In Memory: Sheila Barry

Photo courtesy of Heather Camlot; used with permission.

By Melanie Fishbane
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

On the 21st of November, the Canadian Children’s Book Centre held its annual Canadian Children’s Book Awards, an evening devoted to awarding the best in children’s literature. Among the always decadent dishes and clinking glasses, there was feeling that something was missing—or someone.

A little less than a week before, on the 15th of November, Groundwood’s publisher, Sheila Barry, had died from complications from her cancer treatment. One of Canadian children’s publishing’s strongest advocates for diverse, quality children’s books that never strayed from telling challenging stories, Sheila believed, “Whatever sequence of events it describes should be seen from a child’s point of view. The book should depict children as active participants in the story. And it should emphasize the fundamental human rights all children are entitled to, even if it also shows that sometimes those rights are not respected by adults.”

I never had the chance to work closely with Sheila, but I did get to have lunch with her once a number of years ago. We chatted about books (of course), how she had decided that she wanted to learn the piano, and then she asked me: “What would the perfect day in your life look like?”

The question, so pointed and so relevant, forced me to stop and consider, well, everything.

Over the years, I’ve often thought about Sheila’s question, particularly during challenging periods, and, weirdly, my days are starting to look like how I mused during that afternoon lunch.

I imagine that it was this type of question that made Sheila an incredible editor. She could hone in on what it was you were trying to do, asking exactly what you might not necessarily have the right answer to, but hoping that maybe you might get close.

I asked a few people I knew who had worked with Sheila if they would be open to sharing their experiences working with her. Here is what they said.

Editor-author Shelley Tanaka, who worked alongside Sheila, wrote: “Sheila deftly carried on the legacy that Patsy Aldana had built, publishing books that speak to a child’s sense of joy and wonder while continuing Groundwood’s commitment to books that are about something, that reflect a commitment to social justice and diversity issues, and children’s engagement with the world and with each other. She also had a great gift for friendship, and for collaboration. She really represented what we all love most about children’s book publishing.”

Author and creative producer Jon-Erik Lappano said: “Sheila was unafraid in her approach to stories. In conversations we had, she wasn’t primarily concerned with how well a story would sell. It didn’t need to fit neatly into a genre or have wide audience appeal. Sheila trusted in stories that needed to be told, and was confident that those stories would find an audience. She was also tough – she knew what you were capable of and would delicately push you until you found it in yourself. She invested time in crafting stories together.

Author Nadia Hohn added: “Sheila handled my stories with care. She gently took them and like Malaika’s Costume rinsed them with ‘rose water’ so they could shine through. She was a patient and caring editor.”

Sheila took chances. On stories, on people, and on ideas. She was bold, and her boldness brought so many beautiful and diverse stories into the Groundwood portfolio to share with readers everywhere.
I am deeply grateful for the chance she took on our story and for all the stories Sheila helped to tell children and adults here in Canada and around the world.”

Here in Toronto on a cool November night, Shelagh Rogers, a radio host for the CBC’s program “The Next Chapter,” and master of ceremonies for the Canadian Children’s Book Awards, took a moment at the beginning of the ceremony to pay tribute to Sheila.

In response, we spontaneously gave our missed friend a standing ovation.

New Cynsations Reporter: Melanie J. Fishbane

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Melanie J. Fishbane joins the Cynsations team as a reporter covering children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news originating in Canada.

Melanie J. Fishbane holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and an M.A. in History from Concordia University.

With over seventeen years’ experience in children’s publishing, she lectures internationally on children’s literature. A freelance writer and social media consultant, her work can be found in magazines, such as The Quill & Quire.

Melanie also loves writing essays and her first one, “My Pen Shall Heal, Not Hurt”: Writing as Therapy in L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside and The Blythes Are Quoted,” is included in L.M. Montgomery’s Rainbow Valleys: The Ontario Years 1911-1942 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015). And, her short story, “The New Girl,” was published in the Zoetic NonBinary Review.

Her first YA novel, Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery, was published by Penguin Teen in 2017.

The novel was featured on the Huffington Post’s Summer Reading List, a top pick for the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading Kids Summer Reading pick and winner of Hamilton Public Library’s Next Top Novel.

Melanie lives in Toronto with her partner and their very entertaining cat, Merlin.

Read an article by Melanie about Earning & Celebrating Success. Peek:

“What had Lynne seen in my writing that made her think I could do this? Sure, I had been lecturing on L.M. Montgomery at conferences, and had wanted to write historical fiction for kids ever since I learned it was a thing you could do…but there had to be other, way more established authors, who could do this better than I.

“Lynne asked me to put together a proposal with an outline and a few sample chapters that would demonstrate my vision for the novel. Three months later, I sent a ten-page proposal and the first forty pages and waited. And waited.”

Follow Melanie on Twitter @MelanieFishbane and like her on Facebook. Photo by Ayelet Tsabari.

Guest Post: Melanie J. Fishbane, author of Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery, on Earning & Celebrating Success

By Melanie Fishbane
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Confession. I have a difficult time celebrating my success. When it comes to my accomplishments there is a little voice in my head that suggests, as the Kirsty MacColl song goes, “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby.”

Perhaps it is also because my path to publication is a bit unconventional. I couldn’t believe it when I was approached by Lynne Missen of Penguin Canada (now Penguin Random House of Canada) with the possibility of writing a YA novel about my favourite author, L.M. Montgomery.

I hadn’t finished my MFA yet at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I didn’t have an agent (and still don’t), and was still deep in another book that had a mind of its own.

Melanie delivers her graduate lecture at VCFA

What had Lynne seen in my writing that made her think I could do this? Sure, I had been lecturing on L.M. Montgomery at conferences, and had wanted to write historical fiction for kids ever since I learned it was a thing you could do…but there had to be other, way more established authors, who could do this better than I.

Lynne asked me to put together a proposal with an outline and a few sample chapters that would demonstrate my vision for the novel. Three months later, I sent a ten-page proposal and the first forty pages and waited. And waited.

After about a month or so (see, didn’t wait all that long!) I was asked to revise those chapters; I suspect to see how well I took editorial feedback. I went home and worked on the revisions, seeking to prove to Lynne that she hadn’t put her faith in the wrong person, and to myself that this was possible. About a month after that I sent her the revisions. And waited.

After about a month or so (see patience is a practice!) I was given an offer. As I didn’t have an agent, and I think too new to understand that I could have found one to help me negotiate the deal, I hired an entertainment lawyer, who helped me navigate all of those non-writerly things that can make us uncomfortable.

Over the next four and a half years I devoted myself to the book.

I also learned how to trust the process and see the editor as a partner who wanted what was best for me and the book. Lynne allowed me to explore characters and scenes that ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor, but also asked the right (sometimes annoying) questions, encouraging me to go deeper, find Maud’s character, as well as craft the world in which she would live.

I kept wondering if I was taking too long writing the book, but Lynne assured me that we wanted it to be the best book it could be. So, I trusted her and kept writing.

When the ARC of Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery, arrived on my doorstep a few months ago, there was a little postcard from Lynne congratulating me. And while I couldn’t quite believe that this was my success, I trusted (again) she knew something I didn’t.

Wrapping it in a plastic bag and then a padded computer case (because it was my only copy) I carried it around with me, showing it to people, and stepping into the idea that this was something to be celebrated. That whatever our path to publication is, honor it, hold it close, and then set it free.