Pushing boundaries at Second Story

In Grade 2, my classmates and I crowded around the carpet to voraciously flip through Karen Levine’s Hana’s Suitcase. The book follows Fumiko Ishioka, a curator for the Holocaust education centre for children in Tokyo, who found, exhibited, and unraveled the story of Hana Brady after receiving her suitcase. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy towards the children in Tokyo who got to see the suitcase in real life. Five years later, I had to read Kathy Kacer’s Clara’s War for a school assignment. Unlike Hana’s Suitcase, Kacer’s book is a fictionalized Holocaust tale inspired by real events. I followed Clara and her family’s time in the Theresienstadt ghetto and found relief, in spite of the atrocities, with Clara as she found her way to music. It was the first and only time I never returned a book to a library. Save for The Diary of Anne Frank, Hana’s Suitcase and Clara’s War were two of the Holocaust books I read as a child whose stories continue to stay with me as an adult. But until this past year, I didn’t realize they were both published by Second Story Press in Toronto, my hometown. These two books, along with Kacer’s earlier work The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, started an ongoing collection of works Second Story publishes of Holocaust books for young readers. As you can imagine, after finding this out, it did not take me long to reach out to co-founder and publisher Margie Wolfe. 

“We come with a mandate of doing human rights and women’s social justice books that reflect the diversity of who we are as a people, and to be frank, I’m not interested in doing anything else,” Wolfe stated. And that hasn’t changed since the publishing house was established in 1988. However, the perception of their work has, since during that time the idea of a feminist controlled publisher, Wolfe recounted, was very radical. 

Second Story was the first publishing house to create teacher guide’s that would give educators insight into how to introduce women’s issues to middle and high schoolers. And “transformed what is appropriate for kids to read from bunny stories to real issues and reality based material.”

Initially working more on books for adults rather than children, things started to shift when it became evident that there was a gap in the children’s market for books that dealt with serious issues concerning equality, gender, sexism, LGBTQ+, feminism, racism, and disability. Books catering to the adult market, with a particular focus on biographies by and about women, are still incredibly important for Wolfe. Just last April Second Story published Karin Wells’s The Abortion Caravan: When Women Shut Down the Government in the Battle for the Right to Choose, detailing the time when seventeen women from Vancouver left for Ottawa and “occupied” along with 500 other women a rally on Parliament Hill to incite change to our abortion laws. 

The day this article comes out, Second Story will be hosting, alongside Miles Nadal JCC and ReelAbilities Film Festival: Toronto, a book launch event for Rita Winkler’s My Art, My World and Helen Wolfe’s Unstoppable: Women with Disabilities. The event celebrates women with disabilities and their artwork and accomplishments. These publications don’t seem unusual to us now, but thirty years ago Second Story published a book about a child in a wheelchair when hardly anyone else was publishing books on disability.  

The Second Story catalogue is rich and diverse. The book industry has become more progressive, especially for children, with more stories on feminist topics. Wolfe “doesn’t know if all of the books that should be published for children that reflect the diverse experiences of who we are, the different histories, the different cultures, the different stories, if they are going to be done” so she, along with everyone else at Second Story will keep doing them “as long as we can.” 

Step into Second Story’s world and find out what goes into making books you’ll think about for a lifetime and that you may never want to return to your local library. 

 Photos of Second Story book covers courtesy of the publishing house.

Was there any key moment that made you think, oh, kids can totally understand complex issues or that issues don’t have to be watered down for them?

I think what each of the books do to make them accessible and appropriate, is that there is always hope in the story. With Hana’s Suitcase, Hana died in the middle of the story so where was the hope [going to] come from? Well, we continued on with the story of George, her brother, and Fumiko. And the other thing is that they [Kathy Kacer’s The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser and Clara’s War] were written as narrative nonfiction so it doesn’t feel like a lesson for kids, it feels like a great story. I truly believe that those first few books opened so many doors in terms of what was appropriate reading for young people and that has continued, not just for us but for other publishers. I’ve come to believe that you can tell anything to a kid, it just depends on how you tell it. I’m not sure how many taboos are left.

