Last week I learned the awful news that my publisher and friend, Sheila Barry, recently passed away. Across Canada there are dozens if not hundreds of authors who share my sorrow at her passing, for she was a central figure in Canadian publishing, responsible for the publication of scores of extremely popular children’s books, first at Kids Can Press and then at Groundwood Books, where I met her.
Technically, I didn’t meet her at Groundwood Books, but at The Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, at a conference on STEAM at which we two seemed to be the only representatives of the elusive A. We started chatting over coffee and quickly discovered a kinship. Sheila was very smart and curious, quick to see possibilities and to discount blather. I liked her immediately. We talked about the impact of digital technologies on publishing and Pippi Longstocking and some other things I can’t remember, and exchanged email addresses.
A month or two later I was sitting at my computer when a thought occurred to me. I thought of Sheila, and how she was a publisher of children’s books, and of the folder containing several children’s stories buried somewhere deep in my computer. They were transcriptions of bedtime stories I had told my kids when they were small and, since they had done nothing but collect digital dust for a decade, I figured I might as well send them to that smart and nice publisher I had recently met.
So I did.
10 minutes later, still sitting at my computer, I received an excited email from Sheila. She had fallen head over heels for my story Friend or Foe, and she would definitely be publishing it. I was amazed and thrilled.
If only other people in this world were so open-minded, so decisive, and so (if I may say) able to spot talent. Sadly, very few are, and the loss of even one such special person is a blow to us all. Not just to the authors of the world but – far more numerous – the readers, and specifically the children of the world, whose hearts and minds were always at the forefront of Sheila’s thinking, even as she successfully managed the complex business of publishing and promoting dozens of new titles year after year.
Since our first meeting back in 2012, Sheila and I enjoyed a handful of coffees and lunches together, and exchanged many emails. She was – not surprisingly – an excellent communicator, and I always felt that these email exchanges were was as close to an old fashioned epistolary relationship as I have experienced in the age of email. The last time we met in person, almost exactly a year ago, I gave her the ms for another book, which she read on the spot and – again – instantly said she would publish. That book, called BORN, which is about the experience of being born, will come out in 2019.
Tragically, Sheila will not be present for its publication, at least not physically. But it will be yet another expression of her vision, integrity and determination to produce meaningful books for the young people of the world. Books filled with beauty, depth and dreams. With power and possibilities.
Sheila Barry embodied these admirable characteristics professionally and personally. We will all – those who knew her and those who only knew her through the books she published – miss her greatly.
Thank you Sheila, for meaning so much to so many.