Award-winning children’s author Wallace Edwards gone too soon

A post from Lennox and Addington Libraries Facebook page on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022, reads, “A heavy-hearted throwback Thursday today, in honour of beloved local author Wallace Edwards, who recently passed away. His book ‘Unnatural Selections’ was our first Great Big Family Read title in 2015. We loved sharing in his joy as he helped young people find their creative talents. He was a great friend of the library who will be dearly missed.” Submitted photo.

Beloved illustrator and children’s author Wallace Edwards was memorialized in Ottawa on Friday, Jan 6, 2023, in a moving service attended by friends and family. The imaginative artist, whose vivid and fanciful animal paintings delighted a generation of children, passed away on Christmas Day at the age of 65.

Edwards lived with his partner of 25 years, Dr. Kate Freeman, in Yarker, Ontario.

“We always teased him about how he was like the Pied Piper; children had a real affinity for him, and he for them,” Freeman reminisced, explaining that Edwards had a real gift for entertaining kids.

One thing Edwards loved to do at live presentations for children, Freeman said, was based on a book he had illustrated (with author Kenyon Cox), Mixed Beasts, which featured fanciful hybrid animals such as the Bumblebeaver and the Rhinocerostrich. He would ask for animal suggestions from the audience and then quickly draw on an easel exotic creatures created from the suggested combinations. 

Freeman recalled a time during one book tour when three boys, who perhaps considered themselves too old for such a library presentation, were being rambunctious. “They were enjoying each other’s company and getting louder. I thought ‘We’re going to get some heckling here’… But as the session progressed, those three boys went from… rowdy, rambunctious, jumping around in their seats, [to] body language growing more and more still… They were whispering to each other, and then finally one of them called out an animal for a mixed beast drawing. They got drawn in just the same as the younger kids.”

Amy Kay, Temporary Manager of Library Services for Lennox and Addington Libraries, said that staff and patrons were saddened to hear of Edwards’s passing; she called him a “library friend.”

“He was so kind and generous with his time and talents, sharing his books and the creative process behind them at events in our library branches,” said Kay, pointing out that Edwards’ book Unnatural Selections was chosen as the libraries’ inaugural L&A Great Big Family Read in 2015, which introduced hundreds of families to his imaginative and exciting work. 

“We were delighted to host Edwards,” Kay said. “He exuded joy when helping young people find their creative talents, and when sharing his. We’re so fortunate that we were able to read with him and experience the magic he created, [and that] the beautiful worlds he created for children and their parents to explore and enjoy will live on in his books.” 

Edwards was born in Ottawa and graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) in 1980. His first book, Alphabeasts, won a Governor General’s Literary Award in 2002. He went on to write and illustrate 16 more books, winning many national and international awards. 

His most recent book, Do You Wonder?, was published this year by Scholastic. After receiving a diagnosis of terminal cancer in August, Edwards completed work on his final book, Pigs Can’t Fly, which is currently in press and will be available this fall.

Amy Tompkins was Edwards’s agent in the last year of his life after his longtime agent retired. She pointed out that his paintings and illustrations are found in public and private collections, books, and magazines, and are on public display in Canada and the United States.

“His work as an author-illustrator was really beautiful and unique,” Tompkins said. “His picture books were lush and detailed paintings… and when you read these books aloud to children, it’s really quite the experience because they notice [that] he hid all kinds of delicious little details in the art. So they’re the kind of books that children want to have read to them again and again. I read his books to my children when they were little at bedtime, and they’re just treasured.”

Alphabeasts, Tompkins added, “has actually been part of official gifts by the Canadian government over the years. It was part of [Canada’s] official gift to [former U.S. President] Barack Obama [and the Emperor of Japan and his wife]. And it was also part of Canada’s official gift to Prince George when he was born [in July 2013].”

Before his emergence as an award-winning children’s author, Wallace Edwards had an extensive freelance career illustrating for the Metro Toronto Zoo, the City of Toronto, the B.C. Ministry of the Environment, the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, and many magazines, including a long stretch with Ontario Out of Doors.

In 2014, Edwards was awarded a Canada Council-supported New Media Artist Residency at York University. He went on to create and exhibit work in augmented and virtual reality internationally and was a pioneering force in the development of visual language and techniques for future forms. And according to his obituary, “he was also just beginning to create large-scale paintings in acrylic, signalling the next phase in his artistic journey, and it’s a profound loss that only a handful of these works will ever exist.”

According to Freeman, Wallace Edwards was very humble and didn’t discuss his awards often, but in addition to winning the Governor General’s Award, for which he was nominated twice more, he earned a multitude of awards and shortlists, including the Gold Medal from Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award and the Children’s Choice Award from the International Reading Association for Alphabeasts; the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award, The Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator’s Award, and the Children’s Choice Award from the International Reading Association for Monkey Business; the Canadian Library Association’s Honour for Mixed Beasts; the Junior Library Guild Award for The Cat’s Pajamas; and many more.

How would Wallace Edwards like to be remembered? 

“I think he would like to be remembered in many ways,” Freeman said. “He was also a very good musician.”

“But,” she continued, “I think as far as the directions he was heading in, he would like to be remembered as a person who was still growing and exploring and changing. I would say he’d be happy to know that at every gathering, we’ve had people say the same things about how he was funny, generous, witty, kind, and brilliant. How he had a playfulness about him that was so engaging and brought light and life to the gatherings that he was part of.”

Edwards, she went on, “loved his family very much too… He considered his family to be a big circle, both on his side of the family and mine.”

“I hope Wally will be remembered as a man with tremendous talent, who worked hard daily to exercise his gifts, and thus became who he was meant to be and delighted so many with his art,” Freeman concluded. “In his spare hours, he was always drawing. He loved the natural world and really appreciated interesting facts, natural beauty, and strange creatures. He had a very inquisitive, very active mind and was entertaining to a fault. He made me laugh every day. I was very lucky that way, that I had my own personal entertainer. He was just an exceptional person.”

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