Sheila Barry on Writing and Publishing Books that Matter

Thursday, September 11, 2014 4:16 PM | Lena Coakley

Toronto CANSCAIP meetings started up again with a bang last night. Our guest was Groundwood Books publisher Sheila Barry, who spoke frankly about Writing and Publishing Books that Matter.

Sheila brought out the stars, who were happy to see each other again after the summer break. Jean Little, Barbara Reid, Patricia Storms, Sylvia McNicoll, Andrea Wayne von Königslöw, Loris Lesynski, Vladyana Krykora and Jo Ellen Bogart were just some of the well-known children’s authors and illustrators who were in attendance.

CANSCAIP President Bill Swan welcomed the group and introduced the Executive and Board members present, Holly Main (Membership), Erin Thomas (Programming), Jennifer Maruno (Programming), Cathy Rondina (VP), and yours truly, Lena Coakley, sitting at the back, taking these faithful notes.


This is the time of year to sign up for a children’s writing course! Three were announced. Cathy Rondina will be teaching her Creating Non-Fiction for Children Course at George Brown, Ted Staunton will be teaching the George Brown Writing for Children I & II and Anne Laurel Carter will be teaching private courses in both novels and picture books


Of the of 29 authors chosen to tour the country for Canadian Children's Book Week, 14 are CANSCAIP members. Click here for the full list.

Nominees for the 2014 Canadian Children's Book Centre Awards have been announced! Of those, over 50% CANSCAIP authors and illustrators.  Click here for the full list.


A gorgeous crop of new creations were celebrated last night. 

Janet Wilson showed us Severn and the Day She Silenced the World about Severn Suzuki’s speech at the 1992 Earth Summit.  Janet will be at the Eden Mills Festival this weekend!

Elizabeth MacLeod showed off Bunny, the Brave War Horse, based on a true WWI story. 

Heather Stamp presented Amelia and Me, a book about Amelia Earhart that's been shortlisted for a Red Cedar Book Award.

Kari-Lynne Winters had two books: No-Matter-What Friend and Stinky Skunk Mel.  The latter was accepted in 2008 and is only just coming out now!

Jennifer Maruno presented Totem, which Quill & Quire recently gave a starred review.

Finally, our own Erin Thomas presented Forcing the Ace, a book about magic from Orca's new performing arts series, Limelights.


CANSCAIP has a new administrative director, who was welcomed to her first meeting (in her new position) by a roaring crowd. 


Helena pitched our upcoming, Packaging Your Imagination conference taking place Saturday, October 18th. Workshops by Erin Bow, Shelley Tanaka and Lesley Livingston are filling up fast, so if you are interested in those particular sessions, you’d better click this link. Like now.


Helena also announced that CANSCAIP will have a booth at the Word on the Street festival and we need volunteers to help give out brochures and chat-up CANSCAIP. It’s a great way to get to know your fellow members and friends, so if you’re going to be there anyway, why not help out for a few hours? Call or Email Helena at the office for more information.


Jennifer Maruno (glowing from that recent star in Quill and Quire) took the podium to announce that our next meeting in October will be an outreach meeting in Burlington, Ontario. This will help to serve some of our out-of-town members, but we hope that our Toronto people will make the effort to car-pool or Go Train as well. Further information will follow.

Are you farther afield and burning with jealousy about our fabulous meetings? CANSCAIP offers seed money to groups who wish start meetings in their local area. If you are interested, please call or email the office for more information.

PROGRAM: Sheila Barry on Writing and Publishing Books that Matter

(Please note, this is a summery of our meeting and is not meant to represent a word-for-word transcription.)

Jennifer then introduced Sheila Barry. Sheila worked at Kids Can Press before moving to Groundwood Books, where she became publisher in 2013 when founder, Patsy Aldana, retired. 

Sheila said that she wanted to begin her talk with an apology. “I would hate for anyone to think from the title of my talk that I believe the only children’s books that matter are books on tough subjects like war.” She feels that all books for children are “books that matter,” and would not want to offend authors who write light-hearted works.

“Books about soup!” whispered Loris Lesynski, who was sitting next to this recorder.

Sheila’s talk was based on a piece she wrote for Freedom to Read week, and she hoped that we were all familiar with this event, which takes place in February. Freedom to Read celebrates and promotes the right of every child to read without impediment. Sheila was asked to write this piece because Groundwood is known for publishing books on difficult subjects. Just some of the subjects Groundwood has tackled are: pornography, genocide, prostitutes as lead characters, first nations children taken from their homes, and children hurt by war.

“Part of Groundwood’s canon are books that some might consider inappropriate for children.”

Sheila held up the book, The Composition, as an example of a classic Groundwood title. The book, by Antonio Skarmeta , is about a child under a repressive South American regime. “This sounds like the worst topic in the world for a children’s book,” she said, “but it is a beautiful book.” Sometimes books like this can be a tough sell to parents, but Groundwood relies on and is very grateful to libraries, often the place where a child would find a book like The Composition.

“When publishing books for YA, you can talk about anything,” Sheila said, “but picture books are a different story. I always ask myself, ‘Would I read this to a child I know?’”

Sheila then showed us the book, Good Night, Commander by Iranian author Ahmad Akbarpour. The book is about the aftermath of Iran-Iraq war and is the story about a child who has lost both his leg and his mother to the conflict. This is a touching book, which Sheila says she would read with a child. It’s power lies in its absolute fidelity to the things a child notices and the things a child thinks. She believes that some books should be read and discussed with an adult and hopes that they are. “There are expectations around context which we at Groundwood can’t control,” she said.

