Established in 1992 by Nancy Traversy and Tessa Strickland, Barefoot Books is a children’s book publisher based in Bath, UK and Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. It publishes multicultural books that, in addition to providing high-quality content, pay great attention to art and design. One of the company’s core values is to use art and stories “to create deep and lasting connections—whether it’s a child and parent connecting over a book; a child connecting to the universal wisdom of other cultures; or a broad network of people connecting through shared values and the desire to help children become happy, engaged members of a global community.”
Tessa Strickland, Barefoot Books’ co-founder and editor-in-chief, answered our questions about Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing, one of the seven books selected for inclusion in our Spirit of PaperTigers Book Set Donation Project, and about other topics related to the company and to multicultural children’s literature.
PT: How did Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing come about as a project for Barefoot Books?
TS: This project came about in quite a circuitous way. First, I was contacted by Clare Farrow, who wanted to know if I was interested in having her retell any traditional Chinese tales. In the course of our conversation, I learnt that she and her husband, Guo Yue, had just completed a manuscript about his life, Music, Food and Love. It so happened that this telephone conversation came about just as I was starting to cast around for stories for older readers, and I was fascinated by what Clare told me about Yue’s childhood in Beijing. So, I asked to read a copy of the manuscript.
PT: When you acquired the manuscript, did you know from the get go that you would publish it as an illustrated middle grade book, or was the decision regarding full plate illustrations made later in the process?
TS: When I read Music, Food and Love (Piatkus, 2006), I thought that the best way to tell Yue’s story to children would be to focus on the summer of 1966. The manuscript went through about four drafts and was a close collaboration between Yue and Clare, me, and an excellent editor, Anne Finnis. The decision to make full-plate illustrations was made once we had a manuscript that everyone was happy with.
PT: What can you tell us about the pairing of Guo Yue and Clare Farrow’s text with Helen Cann‘s art?
TS: We have done a number of books with Helen Cann; I knew that she would be a delight to work with. Not only is she very talented, she is also extremely interested in developing her own style and in working
collaboratively. She had some very fruitful meetings and discussions with Clare and Yue, who were both extremely happy with her illustrations.
PT: How do you think the public’s attitude toward multicultural books for children has changed since Barefoot Books was founded, in 1992? Are there any major differences between the US and the UK markets in that regard?
TS: As Barefoot has always focused on multicultural books, it is hard to say with very much claim to objectivity how the public attitude has changed. That said, there was a significant surge in demand after 9/11. Also, before we set up our own business in the US, we used to go on selling trips (this was in the 1990s) to New York and Boston, and it was quite surprising how ‘multicultural’ to the publishers we visited seemed to equal ‘African-American and Hispanic’ and not much beyond that. The challenge for a publisher with a multicultural focus, I think, is the same as that facing a publisher with any work of fiction: how to find a writer and an illustrator with a disctinctive voice, and with the ability to show their world to a reader/many readers from other worlds so well that a bridge is crossed, a new understanding offered.
PT:What would you say is the most challenging aspect of being an independent publisher of children’s books these days?
TS: Ah, they are too many to count! BUT, one of the great things about being independent in the digital world is that it offers us a way of reaching our customers far more effectively than we could when we were dependent on the traditional supply chain. We have always enjoyed robust support from the institutional market, but been regarded as too niche by high street chains. It is not insignificant that our fastest-growing account is Amazon; the beauty of the internet is that it gives customers a chance to find their way to content beyond the standard character-driven mass market offer. And we have great faith in the fact that there are other parents and teachers out there, just like us, who want to introduce their children to different traditions and cultures; to question and reflect; to imagine what it would be like if…
PT: As of a few years ago, Barefoot books can no longer be found in chain bookstores. How did this reality come about, and what has the impact of adopting a more grassroots approach to sales/distribution been on the business?
TS: We did not fare well with chain stores in the US for the reasons I have outlined above; our focus is on growing a grass-roots community with like-minded business partners and through our Ambassador Programme. This feels much more authentic, somehow; we struggled to get exposure through the chains, and we also struggled with a model that seemed to lack nuance—a scale-out in Borders, for instance, meant the same quantity of books going everywhere across the nation, with no attention to the varying demographics. One size doesn’t fit all, in our view.
PT: What are some of your bestselling titles?
TS: Internationally, Niamh Sharkey’s wonderful picture book The Giant Turnip has been and continues to be a star. So does Debbie Harter’s The Animal Boogie. Of our more explicitly multicultural books, Mama Panya’s Pancakes is exceptional and is a top seller on Amazon too – don’t ask me
why! We don’t publish for quick results, so while we are delighted when books get off to a roaring start, our focus is on content that will stand the test of time and do better year by year.
PT: What are your hopes for the future of Barefoot Books?
TS: After a year which has been devoted to revising our online offer and rebuilding our website, we are confident that we have laid the foundations for a business model which has the potential to grow
exponentially. In the medium term, we hope to exploit the potential for growth through social media and through an offer which enables anyone who likes what we do to sign up, and to buy and sell Barefoot at
attractive discounts, with no strings attached and no start-up costs. In the long term, our hope is that we will become a household name and a destination for anyone who is looking for high-quality art and story for the children in their lives.
PT: Anything else you’d like to add?
TS: We can only do what we do because we have a fabulous, incredibly hard-working and highly motivated team in-house and because we are lucky enough to have tremendous support from a diverse and exciting range of people in the wider world – thank you, everyone!
Many thanks, Tessa, for taking the time to answer our questions. We are very grateful to Barefoot Books for donating copies of Little Leap Forward in support of our Spirit of PaperTigers project. We wish you and Barefoot Books continued success!
To find out more about Barefoot Books and to take a peek inside its “creative cauldron”, visit the website. The site also offers a number of inspiring videos related to the company’s activities that are well-worth watching! And please note: you can also follow Barefoot Books on Facebook and Twitter.