Celebrating 30 years of Atlantic Canadian Children’s Literature

More than three decades ago, a Nova Scotia teacher helped lay the groundwork for a thriving children’s literature scene in Atlantic Canada. Alongside Liz and Brian Crocker, Ann Connor Brimer co-founded Canada’s oldest children’s bookstore—Woozles, “A Place For and About Children”—back in 1978.

Then, to encourage writers of children’s books and recognize their excellence, the Ann Connor Brimer Award for Atlantic Canadian Children’s Literature was established. To celebrate the award’s 30th anniversary, Ann’s son Gavin is increasing the prize money to $5,000 a year.

“She wanted to create an award that would keep writers writing,” says Gavin Brimer. “This award really crystalized her vision.”

Ann died in 1988, before the first award was given out. Named in her memory, the inaugural award went to the late Joyce Barkhouse for her book, Pit Pony, in 1991.

“I think what’s notable is that she always encouraged Atlantic Canadian writers—before there was even a community,” said Kathleen Martin, author of six non-fiction books for children. “She thought it was so important to write from this place.”

The award, one of the oldest for children’s literature in Canada, is unique in that it recognizes both books for children, and, in alternate years, books for young adult (YA) readers. The most recent winner of the award is Nova Scotia writer Tom Ryan for the YA thriller Keep This to Yourself.

Providing encouragement to writers is exactly what the award has done. Winners of the award say getting nominated was a major milestone in their careers and foundational to regarding themselves as writers.

For example, Lisa Harrington, who won the award for her book Live to Tell in 2013, distinctly recalls the phone call informing her she was nominated. It was the day she felt confident enough to call herself a writer.

“It was a Friday evening, and I was cleaning the bathroom. I answered the phone in rubber gloves, holding a toilet brush,” she says. “I just couldn’t believe it…. It was like the first time I ever thought, ‘Wow, maybe I can do this. Maybe I can be a writer.'”

Her writing group commemorated the moment by giving her a sequin-bedazzled toilet brush, she adds with a laugh.

Newfoundland writer Kevin Major says the award gave him the confidence to carry on. He too has won the award three times—each time for a book that was initially rejected by publishers.

“It was only perseverance and a personal belief in the merit of what I had written that saw me through to the books finally being accepted for publication,” says Major, who won for Aunt Olga’s Christmas Postcards in 2006, The House of Wooden Santas in 1998, and Eating Between the Lines in 1992. “Then, having these same books judged to be exceptional by juries for the Ann Connor Brimer Award became an absolute cause for celebration. And an injection of confidence to keep challenging myself as a writer and taking my books for young people in new and different directions.”

The Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia has administered the literary award since 2019. Submissions for the 2022 award recently closed (Nov. 1, 2021). The next winner will be announced during the Atlantic Book Awards Gala in June 2022. 

Quotable quotes:

“Winning this award for my book, The Painting, in 2018 was a milestone in my career. Although my books had received awards before, this was my first Atlantic Canada award and it meant so much to me to have recognition from my peers in the place I have chosen to call home. I felt a sense of acceptance and belonging to a larger community than the one I am part of in Newfoundland, a feeling that I had somehow “arrived,” both professionally and personally, and that my work had resonance for people who live here. Writing is such a solitary and insecure profession, and I have often felt lost in the larger scheme of things across Canada, but this award kindled a warm fire inside me that my work was appreciated and that I was not invisible after all. It inspired me to keep writing even when it’s the hardest thing to do.”

—Charis Cotter is a 2018 winner of the Ann Connor Brimer Award for her book The Painting (Tundra Books)

“Winning the Brimer Award gave me just the boost I needed at a critical point in my writing career and set me on a course to write many more books for young people. It was much appreciated.”

—Prolific writer Lesley Choyce won the Ann Connor Brimer Award for Atlantic Canadian Children’s Literature for Into the Wasteland in 2017, Shoulder to the Sky in 2003, and Good Idea Gone Bad in 1994.

“The Ann Connor Brimer Award does so much to help support and promote works for young people by Atlantic Canadians. As an award that has gained recognition across the country, it strengthens and elevates the Maritime’s voice of children’s literature.”

