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Virginia Davis was a champion of Canadian children’s literature

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Virginia Davis, a great champion of Canadian children’s literature, died at age 83 on Feb. 20. Over the course of many decades, Davis was a school librarian, book reviewer, teacher, editor, author, executive director of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, book wholesaler, and overall passionate advocate for children’s books across Canada and beyond.

Davis began her career as a school librarian in Winnipeg in 1973 and quickly moved to the position of consultant for the Ministry of Education’s school library services. In 1977, she was appointed acting supervisor of school library services, and in 1981 she was named vice-president of the Manitoba Library Association.

When she was named executive director of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre in 1981, Davis developed a national profile as a passionate supporter of what was still a fledgling children’s publishing industry in Canada. It is ironic that a woman who was born and grew up in North Carolina became such an outspoken enthusiast for the emerging literature for young readers that came from Canadian writers, illustrators, and publishers.

Commenting on Davis’s contribution to the Canadian children’s publishing industry, Charlotte Teeple, current executive director of the CCBC, paid tribute to Davis as “an excellent public speaker who used her teacher-librarian expertise to bring as much publicity and attention to early Canadian children’s books, many of which are now classics.”

Davis was frequently on the program of children’s literature conferences from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Vancouver, eloquently pointing out the strengths of books that captured Canadian experiences for children. She often ran workshops for librarians and encouraged writers in their first steps toward publication.

For years, Davis reviewed children’s books and videos for the online publication CM:Canadian Review of Materials and as a panelist on CBC Radio’s Morningside. Upon leaving the CCBC, she became vice-president of marketing and collection development for National Book Service (formerly the Learning Tree and Maclean Hunter Library Services), before eventually moving to S&B Books, another library wholesaler. “Many new school libraries across the country started with well-balanced, superb collections thanks to Virginia,” said colleague Pat Thornton Jones in regards to Davis’s abilities as an expert book selector for catalogues, new school collections, and theme lists.

Davis was at one time president of the Canadian Association of Children’s Librarians as well as president of IBBY Canada. In 1994, at the Canadian Images conference in Winnipeg, she was awarded the Claude Aubry Award by IBBY Canada for distinguished service to Canadian children’s literature.

Davis was a mentor to many librarians, teachers, parents, writers, editors, illustrators – and through her enthusiasm and wide knowledge of the field she encouraged people to promote and read Canadian. Though she was short in stature (around five feet at her tallest) Davis had the dynamism and impact of a large spirit and brilliant mind. She possessed great vigour, a sense of humour, and a sharp intellect.

“Virginia Davis brought persistent energy and insight to her advocacy. Indeed, she was a builder when this nascent industry was struggling to make the impact that she so insisted it merited,” says Rick Wilks, publisher of Annick Press, one of the earliest children’s publishers whose books were promoted by the young Canadian Children’s Book Centre. “It was her personal mission to make sure that Canadians understood that something remarkable was happening on their very doorstep. Virginia got it and we’re all the beneficiaries of her activism.”

Davis is survived by her son Ron and his wife, Evie, and her brother, Murdoch Morrison and his wife, Melody. No immediate funeral or memorial service will be held, but a celebration of her life is planned for the spring in Toronto, with a family memorial to take place at a later date in North Carolina. Those interested in taking part in the Toronto celebration can contact Melody Morrison at mpact2@copper.net.