Anne Millyard: A Canadian Publishing Icon

Art from Paper Bag Princess, written by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko

by Kirsti Granholm

Anne Millyard is one of the most cherished children’s book publishing contributors in Canada. Since the beginning, Anne has dedicated her life to creating books and content that will intrigue, teach and inspire children.

In 1975, Anne and Rick Wilks co-opened Annick Press in Toronto, Ontario. Neither of them had experience as publishers, but they were both passionate about bringing books with excellent, diverse content to Canadian youth. Before Annick, Anne and Rick initiated Books by Kids, where their goal was to encourage children to start writing creatively. When we spoke to Anne about Annick’s early success and Books by Kids, Anne responded “We believed [kids] had interesting things to say and should be heard, especially by other kids, but also older kids. They wrote about funerals, for their grandfathers, and the goldfish that had to be flushed down the toilet. They were desperately fierce about fairness in their lives; yes, they were fighting in the school yard but wanted all kids to be treated equally, on a level playing field.” Anne knew the voices of children desperately needed to be heard, so their mission became making that a reality.

Anne and Rick in the early days of Annick, art by Michael Martchenko

After a year of Books by Kids, Anne and Rick officially founded Annick Press and dedicated it to children’s book publishing specifically (O’Reilly, 2016). We asked Anne about finding success as a new publishing company, and she told us “I never doubted that we would find our voice, that we would find a readership, and a response to what we wanted to contribute.” She was certainly right. Annick Press quickly found success and from then on, they made way for many other children’s book publishing companies to come.

Annick’s early efforts paid off, to say the least. Since their humble beginning, Annick has published some of Canada’s best books. From classic Robert Munsch stories, to the insightful #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women, to the Mole Sister series — if you have read Canadian children’s books, you have definitely come across Annick’s work. Personally, one of my fondest memories was enjoying the Mole Sisters with my grandmother. She was not fluent in English at the time, but the adorable humour in their stories was something we could both laugh about together, regardless of our language barrier.

Anne was one of the first kids’ literature advocates to make the change from marketing towards parents to marketing towards children. She once said “The [children’s] books were very much focused on the adult buyer and not directly connecting with kids” (Godfrey, 2016). Her main concern was ensuring that children had books they actually wanted to read, moving away from the concept of adults deciding everything for youth. Not only was it a change in the publishing industry, but it was also a social movement. For years, parents served as the voices of their children, but in current day, the voices of children are now recognized as something of value. In Canadian literature, we can thank Anne for that.

Along with Anne’s enthusiasm for publishing books chosen by kids, she also pushed for English-French bilingual books. In Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children’s Illustrated Books and Publishing, Anne states that she wanted Québécois illustrators to have “a chance at better sales in their own market” (Edwards & Saltman, 222). In turn, Annick began to publish bilingual books and translate some of their previous releases to truly represent Canadians.

Not only has Anne had an impact in Canada, but her talents have been recognized on an international scale. In Ronald A. Jobe’s The effect of the international children’s book industry on Canadian publishing endeavours for children and young people, he identified Millyard as one of the first people to recognize the need for representation of Canadian literature within the international market. Shortly after Anne began to fill the international demands, other publishers followed, and today, Canada boasts a wonderful variety of children’s books sold across the world.

Annick has never shied away from literary risks, no matter how difficult the subject may be. They have always found a way to display these topics in the most appropriate, graceful light. It is never easy to have tough discussions with children, but Annick has honed this craft. Ultimately, Annick has recognized the importance of children’s education through exposure of a variety of books. When children enjoy what they read they are more likely to retain that information and implement it into their everyday lives.  Giving kids variety allows them to develop life-long interests that will instill confidence in them for their later years.

Annick Press has been recognized on multiple occasions for their contributions to Canadian literature. They consistently publish high-quality children’s books, from dainty picture books to action-packed novels. Annick has never discriminated against any genre of book. In turn, they have won a variety of prestigious awards. These awards include the Publisher of the Year award by the Canadian Booksellers Association in 1984. They were they first children’s publisher to win this award! Annick was also a finalist for the Bologna Prize for the Best Children’s Publisher of the Year in 2013 and 2018 (Carter, 2018), as well as the winning publisher of the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award in 2014 for The Man With the Violin, and the Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator’s Award in 2009 for Mattland.

Anne has helped countless authors’ career’s take flight. She has been a support system for many Canadian writers, editors, illustrators and artists. The literary community has appreciated her efforts greatly. In an interview with Rick Wilks, he recalled the time when Robert Munsch’s work appeared on their desks for the first time; “One day we were working in the backyard when an envelope arrived from the University of Guelph.  Inside were four stories from Robert Munsch, including “The Paper Bag Princess,” “Mud Puddle,” “The Dark” and another entitled “The Fart.” “Anne’s immediate reaction was, ‘This guy is wild, with such an inventive imagination– and he’s completely connected to the world of the child. He can look right into their eyes, he understands their lives and makes them laugh. We should publish all of these.’  I fully agreed and volunteered to write Mr. Munsch a letter. But Anne was already out of her seat and calling Robert Munsch on the telephone. Eventually we learned that Bob had sent the same package to six other publishers. He heard back from only one of them, and that was within two minutes of receipt.” Anne’s vision for Munsch certainly came true, all these years later and he is still recognized as one of Canada’s most successful writers. Anne may have thought Munsch could relate to the world of the child, but she could too.

Anne had a remarkable career as a publisher and one of her last projects with Annick was the expansion in 1999. Colleen MacMillian opened a new editorial office in Vancouver, which was a huge success for the company (Godfrey, 2016). After 25 years at Annick, Anne retired in 2000 — leaving Rick to become the sole owner of their profound publishing company. Even nearly 20 years after her retirement, Anne’s influence on the Canadian publishing industry can still be recognized today, and her mission still lives on.

When we asked Anne if she had any doubts about opening a children’s publishing company, she responded “Doubts? About publishing kids’ books? Are you kidding? If you are in touch with little people in some capacity, ideally as a parent, then the source of ideas is vast, the subjects never change.” She continued, “Urgent themes introduce themselves all the time. We received an average of six submissions a week after we morphed into Annick Press. No doubts. Ever.” Anne’s absolute confidence in publishing Canadian children’s books speaks lengths to not only the success of Annick Press, but the Canadian children’s book publishing industry as a whole.

Canada is thankful for Anne Millyard, especially all the children who grew up influenced by her work. Her mission to publish a variety of well-rounded children’s books lives on through Annick Press, Rick Wilks and many of the other publishing companies that have followed in Annick’s footsteps. Anne’s hopes for international success keep on growing, with more Canadian authors, publishers and illustrators being recognized around the globe each year. The Canadian Children’s Book Centre is so thankful for Anne, and all the life changing work she has done for the industry. We cannot wait to see where her inspiration flourishes next.

Thank you, Anne!

To celebrate Anne and Annick, we are holding a contest! One winner will receive the ultimate classic Annick prize pack! Click here to enter