A Life in Books

The founder of Milkweed Editions reflects.
Emilie-Buchwald-copy

I never expected to become a publisher, certainly not in my mid-forties, although I knew when I was growing up that my life would revolve around books. My earliest memories are of immersing myself in the world of a book, a world I fell into readily, often preferring it to my daily reality. My dad was my constant reading ally; he not only brought me books but spent time with me on evenings and weekends talking about our favorites.

As I grew up, it seemed natural to write my own stories. Writing gave me the opportunity to create worlds of my own. In high school and college, I edited the literary magazine, reading and critiquing submissions, a process that helped me improve my own writing. Throughout college, I found part-time editing jobs to help pay for tuition. I began teaching in graduate school and continued to teach afterward, courses in literature, writing for children, and writing poetry. I continued to write, sending out my poetry and fiction in hopes of publication.

In the late 1970s, I became a part of the growing literary community in Minneapolis, a community fostered in large part by the Loft Literary Center, then only a few years old. At the Loft I met Randy Scholes, a visual artist and Loft board member. We talked about the fact that literary journals included little visual art and that it would be exciting to see a more equal mix of art and writing. After a year of planning such a publication, in the winter of 1980 we founded the literary-visual nonprofit journal Milkweed Chronicle to explore a different theme in each issue, with graphics and writing commenting on or complementing one another.

Sweat equity and grant support allowed us to scrape by and survive to become the book publisher Milkweed Editions in 1987.

Publishing allowed me to showcase new and emerging writers whose work I admired, writers whose distinctive ideas deserved an audience. Publishing gave me the time to work with authors to shape their work, and the opportunity to launch books that I believed would remain relevant for years to come.

What I did not recognize at first — and came to value more than anything else — was that I could choose to publish in areas important to society. A paramount issue that needed to be addressed was sexual violence against women. My colleagues Pamela Fletcher, Martha Roth, and I created a book of essays demonstrating that every facet of American culture engenders sexual violence against women. The essayists in “Transforming a Rape Culture” (1993) examine education, sports, religion, pornography, the commodification of women, and the language surrounding sexuality. The book’s final sections depict strategies for change, examples of activism, and visions for the future of a sexual-violence-free culture.

I felt the need to increase public awareness about the growing challenges to the natural world. In my last years at Milkweed, all of our nonfiction was concentrated on the threat climate change poses. Today I take heart in the fact that anyone with a computer can take a stand on crucial issues.

When I retired from Milkweed in 2003, I intended to take time off before concentrating on my own writing. In my case, “time off ” meant being able to have time to spend with a dog. To my surprise, I learned from the various humane association blogs that children often harm dogs and cats because no one has taught them that all animals need care and affection. I looked for picture books that showed children responsible, loving treatment of animals, but found instead a multitude of books in which animals are little more than cartoons. In 2006, I founded the Gryphon Press to provide a “voice for the voiceless,” with a mission to publish children’s picture books that encourage empathy for every animal’s life.

I am still publishing. My love of books continues to inspire.

Recommended Reading

“Changing the Bully Who Rules the World: Reading and Thinking About Ethics,” by Carol Bly includes selections from Alice Walker and Joyce Carol Oates, among others. It sheds light on how to confront oppressors and how to nurture ethical human beings.

Pattiann Rogers uses rich, sensual language in “Eating Bread and Honey.” These poems celebrate our connection to the natural world — a hymn to our ability to feel through both emotional and physical senses.

“Cracking India” by Bapsi Sidhwa is a vividly imagined look at one of the most painful events in the history of the subcontinent. Told through the eyes of an eight-year-old, it is a story of ordinary people unable to cope with horrific events that changed their lives forever.

“World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments” is poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s debut work of nonfiction about the natural world. As a child, Nezhukumatathil called many places home, but no matter where she was transplanted, she turned to our world’s fierce and funny creatures for guidance.

Diane Wilson’s “The Seed Keeper” is a haunting novel spanning several generations as it follows a Dakota family’s struggle to preserve their way of life and their sacrifices to protect what matters most.


Emilie Buchwald (she/her) is the author of four children’s titles and the book of poems, “The Moment’s Only Moment.” She is a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.