“Good Books for Good People,” the tag line for Red Chair Press’s new trade imprint, One Elm Books, underscores the independent children’s publisher’s commitment to providing books that inspire young readers to be the best they can be, to bring positive changes to their communities and those around them, and to have fun while learning. With this line, Red Chair expands its reach to older readers, offering single-title intermediate chapter books and middle grade fiction. One Elm launches this month with A Calf Named Brian Higgins: An Adventure in Rural Kenya, a first novel inspired by author Kristen Ball’s own experiences in Kenya.
Keith Garton, who founded Red Chair Press in 2009 with art director Jeffrey Dinardo, explained that the One Elm imprint will enable the house to provide similarly values-based books to children who have outgrown the company’s younger series, including Rocking Chair Kids for ages three to six and Funny Bone Books and LOOK! Books, both aimed at readers ages six through eight. Garton estimates that One Elm’s list, which (like other Red Chair books) is distributed by Lerner, will add four to six titles annually.
The imprint’s debut title exemplifies the mission of One Elm, whose name pays homage to the lone tree—one of the last surviving American elms in New England—standing on a hill in the middle of Egremont, Mass., home to Red Chair’s editorial offices. A Calf Named Brian Higgins introduces a 13-year-old American girl who begrudgingly travels with her mother and uncle to rural Kenya, where she gets a harsh wake-up call after befriending people living in dire poverty, enduring starvation and preventable disease.
Ball, a Connecticut middle- and high-school teacher, spent the summer of 2005 in the Kenyan village of Sauri after receiving a scholarship grant. “I immediately came to love the residents, who are so very funny, caring, warm, curious, and smart,” she said. “It was an opportunity that doesn’t come to many people—I was the first Westerner most of the villagers had every seen—and it was a truly wonderful cultural exchange. I went there rather arrogantly thinking that I could help them, but in truth we helped each other.”
When she returned to her classroom, Ball taught her students about the plight of the people of Sauri, and created lesson plans in various subjects in order to drive home the devastating effects of global poverty. “Kids who had always thought that they had no math ability suddenly rose to the occasion when I asked the class to come up with a monetary plan for ending global poverty,” she said. “They were so eager to contribute their ideas about spending money on things like health services, medical education, and agricultural initiatives. I told them that the only requirement was that their math and spelling be correct—and virtually none of their proposals had errors.”
Spreading the Word
Eager to share with a broader audience all that she had learned during her time in Kenya, Ball decided to write a novel that was realistic but not overly gloomy. The book is told from the perspective of Hannah, a young visitor to Sauri, named for one of Ball’s students who inspired her to learn more about ending global poverty and whose father, economist and senior U.N. advisor Jeffrey Sachs, made Ball’s scholarship to Kenya possible, in support of his work toward sustainable development.
“I wanted to reach more young people with my story,” she explained. “You can’t sugarcoat a story about extreme poverty and tie a neat bow around it at the end, but I didn’t want to make the novel too sad and overwhelming. I knew the story required a delicate balance to convey the seriousness of the issue while also capturing the beauty and warmth of the people of Sauri. I couldn’t be more proud that Keith and the team at Red Chair Press wanted to publish it. It is a dream come true.”
For Garton, who had worked with Ball at McGraw-Hill, Prentice Hall, and TIME for Kids, acquiring her novel was an easy call. “I was so inspired by the work Kristen did in Kenya, with girls the same age as her heroine,” he said. “She is a very committed teacher, devoted to service learning and global learning. I’ve seen her make a difference in her classroom, and I wanted to bring her story to the trade, school, and library markets, since I know it will make a difference in the lives of readers everywhere.”
On the horizon from One Elm Books is Trevor Lee and the Big Uh Oh by Wiley Blevins, illustrated by Marta Kissi, about a boy who will try anything to avoid his biggest fear—reading in front of people, due in August 2019. Scheduled for spring 2020 are Roosevelt Banks, Good Kid in Training by Laurie Calkhoven, illustrated by Deb Palen, which tells of a boy who learns that being a good friend is more important than getting a bicycle; and Second Dad Summer, Benjamin Klas’s debut novel, featuring illustrations by Fian Arroyo, in which a boy discovers the meaning of family when he opens his eyes and his heart to the man in his father’s life.
And scheduled for fall 2020 release is another first novel, Red Dove, Listen to the Wind by Sonia Antaki, illustrated by Andrew Bosley. Set in 1890s Dakota Territory against the backdrop of the Battle of Wounded Knee, the story introduces a 12-year-old girl struggling to find her true place in the world.
Asked if she is working on additional book projects, Ball replied, “Since I also had the opportunity to travel to Nepal and Cambodia, I would consider sending Hannah to Southeast Asia in future novels,” she said. “I have lots of ideas for her—but right now they’re still just swirling around in my head.”
A Calf Named Brian Higgins: An Adventure in Rural Kenya by Kristen Ball. Red Chair/One Elm, $16.99 Aug. ISBN 978-1-947159-00-6