2016 Margaret Laurence Lecture
Jean Little and sister Pat de Vries
I was present when Mavis Gallant gave the second Margaret Laurence Lecture in 1988. I still remember sitting there enthralled by what she told us. It never crossed my mind that someday, when I was over 80, I would be invited to deliver such a speech. Yet here I stand. Thank you for honouring me with the unexpected and daunting invitation to join my voice to all who have gone before me.
I was 29 years old in 1961 the night I met Margaret Laurence. I had never heard of her but I was wild with excitement because I believed I was about to spend an evening with a roomful of writers. As Mother and I got out of the car and approached the place where the Canadian Authors Association was holding their annual dinner meeting, I remember shivering at the very thought.
I was there to be given the Little, Brown Canadian Children’s Book Award for my novel Mine for Keeps which would be published the following spring. The $1,000 prize was an enormous amount of money to me since my salary as a teacher had just been raised from $2,000 a year to $3,000. But the cash was not what had me quivering with nervous excitement. It was the thought of actually spending time in a room filled with people who wrote books.
As Mother and I entered the building where the event was to take place, I was clutching her elbow so tightly that I am sure I must have left bruises. I spoke my name in a squeaky voice and the two of us were led into a huge room filled with tables set for a banquet. The person conducting us seemed flustered as we followed him, weaving our way through to the far wall where a few others stood.
Our guide turned to face us and explained.
“You are to sit with the people from McClelland & Stewart,” he said, “but they have not yet arrived and their seats have been taken over by the press. If you will just wait here, we will sort it out when they arrive.”
We joined a handful of others and stood with our backs against the wall, feeling like outcasts. The woman next to me seemed as shy and anxious as I felt. She introduced herself as Margaret Laurence and asked me if they expected me to say something.
“Just a few words,” I told her.
“They promised me I wouldn’t have to say anything,” she said in a voice that shook. She was older than I and already published but clearly scared to death. When our publisher finally showed up, we were each seated at the end of one of the tables. I was separated from Mother which made me anxious since I was legally blind and depended on her to guide me when we were in unfamiliar settings. The writers already seated at my table wrote for school textbooks and spent the meal discussing things which had nothing to do with writing. The one I remember is a man who went on at length about his problems with the plumbing at his cottage.
I sat there in misery trying to figure out how I would find my way to the distant invisible stage. When, at last, the moment came and I heard my name announced. I stood up and froze. Then Claire Pratt, who had spoken with my mother, came and took me by the hand and led me to the front where Jack McClelland waited with my cheque. I was going over my “few words” when he asked if I were related to the Little who had founded Little, Brown.
“No,” I said.
“Then take the cheque,” he said with a flourish and handed me the envelope. And, without my having uttered any of my few words, I was escorted back to my chair.
When Margaret’s turn came, they announced that she would say a few words. And, trembling, she recited an African poem of thanksgiving which was perfect but which I knew she felt terrified doing.
At last it was over. Mother and I returned to the car and headed for home. I remember clearly riding along slumped with disappointment and, finally, remarking, to her, “Well, all I can say is I hope that that Margaret Laurence turns out to be somebody.”
When I was seven, we moved from Taiwan to Hong Kong and I stopped being taught by my mother and was enrolled in The Peak School. I was a misfit from the first day. I was cross-eyed, did not have a British accent, had to hold the book up so close to my face that I got print on my nose. I could not ride a pony or turn a cartwheel and I was miserable.
Then, in August of 1939, Mother took the four of us home to Canada. World War II began just days after we arrived but I have no memory of that. What I do recall is being put in a Sight Saving Class. The program was new and they were trying to persuade parents to enrol their poorly sighted children in such special classes. Our teacher, Miss Bogart, was a delight and found many occasions to let us shine whenever people came to visit. When she discovered that I had taught myself to spell Popocatepetl backwards, she would get me to do it for people who came to see our class. She transformed a cross-eyed outcast into a star.
