Imagine walking into an old-time dry-goods store. Hear the wooden floor squeak. Peer through the glass case at the wondrous display of penny candy. Close your eyes and taste your favorite … root beer barrels, red-wax lips, ropes of red licorice.
Instead of sugary sweets, Penny Candy Books offers a selection of books that delight, engage, and challenge. Their books reflect today’s global concerns. Penny Candy’s vision is to work with a variety of authors and illustrators to offer important stories well told by a diversity of voices. Founded in 2015 by poets Alexis Orgera and Chad Reynolds, Penny Candy released its first title in the fall of 2016. Penny Candy’s imprint, Penelope Editions, released its first title in January 2017.
I asked Chad Reynolds, head of marketing, to describe the vision of this new press. I was struck with how several of his phrases echoed how I would describe their wide variety of books: “few words, important ideas … small press, big conversations … not afraid to take risks … an engaged world view.” As stated on the Penny Candy website, we will not exclude anyone from our catalog, we focus on underrepresented, unheard, or forgotten voices.
Tell us about a few of your recent publications and why they are unique.
PCB: We are very proud of our Spring 2019 catalog. We have five titles that touch on a variety of subjects, such as Hedy Lamarr’s work as an inventor; how a little girl feels when her grandmother in India dies; a book about a boy with a physical disability; another one about deportation; and a friendship book using compound words to tell a story. The “compound book,” Be/Hold: A Friendship Book,” feels both utterly unlike anything I’ve seen and also very familiar.
Intrigued, I asked Chad additional questions:
What is the passion that gives you the courage to create and publish books?
PCB: We were inspired by a series of op-eds in the New York Times several years ago by Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher, who called out the lack of diversity in children’s lit. We wanted to be part of a growing number of publishers who value real diversity and who want to have conversations around that. It’s been gratifying and encouraging to see the enthusiastic responses our titles have been getting – and I don’t just mean sales.
For example, when Samantha Thornhill visited a school in D.C. to discuss her book about a child who doesn’t know her father because he’s incarcerated, there was one child in particular who was really engaged in the conversation. Apparently, this child had never opened up, was always reserved and withdrawn, and in fact often got in trouble for picking fights and talking back. But when Sam visited, he opened up and afterwards shared he could empathize with the main character because he too had visited his father in prison and it was a scary place. It’s stories like this that give us the passion to create and publish books.
What do you want librarians and teachers to know about your vision of a good book?
PCB: We think our motto — small press, big conversations — does a nice job of capturing what our books are about. We want to remember who our main audience is — kids. We want our books to spark big conversations between kids and adults about timely, important topics. We feel that our titles — whether they be about parental incarceration, a boy with a physical disability, or the importance of seeing past stereotypes — will be a wonderful tool in many settings.
Also our aesthetic is intentionally different from most presses. Our customary trim size at 6.5″ W by 8.5″ tall is a bit smaller than most picture books because we want people to see a book and say, oh there’s a new Penny Candy title! We don’t require our books to be a certain page length — some have been 36 pages and others are up to 68! We don’t require people to submit via agents. We want to cast a wide net, to give people outside the normal channels a chance to let us fall in love with the stories they’ve created.
We aren’t afraid to take risks.
What are your visions and hopes for the future of children’s literature?
PCB: I think children’s literature is better than it’s ever been. We’re in a good moment, with the #ownvoices movement offering some profound stories and perspectives and with the high quality of picture books, middle grade, and young adult novels. I think kid-lit has always had a vital role in delivering hard truths to kids in ways they can understand. Think Aesop’s Fables or Grimms’ fairy tales or the work of Hans Christian Andersen. I think kid-lit can remain relevant if it helps children make sense of their world — and there’s a lot to make sense of now.