Toronto resident Jessica Alex is “Moving Mountains One Page At A Time”.
Alex is the owner of Upon A Star Books Inc., a publishing company with a mission of producing children’s and young adult books that “educate and inspire”, as well as its sister imprint Victorine Publishing, launched in 2016 for adult titles and Jessica Alex Marketing, which also launched in 2016, which offers various services for authors.
She is also an author. What If The World Had No Colour was the first children’s book published by Upon A Star Books Inc. and Candace’s Big Fight, based on her sister Daidra’s battle with leukemia, came out in September.
Alex has been Moving Mountains One Page At A Time – an officially approved registered trademark since 2016 and created in 2012 – since she was 17.
That’s when Alex created a newspaper titled Urban Voice to “combat the negative images of youth, particularly black youth, in the media.”
Alex published three issues a year for three years, writing stories, laying out the paper, hiring a printer and selling advertisements. She distributed Urban Voice to West Indian restaurants and grocery stories along the subway line. When she got a car at 18, she drove from Scarborough to Brampton, asking business owners if she could leave copies of Urban Voice at their establishments.
She stopped publishing the newspaper when she moved to Montreal to finish university. And it was at the end of university that Alex started to think about book publishing.
“When I finished university, my friend and I decided to come up with a book of short stories. We were each set to do a certain number by the end of the summer, but within about two weeks I wrote about 13 short stories. I was on a writing rampage and she at that time had only finished two and she was falling behind and it looked like she wasn’t having that same interest any more.”
Alex started researching publishing companies and literary agents, eventually attending a writer’s event where she met up with a man named Warren Hogarth who confirmed what she was discovering in her research – short stories were a dying breed, traditional publishing was hard to break into and many companies were not taking unsolicited manuscripts.
He also advised her to not wait for her friend and if she really wanted to publish to just do it.
“He said something really great to me, which was if you have the entrepreneurial spirit, consider self-publishing.”
“I did have the entrepreneurial spirit. I missed having my newspaper. Ever since I was five years old I always had some type of business going on whether it was to sell my artwork or bracelets, I was always a little entrepreneurial. So lights went flashing so (I thought) you know what, let me switch the focus from researching publishing companies that may accept my manuscript and literary agents to now researching what it would take to start my own book publishing company.”
She graduated from Concordia University in 2012 and launched Upon A Star Books Inc. in September of the same year with a five-year plan of publishing her own books, building a name for herself and then beginning to work with other authors.
“I wrote probably about 10 children’s book within a year. It was one of those times when I woke up in the middle of the night and would write full rhyming stories, go back to bed and go to work the next morning. I was really really inspired at that time.”
However, things didn’t go according to plan.
“Little did I know that within probably about eight months of me publishing my first book that I started to build a name for myself and people began to approach me.”
Khalilah Brooks, also known as Aunty B, approached Alex in the first half of 2013 to have her book about kindness published.
Alex said she didn’t jump on the opportunity right away as she wanted to ensure she had the skills and abilities to publish the best book she could.
“It took a little time and then I finally said ‘You know what, I will switch my plans around and I will work with other people’ and, ironically, I realized how much I loved it. I like being behind the scenes.”
So far her publishing companies have created 17 books, each one falling under the mission of to educate and inspire.
“There are so many struggles in the world. There is so much negativity and things that are going on so with my books, each book, each page I am hoping to make the world a better place.”
Her published books also offer diversity, both in character and in topics covered.
“I think it’s great for a little girl or little boy to pick up a book and see a character that looks like them or is going through what they are (going through) because when I say diversity it’s not just ethnicity, but diversity in topics.”
“..I like that children can learn about different things, different educational and inspirational things. I know my (first) book is about racism and I have had people of different ethnicities purchase the book and said they loved it (as What If The World Had No Colour opened) conversation for their children. I hope people don’t look at a book that has a non-white character and say this isn’t for me. Books that have diverse characters should be for everyone.”
As a self-publishing company that offers a “one-stop shop” including editing and layout, illustrations and public relations, Alex said she loves all aspects of her job as a book publisher but it is the reaction of authors receiving their books that makes everything she does worthwhile.
“One of my favourite things is seeing the look on my author’s face (when they receive their books). It’s a great feeling…The genuine reactions when they get their books makes it worth it, honestly.”
Alex said aside from one client, most of her authors come from word of mouth and these last five years have been so busy that only two of the 10 books she has written have actually been published.
Her most recent book is Candace’s Big Fight.
Alex wrote the entire book on a flight to Montreal in 2013.
When she got off the plane she read it to her dad, eventually reading it to her stepmom, sister and two brothers.
“They were just in love with it. They were really touched by it.”
Alex said when people go through something traumatic, such as cancer, the experience stays with them long after the treatments are finished. Alex said she was looking for a way to help with the healing process when she decided to write the story.
But the book sat in the pile of other unpublished works until 2015 when her sister was like ““Hey, when is the book coming out?”
So Alex decided bring her project to the forefront, doing the illustrations herself in watercolour before realizing she wasn’t going to have time to do it herself. She eventually hired an illustrator who created the unique style she was looking for.
While Candace’s Big Fight is based on her sister’s journey when she was 10, the book itself is fiction. It is also written in rhyme.
“Since I was a little girl I have been writing poetry so it comes naturally that I write stories in rhyme. The first one (What If The World Had No Colour), this one (Candace’s Big Fight) and all eight other stories that are collecting dust, they all rhyme.”
While her sister was treated at Montreal’s Children’s Hospital, Alex is donating money for every copy sold to The Hospital For Sick Children in Toronto “because it’s No. 1” as far as research goes in finding a cure for leukemia. It’s success rate is at 80 per cent, of which Alex wants to make it 100 per cent.
Alex’s dream project, “one that I really, really want to get out is based off of an essay I wrote in my final year of university” about hair. Alex said it’s a big project that will include the essay as well as anecdotes and photos.
“I don’t want to wait too long, but I also want it to be done right.”
It’s time may come in Alex’s new five-year plan.
“I am a serial entrepreneur, I really am. …One day (Upon A Star Books Inc.) will be a household name. From there I will go out and start other projects.”
And what are those projects?
Alex said rather then sharing her plans with the universe this time, she is keeping those ideas to herself.
“I am going to try the second one (keeping ideas close to the vest) this time and see where things go and when it happens, I can say ‘Hey, everybody, I have new projects in the works’..but definitely there are some additions that I am doing in the next five years.”