Inspired by Community – Christina Kilbourne

Article by Kelly Goslin / Photography by Josianne Masseau

Author Christina Kilbourne is known for her thought-provoking young adult novels that address important, often uncomfortable, complex social, political, and environmental issues. With a writing style that carefully combines empathy and realism, Kilbourne skillfully weaves stories that resonate with her young readers and quietly, sensitively instil activism and awareness.

Born in the small town of Forest, Ontario, Kilbourne and her family moved to Muskoka when she was about six years old. Living on a heritage farm property in the small community of Barkway, she grew up surrounded by natural beauty, while her father relied on the land to sustain them for heat, food and income. Her mother, a teacher, fostered an enthusiasm for learning from an early age. And Barkway, with its 60-student schoolhouse, introduced Kilbourne to community.

“I would never want to trade the sense of belonging I experienced growing up in Barkway for any other childhood,” Kilbourne shares.

The travelling librarian that would visit Kilbourne’s small schoolhouse when she was young introduced her to the world of literature, including published poems and stories written by other children. The prospect of reading enthused to her and the possibility of writing professionally was exhilarating.

Muskoka has continuously afforded Kilbourne a space of inspiration, topographically and socially, and it remains an influence on her work today. The quaint communities encircled by lakes, the wide expansive forests, the connectedness of small-town Muskoka, these have provided a wellspring of settings for Kilbourne’s writing.

She describes the “residential streets of older homes and the two lakes flanking town” of her fictional Port Hope in her book Dear Jo and Gravenhurst is the clear inspiration. Living now in Bracebridge, she remains deeply connected to her childhood experience, bonded to the land and its various beauties, and integrates those memories and sentiments in her writing.

“I feel closely tied to the land, flora and fauna,” she explains. “In fact, although I have lived in other parts of Ontario, and in New Zealand, and travelled extensively through Africa and Latin America, nowhere feels like home the way Muskoka does to me. When I lived in New Zealand, I missed the granite so badly my then boyfriend, now husband, took me on a trip where I could see granite outcrops. It wasn’t the same as the Canadian Shield emerging across the landscape and peeking up from underfoot when you walk through fields and forest, but it did bring me some comfort.”

Muskoka has furthermore been a constant source of community support and enthusiasm for Kilbourne’s work. In the face of adversity or criticism, at home Muskoka has continued to celebrate her literary achievements, a source of great pride for her community.

“Years ago, the owner of the bookstore in Gravenhurst told me one of my books was their top seller,” exclaims Kilbourne. “It was even outselling Alistair MacLeod’s novel No Great Mischief, which went on to win the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.”

Throughout her career, Kilbourne has demonstrated a keen interest in exploring issues such as mental health, addiction, trafficking, abuse, homelessness and other significant challenges faced by teenagers and adults alike in today’s society. One of Kilbourne’s most celebrated novels is Detached, which delves into the sensitive topics of self-harm, mental health, loss, and addiction. Kilbourne handles this difficult subject matter with grace and sensitivity, crafting a narrative that sheds light on the internal struggles of individuals battling their own depression or that of a loved one.

The stories Kilbourne crafts are visceral but are woven with an unparalleled craftsmanship that manages to create relatable and authentic teenage characters. Kilbourne captures the voices, emotions, and experiences of young people, which allows her readers to connect with her stories on a personal level and creates a platform for youthful discussion.

Her most recent and highly celebrated book, The Limitless Sky, is situated in a dystopian, post-climatic disaster landscape, where two young protagonists desperately seek truths from the past to save their families and communities. This setting is not only deeply symbolic and sensory, but it is disconcertingly realistic in light of our current global climate crisis.

“Some days when I scan the news, this past summer especially, my heart lurches because of the similarities to the ‘time of the floods, fires and winds’ that I reference in my most recently published novel, The Limitless Sky,” shares Kilbourne. “In this dystopian world, society is fractured and struggling because humans did not heed the scientists’ warnings of the pending impacts of climate change.”

Kilbourne makes it clear that the book does not explicitly aim to incite activism amongst its readers. However, it carefully draws attention to the environmental realities of our ever-fragile world, providing a space for young readers to consider their own relationship with nature and their agency as environmental stewards and seekers of truth.

“I don’t purposely set out to write books on social issues or social justice – or to promote awareness,” says Kilbourne. “It just seems that is where my interests lie.”

Through her thought-provoking novels, encouraging critical thinking and empathy, she provides a compelling and inspiring forum for young adults to situate themselves in the world’s complex array of issues and wonders. In the tenacity of youth, Kilbourne feels inspired.

“In my experience, young people are activists at heart,” she shares. “They carry with them so much passion and energy, knowledge and know-how, that I should probably be looking to today’s youth to inform my own awareness and inspire my passion”.

Kilbourne was recently informed her book The Limitless Sky is a finalist for the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Arlene Barlin Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy, as well as for the 2023 Snow Willow Awards.