O Pioneers! Touring authors look back

In 1977, eleven authors set out on the first Children’s Book Festival tour – November 13 – 19, 1977 – sponsored by the one-year-old Children’s Book Centre. This was a great venture for a fledgling industry – bringing together children and books all over the country and providing teachers, librarians, booksellers and parents with the first Our Choice guide to children’s books. Frank Newfeld, famous for his illustrations for Alligator Pie, created the image for the very first Book Week poster.

Today, that celebration, now called Canadian Children’s Book Week/Tournée Lire à tout vent, is still a spectacular occasion to have young readers meet the creators of wonderful children’s books. The industry has grown in size, strength and sophistication and the Canadian Children’s Book Centre (Canadian was added in 1987) is now celebrating its 45th anniversary.

The first Book Week tour featured many of Canada’s most prolific authors — Beverly Allinson, Maria Campbell, Christie Harris, Dennis Lee, Jean Little, Janet Lunn, W.O. Mitchell, Al Pittman, Barbara Smucker, Patti Stren and Ian Wallace.

Dennis Lee (author of the Canadian classic, Alligator Pie) remembers the buzz surrounding the burgeoning Canadian talent. “The sense I have most strongly,” recalls Lee, “was the excitement as so many writers started to come out of the woodwork. Publishers, librarians, teachers and parents were realizing that good stuff was coming from their own time and place.”

Ian Wallace (co-author of the Canadian classic, The Sandwich) also remembers the time as very exciting. “We were on the cusp of something. I’d produced three little books with Kids Can Press and – all of a sudden – I was visiting schools. I remember being terrified but also exhilarated and excited.”

He adds, “On my first tour, I realized just how potent the coming together of authors and kids really was. And I wasn’t a great presenter. Looking back, I wonder that they didn’t drop over in sheer boredom. But kids were incredibly generous and I’ve learned over the years that if you listen to them, they respond to you.”

Ian Wallace’s book, The True Story of Trapper Jack’s Left Big Toe, was inspired by a tour to the Yukon during one Book Week. Wallace has also had dramatic proof of how much of a difference those author tours can make to children’s lives. At a promotion of Sarah and the People of Sand River with Bill Valgardson at the University of Manitoba, he was approached by a young man as he was packing up his slides. “He introduced himself as Kyle and said ‘You won’t remember me. We met 10 years ago when you came to my school in Norway House and read my favourite book, Very Last First Time.’ Kyle said that he had always liked to draw but that afternoon in Norway House after hearing me talk and watching me draw he decided that he wanted to be an artist. He was now at the university studying art.”

(adapted from article by Gillian O’Reilly featured in Spring 2001 issue of Children’s Book News)


Book Week Past and Present

In 1977, the Children’s Book Centre launched its first Children’s Book Festival. The eleven participating authors gave four readings each during the inaugural event. That was then. And this is now. The Children’s Book Centre has since added “Canadian” to its name. The Children’s Book Festival has morphed into TD Canadian Children’s Book Week.

Kevin Major, who has participated in many a Book Week tour, has penned a dozen or so children’s and young adult books including and Ann and Seamus. In 1978, he had just published his first novel, Hold Fast, and toured in the festival for the first time. He fondly remembers his first Book Week tour and the generous response he encountered during the event.

The St. John’s author recalls his initial uncertainty about how his Southern Albertan audiences would respond to his book’s Newfoundland locale and references. “Here I was bringing a story set in outport Newfoundland (with its own colourful idioms, steeped in the broad Atlantic) to Alberta. I knew the book worked for a Newfoundland audience. But would it work for one in oceanless cowboy country a few thousand miles away?” The author explains that the interest Albertan youth expressed in his story illustrates two beliefs: good fiction transcends place and the trials of growing up are universal.

During his tour, Major usually began readings with a brief slide show depicting rural Newfoundland life from a young person’s perspective. He would also show various props like a squid jigger – a weighted line with several tiny hooks, used to catch small squid for bait, which was once confiscated by airport security as a dangerous weapon!