In December, we wove wastepaper baskets to give to our parents as Christmas gifts. They were not flimsy childish affairs but well-made and durable. Mother used hers until she died at 89 and today it is on display in the Osborne Collection in the Lillian H. Smith Branch of the Toronto Public Library.
In Genesis, when God worked at creating the world, each evening he paused, beheld what he had made and saw that it was good. When I carried my basket home that winter afternoon, I felt like God. For the first time in my life, I had made something beautiful, had looked upon it when it was finished and had known that I had done well.
In my late teens, I wrote a short story about a child called Anna Solden, weaving just such a basket for her parents. It was called “The Gift” and much later became the basis for my novel From Anna.
Before I wrote that short story however, my parents had started me on the path which led to my becoming a writer. Mother taught me to read and, when I began to write, she took time to listen and always loved whatever I produced. Needless to say, I always showed my creations to Mother first.
Dad was an editor. He made me rewrite. In those early years, I had no notion that he had once wanted to be a writer himself. I did know he wrote letters to the editor and sermons. I saw a row of diaries on a shelf which I knew were his. In later years, I was entranced with these, especially the pages he wrote when he first fell in love with my mother. But he never spoke to me about his writing, only about mine.
My first clear memory of his interest in what I wrote happened one afternoon when I was 11. Dad was home on leave from serving as a doctor in the Navy. Being the daughter of two busy doctors and second eldest of four children, I was always fighting to get more attention. That day I found him sitting by himself reading the newspaper and I was overjoyed.
“Dad, would you like me to sing for you?” I asked.
“No, thank you,” he said, continuing to read.
Disappointed but sure he would respond with more interest if I persevered, I asked, “Would you like me to dance for you?”
He did not even lower the paper.
“No,” he said.
Later, Mother was to tell me sternly that interrupting someone who was reading was equally as rude as interrupting two people having a conversation but I had yet to be told this.
I gave up though. I can still remember wandering upstairs and standing gazing out my bedroom window at the sunset. There was one flame-coloured streak of cloud and I suddenly saw it was like a banner. I turned to my table and, for the first time in my life, I wrote a poem.
Orange flags are flying, it began.
No overhanging grey
Dims the rosy sunset
At the close of day.
Royal purple nestles
Round a golden cloud
And the windblown poplars
Before their maker bowed…
The rhymes and rhythm were fine but the tenses were badly confused. I did not stop to polish. I had it finished in a half-hour or so. When I went back downstairs, my father was still reading his newspaper.
“Dad,” I said, without much hope, “I wrote a poem.”
I waited to be squelched again. But, instead, here came the moment that changed my life.
My father dropped the paper! He actually let the sheets fly to the floor.
“A poem!” he said, holding out his hand for the piece of paper I was clutching. “Let me see it.”
And as I stood transfixed, watching him read and then reread my lines, I realized that he was deeply pleased with me. What I had written excited him. He had not shown any interest in my singing or dancing but clearly my poem mattered.
Five minutes later, he was busy telling me how I should rewrite it. The first line, which is “Orange flags are flying…” and still my favourite reminded him of an Orangemen’s parade.
I had no idea what that was. But, although I had entered that room a disconsolate 11 year old, I left it, knowing myself to be a poet.
From then on he encouraged me to keep writing. In the next few years, he got me a big print typewriter, a rhyming dictionary, a thesaurus, and The Writer’s Market and made sure I learned how to use them. When I was 15, he gathered up my multitude of verses, asked Evan Macdonald, a Guelph artist, to illustrate them and had a slim booklet of them privately printed. It was titled “It’s a Wonderful World” and, although he gave away many copies to his friends, he also sold enough to make a donation, in my name, to a church camp I loved. It let me behold my typewritten words transformed into print. They looked so much more important, maybe even immortal. When I read them, although they returned to their familiar selves, they had a promising future. They had also showed me that words may be worth money. There was an unreality to all of this since it was Dad’s project and not quite mine. Yet, staring down at the little book, I felt I had taken a step into a new world. And my father was proud of me.
