Free Spirit Publishing’s New Leader Bets on Books
Kyra Ostendorf. (Photo courtesy of Free Spirit Publishing)

Free Spirit Publishing’s New Leader Bets on Books

New Publisher Kyra Ostendorf explains why she’s optimistic about the future of children’s print books.

After running Free Spirit Publishing for 36 years, founder Judy Galbraith recently started a new chapter and the protagonist is Kyra Ostendorf, the Minneapolis-based company’s first official publisher.

“[Kyra’s] expertise in the field of early childhood… [makes us] a good pairing,” says Galbraith, who plans to scale back her day-to-day responsibilities. “She will have to learn the K12 market but she’s a quick start and very eager to learn and embrace what we do here.”

Minneapolis-based Free Spirit specializes in children’s books, games, and educational resources that emphasize childhood emotional and social development. Galbraith and Ostendorf first met several years ago, when Ostendorf was vice president of education at Kaplan Early Learning Co, a Free Spirit wholesaler. Before that, Ostendorf was the acquiring editor for St. Paul-based Redleaf Press. She has an M.Ed. in early education from the University of Minnesota, and a B.A. from Macalester College.

“I think she’s very eager to help us grow,” Galbraith says.

Ostendorf enthusiastically agrees.

“I’m really happy to be back in publishing,” she says.

We asked Ostendorf for her take on the future of the publishing industry.

Q: For years, publishing was a bit of a niche for the Twin Cities—is that still true?

A: Minnesota has a lot going on, both in traditional trade publishing, as well as university press and the historical society, educational publishing. So, it brings a wealth of potential employees and interns. We have a nice internship program to keep the young folk engaged and learning, and I have been fortunate enough to be able to hire one or two former interns. 

Q: We hear regularly these days that print is dying. What can you say about the state of the publishing industry and print books today?

A: I think it’s a really important question, and I think that the whole industry, specifically for us on the education publishing side, while technology is part of everybody’s lives every day, it’s not replacing books. I hear from lots of parents and educators, too… we spend so much time on our screens, that to be able to have time with a child, with a book, screens are put away, it’s just really valuable and important.

And we know that it supports literacy development, it supports that closeness of social emotional contact that the physical contact supports. So, I think in the work that we do, we’ve proven that the age of e-books is not – yes, we do sell e-books – but it’s certainly not hurting how we’re growing our printed book list.

Q: What does Free Spirit offer in terms of supplements to print books?

A: We’ve been looking at ways to deliver content in engaging and creative ways. One of our books has been turned into a play. [A company called Peaceful Schools has launched a play in New York, called Weird! The Musical, based off a three-book series published by Free Spirit.] We’re hoping to bring it to the Twin Cities.

[Free Spirit also helped a partner create a Talking Pen – a device which, when scanned over the words of special printed editions of one of Free Spirit’s book series, can read the words aloud, Galbraith says. Additionally, the company has partnered with an app developer to create apps based on the Middle School Confidential book series.]

Q: What’s next for Free Spirit?

A: A lot of what we’ve been talking about is, how do we grow the direction we’re already on? We’re open to partnering with local organizations and other businesses to grow that brand awareness locally– both school districts, as well as partnerships with local healthcare providers and educators and childcare companies, things like that. And Judy’s done so much already, but I’m just bringing some new thought and energy to that.

I think part of what Free Spirit had in place that I absolutely complement is the interest and established desire to expand the early childhood line.

Q: What will you look for in new authors or books?

A: First and foremost, we’re looking for passionate, committed, expert authors and second, right on the tail of that, is a real strong commitment to diversifying the author voice so that we’re bringing in people of color both as authors and illustrators.

Q: What’s most exciting about taking on the role of publisher at Free Spirit?

A: Well I’m excited to be part of a well-respected, established company that is committed to continued growth and a future and I’m excited to bring in new authors.