Sheila Barry Was the Superhero of Canadian Children’s Literature

As publisher of Groundwood Books, she was the type of editor who would encourage you to jump—and then be your net

Barry Oleary
Courtesy House of Anansi / Carolyn McNeillie

Last week, House of Anansi Press sent an email to its contributors with the subject line “Sheila Barry.” Inside was a photo of Sheila Barry’s smiling face. On its own, that photo told me all I needed to know. Barry, who was the publisher of Anansi’s children’s imprint, Groundwood Books, was far too self effacing to have let an email like that go out had she been alive.

Barry was both an editor and a friend to me. Her death on November 15, from complications resulting from cancer, came as a shock to many in the world of children’s publishing. On the day that we received the news, I had a mournful conversation with Caroline Adderson, who has a long publishing history with Groundwood, about how much we would miss Barry. “She had only one rule that I ever heard her mention,” Adderson told me. “If someone is jumping on a trampoline, give her a net. She urged us to take chances, walked us through the impossible, and so she kept her writers safe and published books that gave kids the chance to soar. Sheila was our net.”

Barry’s work as publisher of Groundwood Books has garnered prizes and accolades, including the naming of Groundwood Books as best publisher in North America in 2016 by the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. Before joining Groundwood, Barry was editor-in-chief for Kids Can Press for eight years. Originally from Newfoundland, she completed a PhD in English literature at York University. She was a passionate, engaged, intelligent champion of children’s literature, and she will be missed.

I worked with Barry on A Family Is a Family Is a Family, my picture book with Toronto illustrator Qin Leng, which was published by Groundwood just last fall. Taking it through development with Barry was a joy, and I was looking forward to working with her on something new when news of her illness leaked last spring. My last phone chat with her was in September, when a scheduled meeting about illustrators for a book I had written, titled Night Walk, turned into a discussion of how her hopes of returning to the office would have to be postponed.

During that call, she told me that her favourite part of making picture books was seeing the first set of roughs come back from an illustrator—that moment when an idea starts to become a book. “After that, I’m kind of done!” she said, and burst into laughter. I laughed, too, because, of course, it wasn’t true. Sheila was apologetic about the fact that my new book was delayed. One of the last things I said to her was that I wasn’t worried about it, really. I was just looking forward to getting to work and back to a rhythm of regular phone conversations with her—that was my favourite part of making a book.

Barry cared deeply about children’s books and understood the need children have to see themselves reflected in the pages of the books they read. A look at recent Groundwood catalogues reveals a list that includes the continuing adventures of a dog and a hedgehog; a book about the experience of an immigrant child; and an ode to small-town life in Nunavut, written in English and Inuktitut. The varied list shows her desire to reflect the complex and overlapping inner and outer realities children experience.

“Sheila Barry was simply one of the best people that I’ve ever worked with,” Sarah MacLachlan, president and publisher of Anansi, tells me. “She had an infectious and irreverent sense of humour, a keen intelligence, and a real gift for pairing authors and illustrators in the creation of the award-winning picture books she published at Groundwood.” The list put together by Barry managed to feel distinctly Canadian and to hold a strong international appeal. Books on Groundwood’s list have been picked up internationally, with Sidewalk Flowers, by Toronto writer JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith, appearing in seventeen countries—and counting. Smith’s artistry makes this wordless picture book come to life, but the alchemy of it occurred in Sheila Barry’s mind before it ever happened on the page.

“When I see a picture book that is somehow quietly devastating, with stunning art and really profound, thoughtful writing, I’m never surprised to see that it’s published by Groundwood,” says Maria Russo, children’s book editor at the New York Times. “So many of those books that have grabbed me, I’ve later learned, were nurtured by Sheila Barry.” It’s no small wonder that in recent years, three books edited by Barry and illustrated by Sydney Smith have been winners of the coveted New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books Awards. Barry not only had a keen eye for spotting new talent, she also made the necessary second step to determining how best to use it.

“I have never worked so hard to make someone proud of me and my work,” says Smith. “I would run marathons and climb mountains for her.” Town Is by the Sea, written by Joanne Schwartz, is the latest of those feted books illustrated by Smith. It’s the tale of a small boy growing up in Cape Breton, observing his father’s life as a coal miner and imagining his own future underground. It is difficult to imagine a more regional book, and yet its appeal is clearly universal.

Barry’s mandate extended to publishing diverse books, and she believed that children’s books needed to provide both mirrors and windows. She was aware of the the need for more diversity when it came to creators and pushed for an inclusive environment. Jael Richardson, founder and artistic director for the Festival of Literary Diversity, told me about a FOLD panel where Barry affirmed her commitment to publishing a certain number of books by people of colour, as well as a certain number by women. “If you don’t do that, you’ll never change the diversity landscape,” Richardson remembers Barry saying. “It makes it someone else’s problem rather than something you’re committed to.” Richardson is also author of the picture book The Stone Thrower (illustrated by Matt James). “She was good at being really responsive with writers who got overlooked in other spaces,” says Richardson. “She said yes and approached editing more like a mentorship.”

Sheila Barry’s warmth—her smile and her laughter—come up often. “Sheila was my dear friend and a mentor to me, in many areas of my life,” says Tara Walker, vice-president and publisher of Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers. “We laughed a lot together and continued to have long check-ins even when she was no longer my boss.” The ongoing success of those who worked under Barry is a tribute to her mentorship. Danielle Daniel, author and illustrator of Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox and this year’s Once in a Blue Moon, wrote to me: “Working with Sheila felt like a belonging. She invited us into her home, hugged us and made us laugh while championing our books and even our lives outside of publishing.”

After a week of reaching out to other people who worked with Barry, I’ve come to think more and more of that word belonging. Of how she has made a kind of family of those who knew her and worked with her—connecting us to each other through our connection to her. The books that she brought into the world are also about belonging. The list that Groundwood Books published under Barry’s watch is about inclusion—her true gift was for inviting both creators and readers in. I now feel profoundly connected to Qin Leng, for instance, because of the book we made together with Barry. As her former colleague Walker says: “She has left an indelible mark on children’s literature and the countless authors, illustrators, editors, and book lovers who came into her brilliant, funny, and loving orbit.”

Barbara Howson, vice-president of sales at Anansi and Groundwood, tells me: “She would not hold with those who wanted to make her a saint, that is unless this made her in control of the entire world so that she could push her agenda of wonderful, diverse, and beautiful books that reflect all children.” There is comfort in knowing that we still have books Barry worked on to look forward to. One of these is Jillian Tamaki’s debut picture book, They Say Blue. Another—just announced in Publishers Weekly—is the first picture book with Sydney Smith as both illustrator and writer. Barry had many reasons to be proud of the work she did and the work she will continue to inspire.

I’ve tried so hard to get a complete picture of Barry, but of course, I am only able to catch glimpses. When you tried to compliment Barry, she would always find a way to neatly deflect it and turn it back on you. She might say that the books she produced were good because she worked with good people, but her particular genius was in finding those people and bringing them together.

Toward the end of my phone conversation with Caroline Adderson on the day Barry died, Adderson told me that earlier in the week she had sent Barry a card to let her know she named a character Sheila in an upcoming book. I’ve now decided to do the same and we’re hoping this could become something of a movement. The world needs more Sheilas.

Sheila Barry is survived by her husband Kim Michasiw and her daughter Miriam Barry. A ceremony to celebrate her life will be announced at a later date.

Sara O'Leary
Sara O'Leary is the author of a number of children's books, including This Is Sadie. Her debut novel, The Ghost in the House, is being released by Doubleday Canada.