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A girl drives a yellow boat with a black and white dog in the front
Bloom Blog

A sister inspires a picture book about taking risks

By Louise Kinross

Out Into the Big Wide Lake is a children's book about a girl called Kate who has Down syndrome and goes to spend the summer with her grandparents. They live on a lake and run a grocery store. Kate learns to pilot a boat and develops a sense of agency as she helps her grandfather deliver food to local residents. Toronto author Paul Harbridge says his sister Linda, who just turned 60, was the inspiration for his protagonist. The book won the 2022 Ezra Jack Keats Award, a U.S. literary award that recognizes new writers, and is targeted to kids aged four to eight. I loved the themes of self-discovery, adventure and community, and the magic of life on a lake. We did this interview over e-mail.

BLOOM: Why did you decide to write this book?

Paul Harbridge: I grew up in Gravenhurst, a small town on Lake Muskoka and we were out on that lake all year round swimming, fishing, skating and snowmobiling. I remembered the boats delivering groceries and other supplies to the resorts and cottages and got the idea of a child from the city going to help her grandparents deliver groceries around a lake. I asked myself if the main character should be a boy or a girl and then thought: 'Why not a girl with Down syndrome, like my sister Linda?'

BLOOM: I was glad you didn’t describe Kate's diagnosis in the story. I thought the theme of being brave and gaining a sense of independence was universal to all children. What was the reason you chose not to make Down syndrome part of the story?

Paul Harbridge: Exactly as you said, I wanted it to be a universal theme. I wanted to show that a girl with Down syndrome faces challenges like every other child. And that given the opportunity and support, she can achieve her dreams and gain confidence in herself.

BLOOM: What do you hope readers take from the story?

Paul Harbridge: I hope children will come away with the idea that you never know if you can do something until you give it a try. I hope adult readers will see the importance of not making assumptions and giving every child the opportunity to try new things.

BLOOM: What was the greatest challenge of writing the story?

Paul Harbridge: I could not recall seeing any other picture books with a protagonist with Down syndrome, so I ran the idea past my agent Amy Tomkins. Amy’s mother worked with people with Down syndrome, and Amy immediately encouraged me to go ahead with the story. She submitted it to my editor Samantha Swenson at Tundra Books. Samantha fell in love with the story and the two of them have been the book's biggest champions.

In addition, my sister Linda loved boating and was a great swimmer, but she herself had never learned to pilot a boat. I talked to a mother of a young woman with Down syndrome and she sent me a video of her daughter driving a boat. She also told me her daughter’s boyfriend had his driver's license. So it was full steam ahead with the story.

BLOOM: The greatest joy?

Paul Harbridge: There were three that stand out in my mind. I loved how the illustrator Josée Bisaillon drew Kate and the dog Parbuckle and how she brought the world of the lake to life. I loved how proud my sister Linda was of the book. She loved the photo of her and our dog Benjie at the front. And it was a great honour to be a finalist for the Governor-General's Literary Awards and to win the Ezra Jack Keats Award, an award that celebrates diversity.

BLOOM: Can you tell us a bit about your sister Linda?

Paul Harbridge: Linda has a great sense of humour and was always willing to try something new. She loved to swim and won a medal at the Special Olympics in Vancouver. She won $1,000 in a bowling tournament and got so many medals and trophies for all the sports she played, my parents didn’t know what to do with them all. One time she was riding her bike, with our dog Benjie running along beside, and they came face to face with a black bear. Yikes!

Unfortunately for the last five years Linda started to get Alzheimer's. She's starting to lose her memory, but she still loves being with people, going out to a restaurant for a meal, doing puzzles, and I just saw a picture of her snowshoeing. She still loves the outdoors. She lives in Gravenhurst in a group home that worked out really well.

This summer I plan to take my sister for a ride on the RMS Segwun steamship in Muskoka, to celebrate the book and to thank her for inspiring it and being such a good sister. 

BLOOM: You mentioned you did a placement at Holland Bloorview when you were training to be a speech-language pathologist. When was that and what was the experience like? 

Paul Harbridge: Yes, I did a placement there in the summer of 1995 while completing my Master's degree at the University of Toronto. My amazing clinical educator was Louise Dix. I also did one day per week in the augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) clinic. Of all my placements, this was my favourite. I still remember using a hand puppet to do communication therapy with a girl with cerebral palsy. She was great and we both had a lot of fun!

BLOOM: Did you work as a speech therapist? 

Paul Harbridge: My first job was at the Canadian Hearing Society where I worked with people with hearing loss and persons in the Deaf community. I completed six levels of American Sign Language while there and even played in a Deaf golf tournament.

My second job was at Surrey Place working with adults with developmental disabilities. I was also a clinician in the AAC clinic there. I ran a group called Writers Guild and the participants wrote a short novel titled The Unknown Organization about a Martian who looked like Mathew Broderick who came to Earth looking for his mother. They were so imaginative. One client did the cover art and we even got it published!

BLOOM: How did you get interested in writing?

Paul Harbridge: I grew up in a house in the woods and we only had one TV channel. I remember my father taking me to the town library to get my first library card. Books became a door to a wider world for me. I always loved words and even read dictionaries and encyclopedias. I have always been rather shy and I liked the way writing gave me the time to express myself.

In school on several occasions teachers read an assignment I had written out to the class and I started to get the idea I might have a way with words. In my twenties I began writing short stories. One of my stories was published in the Toronto Star Short Story Contest and I was hooked. I continue to write but not full time, not to make a living. 

BLOOM: What were your experiences as a brother to a sister with Down syndrome like (especially at a time when there weren’t the kind of supports there are today for siblings)?

Paul Harbridge: Linda was the second youngest of five. I was the oldest. We were all aware that Linda needed some extra support but she still did everything the rest of us did. I think growing up with her made me aware of all the things a person with a disability can do if you are understanding, patient and supportive, but treat them like just another kid.

A challenge was the times when I and my other siblings had a problem but kept it to ourselves, thinking that our parents needed to focus on helping our sister with Down syndrome. I was eight years older than Linda so this affected me less. The one who felt this the most was my youngest brother who was two years younger than her.

BLOOM: Do you have any advice for siblings?

Paul Harbridge: I would say to love and support your sibling and celebrate their accomplishments, but celebrate your own accomplishments, too, and don’t be afraid to speak to your parents or another adult about your own needs. Just like your sibling, we all need understanding and support. 

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