Hold Fast: the story of a Canadian classic

The evolution of the cover of Hold Fast. On the left is the 1978 Clarke Irwin edition; followed by the 1995 edition published by Stoddart Kids; then the 25th anniversary Groundwood update; and on the right, the 35th anniversary movie tie-in edition.

The evolution of the cover of Hold Fast. On the left is the 1978 Clarke Irwin edition; followed by the 1995 edition published by Stoddart Kids; then the 25th anniversary Groundwood version; and on the right, the 35th anniversary movie tie-in edition.

Thirty-five years ago, I got my first real job, as an editorial assistant at a now-defunct publishing company called Clarke Irwin. The salary was $6,000 a year, and I worked in a little cubbyhole where I spent a lot of time wrestling with carbon paper and Wite-Out, typing address labels on an old manual typewriter, and rejecting manuscripts.

My biggest job perk was that I got to read the slush pile. Clarke Irwin was mainly an educational publisher, but it had started to get into trade books, including children’s books.

One of the manuscripts that came across my desk was a young adult novel written by a schoolteacher in Newfoundland. The novel was called Hold Fast. I was knocked out by it. I sent it on to the Powers That Be, and the decision was made to publish it.

That’s when I was assigned the best task in publishing. I got to tell the author that we wanted to publish his book.

I phoned Kevin Major. He was very nice. Very polite. We talked for a short while and both said goodbye. But in that second as I was putting down the receiver, I heard him on the other end of the line, shouting with joy just before he hung up the phone. I think he screamed “Wahoo!”

An illustration from Hold Fast

An illustration from the first edition of Hold Fast

That was the start. For Kevin it was the beginning of a stellar writing career, with fifteen books, a heap of awards and publication around the world.

For me? Hold Fast was my introduction to YA books, and it spoiled me for anything else. That book taught me everything I needed to know about voice and authenticity, about character-driven stories, about sense of place, about making readers feel something. After that, I knew I wanted to edit books for young readers, and I’ve spent the rest of my own career doing so, with Hold Fast setting the bar.

Kevin? Are you out there? Do you remember that Wahoo moment? It’s been thirty-five years. Can you believe it?

Shelley Tanaka is an award-winning author, editor and translator. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.


Now Hold Fast is a major motion picture produced by Rock Island Productions. The movie premiers in Canada on Friday, December 6th in St. John’s and Halifax. The national release will be in 2014. If you’re a lucky east-coaster, we hope you’ll check it out. The rest of us will have to make due with the trailer for now.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4pcVZHCQDs&w=560&h=315]

Northwest Passage and that new-book smell

Hot off the press: Northwest Passage by Stan Rogers, illustrated with pictures and commentary by Matt James, available September 2013.

Hot off the press: Northwest Passage by Stan Rogers, with pictures and commentary by Matt James, available September 2013.

When publishing people get together, we always talk about the same thing. Sure, we might start off with an analysis of world events or a friendly argument about what we’re going to order for dinner. But sooner or later, we always get around to that one really important question: what’s your favourite stage in the process of making a book?

Editors might tell people that the very best part comes early. It could be the “made your day” moment of telling an author that her book is going to be published, or the first glimpse of rough sketches that makes a picture book seem finally real. But, honestly, everyone who works in publishing agrees that nothing, simply nothing, can compare to the first time you hold a finished book in your hands. To help you experience that feeling for yourselves, here is a sneak peek of a fall 2013 title that had people in our office jumping up and down (for real!) last Friday. I’m only sorry that I can’t figure out how to share that new-book smell with you via cyberspace.

— Sheila Barry, Publisher of Groundwood Books

(Psst: for more behind-the-scenes photos, check out Groundwood on Instagram. Anansi is on Instagram too.)

Hot off the press: Northwest Passage by Stan Rogers, with pictures and commentary by Matt James, available September 2013.

Some spreads from Northwest Passage by Stan Rogers, with pictures and commentary by Matt James, available September 2013.

On YA literature with LGBTQ characters

Suzanne Sutherland, editorial assistant at Groundwood Books

Suzanne Sutherland, editorial assistant at Groundwood Books, and author of When We Were Good, published by Three O’Clock Press. You can follow her on Twitter @sutherlandsuz, and read her blog.

In September of 2011, my mom was nervous.

“I was listening to Q,” she said, “you know, with Jian Ghomeshi?”
“Uh huh?”
“And he said that no one buys YA with gay characters.”
“Oh, really.”
“He’s says it’s very hard to get published.”

I then proceeded to totally interrupt her story (about co-authors Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith being asked by a major literary agent to ‘straighten out’ a gay character in their post-apocalyptic novel, Stranger) to spout off a list of exceptional young-adult literature with LGBTQ characters. A list that started with Groundwood’s own Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki.

My mom was concerned because I had just sent my first novel off to a publisher for consideration. The book was (and is) called When We Were Good and was (and is) about two girls falling in love, among other things.

The coming-out speech I gave my parents was unlike most.

“I’m not gay,” I told them, “but my book is.”

Though they were, and always have been, unconditionally supportive of my work and of me, my mom was worried that I would be asked to change my story—that maybe they’d tell me to turn my leading lady, Katherine, into a Kurt or a Kenny.

But so many of the novels I read as a teenager, during that formative time when books hit harder than they ever will again (if you’re lucky), reflected the lives of the people around me who identified as LGBTQ. Ariel Schrag’s autobiographical high school comics (particularly Potential) shocked and amazed me with their gutting honesty, and local Toronto authors like Mariko Tamaki (with her first novel, Cover Me) and Debra Anderson (Code White) inspired me to write more stories about our city.

So, as it happened, my mom worried for nothing.

When We Were Good book coverWhen We Were Good found a perfect publisher in Sumach, and as I worked with my editor, Sarah Wayne, to bring the manuscript to its finished state, I noticed that there seemed to be more and more new works of LGBTQ-themed YA.

In addition to Groundwood’s own excellent contributions to the field—shout-outs to Paul Yee’s Money Boy, Tamara Bach’s Girl From Mars and Diana Wieler’s Bad Boy, which was particularly trailblazing when it was published in 1990—there is a wealth of fantastic queer YA being published right now.

Happily, Brown and Smith’s co-authored novel, Stranger, eventually found a home with Penguin’s imprint Viking in 2012, and is due out in 2014, reportedly with its gay characters intact.

And my own novel, When We Were Good, was released in May, appropriately feted with a launch at the world’s oldest LGBTQ bookshop, Glad Day.

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