Goodnight Commander was not a best seller, Sheila told us, but a book she was very proud to have it on Groundwood’s list.

Sheila then went on to talk about submitting to Groundwood, telling us that the worst part of her job was saying no so often. They receive 1,500 submissions a year and publish 30. This means that for every yes, there are 49 nos. A phrase rejected authors and illustrators hear again and again is: “This project is not right for our list.” This is not a brush off. Most Canadian publishers have a notion of what their list is when taken as a whole. Look at their catalogues to get a sense of this. Groundwood does not consider genre fiction like fantasy or mysteries, even though Sheila is a big mystery fan. It’s just not what Groundwood does.

When Sheila considers a submission, the first things she wants, before anything else, is an artistic creation. (We could talk for hours about what that means, she added.) She asks herself, is this literature? Groundwood is known for a standard of excellence in writing and illustration, which she considers before asking herself what message the book is sending. Will this book deliver a rich reading experience?

Sheila had a lot to say about the issue of messages in children’s books. Every book on a difficult subject is a book with a message. In fact, any book is a book with a message. What Sheila does not want is a book that gives and easy solution to a complex problem. She gave the example of a hypothetical book on bullying: 

A little girl is bullied. She, possibly with the help of a kind adult, comes up with a strategy. She implements this strategy and, suddenly, she has friends. In the end, she and her new friends ride their bikes to the ice cream store. 

Sheila is not arguing that a bullied child shouldn’t have a strategy, but it does readers a terrible disservice when the problem is solved so easily. The book she wants is more inconclusive. Don’t wrap it all up.

Of course, no child should feel more alone and more miserable than they did when they opened the book, but that doesn’t mean all problems must be solved. A child character must have arrived somewhere but not necessarily to a solution. The boy in Good Night, Commander learns that war is made up of victims like himself, but he does not draw conclusions about war that are beyond him. He makes a small step. When reading a story about siblings, no one thinks it’s the writer’s job to solve the “problem of siblings.” It’s the same with war or bullying or pain.

Sarah Ellis’s new book, Ouside In, published this spring, is a good example of what Sheila is looking for. It’s book primarily about friendship, but one of the girls is effectively homeless. She has been abducted by a man who found her. To an adult this sounds terrible, but in the context of the book she is a heroic figure to the other girl who becomes her friend. What Sheila loved about the book is that it never delivers a moral judgement. The book’s goal is to tell a story about two girls who become friends. The message is given very subtly. “I am finding myself wanting that subtly more and more,” Sheila said. “I have less need for resolution.”

Sheila then threw a question to the audience: “If we are passionate about the world we live in, what about telling stories that aren’t ours to tell…or are all stories ours to tell?”

This is the question of appropriation of voice, which Sheila said she didn’t have an answer for. As writers, can we write about different races, different cultures? She thinks that our writing would be very narrow if we could not, but she thinks its an important question that she urges us not to gloss over. It is a question worth grappling with again and again.

Sheila ended the talk by giving us a few of her “pet peeves.”

Pet Peeve #1

Why does all historical fiction have to be about rebellious girls who don’t seem to fit in their own time period? Too many historical novels are anachronistic in that characters do not have the mind of their times. By doing this, authors are creating someone “born better.” Isn’t it more interesting to write about someone completely immersed in their own time period, who has the attitudes of the day?

Pet Peeve #2

In too many novels there is a boy who sticks with the girl through thick and thin. Sheila does not want to be anti-boy, but in some novels, this character’s faithfulness is his only quality. He’s hard to believe in, this perfect boy. Sheila doesn’t think this is the best hope to be giving young girls. There is a desire to end a book--especially a book where a girl has had a bad time--with the promise that a guy will be there in the end. Sometimes this works and is appropriate, but authors need to ask themselves the tough question: Are you telling lies to children?

Pet Peeve #3

The first person in picture books is tricky. If it works it can be brilliant, but often an author attributes too much to the voice of the child. The wonderful thing about Good Night Commander is that even at the end, the boy protagonist is thinking “sort of the wrong thing” about his situation. He’s only part way. And everything he says is from this realistic point of view. Writers, ask yourself: Are you using the child protagonist to communicate things to the reader that no child could communicate? If so, you have a problem.

Thanks so much for joining us on a rainy Wednesday, Sheila!

A note from your recorder: That's right!  What were once called "CANSCAIP Minutes," write-ups of our Toronto meetings, will now appear on our blog.  In upcoming months, we'd like to make our blog more vibrant, so if you have any ideas for posts, contact me at lena (at) lenacoakley (dot) com


  • Thursday, September 11, 2014 11:23 PM | Ishta Mercurio
    I love this new element to the blog. Thank you, Lena, and thank you to anyone else who might have been part of the decision to make this happen! (And thanks to Sheila, for her insights and her insistence that we continue to ask ourselves the tough questions.)
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  • Friday, September 12, 2014 10:32 AM | Melanie Fishbane
    Thank you for this roundup. I couldn't make it on Wednesday and it was so fantastic to have the opportunity to see what happened.
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  • Friday, September 12, 2014 12:54 PM | Jennifer Maruno
    So good to have such a wonderful summary of the meeting, as most of us had our minds and eyes full of stars while Sheila spoke. She gave us so much to think about and all of her advice was simple and astute! So worth the out of town drive!
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  • Monday, September 15, 2014 12:15 PM | Heather Rath
    I really appreciate this review of Sheila Barry's talk. Read it all with great interest. Thank you!
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  • Friday, November 21, 2014 4:14 PM | Deleted user
    Thanks, Lena, for being the CANSCAIP recorder!
    Link  •  Reply