children’s publishing for 40 years and publishing stories about the Holocaust for nearly 20 (including the Silver Birch Award-winning Hana’s Suitcase), Wolfe is telling her own mother’s and aunt’s story for the first time, along with her journalist cousin Pnina Bat Zvi, who lives in Israel.

“For a while, I didn’t tell anybody that I was the co-author, because I didn’t want to put pressure on anybody to take something they didn’t feel was right for them,” Wolfe said. “So until they said, ‘I love this,’ or ‘I’m going to take it,’ they didn’t know. I have tried to act with as much integrity as a publisher as I could, and still do the best that I can for the book. It has been a bit of a challenge, but these were great women.”

The Promise, due out in April, tells the story of two young sisters, Rachel and Toby, who were taken away from their parents by the Nazis, and forced to survive as prisoners and slave laborers in Auschwitz. Placed in a barracks with other girls, Rachel and Toby find strength in their promise to their parents to always stay together. When Rachel is taken away after falling ill, it takes an act of bravery and the strategic use of three gold coins they’ve been hiding to reunite the sisters, who go on to survive the war and start families of their own.

It’s a personal tale for both Wolfe and Bat Zvi, and one that they consulted many family members on to piece the details together. Wolfe said it went through many drafts before they felt it properly honored their mothers’ story. Another challenge was finding a way to write the book that would be compelling to children without frightening them too much.

Finding the right illustrator for the job helped to ease Wolfe’s mind. The digital collage-style illustrations by Quebec-based artist Isabelle Cardinal were “both real and surreal at the same time” and “reflected the content and the time period” of the story, Wolfe said.

Most importantly, the two cousins hope their book—like the other books in Second Story’s Holocaust Remembrance Series for Young Readers—will encourage children to speak out against intolerance.

“What we want is for kids to learn something not only about that history, but also about love and devotion and how the consequences of intolerance are tied to what goes on in the world today,” Wolfe said. “We want kids to behave as compassionate people who are horrified at injustice, and to want to act better.”

Bedtime Stories About Female Trailblazers

The women featured in 5-Minute Stories for Fearless Girls (HarperCollins Canada) accomplished a lot of firsts: Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean; Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be named principal dancer by the American Ballet Theatre; and Viola Desmond, the black Nova Scotian civil rights activist who, this year, will be commemorated on the newly designed Canadian $10 bill.

The book, written by debut author Sarah Howden, will be available in April in Canada and in May in the U.S. It’s the second in a new series from HarperCollins Canada—the first was 5-Minute Hockey Stories (written by Meg Braithwaite), and the next one, due out this fall, will be 5-Minute Basketball Stories (written by Howden).

Howden said she was happy to be writing about incredible women of the past and present, because she wants her six-year-old daughter to have good role models. “I love the idea of writing about these strong women,” she said. “It’s been on my mind in terms of what my daughter is taking in, and what messages children are sent. I really want her to take in as much as she can right now about what women are capable of, and to know she really can do anything.”

Every page of Fearless Girls contains illustrations by Guelph, Ont.-based artist Nick Craine, who gives each story its own unique look. According to Howden, Craine’s art for Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq is “vibrant and fierce,” while his depictions of Princess Diana of Wales convey “a feeling of warmth and sweetness.”

“You try to be a good role model yourself, but I find it’s amazing how many gender stereotypes are still fed to children,” Howden said. “I’m hoping [young readers] will see these women as amazing role models who have followed their dreams in one way or another, and who have overcome adversity.”

Feline Duo Stars in Graphic Novel

Which is the more popular animal friend: dogs or cats? In Sparks!, a new graphic novel by Vancouver-based Eisner Award-winning team Ian Boothby (writer) and Nina Matsumoto (artist), readers needn’t choose. The book tells the action-filled story of August and Charlie, two cats who save lives and perform heroic acts from inside a robotic dog suit.

According to Boothby—a comedian best known as the lead writer for Simpsons comics—the concept for Sparks! was originally pitched by him and Matsumoto as an idea for an animated TV show. When that didn’t work out, they turned it into a graphic novel for Scholastic’s Graphix imprint (Sparks! is available now in Canada and the U.S.).

The book’s furry protagonists, the brainy but timid August and the brave and spontaneous Charlie, are based on the former cats of Boothby and his wife (comic book artist Pia Guerra, co-creator of Y: The Last Man). The real August was a feral cat, who spent months hiding under their couch. When Pia found another cat one cold winter’s day, who had fallen into some vegetable oil, she took that cat in, and that new cat, Charlie, “taught August how to be a cat,” Boothby said.

In Sparks!, the fictionalized feline duo are forced to take on Princess, an evil alien who takes the form of a human baby. But despite the outlandish premise, Boothby said it really is an all-ages book. “All these parents have been saying that they like it too, and how surprised they are about that,” he said. “A lot of them read it with their kids, sometimes out loud. I’m hearing now that people are even reading it to their pets.”

“I’ve always gone for all-ages when I’m doing stuff. It’s always been ‘never write down, always write up.’ The younger kids will be happy to watch something that skews a little older, but older kids won’t watch something that skews younger, and I’ve carried that into comics as well.”

YA Novel Explores Indigenous Youth Suicide Crisis

When Canadian filmmaker Adam Garnet Jones started writing the screenplay for his film Fire Song, the issue of high suicide rates among Indigenous youth was hardly part of the national conversation. But as a person of Cree/Métis/Danish background who came out as gay as a teen and struggled with depression, he wanted to tell a story about the complex systemic issues that can lead to suicidal thoughts. Fire Song premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015, and went on to screen at many other film festivals, winning awards and catching the attention of the people at Toronto-based publisher Annick Press.

This month, Fire Song hit bookshelves as a YA novel adapted by Jones. Like the movie, the book tells the story of Shane, an Indigenous teen living on a reserve, who struggles to cope when his sister, Destiny, dies by suicide. Shane longs to move to Toronto to start a new life, but he’s in love with his friend David, who doesn’t want to leave.

According to Jones, although he didn’t grow up on a reserve himself, the story deals with a lot of issues he’s familiar with. The book is about Shane learning to find himself, but most importantly, Jones wanted to emphasize that suicidal thoughts rarely boil down to a single cause.

“With suicide in particular, people always want to be able to point at one main reason,” Jones said. “So what I wanted to do with the film, and later with the book, was to have the story set in a community where there are a lot of interrelated systemic issues at play that all create an environment where it just feels so much more possible. Suicide feels like a real option to these kids, like it does in the real world.”

As a first-time author, Jones says the process was a huge departure from the screenwriting process that he’s used to. “It was refreshing to write the words on the page and know that’s all it was going to be,” he said. “Knowing the words had to do all of the lifting was daunting, but also in some ways a huge relief.”