Dad did other things to show me my future. He took me to hear Ruth Draper perform an evening of monologues. He had us read Shakespeare’s plays as a family. He gave me books of poetry, Robert Louis Stevenson’s, A.A. Milne’s, and a lovely anthology. I memorized many of them. Then he arranged for me to meet two Canadian poets, Wilson MacDonald and E.J. Pratt. When Wilson MacDonald was introduced to me, he saw not the youngster who knew “The Song of the Ski” by heart and dreamed of someday becoming a writer herself, but a blind girl. He gave me a copy of a poem he had written for White Cane week and told me I should take a tablespoon of Blackstrap molasses every day and my vision would be restored. I was polite to him and his young wife but I was also outraged. When the door closed behind him, Dad and I stared at each other and then burst out laughing.
Meeting E. J. Pratt was an entirely different experience. First of all, he read some of my writing. Then he told me that one of my poems “had a sound of Swinborne.” He also ordered me to stop using such contractions as “’neath” and “ne’er.” I stopped.
A couple of years later, I wrote two poems recounting Mary and Joseph’s thoughts as they approached Bethlehem. This time, Dad submitted the pair of poems to the magazine Saturday Night. They were not only accepted but illustrated and given a whole page in the Christmas issue. When a cheque for $30 arrived in the mail, I thought they were charging me. When Dad informed me that Saturday Night was paying me for my work, I was thunderstruck. How could writing which had given me sheer joy have now become work?
Then, when I arrived at school one morning, my Latin teacher rushed to congratulate me because some man had written a letter to the editor praising my poems.
I ran all the way home at lunchtime and, finding my parents in the dining room, breathlessly announced the news.
“Somebody wrote a letter to the editor about me,” I bragged.
Dad gazed at me without a word but Mother looked at him instead.
“Llew, you didn’t,” she said.
I was bewildered until I saw he was blushing. Not only had he written the letter under a penname but he had driven miles so the postmark would not reveal it had come from Guelph.
I was furious, disappointed that the letter was a fake and mortified that my father had done such a shameful thing. I was convinced that everyone would guess.
Then Mother said, “If, for once in your life, you can keep your mouth shut, nobody but the three of us will ever know.”
I took her advice. It was not until after his death that I realized how endearing it was of him to take such trouble to launch his daughter’s career. I also saw how funny it was that my mother knew instantly that he was the culprit.
When I graduated from high school, Dad went with me to help me get registered as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College. He sat there quietly backing me up when I insisted that I be allowed to attempt the four year course in Honours English despite the registrar’s conviction that it would prove too difficult for me.
”You don’t really want a degree, you want an education,” Dr. Moffat Woodside told me.
“I want to try,” I insisted. “If I can’t manage, I can give up but I want to try.”
Kathleen Coburn, serving as the acting Dean of Women that year, also told me she thought I would find the program too much for me to handle. I don’t know what kept me from giving in but I was at last allowed to join the class.
One of my professors was Northrop Frye. Someone told me, “In first year, you believe in God. In second year, you don‘t believe in God. In third year, you believe in Frye’s God. In fourth year, you believe Frye IS God.”
My father had had a heart attack the day I was due to begin my life as an undergraduate. The first week I spent in residence at Annesley Hall would have been difficult enough but I spent it knowing he was in an oxygen tent, hovering at death’s door. When I came home for the weekend and went to visit him in the hospital and related to him what I had been told about the professor, who was teaching me a course on the English Bible, I was both reassured and delighted when he laughed aloud. Clearly, I thought, he was well on the way to recovery.
Having no idea that he would only live another 18 months, I was often irritated to find, when I came home on the weekend, to discover he had spent the time since my last visit, researching my latest essay topic. As they finished supper, the rest of the family would rise to go but he would inquire, before I could escape, what I had learned for the seminar. I had told him I had to conduct on the foreign policy of Pope Innocent III. I would know next to nothing but he would have found out all about it during the past week and would keep me sitting there until I, too, knew all he had discovered. Mother called it “the year you and your father went to college” and it was true. Not until after his death did I realize how lucky I was to have someone so interested in what I was studying.
