A good reporter follows a solid lead and always protects their source. A good dog, by contrast, follows loyally but will always break away to protect their pack. So when that dog is a giant, intimidating Newfoundland breed afraid of everything from dark stairwells to paper bags, a good reporter will wonder why. When that reporter is someone like Thom Barker it’s not just enough to find the answers, but follow the peculiar story to the end — in this case to the writing of his debut children’s book exploring the theme of unfounded fears and critical-thinking.
Now in its second release, Lady MacBeth afraid of the stairs is based on Barker’s real life dog and her odd-ball journey of conquering this fear when one day she is given a small but significant reason to doubt her own thinking.
“I really hope more than anything children are entertained by it,” Barker says. “Of course, confronting fears is a standard children’s book theme, so if it is entertaining, perhaps in a small way it will help children develop the skepticism they need to become critically-thinking adults.
Readers may remember Barker from his days about 13 years ago at the Interior News. He was in the Houston RCMP detachment less than an hour after the fatal, in-custody shooting of Ian Bush, and subsequently won a national award of excellence for his reporting on the inquiry. A Smithers crime series, on what was then B.C.’s “crime capital”, won him a dozen more accolades from journalism institutions in both Canada and the United States. In other words, Barker’s not known for the fluff pieces. This foray into children’s books is a surprising turn for Barker, now a grandfather of two, until the adult readers see the similarities of Lady MacBeth’s fears, and the culture of fear underlying many of today’s news headlines.
“Critical thinking is important for everybody,” Barker says. “With all of the misinformation and disinformation going around on the Internet, particularly social media, you have to be able to discern what’s real and what’s not. Be able to question whatever is put before you, including your own gut instincts and fears.”
To be fair, Lady MacBeth is not afraid of all stairs, just these stairs in the Labrador home Barker shares with his wife Lorraine (whom he met in Smithers). For safety concerns they had blocked off the stairs when Lady was a pup, and Barker suspects her curiosity of what lurked beyond the barricade mutated into fear as she matured. Why she’s afraid of everything else is a mystery in the real world (a tennis racket, a bicycle, a tin can) but a good motivator for Barker to document Lady’s adventures in the world of fiction.
“I never wanted to be a children’s author, but the story kept coming to me through the rhythm of walking with Lady. She’d always stop to bark at a tire, or whatever, and the theme was fortuitous. Fear is something that everybody deals with at all points in their life, and it’s certainly something that resonates with kids.”
To illustrate this with humour and a light step, Barker turned to long-time friend Dave Rheaume, with whom he shared a passion as a child for co-creating comic books and homemade films. Rheaume brings what Barker calls a “historical-retro feel” to the book. An emerging theme with reader reviews indicate children find the paintings whimsical while parents and grandparents find them nostalgic.
“What I loved about the book is the idea that you have this large, powerful being that still has these phobias,” Rheaume says. “To see that such a a strong powerful beast, that’s basically the same size as a human, can still have the same sort of hangups and phobias and fears that all of us have makes her very relatable.”
Provided the second release of the self-published book goes well, Barker and Rheaume are already planning a series they’ll pitch to traditional publishers next year. The series will begin with titles like Lady MacBeth takes a bath, Lady MacBeth finds a dinosaur bone and Lady MacBeth goes to the big city.
Lady MacBeth afraid of the stairs is available on Amazon.ca.