CARSTAIRS — A local publisher that just last year was recognized by the Alberta Book Publishing Awards as Emerging Publisher of the Year, has added another feather in their cap.
Red Barn Books, which in 2019 was founded by Ayesha Clough in the hopes of creating more literary content featuring children’s stories shining a spotlight on Alberta’s pioneer heritage, published Howdy, I’m John Ware.
The illustrated story for children ages 6-10 recounts the tale of the trials and tribulations faced by historical figure John Ware, a Black cowboy and former slave who came to ranch in Alberta early last century, along the way establishing an inspiring legacy that’s endured for generations.
The child-friendly version about Ware, who through grit and determination solidified a reputation as a gifted horseman who blazed a trail of kindness despite experiencing first-hand the horrors of enslavement, war and discrimination, received two awards in less than one week.
“They came two days apart. It’s just mind blowing,” said Clough.
The illustrated story about Ware won the Heritage Calgary Storytelling Award on Sept. 15, and a couple of days later was named Children’s Book of the Year during the Alberta Book Publishing Awards.
“I’ve been a journalist for more than 10 years (before becoming a publisher) and not won anything. And then, to write my first children’s book, and right out of the gate to have it win two awards, it tells me I’m doing the right thing!” she said with a laugh.
Having written the adaptation of the real-life figure’s accomplishments, Clough partnered up with illustrator Hugh Rookwood, who now calls Alberta home but was born and raised in Ontario to parents who immigrated from Jamaica.
“Normally, I’m more in a publishing role. But this one, I actually wrote it as well,” said Clough.
The publisher and author estimates roughly 2,500 copies of the book have been sold, with more available as distribution is poised to go national.
“The bulk of our sales are in Alberta,” said Clough, adding she was in talks with a sales agency and national distributor.
“Hopefully, it’s going to be across the country very soon. We really want this book to get into schools across the country,” she said.
“He is a Canadian legend. We like to really claim him in Alberta because of course this is where he is from. But his story — for Canadians across the country — is quite inspiring, given that he started his life in slavery in the States, and then became one of the most successful ranchers.”
Not only did Ware go from freed slave to owning his own homes and a 1,000 head of some of the finest cattle, but he was also a key figure in helping to establish ranching in the province, she said.
“So, I think all Canadian need to know about him — not just Albertans.”
To date, Clough said she has received plenty of positive feedback both from children and educators.
“It was amazing to see the response from students,” she said. “It’s really connecting with kids in a very special way.”
As for Rookwood, an Airdrie-based freelance illustrator with 20-plus years of experience drawing comic books and conjuring up corporate designs, he seemed to without hesitation have leapt at the opportunity to work with Clough on the project.
“My thoughts were like, this is an interesting character. I myself never knew anything about John Ware,” he candidly confessed.
“When she talked about the person John Ware and the fact that he was a rancher, a cowboy, he was a slave who became a top-level rancher — I was very excited to get on it,” he elaborated.
“It was definitely something that I thought would be a very good story to put out there in the universe — something great and educational for the kids, and it was a learning experience for myself. So, I loved that part about it it too.”
Further motivating him to get involved was not only his position as a father of two young sons, but also a life goal to create a lasting piece that will endure for many years to come.
“I’ve always wanted to leave something that I felt was lasting. I feel like this is a project that I really have left something — something that my family can be proud of, and generations and generations can look back on,” he said.
“As the father of two boys, I love that my sons will grow up knowing this strong local role model.”
As Canada prepared to observe on Sept. 30 the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Rookwood said recognizing what happened to Indigenous people is important as well.
“Canada is such an amazing country. A lot of people don’t really recognize how amazing this country is,” he said.
“Like anything, it has its growing pains, there’s still things that it has to work on. But there really is a beautiful mosaic of people in this country,” he said, adding all different kinds of people helped to contribute in their own way to make Canada what it is.
“I think that’s important, for people of all ethnicities to feel like they’re a part of the country, especially if they’re born here.”
Offering a few parting thoughts, Rookwood praised Clough’s enthusiasm and passion, which in turn energized him about being involved.
“Ayesha is the engine behind this, she really is. She’s amazing, and I’m completely honoured that she gave me an opportunity — it was a big opportunity, and it panned out well,” he said.
Despite the pandemic, Clough said Red Barn Books has forged ahead and continues to grow step by step.
“I feel like the business is kind of going to the next level with the national sales and distribution,” she said.
“We’re hanging in there and we’ve got tons more books that we’d love to do.”
Among the next planned titles are a continuation of the series about Alberta pioneers who helped shape the province. Howdy, I’m Flores LaDue is expected to be the second instalment and is slated for release next spring.
LaDue, who made up the name when she decided to ran away from her home in Minnesota to join a wild west show as a trick roper who also performed stunts on horseback, became known as the First Lady of the Calgary Stampede.
The third book, Howdy, I’m Harnam Singh Hari, is planned for release in 2023. Hari became in 1909 the first Sikh citizen in Alberta, and rose from humble roots to become a prominent figure in ranching.
“He founded one of the biggest ranching families in southern Alberta. So, another trail blazer,” said Clough.
Beyond the third instalment, Clough already has an idea in mind for a fourth.
“In my dream, I would love to also do Howdy, I’m Tom Three Persons,” she said, referring to an Indigenous rancher and rodeo cowboy from the Kainai Tribe.
“He was the only one who was able to stay on this wild bronc called Cyclone, that had thrown off about 100 riders before Tom rode him to a standstill,” she said.
“This horse was known as being unrideable until it found Tom, or Tom found him — however you want to put it!” she said with a laugh.
That story, she added, is also important to tell in that it will help children learn about and understand the way the Canadian government for generations treated First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.
“For each of the characters in the Howdy books, you learn a lot about our province and its history. But you don’t even realize it because the art is so amazing, and there’s so much adventure and action,” she said. “So, kids are kind of learning without even realizing it.”
Further motivating Clough, she said, has been all of the support from a spectrum of people ranging from ranchers and farmers to school teachers and libraries.
“That’s been so wonderful, and that’s actually what keeps me going and keeps me wanting to grow the business, is knowing that these stories are wanted and valued, and that not only kids are getting behind them, but just whole communities.”