I passed that spring. And that summer, wrote my first attempt at a novel. It was 109 pages long, written from nine points of view and called Let Me Be Gentle. I still love the title. The manuscript was no sooner completed than my father had it typed neatly and sent off to McClelland & Stewart. Needless to say, it was rejected. The young man called Jack McClelland who turned it down, took the trouble to tell me that, although this MS was not publishable, my work showed real ability and I should keep writing. I was thrilled. I was fully involved in my sophomore year by then and busy writing essays but Dad and I both treasured the letter.
The following February, just after I turned 21, Dad died. I wrote a long poem about him which ended, “While I’m alive, so, in my heart, is he. Love lets me share his immortality.” Yet writing poems about him did little to fill the empty space within me. It took a while for me to recover my balance and go on studying.
In 1955, I not only graduated with honours but stood first in my class at Victoria College. Dr. Woodside and Miss Coburn came up to me together at the celebration following the awarding of degrees and apologized for trying to talk me out of joining the class of 1955. I was astonished that they remembered and happy to forgive them. Not until recently did it dawn on me that they must have been grateful to me as well. Rarely do students understand that their high marks not only do them credit but reflect the excellence of the teaching given to them.
After graduating, I needed a job. I knew I wanted to write but I was told by everyone I knew that it was impossible to make a living as a writer. People who want to write, they said, especially women, must do it as a hobby and support themselves with a “real job.” I believed them, partly because I had never met a self-supporting woman writer and partly because I knew somehow that I was not yet ready.
When I was offered a position teaching children with motor handicaps at a centre where they could both have therapy and attend school, I jumped at it. Since I had no teacher training, I was insecure but I did one thing perfectly. I read aloud to my class every day. Although I read them all sorts of books, including Six Darn Cows by Margaret Laurence, I began to search for stories which included kids with disabilities. I found such stories were either hard to obtain or were overly sentimental. Most finished with a hard to credit miraculous cure or with the death of the disabled child. Most of them were written before physio or occupational therapy were used. My students disapproved, pointing out such flaws and asking me why the writers allowed the heroes and heroines to be so neglected or such goody-goodies. The children pointed out the problems in the books we read. They liked Colin in The Secret Garden for instance but asked me if he could have got well so fast.
Finally I realized that the writers did not believe a child could be in a wheelchair or walk on crutches and be leading a life complete with joys as well as sorrows. The authors clearly believed that in order to give your story the necessary happy ending, you had to first either cure the disability or kill off the poor little cripple. This made me angry. I was handicapped and so were the children I was teaching. We were also enjoying our lives. When we weren’t, it was not because of our disabilities but because we were human beings and got our feelings hurt or didn’t get our wishes granted or met up with a bunch of bullies.
At last, I decided it was time someone wrote the kind of story I could not find. It gave me an excuse for embarking on my first novel. Until then my family and friends had been my readers but this time I would submit my manuscript to a publisher and have it judged by strangers. I took a year off and wrote Mine for Keeps.
A librarian told me about The Little, Brown Canadian Children’s Book Award and I sent off my manuscript. It arrived on noon of the last day and I was astounded when I learned I had won.
Now we are back to the evening I met Margaret Laurence.
My book was due to be published the following June. Friends were holding a book launch to celebrate and I bought a dress from Holt Renfrew to wear. I was ecstatic.
I had not yet laid eyes on my book but I knew it was on its way. Then the teamsters went on strike and the shipment of Mine for Keeps was not permitted to cross the border. The people who were going to attend my book launch left for their summer cottages and the party was cancelled. I left my new dress in the closet and went to hospital to have an eye operation. It was a crushing disappointment. Then, after the surgery was over, an orderly came into my hospital room.
“This just came for you,” he said and handed me a parcel.
