Picture Booky Q & A

I've just discovered that an old Q & A that appeared on the site Little Literati is no longer online (due to Posterous's untimely demise) and so have received permission from the lovely Heather Thompson to re-post it here. The interview was done just prior to the publication of When I Was Small and I did like the direction the questions took.

WHO would you visit if you had a time machine teleporter?

Nobody famous,  I don’t think, although there’d be a great temptation to visit H.G. Wells around when he wrote The Time Machine just to freak him out.
Really, I’d like to visit my maternal grandmother as a little girl.  She grew up in and around Glasgow and immigrated to Canada after her father was killed in WWI. I’d like to meet her just before she set off for her new life. I was named for her and she for her mother and I’d love to know more about them both.

WHAT book had the greatest impact on you as a child?

The book that I loved the most may have been Joan Walsh Anglund’s Look Out the Window.  I still have my copy and if I try to work out what I liked about it, I suppose it comes down to identification.  I was very much a looking-out-the-window child.
I also really loved the "Just Mary" and "Maggie Muggins" stories by New Brunswick writer Mary Grannan.  They were quite magical stories but the books also resonated with me because they had belonged to my father as a child and were stories that he’d grown up listening to on CBC radio.  Clearly I have a sentimental attachment to the past.

WHERE do you think technology is taking the picture book?

Wonderful things are being done with iPad apps for picture books – Oliver Jeffers’ beautiful The Heart and the Bottle is an excellent example.  But I think that picture books will contain to thrive alongside their animated cousins.  The print copy of The Heart and the Bottle that I am saving with my store of books for future grandchildren is the one that will be cherished the longest.

WHEN did your passion for picture books begin?

I wrote any number of other things before coming to picture books and it was only after having my own child that I found myself reading the same picture books over and over and over and over.  It’s a good way to learn how a thing works.  Of course many people read picture books and think, “I could do that!” which is funny because you don’t come away from a night at the ballet and tell yourself the same thing.
I made up stories for my son for years before I got around to doing anything with them and it was only after interviewing a brand new children’s publisher that I suddenly got passionate about them.  I was working for the Vancouver Sun at the time and the publisher was Dimiter Savoff of Simply Read Books who had just produced an edition of Pinocchio that was one of the more beautiful books I have ever seen.  I gave him one of my little stories and hey presto he transformed it into a beautiful book.   Lucky me!  My third book with Simply Read is coming out this fall and like the others is illustrated by Julie Morstad and designed by Robin Mitchell-Cranfield and I can’t wait to hold a copy in my hand.

WHY do you think children connect with picture books so intimately?

Maybe it’s the wonderful Rosetta Stone sensation of un-locking the mystery of the text.  The first book I thought I could read was Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but of course I couldn’t read it at all but had simply memorized the text and could make it correspond to the image on the page.  The first word I ever read was “wagon.”  It was in a Dick and Jane reader (yes, I am that old!) and I can still recall the moment the letters suddenly became the word and how somehow the rest of the page aligned itself into a decipherable text in the moments after. Magic!


Bring Back The Crack in the Teacup

There's a very interesting conversation happening on twitter right now about Joan Bodger and the fact that her brilliant and devastating memoir The Crack in the Teacup is currently out of print. If you'd like to chime in on this discussion you can find me @saraoleary over on twitter. And if you feel inclined I'm looking for people to support a plea for bringing the book back into print.

Meanwhile, I dug out the review I wrote when the book was first published and here it is.