—Valerie Sherrard won the Ann Connor Brimer Award for Atlantic Canadian Children’s Literature for The Glory Wind in 2011.

“I certainly regard being an Ann Connor Brimer winner among my proudest accomplishments. As an elementary school teacher I read many excellent books to my students by Atlantic Canadian authors and Joyce Barkhouse’s Pit Pony was among them. I acknowledged her 1991 win when I accepted my 2012 award.”

—New Brunswick writer Susan White won the Ann Connor Brimer Award for Atlantic Canadian Literature for The Year Mrs. Montague Cried in 2012. A second book, The Memory Chair, was shortlisted for the award in 2018.

“Encouragement and validation were the words that came to mind after my first two middle-grade novels, The Nine Lives of Travis Keating and The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy, won the Ann Connor Brimer Award in successive years: my best efforts of imagination and craft had been more than rewarded. Somehow I’d stumbled across a path that was taking me places I wanted to go, and despite boots getting stuck in the mud or the path wandering too close to the cliff-edge, the sheer doggedness required to write and revise a novel had also been honoured.
     “When Nix Minus One won the award in 2014, I was, quite simply, delighted because this free verse novel is, of all my books, the one closest to my heart. My warm thanks to Gavin Brimer for his enduring generosity, and my deep gratitude also to all those who work so hard behind the scenes for an award that spurs Atlantic Canadian writers for young people to keep to the solitary, joyful trail of words.”

—Jill MacLean is a three-time winner of the Ann Connor Brimer Award for The Nine Lives of Travis Keating in 2009, The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy in 2010, and Nix Minus One in 2014.

“Writing is often an isolating vocation. Winning the Brimer Award near the beginning of my career made it possible for me to imagine my work was reaching readers and subsequent wins helped me to believe I was doing something worthwhile.”

—Janet McNaughton won the Ann Connor Brimer Award for The Secret Under My Skin in 2001, Make or Break Spring in 1999, and To Dance at the Palais Royal in 1997.

A who’s who of Atlantic Canadian children’s literature:

  • 2021 – Tom Ryan, Keep This to Yourself
  • 2020 – Sheree Fitch, Everybody’s Different on EveryBody Street
  • 2019 – Susan Sinnott, Catching the Light
  • 2018 – Charis Cotter, The Painting
  • 2017 — Lesley Choyce, Into the Wasteland
  • 2016 – Sharon E. McKay, Prison Boy
  • 2015 – Sharon E. McKay, The End of the Line
  • 2014 – Jill MacLean, Nix Minus One
  • 2013 – Lisa Harrington, Live to Tell
  • 2012 – Susan White, The Year Mrs. Montague Cried
  • 2011 – Valerie Sherrard, The Glory Wind
  • 2010 – Jill MacLean, The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy
  • 2009 – Jill MacLean, The Nine Lives of Travis Keating
  • 2008 – K.V. Johansen, Nightwalker
  • 2007 – Budge Wilson, Friendships
  • 2006 – Kevin Major, Aunt Olga’s Christmas Postcards
  • 2005 – Alice Walsh, Pomiuk, Prince of the North
  • 2004 – Don Aker, The First Stone
  • 2003 – Lesley Choyce, Shoulder the Sky
  • 2002 – Francis Wolfe, Where I Live
  • 2001 – Janet McNaughton, The Secret Under My Skin
  • 2000 – David Weale, The True Meaning of Crumbfest
  • 1999 – Janet McNaughton, Make or Break Spring
  • 1998 – Kevin Major, The House of the Wooden Santas
  • 1997 – Janet McNaughton, To Dance at the Palais Royale
  • 1996 – Don Aker, Of Things Not Seen
  • 1995 – Sheree Fitch, Mable Murple
  • 1994 – Lesley Choyce, Good Idea Gone Bad
  • 1993 – Budge Wilson, Oliver’s War
  • 1992 – Kevin Major, Eating Between the Lines
  • 1991 – Joyce Barkhouse, Pit Pony. 
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