I had no idea what it was until I tore off the wrapping and held, in my own two hands, my first book. I have been asked, “How did you feel when you held your first book in your hands?” I grasped it. I smelled it. I looked around for someone to share the glory of it. Nobody was there. Nobody at all.
I phoned Mother. She was delighted. She was also in the middle of office hours. She would come tomorrow. She could hardly wait. Goodbye.
After indulging in what Georgette Heyer would call “a fit of the dismals.” I called Elizabeth Pearson, a friend who I thought would sympathize. She did. But she didn’t go overboard. She actually sounded slightly impatient and hung up in about three minutes.
I will skip over the next bout of self-pity. Then Elizabeth walked in with a cake, balloons on which she had written “hurray for the author “ and a huge box of chocolates. What a glorious time we had as she stuck the balloons up on the walls of my room and flourished my book at everyone who came within earshot. The chocolates were a huge success. My book was launched.
A year later, I had to have my left eye removed. The vision in it was almost non-existent and it had grown painful. When the surgery was over, I became depressed. I think now they would call it posttraumatic stress. Then I discovered I could no longer focus my eye steadily enough to read. This terrified me. I determined to force my eye to read again. I chose Outcast, by Rosemary Sutcliff which had clear print and used it to retrain my vision. It didn’t take long. And the book not only taught my eye how to behave, it pulled me out of the depression into which I had been sinking. Her words rekindled the sun, set the wind to blowing, put the fragrance back in my mother’s roses and returned me to myself.
I had been nearly finished writing my second book Home from Far and I went back to it. I gave my heroine Rosemary’s books to read as she grieved over the death of her twin brother. When the story was published, I mailed off a copy of it along with one of Mine for Keeps to say thank you to this English author. I had no idea that she had been handicapped by a form of arthritis when she was a small child. I taped a letter onto the parcel and sent it but my letter came adrift from the package and Rosemary got the books without my explanation. I got this letter back:
Dear Jean Little,
What a lovely surprise! I took both books to bed with me and read one evening and one the next. I was so thrilled to find the mention of my books in Home from Far which I loved, but Mine for Keeps I think I loved even more. You have done Sal so beautifully and the relationship between her and the other children….I shall treasure both books. Thank you again for sending them to me.
The letter I had sent with the books had clearly not reached her. I wrote again explaining why I had sent her my books and later that summer, I visited her at her home in Sussex. We continued to write to each other and we became good friends.
I had actually made friends with a writer. It was just too bad she lived on the other side of the ocean. Rosemary and I remained in touch until her death many years later. I visited her several times and treasured her letters about her books and dogs.
I was working on the sequel to Mine for Keeps when, in 1967, Sheila Egoff’s book The Republic of Childhood was published. I was excited to learn that a book on Canadian children’s literature was available. Maybe the author would say something about Mine for Keeps and Home from Far. She did. She said that, since I had written the books for therapeutic purposes, they should not be reviewed as stories, but, if she were going to judge them, she would have to say they had “contrived situations, quick and easy solutions, and intimated that grave problems could be solved completely.” She dismissed both books as “conventional attempts at bibliotherapy” and made it clear that they were vastly inferior to a string of authors: Louisa May Alcott, Edith Nesbit, Eleanor Estes, Arthur Ransome, Noel Streatfeild, and Enid Bagnold. Four of them were British, two American but not one was Canadian. I had enjoyed reading their books. All of them had been written many years before. When I learned that Egoff was an inspired teacher and highly respected critic, I was devastated by her comments on my work. I still remember being unable to sleep the night after reading what she had written. Could she be right? By morning, I knew that I loved writing far too much to give it up. Despite her cutting remarks, I also believed I was good at it. After all, Dad had had faith in me.
