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Wallace Edwards (1957-2022): Ottawa-born children’s writer-illustrator carried a ‘kid mentality’ all his life – Ottawa Citizen

‘He had this incredible joy as a person. He kept all of the inventiveness of childhood.’

Ottawa-born Wallace Edwards wrote and illustrated 17 children's books during his award-winning career, including Alphabeasts, Monkey Business and Woodrow at Sea. He died Christmas Day at the age of 65.
Ottawa-born Wallace Edwards wrote and illustrated 17 children’s books during his award-winning career, including Alphabeasts, Monkey Business and Woodrow at Sea. He died Christmas Day at the age of 65. Photo by Caitlin Fisher /Postmedia

The book that would change the course of Wallace Edwards’ life began with his painting of a contented pig.

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Edwards’ watercolour depicted a slumbering pig in a birthday hat, nestled in his bed, with an open box of chocolates on his bedcovers.

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The painting was for his own entertainment. The Ottawa-born Edwards was then a commercial illustrator, and he painted animals to unwind. “It was like a form of meditation,” he once told an interviewer.

As he painted more animals – all of them lounging, playing and eating inside a clapboard mansion – an idea formed that would eventually coalesce into a children’s book, Alphabeasts. The ABC book matched Edwards’ richly textured, offbeat artwork with rhyming couplets: “A is for alligator, awake from a dream. B is for bat, slurping ice cream. C is a cat, who reflects on itself. D is for duck, guarding toys on a shelf.”

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Alphabeasts sold out three print runs in three months and won the 2002 Governor General’s literary award for children’s illustration.

It launched a new career for Edwards, who went on to write and illustrate 16 more children’s books, including Woodrow at Sea, The Cat’s Pajamas, The Painted Circus and Mixed Beasts.

Edwards died on Christmas Day, four months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was 65.

“He had this incredible joy as a person,” his niece, Caitlin Fisher, said in an interview. “He kept all of the inventiveness of childhood.”

Artwork by Wallace Edwards. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Fisher
Artwork by Wallace Edwards. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Fisher Photo by Caitlin Fisher /Postmedia

Wallace Strachan Edwards was born in Ottawa on Sept. 20, 1957, the youngest of five children. His mother, Margaret Bunel Edwards, wrote novels for young adults; his father, James, was an aerospace engineer who worked at the National Research Council of Canada.

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As a child, Wallace spent countless hours drawing – cartoon impressions of monsters, soldiers, knights, spaceships, tanks – and by the time he was in kindergarten, he already considered himself an artist.

Wallace’s self-image never wavered despite pressure from his teachers, one of whom wrote in his Grade 2 report card: “Wally is artistic, inventive and imaginative, and it is interfering with his schoolwork.”

He preferred drawing, sculpting, guitar and card tricks to the rote of the classroom, and his mother fiercely defended his right to be different.

“She realized that all of his best qualities were going to be stumbling blocks in school,” said Marnie Edwards, Wallace’s sister. “He was a left-handed kid in a right-handed world. But what was always consistent is that he drew and drew and drew: He was always sketching.”

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Although he struggled in school – due both to his dyslexia and his artistic distractions – Edwards graduated from Lisgar Collegiate Institute and enrolled in the Ontario College of Art with the intention of pursuing a career as an animator. He loved cartoons.

It was only when one of his professors, drawing master Paul Young, showed him his sketchbook that Edwards shifted gears to pursue work as an illustrator. “I was just stunned at how beautiful the drawings were,” Edwards said of the moment.

He went to the Royal Ontario Museum, studied its animals, and began to draw them in intense detail. Animals became the central focus of his artistic life.

Edwards established himself as a freelance illustrator in Toronto, working for clients such as Owl magazine, the City of Toronto, the Canadian Wildlife Federation and Metro Toronto Zoo, for whom he once drew 200 varieties of fish.

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He also painted animals in his spare time, which led to the development of Alphabeasts, his first children’s book.

“I just tried to draw the book I wish I’d had as a kid,” he told Quill and Quire magazine in February 2003. “I still have a very kid mentality. Strangely, it’s also what pleases the adult in me.”

Wallace Edwards. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Fisher
Wallace Edwards. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Fisher Photo by Caitlin Fisher /Postmedia

The success of Alphabeasts was followed by Monkey Business, in which Edwards’ animals gave new meaning to 26 familiar idioms. It firmly established him as one of the country’s pre-eminent children’s writers.

Edwards worked out of a small studio in Yarker, Ontario, north of Kingston, in a home he shared with his longtime partner, Kate Freeman. He listened to audio books while he worked, and in his spare time, indulged his interests in fishing, guitar, canoeing, conversation and magic.

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When he visited classrooms or school auditoriums, Edwards often performed a magic trick or illusion before talking to children about art and creativity. He’d encourage them to shout out their favourite animals, and combine them in a sketch: a spider-pig, an alligator-eagle, a bumble-beaver.

“His message to children was always that being different wasn’t a bad thing,” said Marnie Edwards.

After his cancer diagnosis, Edwards immediately began work on his next book. That book, Pigs Can’t Fly, went to the publisher in December and is expected to go into print later this year. Edwards had recently started to explore painting with acrylics, and he finished his final canvas five days before he died.

“He was really at the height of his creative powers,” Fisher said, “and I would have loved to have seen what the next 20 years brought us.”

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