Share this post!
At the 2020 Alberta Book Publishing Awards, Red Barn Books won Emerging Publisher of the Year. This publisher, based in Carstairs, Alberta, was started by Ayesha Clough in response to a lack of Alberta stories for Alberta kids. Ayesha and her team work with authors and artists to create content that, as the Red Barn website says, “celebrates horses, cowboys, and country living – small-batch books that leave a hoofprint on readers’ hearts.”
Red Barn’s first book was Rocky Mountain Rangers: Guardians of the Wild, which is based on the songs of The Wardens, an Alberta band made up of Canadian Rockies park wardens. It contains gorgeous hand-carved artwork by Lia Golemba that gives the book a beautifully rugged and distinct look and inspires a love of the outdoors and pride in our natural heritage.
But given the fact that we are just wrapping Stampede week, we wanted to share with you a case study of a book featuring one of Alberta’s most legendary cowboys: Howdy, I’m John Ware, by Ayesha Clough and Hugh Rookwood.
In our “Case Study” column, we take an in-depth look at the entire process of a book being released into the world. What does the life of a successful book look like?
Howdy, I’m John Ware brings the story of a real-life legend to a new generation of kids. John Ware was a Black cowboy who, despite experiencing enslavement, war, and discrimination, became gifted horseman who blazed a trail of kindness, becoming one of Alberta’s most loved and respected pioneer ranchers.
MAKING THE BOOK
Ayesha Clough came to book publishing from an impressive career in journalism, both with the CBC and later, overseas with the BBC. When she came back to Alberta to tell local stories, she put her journalism and research skills to good use.
One of the most important steps in researching the content for Howdy, I’m John Ware was speaking with historian and writer Cheryl Foggo, who Ayesha describes as one of the “keepers of John Ware’s memory.” In 1960, Grant MacEwan released a book, John Ware’s Cow Country. Cheryl Foggo later set out to change the flawed narrative of that book, getting closer to the truth of who John Ware really was. Cheryl spoke with John Ware’s wife’s family and those with connections to him—and in 2020, released the documentary film, John Ware Reclaimed. Ayesha spoke about how wonderful it was to have Cheryl’s help in developing the story of John Ware appropriately.
Ayesha was also grateful for the help of Mike and Lee McLean of High River. She also found the Glenbow Museum Archives, the Highwood Museum, and the Stockmen’s Museum—and their branding books—to be indispensable resources.
After at least three months of research, the story was ready to be written—but now Ayesha needed to find an illustrator. She talked to her production artist, Lia Golemba, about recommendations for a Black Alberta-based artist to help her tell the story. Lia came back with the name, Hugh Rookwood, who serendipitously lived less than thirty minutes away from the Red Barn Books HQ in Carstairs.
Hugh Rookwood’s background was in superhero-style comics, and his drawings added a compelling depth to the story. The graphic novel/comic style also made the book appeal to a slightly older audience; it had originally been intended for younger kids, but Ayesha feels that it is appropriate for children up to ages eleven or twelve (and is ideally suited to those in grade two).
All the necessary research, writing, and artwork had fallen into place to produce a successful book. Now it was just a matter of getting the book into readers’ hands and imaginations.
MARKETING AND DISTRIBUTION
GETTING THE WORD OUT
When Covid-19 hit, publishers—and those that supported them—faced an urgent need to pivot. Shortly after the first lockdowns came into effect, the Canada Council for the Arts introduced micro innovation grants for digital originals. Red Barn Books took advantage of this grant, and hired Cochrane-based animator Steve Gervais to create a video of the book (you can view it below). This video proved to be an incredibly valuable asset in marketing the book. In February 2021 alone, during Black History Month, it had over ten thousand views on YouTube.
The video also helped spread the word to schools and teachers. For teachers involved in online learning during Covid, it was very useful. Children loved the video, and Hugh Rookwood’s comic style really helped them connect to the content.
During Black History Month, Ayesha and Hugh made a number of Zoom visits to schools to share the story. The students got a reading and talk from Ayesha as well as a comic-drawing workshop from Hugh. During these events, Ayesha and Hugh connected to at least 2,000 students in events through the Calgary Catholic School Board; over 1,000 online learners at Rocky View Schools; and many more through individual classrooms.
Another great thing that Red Barn Books did to market the book was to send copies to key media as well as politicians, many of whom jumped onboard to help amplify the message. Jason Kenney sent a letter of support, and tweeted about the book, as did Rachel Notley and Naheed Nenshi.
The book is currently part of the draft curriculum that the Ministry of Education hoped would be piloted in September 2021.
This is, no doubt, an Alberta story that has been successful because it has been so rooted in the local community. But it has also done well on the national stage. The video appeared on Bibliovideo, a YouTube channel all about Canadian children’s books. Most videos on the channel get about 500 views. The Howdy, I’m John Ware video got 6,000! It was also included on a CBC Books list of “11 Canadian books for kids and young adults to check out during Black History Month 2021.”
When we spoke with Ayesha, she said one of the things that has been key to her success is working with local woman-run businesses. She mentioned how Alpine Book Peddlers, a Canmore-based wholesaler that has deep connections to the Alberta book community, has done an impeccable job making sure the book is available across the province; she also had great things to say about her relationship with her new sales consultant, Read and Co. Books. United Library Services, based in Calgary, has also played a major role in getting the book out into the world—specifically to schools and libraries.
Howdy, I’m John Ware is the first book in the Howdy Series. Next up is “Howdy, I’m Flores LaDue, a champion trick-roper known as the ‘First Lady of the Stampede.’” The tagline for this book is “Life is tough, but so are cowgirls.” Ayesha has been excited to work with Keegan Starlight, an artist from the TsuuT’ina Nation, who is providing illustrations. She loves that there is a connection between Keegan and the content of the book; his family are involved with the Tipi holders at the Calgary Stampede.
But before the next Howdy book is released, Red Barn will be publishing Alberta Blue: A Prairie Sky Lullaby. This is a baby board book based on the song, “Alberta Blue,” by the Travelling Mabels.
At Read Alberta, we’d like to congratulate Red Barn Books on their strong entrance to the Alberta publishing scene and their great success so far. We look forward to all the great books to come. Yeehaw!
Watch a video of Howdy, I’m John Ware here: