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Barefoot Books: Story, Imagination and a 'Barefoot' Lifestyle

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When we think of publishing houses what comes to mind? Sharp downtown buildings, men and women in trim business apparel. Books, sure -- but an industry. I wanted to introduce you today to a different kind of publishing house, Barefoot Books. Downtown buildings? More like independent bookstores and homey living rooms. Business apparel? More like jeans and bare feet. Industry? Nah, community.

Barefoot Books is a small children's book publisher focused on a holistic experience of reading. In fact, co-founder and CEO Nancy Traversy often refers to her company as promoting a lifestyle, The Barefoot Lifestyle, which at the heart has a child. One whose feet are planted firmly on the ground, who is connected to nature, who understands community and who can travel the world -- through imagination and storytelling.

I had the privilege of meeting Nancy Traversy, co-founder and CEO of Barefoot Books, at a dinner a little over two years ago. We instantly connected over our shared love of children's books and all things story. Last week I caught up with Nancy to talk about her company, the way it has grown, and what is next for living Barefoot.

In your own words, what is Barefoot Books?

Gosh, there are so many different answers. On one level we are producers of books for children; on another we are really a community and a lifestyle. We're focused on honoring diversity, promoting creativity and nurturing children's imaginations. I suppose, in a nutshell, we're an independent children's publisher dedicated to creating beautiful books for children.

Why did you start Barefoot Books?

Well, Barefoot Books began 18 years ago as a home-based and very grassroots initiative. My background was in business and design and my partner, Tessa Strickland, came from an editorial career, having worked in adult publishing in big houses. We both had young families and shared a love of travel and world cultures. We also felt there was a gap in the market for books that placed equal importance on wonderful stories and beautiful and inspiring illustrations. Back then, children's publishers were often quite polarized, catering either to the school and library market, with strong educational content, or the mass retail market, with plenty of licensed characters and gimmicks. We wanted to create books that were beautiful, which told imaginative and important stories, and which also introduced young children to the wonderful world we live in. And so Barefoot Books was born!

I know community is a gigantic part of The Barefoot Lifestyle. Can you talk a bit about that?

When we first started both Tessa and I had very young children. We began with a grassroots philosophy and a belief that we needed to connect. Barefoot has always been more than a just publisher making and selling books, perhaps because there is a core set of values that underpins everything we do. We believe strongly in the importance of creating a global network of individuals who share these values. And since we started nearly two decades ago we have always sought to connect more closely with the parents, the teachers and the children who buy and read our books.

However, in the very traditional publishing industry, we've struggled to work out exactly how to do that, mainly because of the reliance on a lot of middlemen -- large wholesalers, powerful retail chains -- which separate us from our customers. We also felt like many publishing houses tended to be ivory towers. Who knows what goes on up there?

So we did things a little differently than most other publishers, always trying to think out of the box and find new ways to raise awareness about our books and our ideas. When we opened our first flagship store in Cambridge we asked customers to read our new manuscripts or look at new artists and tell us what they thought. In exchange for their input they got a free book. I think our customers feel empowered to be a part of what we are doing and that's really our main goal: to connect people and create a community.

Which I'm sure had a lot to do with your decision to not sell to big chain stores.

Yes. As a small publisher with a story behind each of our books -- and also our own story to tell -- it was challenging to play the large chain game. We also felt that there is so much waste in the traditional publishing distribution channels and, being environmentally conscious, that didn't feel right to us. So we decided to pull out of the big book chains about five years ago.
We now work with partners -- independent retailers, schools and libraries -- who share Barefoot's values and who like our books too! And last year, we launched our new Ambassador program which is a global network of people and organizations who market and sell Barefoot in their local communities and online.

What's next for Barefoot Books?

Lots of exciting things are on the immediate horizon. We are exploring how we can bring our books to life through digital media in a way that adds fun and educational value for children and, of course, encourages reading. We also want as many children as possible to "grow up Barefoot" so we are developing more early readers and young fiction for older kids. Finally, we are committed to keeping a high caliber of art and design as a central part of our offer for kids of all ages, although this is unusual for books for older children.

Our big picture dream is to continue to grow our Ambassador program and create a grassroots, global community of people who are all living Barefoot.

I always say it's a shame picture books get such a bad rep. Illustrations are tough to sell older kids on!

It's true, so we're working on just how to package them and how to allow our art to evolve with our readers. This always makes me think of a story from when my daughter was nine. She was reading one of our books and her teacher made a big fuss about her being too old to read books with pictures. My daughter felt bad about it for a long time and it really got me. Why should children stop looking at pictures just because they are old enough to read themselves? Barefoot will always be about story and art.

Can you give us three of your personal favorite Barefoot Books?

The Animal Boogie, illustrated by Debbie Harter.
The Story Tree, retold by Hugh Lupton, illustrated by Sophie Fatus.
The Boy Who Grew Flowers, written by Jen Wojowicz, illustrated by Steve Adams.

Thank you so much, Nancy! For more information on how you can become a part of The Barefoot Community and join the Ambassador Program visit: barefootbooks.com