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Celebrating Stories of Ontarians: Barbara Reid, Member of the Order of Ontario

You don’t need the name on the cover to identify a book by Barbara Reid. It isn’t just that the children’s author and illustrator has such a distinctively vibrant visual style; it’s also the wonderfully unusual medium she uses: plasticine.

A competition Reid entered in the late 1970s, while she was a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design, was a formative experience. She was asked to design a calendar for a shopping mall. “I tried a lot of things,” she recalls, “and they looked terrible. So I fooled around with plasticine.” The contest’s judge, Group of Seven artist AJ Casson, said of her scene of a fruit stall, “I like this. It’s different.”  Reid won the competition. “It was mind-blowing to shake hands with an icon like that. I could go, ‘Wait—I can take this seriously.’”

“This” is the technique she used, and that she has since evolved—spreading colourful clay across a flat surface and shaping it with her hands and various tools.

Photographed by her husband, Ian Crysler, her art can be seen in books such as The Party, The Subway Mouse, and Picture a Tree, which encourage children to learn about nature and embrace diversity. Her work has been translated into at least nine languages and published around the world. Back home, she is a member of the Order of Ontario, and she even has a school named after her in Stouffville.

The images Reid creates are both lovingly crafted and labour-intensive: her illustrations for I Love You More, a new collaboration with Toronto writer Emil Sher (due to be published in February by Scholastic), took her nearly a year.

What has kept her going, she says, is the connection her art makes with her readers, “and how much I found kids can do with the clay.” Reid has run many plasticine workshops for children. “They can look at my stuff and figure out how it was done, and they can do it. I’ve learned so much about kids. Those who might struggle with literacy are still very articulate, and there’s something about the physicality of the material that allows them to communicate in a way that might be difficult through words.”

Many of her workshops take place in public libraries, which have been dear to Reid since her childhood. When she was growing up in Toronto in the 1960s, her local library provided her with a means of escape from the social pressures of middle school and incipient adolescence. “I was really fortunate,” she says. “The books were beautiful; the space was beautiful. I was just so happy.”

Today, Reid is honorary chair of Family Literacy Day, and a champion of libraries. Reflecting on the impact of COVID-19, she says, “Librarians are masters of technology, and they did run a lot of virtual programs to stay in touch, and there was curbside pickup, but I think we’ll have a new appreciation of the actual physical space of libraries after the pandemic.”

“As we celebrate Ontario Public Library Week from October 17 to 23, this is an ideal time to appreciate everything libraries offer, from books and workshops such as Reid’s to internet access to safe spaces for all. Libraries are community hubs, and the services they provide are vital as our province aims to build back better, in a just and inclusive way.”
— The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario

One of a Lieutenant Governor’s great privileges is to celebrate Ontarians from all backgrounds and corners of the province. Ontario’s honours and awards formally and publicly acknowledge the excellence, achievements, and contributions of role models from all walks of life. In doing so, they strengthen the fabric of communities and shape the aspirations of Ontarians.  Learn more: https://www.ontario.ca/page/honours-and-awards

PHOTO Caption: Barbara Reid is a picture book illustrator and author whose award winning artwork is created with plasticine.
Photo credit: Ian Crysler

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