Unicorns are good luck for these New West book publishers

McKellar & Martin Publishing Group is celebrating after its first-ever title makes its debut as a new animated series on YTV

Chat to Meghan Hague and Tonya Martin for any length of time, and you’ll find the conversation wandering down any number of paths about books. Not just about the importance of books in general - although you’ll definitely go there – but more esoteric directions too: the way covers are designed, the fonts used for printing, the way new books smell.

The self-professed book “dorks” happen to be the co-publishers and owners of New Westminster-based McKellar & Martin Publishing Group – which recently saw one of its titles turned into a new animated children’s series on YTV.

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Go Away, Unicorn! made its Canadian debut on Friday, Sept. 7.

For Hague and Martin, that debut was the latest step in a journey that began in the spring of 2010, when they published Emily Mullock’s children’s picture book of the same title. The book and the show centre on Alice and the unicorn who shows up at her birthday party and decides to stay – even though Alice has no use for a magical friend and tries to get him to go away. (Spoiler alert: he stays.)

The book was optioned by Tricon Films and Television in 2012 and stayed there for four years, surviving a rocky road as Tricon went out of business and was taken over by Sonar Entertainment. Sonar picked up Go Away, Unicorn! in production in 2016 and produced it for YTV/Corus and the Disney Channel.

“It’s really surreal because it’s been so long,” Martin says. “It’s a very bizarre feeling … is this actually happening?”

They’re pleased the series is being created by Nelvana, a studio that’s a household name in the animation world. The show is set to be aired by the Disney Channel in the U.S. and internationally starting in January 2019.

“We are thrilled and over the moon,” Martin says, though they admit they’re both still pinching themselves.

“There’s a definite element of disbelief,” Hague agrees.

Watching the book come to life in animated form has been eye-opening for both of them.

“It’s very odd to watch your characters move and talk with personalities,” Hague says.

Martin says the unicorn, in particular, is very close to how they envisioned him, and the overall feel of the show has remained true to the book.

“They really kept the integrity of the original property,” Hague agrees, noting that even details such as the colour palette reflect the original story well.

They’re thrilled that the original book – which was, in fact, McKellar & Martin’s debut title back in 2010 – will now find a new audience as people meet it through the YTV series. As publishers on a mission to share quality children’s books by B.C. authors, this can only be a good thing.

“Something really important to us is giving people opportunities we think will work in the marketplace,” Hague says.

Case in point: Unicorn, which has opened up a whole new world for author-illustrator Mullock. Mullock had worked with McKellar & Martin as an illustrator before coming to them with the idea of writing her own story. The finished product has changed substantially since Mullock’s initial offering, Martin says, noting the original manuscript was in rhyme – something she suggested Mullock should steer away from.

“There’s a science to rhyme,” Martin says, noting it’s an art form reserved for only a few authors – think classics like Dr. Seuss or contemporary writers like Sandra Boynton. “You either nail it or you don’t.”

Unicorn upholds their belief that children’s books need to be well-told stories that resonate with kids.

Martin notes there’s a misconception out there that it’s somehow “easy” to write children’s books.

“Because people tend not to think of children as intelligent small humans, of course it would be easy to write for kids,” Martin says with a laugh, noting that in fact the opposite is true. “With children’s books, it has to come from a really honest place. You can’t be dumbing it down; it can’t be condescending.”

After all their years working in book publishing – Hague has been around the industry for 15 years, and Martin for more than 25 – they’ve developed a sense of what stories will work for young audiences.

“When I read the first line of a manuscript, I get this humming, this buzz. I get it right here,” Martin says, tapping her chest. “It’s not even a chill; it’s a vibration.”

“Resonance,” Hague interjects, drawing an analogy to sailing – when the sails are perfectly set, the boat makes a hum as it moves through the water.

Once they have the story, they have to figure out how to package it in a way that does it justice – choosing the right font, the right paper, the right colours, the right cover design.

(Warning for all future conversations: This is a matter of great passion for both of them. Don’t ever suggest to Martin that a children’s book be published in a sans serif font - it’s serif only, thank you very much. And, whatever you do, don’t get Hague started on that Paulo Coelho book cover in shades of orange and yellow that makes her physically angry when she sees it. Also, should you be inclined to publish a book, stay away from green and orange on the cover, as readers have visceral reactions to those colours. These are among the facts you pick up when Hague and Martin start to “dork out” – Hague’s words – about book publishing.)

For Unicorn, for instance, they worked with Mullock to keep the look of the story as gender-neutral as possible, choosing to publish it with a blue cover rather than pink, to keep a more widespread appeal.

Hague and Martin work to give the same individualized care and attention to each of the titles on their list, which has a focus on giving voice to multicultural and Indigenous stories. The desire to give people a chance to tell their own stories, in their own voices, was part of what led them to form their own publishing house.

Another part of it, and a big one, was the quest for better work-life balance. The two used to work together at a Vancouver publishing house – where they clicked right away when they realized they shared a mutual appreciation for the smell of newly printed books – but opted to branch out on their own once they realized the traditional publishing career wasn’t necessarily conducive to having families.

“There’s so much pressure on women to do the family, do the career, to be superwomen,” says Hague, mother to a four-year-old and now expecting her second child. “We’re not 100 per cent there yet, but we’ve found a path through.”

Martin notes her own career was largely spend “doing the grind,” including time with Scholastic in New York.

“Once my son was born, a lot of things changed,” she says. “I love making books, but the family thing came along, and I was like, ‘I love that, too.’”

Working out of her own home-based studio has allowed her to be a bigger part of her son’s life as he grows up – he’s now in Grade 4, and she’s been able to be there for the class trips and school volunteering that a traditional career wouldn’t have allowed for.

Putting their complementary skills together – Martin’s focus is on editorial and creative, while Hague is the expert in the production and business side – has allowed the two moms to build up a successful business without having to sacrifice their family lives.

“It’s taken 10 years,” says Hague with a laugh, “But we’re starting to see some of the fruits of our labours.”


For more on McKellar & Martin, see www.mckellarmartin.com.

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