There is real life and there is storybook life, and I never expected the twain to meet. But in the person and works of Joan Bodger, they do. Joan Bodger, author, storyteller and gestalt therapist, has spent her life reading and telling stories, and the result is her new autobiography The Crack in the Teacup: The Life of an Old Woman Steeped in Stories (McClelland & Stewart, 412 pp., $34.99).
Bodger's name was already familiar to many readers because of her wonderful tale of a family's very personal quest, How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books (McClelland & Stewart, 249 pp., $29.99). To read the two books in tandem is to risk laying the heart bare to all the joys and sorrows of both childhood and parenting.
How the Heather Looks was first published in 1965. It was out of print for more than 30 years before it was brought out in a new edition. In the meantime, copies were passed hand-to-hand, illegally photocopied, borrowed and never returned. It had the dubious honour of being the book most often "retired" along with retiring children's librarians.
It tells of how, in 1958, Joan and her husband John took their children Ian (almost nine) and Lucy (two-and-a-half) on a trip to England. The couple had come into what Bodger calls "a modest windfall" and decided the children should have the opportunity to see the places of storybooks such as A Child's Garden of Verses, The Wind in the Willows, Swallows and Amazons, and Puck of Pook's Hill, among others.
It's a glorious idea, and halfway through reading the book I was ready to call the travel agent and book passage on a Cunard liner, modest windfall or no.
Their trip is lovingly described, an idyllic journey where the storybook characters resonate with meaning for the four family members. Ian, at nine, is curious and fearless, disappearing down country roads, scrambling over bluffs, shadow-jousting on the ramparts of castles. He is Puck, and King Arthur, and the boy narrator of Robert Louis Stevenson's verses all at once. Lucy, at two, dressed in practical corduroy overalls when all little English girls of the time wore little nylon dresses, red-haired and lovely, running down paths ahead of her parents, looking for Mrs. Tiggy- Winkle.
It is all achingly perfect and perfectly real at the same moment. And then, in Bodger's new afterword to the book, we read how, before the book was even published, the family had suffered the devastation of death and schizophrenia.
Wanting desperately to believe in the idyllic world where parents and children can travel into pages from storybooks brought to life, I almost had to make myself open The Crack in the Teacup,Bodger's autobiography. Can't I just leave them all on holiday? I wondered. Ian and Lucy forever children, Joan and John forever happily married.
Reading the autobiography was a completely different experience. Not that it wasn't an enjoyable read, because it was. Bodger writes of the events of her American childhood, how she was moved to join the army, her courtship and marriage and the birth of her children. It's all very interesting but not particularly extraordinary.
Now 77 and suffering from exhaustion and illness in the aftermath of completing her memoir, she shows that a life can equal much more than the sum of its parts. What lifts her book above the ordinary run of recollections is the relationship she has to myth and story. In the period when she was writing How the Heather Looks, her young daughter developed a brain tumor and her husband began showing symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as schizophrenia. He was institutionalized as a result of hallucinations and she was left alone with two small children.
Her brother-in-law refused her an advance from the family trust to enable her to attend library school because he said he'd noticed that in cases where the wife went to work, the marriage generally ended in divorce.
She was heartened to learn that one of the other mothers from her daughter's class, Betty Friedan, was also writing a book. She called her up, but Friedan said she was too busy to talk to every suburban housewife who called her. Still, Bodger wrote her joyous book about a "joyous journey." It strikes me as a remarkable achievement.
Bodger came through the devastation of her family and began again. She worked at nursery schools for the poor and in education and library studies. She reviewed children's books for the New York Times and became an editor in the children's division of Random House-Pantheon-Knopf.
She married a Canadian, moved to Toronto, trained as a gestalt therapist, started a storytelling group and became a tour leader for literary trips to England.
Bodger's genius lies in shaping her life into narrative. She writes: "There is a genre of fairy tale in which the hero or heroine must go through a door, or run through a forest, or face a dragon, or jump down a hole, not knowing the outcome." Sounds a lot like life.
The Crack in The Teacup is a brave book, free of self-pity or recrimination. It is one to learn from.
(article originally published Vancouver Sun, December 9, 2000)

Families, Literacy, and Family Literacy Day

It's Family Literacy Day and since it is a subject dear to my heart, I thought I would share a few links with you.
photo: Saskatoon Star-Phoenix
  • Kerry Clare's list of books for Family Literacy Day. Some beautiful books on this list but I'm especially fond of the work of Sheree Fitch. I've done school visits where Sheree has been a previous guest author and can testify to her being the hardest of acts to follow. (In one Q & A I was asked in the most reverent of tones: "Are you Sheree Fitch?" and I had to answer sadly in the negative.)
  • A little introduction to the works of literacy advocate extraordinaire Joan Bodger via Kathryn Kuitenebrouwer. (Read The Crack in the Teacup and How The Heather Looks in that order if you want your heart properly broken.)
  • A link to a previous post from here about Mother Goose and Joan Bodger, and an old article about the wonderful Mother Goose program from when I was writing for the Vancouver Sun. (Back in the days when my son asked me: why do you have your picture in the newspaper every week when you're not even famous?)
  • Something I wrote for Blog of Green Gables about getting boys reading.
The photo at right is from the first time I ever got my picture in the paper (just for hanging around the library as was my wont on a weekend). Some children were gathered up from the wonderful children's section at the Saskatoon Public Library to pose with former librarian Muriel Clancy. The photogenic boy on her lap is my younger brother. Many happy hours of my childhood can be credited to that library and all the doors it opened to me.