When I was preparing this lecture and reread what she had written, I found that, although her comments still irked me, they had lost their power to wound. I decided I should mention that she was not the only one who failed to be impressed by my first few books. At that time, many children’s librarians believed children’s books would celebrate the innocence and joy of childhood while avoiding dwelling on the hardships that beset many youngsters. I discovered that my novels were not to be found in Boys and Girls House, the famous children’s library in Toronto. When a friend tried to check on out, the girl at the desk murmured to him that they had none of my books in their collection but she thought they might be able to find them in one of the branches.
My readers have not mistaken Sally’s story for a dose of bibliotherapy. It pleases me deeply that Mine for Keeps, the book Sheila Egoff dismissed so lightly, has never been out of print in the 53 years since it was published.
I do understand what people have against “bibliotherapy” although the word, taken apart, can be viewed positively. Any good story can be therapeutic to a reader. But it must be a good story, not a prescription written to solve a child’s problem. I think Sheila Egoff must have seen Sally’s crutches on the cover of my book and decided before she read a word that it was telling crippled children how to deal with their disabilities. Since this was not my intention, I should not have minded as much as I did. But I was still a vulnerable, young writer and I felt devastated by what she had to say.
She claimed I had written my books for “therapeutic purposes.” I did not mean to. I just wanted kids like those I taught to find children like themselves in stories they read. When I myself was a cross-eyed child, being teased and tormented because I was different, I might have been comforted if I had ever found a cross-eyed heroine in the books I loved to read. There were cross-eyed clowns and, once in a while, cross-eyed villains, but never ever was there a heroine with strabismus. I did not brood over this lack but I did notice it. The only children with disabilities in stories at that time were usually saintly and at the finish, were either miraculously cured or dead. I wept copiously over the little girl in The Birds’ Christmas Carol who is fetched away by the angels on the last tear-drenched page. Colin, in The Secret Garden, is unable to walk and yet ends up winning a race at the finish. Klara, in Heidi, is wheelchair bound but recovers once Peter sends her chair hurtling down the mountain. When it dawned on me that the authors believed it was impossible for a child to be handicapped and happy, I knew they were wrong. Mine for Keeps ends with Sally standing with her crutches and filled with joy.
I had not heard of “bibliotherapy” but I did want my characters to be real. To me, that meant telling lies, being mean, stealing sometimes, and being fallible – like me and my readers. In my second book, Home from Far, I made Jenny, the main character, my heroine, bully her younger brother. What she does to him I had done to my little sister so I knew just how to write the scene. And I planned to go on writing whatever this expert said.
The Canadian children’s book world went through many changes in the next few years. First and foremost was the opening of The Children’s Bookstore in Toronto. There was The Writers’ Union, The Canadian Children’s Book Centre, Children’s Book Week which sent Canadian writers out across the whole country, speaking in schools and libraries, getting hundreds of kids introduced to books and we who write them. Very few Canadian children today go through childhood without ever seeing a writer. Prizes began to be awarded to people who wrote children’s books and the CBC started having a book panel a couple of times a year celebrating books for children. CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society for Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, came into being.
When my first book came out, there was no Canadian publisher concentrating on kids’ books and my first editor, Helen Jones, was in Boston and worked for Little, Brown. No Canadian editors’ careers were as yet centered on books for children. Nobody was teaching undergraduate courses in Children’s Literature. The periodical, Canadian Children’s Literature, edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston, did not yet exist. When Mine for Keeps was published, I doubt there were more than half a dozen writers who wrote expressly for youngsters. Book reviews of children’s books were rare and usually published at Christmas.
When I got a letter from Margaret Laurence inviting me to join The Writers’ Union, I was astonished. When I attended those long ago meetings, I deliberately sat near Margaret and June Callwood so I would know how to vote. Margaret wrote a lovely review for one of my books. Later she also wrote me a letter of reference that helped me to get a grant when I had to learn to write after I could no longer read what I typed. Then, several years later, she invited me and my sister to come to her house in Lakefield for lunch.