More progressive books discussing gender, for example, are being preferred by parents now, which is incredible, because I don’t think you would have seen that two years ago.  

During the pandemic there was some sense that people wanted escapist stuff, but that’s not it. We’re having our best year ever because our books reflect what’s in the news and real concerns not just here in Canada; we just got a huge order from the New York City Board of Education for thousands and thousands and thousands of books and they’re all [on] serious [subjects]. They’re all about real stuff, and they’re done carefully so that it is accessible and a compelling and an enjoyable read for a child. And what we do is help educators use them [the books] because they’re not textbooks..

I get asked regularly, “isn’t it great being on trend?” And for us, none of this has been a trend and it won’t be a trend when/if there’s a trend that’s over. These are the books that we have always been mandated to do and it’s great that what we want to do and what people are really interested in reading now, have come together.

You’ve just waited for the world to catch up to what you’re doing. And can you share a specific story of the impact one of your books had on a reader?  

One of the great Hana’s Suitcase stories was when we heard from a teacher or principal in a downtown Toronto School, “We have this kid who doesn’t read. He doesn’t read at all”— I think he was in Grade 5 or 6—“And he asked to borrow the book from the teacher and now he won’t give it back and he carries it around everywhere.” One of our first visits with the author, Karen Levine, was to the school, and the kid, he was just a sweet, sweet kid who didn’t like to read—and that’s what you dream of having, a book that will pull kids into reading. Because I know after that book, he was looking for more. And that’s the joy of what we do.

Did you initially have the intention of publishing Jewish books because of your own relationship to Judaism?  

I started out as a feminist publisher and we were telling all kinds of stories. I’m not only Jewish, I’m the daughter of Holocaust survivors and I was born in a displaced persons camp. But it never occurred to me that that’s what I should be publishing. While I was very Jewish identified, I didn’t think that should necessarily connect with my work. So we were doing all kinds of books and then somebody said, “So what about something with Jewish stuff?” The first book I ended up doing was an adult collection called Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers. That came almost by accident. Because I’m a Yiddish speaker, and there was going to be a Yiddish women’s reading group which I was invited to. We began reading stories and people began translating them and so I said, I think we have a book here. That was the first one. And then we did Faye Schulman’s story A Partisan’s Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust, which was extraordinary. And then did books from a couple of Jewish conferences. But I don’t think it was really until the Holocaust Young Readers Series where I felt my family legacy and my life’s work came together. I never imagined that it’d become so important to what we’re doing here.

It’s almost like going on instinct and probably how you feel when you get certain submissions. 

When I heard Hana’s story on the radio when it was just an interview with George and Fumiko. Karen was already a friend, and as she tells it, and it’s correct, I called her 10 seconds later, and I said there’s a book here. And that’s how it happened. But I’m not the same with every kind of book. I know well the books we publish here, and I understand them but if you give me some other book, I don’t necessarily know if it’s good enough to publish or not. And that’s fine. Somebody else can do those. I was not a literature student. I didn’t come to publishing because I love literature. I came to publishing because there are things I believe should be said and should be read. And that’s what’s driven me all of these years. 

But it brings something different to the table as well. What issues do you feel need to be tackled the most right now?

We are in a world where there are so many things that are of concern to me. I worry about issues of antisemitism and racism in a big way. I’m proud to be doing Own Voices for Indigenous books and they are being received really well. We’re doing Indigenous books in dual language so it’s in English and the respective Indigenous language. We have refugee books. One author that we’re really proud of is Nhung N. Tran-Davies, she came as a child with the boat people and she is a surgeon in Alberta now and has done two books, the second of which, The Doll is nominated for the 2022 Blue Spruce Award. We’ve also worked with the United Nations on refugee stories and issues. Even after all these years, I’m excited about the possibilities of what we can do.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Header image design by Orly Zebak. Book covers courtesy of Second Story. 

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