CARSTAIRS — Unable to find children’s books featuring stories about Alberta’s pioneer heritage, a local resident decided to take matters into her own hands.
“It’s the kids’ books that’s my real passion, because I really think Alberta kids deserve Alberta stories,” said Ayesha Clough, who in 2019 launched a publication house called Red Barn Books. That company was recently named Emerging Publisher of the Year during the 2020 Alberta Book Publishing Awards.
“I’m all about Alberta content,” said Clough, who after getting married in 2013 moved to an acreage east of Carstairs from B.C.
The gala, hosted by the Book Publisher Association of Alberta, was conducted virtually this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I started this all because of my little son, and the fact that I couldn’t find him anything about horses and cowboys,” she said.
“He’s been crazy about cowboys and horses since he was 2.”
During a phone interview, she expressed a passion for providing her only child, Decker, 6, and other kids with an opportunity to read stories about the Rockies and the province.
“We have so many great stories to tell,” she said.
“So far, I’ve put out four books. Later this year, I hope to have one more book.”
While her next project is a book for adults called Leadershit that is “all about cutting the crap and leading in the modern workplace,” Clough said Red Barn Books has also published two children’s stories, Guardians of the Wild: The Rocky Mountain Rangers, for ages 4-8, and Howdy, I’m John Ware, for ages 8-12.
The former was even translated into French, she said.
“This is cowboy poetry, and I’d never heard of French cowboy poetry before. So, we thought, ‘Why not? It’s Canada’s other official language!’”
The illustrated book about John Ware — a former slave-turned-cattle driver who left the U.S. following the Civil War — is “basically a kid-friendly retelling of the story of Canada’s legendary cowboy.”
Even so, the trials and tribulations Ware faced aren’t glossed over or sugar coated.
“We talk about how, when a boss was considering who he was going to hire for a cattle drive, he goes, right in the comic book, ‘A Black guy, are you kidding me?’ And then later on, we touch on how even the police in those days and the government clerks would give him a round around when he went into town,” she said.
“We don’t get into anything too heavy just because it’s an age eight to 12 range. But we put enough there that the kids can start a conversation with their teachers, or their parents, or whoever they’re reading the book with.”
The emphasis of the story is to celebrate a Canadian icon who played an influential role in developing Alberta’s ranching industry in the years leading up to the province’s foundation.
“Just because he was such an amazing rider, roper, he just had this legendary status in the Alberta ranching community in those pioneer days. Until today, in the ranch community, they talk about him with so much love and respect — he’s just such an amazing character.”
On the horizon for next year, Clough wants to publish a baby book called Alberta Blue, which is based on a song by Pat Hatherly, from the Turner Valley area, and illustrated by Jesse Horne. For anyone who’s interested, she said a performance by the Travelling Mabels is available online.
“It’s a beautiful kind of ode to the big Alberta sky,” she said.
“We’re going to put some beautiful water colour art to it, and make a little baby board book. So that’s going to be another new kind of format that I haven’t done before,” she said.
“Now I just have to do something for teenagers and I’d have covered all the age groups!” she laughingly said.
Previously a news reporter by trade with experience working for the BBC in England as well as the CBC in Vancouver and later Calgary, Clough, a first generation immigrant from India, said she had never planned on becoming a publisher.
“It’s been quite the challenge, to say the least,” she said.
“It’s a steep learning curve. It’s a complicated business — it’s a tough business. That’s why being recognized by giants of the Alberta publishing industry, people who’ve been around forever, it just means so much to me.”
The biggest obstacle, she said, is financing projects.
“I soon realized that publishing is all a numbers game — all the costs are upfront. It’s only when you’re selling in the tens, hundreds of thousands — you know, millions if you’re lucky — that’s where you make money. But our market is small. So, the big challenge is funding the books,” she said.
And while adult books are simpler in terms of design, a fully illustrated children’s book increases the cost, she said.
Describing Howdy, I’m John Ware as “kind of like a graphic novel with these really powerful comic book-style illustrations,” Clough said the art on a book like that can run up a tab of $10,000.
“I’m looking at something like $20,000 to $25,000 per kids’ book that I put out, and I’m quickly realizing that without grant funding and support from government agencies, it’s really hard to make a go of it.”
Making the journey worth the effort, she said, is “getting out there to the different local markets and just connecting with people in rural Alberta. I think it’s an underserved market.”
There are some days when Clough laughingly said, “I think I should just give this up and go back into the corporate world, it’d be easier! But to be recognized and to know that what I’m doing is seen and appreciated — it’s the feedback and reception that I get in this local community that just keeps me going.”
Clough encourages people to shop local as much as possible.
“I heard the other day that online spending has increased a lot,” she said, adding, that represents a lot of money leaving communities.
“So, the more people can support their local makers and artisans, it’ll help us all.”
Initially harbouring serious reservations about leaving B.C. to what she thought would be the bald prairie, Clough was pleasantly surprised and ended up never looking back.
“Everyone’s always going on about beautiful British Columbia — and it is, for sure — but I find that rural Alberta is absolutely gorgeous,” she said, expressing a fondness for the big, blue skies as well as breathtaking sunrises and sunsets.
“I love the rural landscape — the open range for me is very calming. I feel like I can breath,” she said.
“It’s just this really wonderful western life that was never on the radar for me growing up in New Delhi, India — one of the busiest, biggest cities in the world,” she said with a laugh.
Kelsey Attard, of Freehand Books, presented the award during the virtual gala.
“The Emerging Publisher of the Year award is presented to an emerging Alberta book publishing company which shows promise and dedication to book publishing, and who exemplifies the spirit of the Alberta book publishing community,” Attard said.
“The winning publisher was praised for the physical construction of their books, which were described as having a great design and a luxurious feel. But jurors were particularly impressed by this publisher’s skillful use of crowd funding and social media, which as a new publisher has allowed them to identify and make a place for themselves in an under served market,” she said.
Glass Bookshop and Alberta Views were recognized for Special Achievement in Publishing Awards. Also recognized was Jerome Martin, founder of Spotted Cow Press, with the Lifetime Achievement in Publishing Award for his many years of contribution to the industry.
Additionally, the University of Alberta Press was awarded the Mel Hurtig Publisher of the Year Award for their selection of titles over the past year, which demonstrated a capacity to contribute meaningful content to a variety of different communities and fields of study.