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Somerville publisher finds big success

Lily Jones, nearly 2, was captivated at Candlewick Press, the children’s book publisher that’s won critical acclaim.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Lily Jones, nearly 2, was captivated at Candlewick Press, the children’s book publisher that’s won critical acclaim.

Looking out her bedroom window, 10-year-old Flora sees her neighbor accidentally vacuum up a squirrel.

“Holy bagumba!” she says, before rushing down to the backyard and giving the little guy CPR.

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Next thing you know, the squirrel, whom Flora names Ulysses, is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and write poetry on Flora’s mother’s typewriter. He has been transformed into a world-class squirrel superhero.

The girl and her squirrel are the stars of the American Library Association’s 2014 Newbery Medal winner, “Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures,” a graphic novel for children written by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by K.G. Campbell, and published by Candlewick Press in Somerville.

It is another victory for Candlewick, a children’s book publisher in the heart of Davis Square that is enjoying a string of critical and financial successes at a time when most publishing houses have fled Boston for New York. In addition to the Newbery won by “Flora & Ulysses” last month, the American Library Association also honored seven other Candlewick titles. Founded by British Walker Books in 1991, Candlewick is projecting revenues of $44 million in 2013 — twice the size they were in 2000.

Children’s books and young adult literature are a hot commodity in publishing, and Candlewick has ridden that wave of popularity. And winning the Newbery does not hurt, either.

“Every grandmother in America is going to be buying ‘Flora & Ulysses.’ The Newbery is like getting the brass ring, and it will keep a book alive and in print for a long, long time,” said Vicky Smith, the children’s and teen book editor at Kirkus Reviews.

‘Everything they do is about what serves the artistic vision of a . . . book. ’

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The Candlewick journey began when Walker Books decided to bring more of its children’s books to the American market, where its “Where’s Wally” series had already become a hit named “Where’s Waldo.” In the early 1990s, the Boston area was still a major publishing alternative to New York, and Walker opened Candlewick in Cambridge outside of Porter Square with only a half-dozen employees and a very busy fax machine.

Candlewick began to acquire books of its own, and it reached a critical tipping point in 2000 with DiCamillo’s “Because of Winn-Dixie,” a 2001 Newbery Honor Book about a 10-year-old girl and her dog that became a 2005 movie.

In 2008, bursting at the seams, Candlewick moved to Davis Square. The large open space was designed to spiral around the office kitchen like a conch shell, a callback to the early days when employees were given free lunch to keep them in the office during Walker’s British business hours.

Even after the Newbery win, the employees at Candlewick’s airy headquarters remain quiet and focused. The staff — which numbers 96 — has been here before, dealing with the bump in sales and publicity that comes with prizes.

Last year, Candlewick’s “This Is Not My Hat,” by Jon Klassen, won the Caldecott Medal, and there are now more than 460,000 copies in print. The press’s other recent honors include a 2006 National Book Award for M.T. Anderson’s “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party” and a 2004 Newbery for DiCamillo’s “The Tale of Despereaux.”

Candlewick’s distance from New York is an essential part of its success, says Cambridge author M.T. Anderson, who, in addition to being a Candlewick author was also an editorial assistant there in the early 1990s. “By remaining anchored here, they’ve created a different identity than the New York publishers, who are owned by multinational conglomerates and more about glitz and celebrity books,” Anderson said in an interview.

Candlewick has avoided the bottom-line New York mindset, Anderson said, where the sales departments affect the editorial choices and where everyone wants to clone bestsellers.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Liz Bicknell was part of a recent editorial meeting at Candlewick Press in Somerville.

Candlewick is privately held and independently owned, with the other Walker subsidiaries, which means, according to chief financial officer Hilary Berkman, “the group has employee owners, and it has a group of artists and illustrators who are also employees in this context and included in that ownership structure.”

It also means that the editorial department — even more than sales — drives the business. “We have a thin acquisitions process,” said John Mendelson, vice president of sales. “That means editors go out, find books they love, and share them in house, and then our job is to go out and make sure the reading public is aware of all the unique attributes of the books. It’s a flat organization in that way, and a very collaborative one. A lot of our peers have more layers. It’s harder to convey the message and passion of the book all the way down through an organization.”

Anderson has published with Viking and Simon & Schuster as well as Candlewick, and he says that Candlewick editors are free to acquire “eccentric projects” they are passionate about. “Then they talk with their marketing and publicity people and come up with a sense of how the book can be explained out in the world. They turn what is often a problem in publishing — something that’s unusual — into the very thing that sells it.”

According to Cathryn Mercier, director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College, Candlewick stands apart from other children’s book publishers. “They don’t just slap on a cover, they don’t just slap on end pages, they don’t just automatically have a funky design,’’ she said.

With a book such as “Flora & Ulysses,” she said, “Everything they do is about what serves the artistic vision of a particular book. . . . They care about the book as an object.”

DiCamillo said she is always surprised by the choices made by Chris Paul, Candlewick’s creative director, noting details such as the doughnut with a bite missing that’s embossed on the cover of “Flora & Ulysses.” For her 2006 book, “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” DiCamillo says, Paul “couldn’t find exactly the green she wanted for the end pages, so she had Edward Tulane green invented.” Anderson’s “Octavian Nothing” also features complex graphic elements: words crossed out by a quill pen, letters in various styles of handwriting, and maps.

According to Smith at Kirkus Reviews, Candlewick has forged a strong presence in a market that, thanks to the enormous popularity of young adult novels in recent years, has been growing.

Last year, she said, her publication reviewed 169 Candlewick titles, compared with 229 children’s titles by the much older and much larger HarperCollins. “Candlewick is relatively young, but they’re competing with publishers that have been around for over a century.”

However Candlewick is not just banking on prizes to support the business. It has been developing its e-book catalog since 2009, redesigning the books for the screen experience. The Candlewick e-book line now includes some 500 titles, forming “a small but meaningful part of our revenue,” Mendelson said. “When you look at 2013, though, the growth in print book sales for us far exceeded the growth in our e-book catalog, which is really telling.”

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Several books at Candlewick have captured prestigious awards such as the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

The future for Candlewick also includes a nonfiction line that will benefit from the Common Core initiative to establish consistent education standards for K-12 that has been adopted by most states. When Candlewick’s “Bat Loves the Night,” first published in 2001, was listed as one of the Common Core Exemplar Texts, it took off. “We struggled to keep it in print for a while, and now it’s one of our top sellers,” said Mendelson.

Before she was a celebrated Candlewick author, and the Library of Congress ambassador for young people’s literature, DiCamillo worked in a Midwest warehouse pulling books off shelves to fill orders. That was when she first understood that Candlewick Press was different from other kid-lit publishers.

“I got to the point,” she says about that period in the 1990s, “where at 50 paces, by just looking at the spine, I could tell if I was picking a Candlewick book.”

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com.
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