That meeting began disastrously and almost failed to happen. She and I seemed fated to meet in a muddle. Pat and I drove to her home in the middle of a snowstorm. She told us she lived in a yellow brick house opposite a church. We found such a house but we did not find Margaret. She must have forgotten we were coming, we decided. We were disappointed but drove further up the street so we could turn around and head home. There was another yellow house opposite another church and there was Margaret Laurence standing in the doorway watching for us. We had a lovely time. When she learned that Pat’s collection of her books had been left in Vancouver, she disappeared for a few minutes only to return with a set of them, all autographed, for my delighted sister.
In the late seventies, I lost my ability to read print and to work with an electric typewriter. I had never had my hands on a computer but I discovered that talking computers had been invented and learned to use one. I also got my first seeing eye dog. The two of them freed me from my fear of blindness. I was also invited to teach a children’s literature class at the University of Guelph and, with help from my friend Jenny Stephens and my niece Maggie de Vries, I managed to carry it through. I gave them one assignment I’d like you all to try. Cast your minds back, think carefully and choose which children’s book or books you remember vividly.
Like most writers, I am often asked where do I get my ideas, for whom do I write and how do I make my characters come alive. The answer to the last one is easy. I never start with a dead one. Rosemary Sutcliffe once told me that we write the books that come to us asking to be written. I have learned that my stories find their readers. Who they are is sometimes startling. Many write to me.
Now that I have more than 50 books published, am a member of the Order of Canada, have a school named after me, have six honourary degrees, and enough medals to march in a parade, I should exult in being such a celebrity. But I treasure more some of the letters my readers have sent to me.
The first of these came from a ten year old girl who had no disability but ended by saying, “You’d think Sally was me.” I was elated. When I read L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books, I felt Anne Shirley was just like me even though she had no disability. Now I was delighted to find out that I had allowed a child without any handicap feel akin to my disabled heroine. One child wrote to say that, in her opinion, I was the best writer in the world.“ I think you stand next to God,” she said. I wrote back and told her that I believed that position was already taken.
Recently a man in Russia wrote after reading From Anna and Listen for the Singing published there by The Narnia Press. He wanted me to know that my books about Anna brought colour into his grey country. Two boys told me I was as important as Wayne Gretzky. But most surprising and moving of all was the letter which came from Sange Bluesky. He is an Indigenous man in his sixties who is an inmate in a Texas prison. He wrote to tell me about his reaction when he read Mine for Keeps. In the prison, there had been some sort of revolt and the Warden had punished the prisoners by closing the prison library. Some of the men appealed to the chaplain to bring them something to read and when he arrived with a box of books Blueky grabbed Mine for Keeps. He told me that when he got to page 9, he started to cry. On that page, my heroine had to enter a classroom of normal children and walk across to the teacher’s desk with her leg braces clanking and her crutches thudding on the floor. She had her head bent down but she can feel all the kids staring at her and she desperately longed to disappear.
When Bluesky was six, his mother and older sister took him to school. He was barefoot and wearing overalls without a shirt. He could not speak English and he was the only child in the room who was not white. He felt so humiliated that the moment he saw his chance, he ran away and hid in the corner of his family’s tent. When his mother found him, she marched him back, telling him that his people were brave and faced up to things. He attended school long enough to learn to read before he was sent away to a school for Indigenous kids.
Mine for Keeps was published in 1962. Sally is ten. If anyone had told me when I wrote her story that one reader who would weep over her trials would be an Indigenous man in his sixties who was in prison in Texas, I would not have believed it was true. He and I corresponded for several months. I sent some books to the prison library as well as some for Bluesky’s granddaughters. The warden called him to his office to demand why this Canadian white woman was sending him things. “I had worked right outside his window for months,” Bluesky told me, “but he never saw me until you wrote.” A man I know who had a job working in an American jail asked me if Bluesky had asked me for money yet. When I said he had not, the man said, “He will.” Instead, when he realized I had lost my vision, Bluesky offered to give me one of his eyes if it were possible.
