Guest Post: My Spunky Little Sister by Paul Harbridge

Today is Down Syndrome Day and we asked author Paul Harbridge if he wanted to share a little bit about his sister, Linda, who is the inspiration for his upcoming picture book, Out into the Big Wide Lake. Keep reading for Paul’s reflection as well as a note from his editor, Samantha Swenson.

Paul Harbridge: My Spunky Little Sister

Linda is my younger sister. When Linda was born, I had just started school. I remember my mother crying when a nurse told her my pretty little sister might never talk and my father getting angry when a doctor suggested she live in an institution.

The Harbridge Family

Almost as if to prove them wrong, Linda grew to be a very active girl. When we went swimming at Muskoka Beach, she was the first one in and the last one out. She loved to go out onto Lake Muskoka in our family’s little boat, usually accompanied by our black-and-white family dog. Benjie trotted along, too, on her long bike rides, and one day she came back and said, “We met a bear.” When she got cross-country skis, the first time she went down a hill without falling, she raised her ski poles triumphantly above her head and cried, “I did it!”

Linda played T-ball and hit the ball a mile. She was a member of a swimming group and later won a medal for Canada at the Special Olympics in Vancouver. Her bedroom was full of ribbons, medals, and trophies from all the sports she played, and she even won $1,000 at a bowling tournament!

Contrary to those early predictions, Linda learned to speak very well. She was an expressive, warm, and social young woman with an exceptional sense of humor.  She liked to show off the ASL signs she had picked up at school and when I taught her some Spanish words like leche, patatas fritas, hamburgesa, she remembered them for years.

Linda Catherine Harbridge

When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in her seventies, Linda’s support workers suggested she move into a group home in town, but Mom would have none of it. When my mother passed away, Linda made the move into a group home at age 47 and told us, “I’m big now. I have my own place.” In her early fifties, Linda’s own memory started to weaken but that did not slow her down. At 58, she took up snowshoeing and, although I wasn’t there, after she successfully made her way down the first snowy trail, I’m sure she raised her arms and cried, “I did it!”

A couple of years ago I visited my father who still lives in the house he built us up in Gravenhurst. Looking through an old family photograph album, I got the idea for a story about a spunky girl with Down Syndrome and her best friend, a black-and-white dog. I wrote it with the encouragement from my agent Amy Tompkins, and my editor at Tundra Samantha Swenson loved it immediately. Josée Bisaillon did the brilliant illustrations, and Out Into the Big Wide Lake was born. For her 59th birthday, I sent Linda an advance copy of the book and she was absolutely thrilled, especially since there is a photograph of a her as teenager hugging Benjie on the very first page.

Linda and Benjie

I hope Out Into the Big Wide Lake will inspire children facing challenges to give it their best shot and say, like Linda, “I did it!”


Samantha Swenson: A Note on Out into the Big Wide Lake

What spoke to me immediately about this book was two words: Why not?

To me this encapsulates the beauty of picture books, the ability for a minuscule number of words to hold infinite possibilities. In this story, at every moment of something new, Kate asks “Me?” and her grandmother responds “Why not?” And with those two words, the world opens up. Why not, indeed? Those words are empowering, those words are life-changing, those words are even a little scary (especially for Kate’s rightfully nervous mom!). These two words allow Kate to ask the question of herself and answer with bravery and spirit.

After reading this story for the first time and sitting with it, I also realized how meaningful it is to have a character with Down Syndrome inhabit the space of the every-character. Her Down Syndrome doesn’t define her character here; her challenges aren’t defined by it either. These are challenges that all kids face: trying something for the first time, overcoming fear, being given a level of responsibility that’s new. And challenges that all parents face as well: letting go and trusting in your child – trusting that you’ve given them the tools to take on this new thing. It could be going on bike ride with a friend for the first time, a first sleepover, a first walk to school on their own, a solo plane trip to see parent in a different city, piloting a boat for the first time. Having a Down Syndrome character embody this freedom and this universal experience felt so important and so exciting.

Linda Catherine Harbridge

Paul’s respect for the character is evident in every line. As a writer, he knew how to create a character who leapt from the page to grab you. But as a brother to someone with Down Syndrome, he knew how to honor that character’s life and experience in a way that is singular. Kate is not just a picture book version of his sister Linda Catherine; Kate is a beautiful embodiment of Paul’s love and respect for Linda Catherine and a celebration of her spirit and personality.

I hope that everyone who reads this book feels that warmth and love and admiration, and I hope you all fall as in love with Kate as I did. And I hope when you or your loved ones are challenged, you think of those two little words: why not?

Out into the Big Wide Lake
By Paul Harbridge
Illustrated by Josée Bisaillon
48 Pages | Ages 4-8 | Hardcover
ISBN 9780735265592 | Tundra Books
It’s Kate’s first time visiting her grandparents on her own at their lakeside home. She’s nervous but excited at the adventure ahead. She helps her grandfather with his grocery deliveries by boat, where she meets all the neighbors, including a very grumpy old man named Walter. And she makes best friends with her grandparents’ dog, Parbuckle. Her grandmother even teaches her to pilot the boat all by herself! When her grandfather takes ill suddenly, it’s up to Kate – but can she really make all those deliveries, even to grumpy old Walter? She has to try! Based on the author’s sister, Kate is a lovable, brave, smart and feisty character who will capture your heart in this gorgeous and moving story about facing fears and gaining independence.