The Canadian children’s book industry was in its infancy when Major toured during his first Book Week. Describing the mood of the time, he believes that librarians, teachers, and the event’s organizers were full of anticipation – since up until 1977 no one had attempted to launch an event of this magnitude. In referring to his first Book Week tour, he says: “I would always tell my audiences that at this moment while I am speaking to you, a dozen other authors are doing just what I am doing in other parts of the country. It was as if a giant hand had plucked us from our homes all at the same time and dropped us randomly across a map of Canada. What fun! What a lot to celebrate!”

In the 1980s, the festival underwent several significant transformations. A teacher’s activity guide on using Canadian children’s books was added to the Children’s Book Festival kit in 1982. This resource was created in response to a 1981 survey administered by University of British Columbia’s Ron Jobe and University of Regina’s Alixe Hambleton which yielded startling results: of 124 titles featured in the 1979 Our Choice guide, Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan teachers had heard of only 35 and used only nine.

In 1985, “Art of the Illustrator” was a fitting theme for the event as it was the first year that supplemental funding was offered to send 10 illustrators on tour (in addition to the 17 featured writers). In 1987, science writers joined the festival bringing the number of participating authors and author/illustrators to 25. The following year the Children’s Book Festival became Children’s Book Week.

Kevin Major went on to participate in the event again in 1988, 1990, 1993, 1995, 1997, and 2005. He explains how his subsequent tours differed from his first. “I guess we can’t think of ourselves as pioneers anymore. There’s perhaps not the same novelty about doing it. The last time I took part in it (in 2005), I visited Lindsay Place High School in Pointe-Claire, Quebec which I had visited many years before, and they even had a picture taken at the time… of a rather boyish-looking author. Yes, indeed, a lot had changed. But the librarian recalled a great story about my first visit — an encounter I had with a budding writer and what difference my visit had made to him — proving that the effects of Book Week are lasting and should never, never be underestimated.”

Looking back on his first Book Week tour, Major recalls his fascination with discovering a part of the nation quite different from his own, an experience he notes as an unsung joy of Book Week. “We as authors get to experience parts of our country we would never get to otherwise. And for the audiences I have encountered during the several Book Week tours I have done, hopefully I have left a bit of ‘my’ part of the country, Newfoundland, in my wake.”

Toronto’s Kristyn Dunnion writes middle-grade fiction (Missing Matthew) and young adult novels (Mosh Pit). Her latest book is entitled Big Big Sky. This year (2007) marks the author’s debut on the Book Week circuit. She learned of the event from perusing Canadian Children’s Book News. After reading the reports of those who had participated in 2006, she was inspired to apply for this year’s event.

Dunnion was one of a 100 or so hopefuls jostling for the highly-coveted mere 30 spots available. “When I learned that I had been selected to participate, I did a happy dance on the balcony in my leopard print muumuu. I immediately began planning a tentative wardrobe for the trip, still not knowing where I may end up.” Kristyn will be touring the province of Quebec giving readings at school and libraries to children from Grade 4 through 11.

When asked what she expects her tour to be like or what she hopes to gain from the experience, she replies: “I think this trip will be exhilarating and a bit overwhelming in many respects. I am sure there will be a few “Twin Peaks” [1990s American TV mystery drama] moments – at least I hope so. I can’t wait to meet all those new people. I am most looking forward to listening to the kids, the teens; I want to hear what they are thinking about.”

Referring to what she has heard from other authors who have toured during the event, the author says: “The impression I got from reading the anecdotes from last year’s authors was that this is an intensive tour week. It sounded to me like when you tour with a band or go on some random train-hopping escapade—you never know when you’ll run out of gas or where you’ll end up.” Speculating on how her Book Week tour will affect her profile and writing career as a children’s book author, Dunnion says: “I think touring during Book Week might really improve my reputation …. or perhaps spread it farther than my mother would like.”

(article by Carol-Ann Hoyte featured in Summer 2007 issue of Canadian Children’s Book News)