When Eleanor Wachtel interviews writers, she almost always asks them about how they were introduced to books when they were children. The answers fascinate me. Some claim to have started reading Shakespeare’s works when they were five or six. Some tell her they read nothing until they were in high school. But most reply with delight in their voices to name one or more books which they loved when they were children. And often what they choose clearly relates to their later experiences as adult writers. Yet it interests me how seldom we who write books for the young are taken seriously. When a book of mine was chosen as an honour book in the Boston Globe-Hornbook Awards, I went to Boston to attend the awards ceremony. After lunch, a reporter asked to interview us. He started to question the first person in a row of about 15. I was last in line while he asked each of us why we chose to write for children.” As I waited for my turn, I heard one after another of them grow defensive as each tried to answer him and I found myself becoming deeply annoyed. When my turn finally came, I inquired if I might ask him a question before I answered his. When he nodded, I asked him if he were interviewing authors who wrote for adult readers, if he had ever asked them why they chose to write for adults. He laughed and said, “Of course not.” “Why not?” I asked. He had no answer but I went on to stand up for young readers. Children never look for best sellers. Books they love stay in print for years. Frances Hodgson Burnett is a perfect example. She wrote dozens of books which were very popular during her lifetime. But today only two are still frequently read and in print, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. If she had not dressed Fauntleroy in velvet and lace and had him call his mother “Dearest,” I believe Little Lord Fauntleroy would still be popular. I reread it recently and enjoyed it as much as ever. Children have kept reading those books she wrote for them while the 40 popular novels she wrote for adults have been long forgotten.
In 1990, my sister Pat’s adopted daughter, Sarah, had a baby. Since Sarah was unable to raise her, Pat took her home. Mother had been diagnosed with bone cancer. Before she died, Pat brought the baby to visit us. A couple of years later, the two of us bought a house in the country and joined forces raising Jeanie and enjoying living outside the city. When Sarah had a little boy, he came too. The four of us plus a menagerie including dogs, cats, and parrots became a new family and I wrote books which explored new genres. Now let me finish by going back to From Anna which had its start when a seven year old made a wastepaper basket for her parents for Christmas. The book that resulted was published in 1972 and recently was brought out in a new edition to celebrate the fact that it had been in print for 40 years. Katherine Paterson wrote a wonderful introduction to it. Having quoted Sheila Egoff’s critical words about my first couple of books, let me balance them off with some of Katherine’s. She says several complimentary things and then ended this way:
The book has not aged at all. It is as fresh and real as it ever was, but I have aged. And as I reread Anna’s story, I found myself repeatedly blinking back tears. If you haven’t read it before, do, it will warm your heart. If you have, read it again. It will refresh your soul.
When they named a school in Guelph after me, they asked me to tell them my philosophy of life in 15 words or less. They wanted to inscribe it on a plaque in the entrance for the students to read. Try it sometime. I could be pompous or flippant but I could not come up with anything appropriate. Finally we found a sentence I liked in a speech I had written a few years earlier. I insisted they put it at a height where the children could read it. It says:
A good story reaches deep inside and shakes your heart awake.
That’s what I want to give children, not some preachy message but good stories that will tickle their funny bones and give them something to puzzle over. Books that let them try living other peoples’ lives. Books which will shake their hearts awake — the kind a little girl in Neepawa once pored over, the kind I still long to write.
A successful contemporary writer of children's fiction, Jean Little has won acclaim in Canada and abroad and written more than 50 books. She was educated at the University of Toronto and was a special education teacher before turning to writing full-time following the publication of her first book, Mine for Keeps, in 1962. Almost blind since birth, she uses much of her real-life experience as the basis for her writing. Her novels, picture books, and poetry treat with insight such universal themes as loneliness, alienation, intolerance, family stress, and the difficulties in interpersonal and intercultural relationships. Little’s characters often deal with physical disabilities or confront psychological difficulties. Her best-known book is From Anna (1972), which has sold more than 130,000 copies. She is a past recipient of the Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People and the Matt Cohen Award: In Celebration of a Writing Life. Little lives in Guelph, Ontario.