Within the clean-lined, warmly-hued facade of a one-story building located near the bustle of Somerville’s Davis Square shines one of the brightest lights in independent publishing today. Founded by the British Walker Books Group in 1990, Candlewick Press opened its doors with only six employees. Today, that number is nearly one hundred, all working hard to produce some of the most exciting, acclaimed, beautiful, and creative work to be seen in books for children and young adults — around 3000 of them so far.
The Candlewick list started with and remains strong in the picture book field, but is now equally stellar in titles for older readers, including many award winners. A relative newcomer to the Boston publishing scene, a one-time cultural powerhouse that has been increasingly overshadowed by the New York conglomerates, Candlewick has managed to make its outsider status a strength and its independence a definite virtue. No cookie-cutter, trend-following volumes here; as Cathryn Mercier, director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College says in a Boston Globe article, “Everything they do is about what serves the artistic vision of a particular book. . . . They care about the book as an object.” And Candlewick author M.T. Anderson praises their editors’ commitment to supporting projects that may seem eccentric or unusual, but that they are passionate about.
That passion and artistic integrity really shines through in all the Candlewick books I’ve had the pleasure of reading lately. When I contacted Candlewick about my Reading New England challenge, they were kind enough to send me several of their New-England-based titles. Last week I wrote about Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, which I found a fantastic counterpoint to some of the more familiar (and one-sided) stories about the American Revolution. Both in its literary style and its visual flair, it recalls its eighteenth-century inspirations — a daring and brilliant venture into territory not usually explored by young-adult (or adult!) publishers today.
For next month’s focus on Rhode Island, I’ll be looking at Swim That Rock. This coming-of-age novel first strikes the eye with its beautiful cover and endpapers by one of the co-authors, John Rocco, who is also an acclaimed illustrator and picture book author. He joined forces with his childhood friend, first-time author Jay Primiano, and the pair delved into their experiences growing up working-class in a fishermen’s town to create an exciting and atmospheric adventure for today’s readers. I’m so pleased to see this addition to the rather limited body of Rhode Island books, written with such authenticity and heart.
And if anybody’s looking for a book for the final state in the challenge, Connecticut, Worlds Afire by Paul Janeczko is an interesting option. It describes the horrific unfolding of the 1944 Hartford circus fire, in the unlikely form of a series of first-person narrative poems. The short lines and stark images of Janeczko’s terse, poignant verses throw the tragedy into sharp and personal focus, creating a memorable picture of the event and its emotional impact.
Candlewick books are not pretty packages that are empty inside. They’re lovingly crafted in word, image, and design, bringing us remarkable voices that deserve to be heard, and perfectly suiting the form to the contents. Long may this New England star shine, a beacon of hope for all of us who care about the future of books and reading.