Getting to Know Barbara Reid

by Kirsti Granholm

Barbara Reid is an award-winning author and illustrator who resides in Toronto, ON. She has won a number of prestigious awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Illustration and the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award for her book The Subway Mouse. Barbara has been involved with the CCBC for many years: she illustrated the book, Gifts, which was the TD Grade One Book Giveaway book of choice in 2011 by the CCBC and did the poster art for TD Canadian Children’s Book Week 2008. Barb certainly has made a large impact on Canadian children’s literature; that’s why we wanted to know what her perspective was on children’s books, reading Canadian and being a member of the CCBC.

As a Canadian author and illustrator, why do you believe it is important to read Canadian books?

Canada’s culture is growing and evolving; we need both audiences and creators for it to thrive. When young readers find characters, settings and situations in books that reflect their own experiences, they make valuable connections. They may think “that could be me” or “that could happen here” or “I could do that”. It opens up possibilities; readers are encouraged to find their own stories.

As a child I was a keen reader, but I found very few books by Canadian authors or that were set in Canada. It was a long time before it occurred to me that I could be a book creator! Now there is a tremendous variety of Canadian material available. Thanks to programs like Canadian Children’s Book Week, Writer’s-in-the-Schools and others, many school kids have the opportunity to meet creators first-hand. Meeting an author or illustrator can spark a lifelong interest in books and reading and may even inspire a future creator. I feel strongly that kids should get to choose what they read. Top quality Canadian books need to be part of that choice.

You have been involved with the Canadian children’s literature community for quite some time. In your experience, how has the children’s book industry changed? How has it stayed the same?

The big change is that there are so many more books! The quality of Canadian books continues to rise, and our books are truly world class. There is still room for improvement, but the diversity of Canadian culture gives our books a unique flavour as well as universal appeal. In my experience the children’s book industry has become more professional, more market savvy. Social media has changed the landscape in the way we communicate and promote.

What hasn’t changed is that creators, publishers, editors, art directors, and marketing teams are just as passionate as ever about making the best possible books and getting them into children’s hands. The industry has stayed nimble and afloat through serious challenges. Could there be a connection between reading and resourcefulness? Insert winking emoji!

Styles and cultural references have changed, but I think kids are pretty much the same. They want to laugh, be entertained, have their curiosity piqued, find heroes, find answers, a sense of community, or escape. Some even want to learn stuff! Very young children want the undivided attention of a caring adult – what better way to do that than reading aloud together?  Beginner readers are developing tastes, they rip through

series. Teens are finding themselves and their communities; graphic novels, physical books, eBooks and online material is there for them. Young people are just the best audience, and deserve the best material.

The CCBC offers many great opportunities for up and coming writers and illustrators. As an established author and illustrator, why are you a member of the CCBC?

It doesn’t matter how many books a writer or illustrator has published; each new project has to stand on its own merit. Writing and illustrating are solitary occupations. It is vital to stay connected, current and to be aware of what is going on in the industry and the market. Being part of a community of creators, publishers, reviewers, booksellers and book buyers is a tremendous resource and support.  It is particularly helpful to have opportunities to meet face-to-face at events with people from across the industry to forge networks and address issues that affect us all.

Your books have been very successful throughout the years. What piece of advice would you give to the young Canadians interested in becoming a writer or illustrator?

Here are some things I have learned from mentors like Claire Mackay, Jean Little and Janet Lunn. Take your work very seriously. Do not take yourself too seriously. Respect your audience. Pay attention to the body of work you are creating and that you want to create. The book business is a long game. Love the work or find another career. I would add: make sure to have some fun!

Thinking back to the early days of your career, what inspired you to get involved with children’s literature?

Reading and drawing were two of my favourite things to do as a kid. I drew what I read, copied art that I liked and wrote terrible imitations of my favourite books. Realizing that writing was a bit of a chore and drawing was fun, I made a last-minute switch from journalism school to art college. Studying illustration at OCAD, I chose   children’s subject matter whenever I had the option. For me, children’s stories are simply the most interesting and important literature and the combination of word and image in a picture book is the perfect form. In a picture book, the artist has the luxury of 32 pages to tell a story. If you get it right, a book will be poured over and read many times, possibly into second generation and beyond. Early books leave a lasting impression. I can’t think of a more rewarding form or audience. At OCAD I was told there was no work for book illustrators in Canada: “You’ll starve to death!” There was, however, a lot of work in educational publishing and that was an excellent training ground for me and many fellow future book illustrators like Brenda Clark. The first wave of support for Canadian children’s publishing happened around that time through organizations like the CCBC and various publishing programs. I was fortunate to eventually work in picture books full time and continue to eat modestly, for which I am very grateful.

In recent years, children’s literature has begun to touch on progressive themes such as feminism and accessibility. What themes do you hope to see in the future within Canadian literature?

Culture and society change. Artists do too; sometimes they are the change makers. We are becoming more conscious of diversity, feminism and inclusivity in general. Each generation of readers and writers grow up with different influences and experiences. There will always be work to be done, but I hope that new creators will find their voices and have the opportunity to tell their stories.  As issues arise and attitudes change, I am optimistic that children’s literature will reflect or even inspire those changes.

I’m not a fan of themes for the sake of representing a theme; that can be as dull as  following the latest trend. I applaud excellent writing and artwork that engages my interest, whether fiction or non-fiction. I hope that children’s literature stays as varied and individual as its readers. Writers need to write what engages them, what they are passionate about, because that is the kind of work that will connect with readers. I suppose I hope to be surprised by future themes.

For more information on Barbara Reid and her work, check out her website here: