Deborah Ellis on “A Day Before…”


Image courtesy of Deborah Ellis

Canada’s 2020 Hans Christian Andersen Award author nominee Deborah Ellis has become known not only for her books and the awards and acclaim they’ve garnered, but also for the causes she has espoused over the years, from literacy to peace activism.

This excerpt from her keynote presentation at the 2018 IBBY International Congress both moves and inspires.

The best of children’s literature can help create a Day Before — a Day Before the order is given to toss chemicals in a river. A Day Before the order is given to massacre a village. A Day Before the order is given to manufacture a new batch of guns that will be used to shoot up a school, a church, a gay bar, a country music festival. A Day Before the order is given to move a child-abuser to a new county and new victims. A Day Before the order is given to bomb a school bus full of eight year olds returning home from a much-needed outing. We must have a Day Before!

The best of children’s literature can remind us who we are when we are at our best. It can remind us we need not be afraid of differences, and that we have the power to create beauty out of pain.

I believe that we are responsible for the information that gets into our heads. If we are raised on nothing but Nazi philosophy, then we have an excuse for being Nazis. But the moment an alternative piece of information enters our brains, then we are making a choice. We are choosing which story to follow.

An alternative piece of information. Never was there a greater need than now for precisely this. We writers, too, need to choose which story to follow, which story to bring to the world.

The speech can be found in full in Bookbird, the IBBY journal.

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan

bronzeanssunflower.jpgAs measured as the movement of the jet-eyed buffalo dear to the heart of the young boy Bronze, Cao Wenxuan‘s novel for young readers is a masterfully crafted work. Sunflower is the daughter of an artist who is sent to a Cadre school during the Cultural Revolution. When her father dies, she’s taken in by a family from the village of Damaidi across the water, where she finds love and belonging and community. The boy Bronze, who does not speak, becomes her brother.

And what a tale it is, of people who are loyal and loving and generous to one another against all odds! Each family member makes allowances, even sacrifices for the others, and they value Sunflower as if she were a precious jewel in their midst. Locusts, illness, natural calamity, aging, death—we see them all, and we see the children grow in spite of them, or perhaps because  of them. Even the casually brutal Gayu comes around in the end to help Bronze and Sunflower when they’re trying to hide from the city people. I could go on and on. There’s a brilliant scene in which the village leader manages a critical meeting, working the crowds, the family, and the officials with a dexterity that brings the lot of them alive in the mind. Those dreaded officials, too, have hearts. They, after all, come to take Sunflower back in order to make amends for having sent her father away in the first place. There’s a sure authorial hand here, nothing invisible about it and yet it never detracts from the story.

And the ending—I won’t give it away other than to say that its golden light suffuses the reading heart, and at the same time, it’s impossible to decide where it lands. It’s a study in ambiguity. Was it a mirage? And if not, where is the hope coming from that we feel so palpably on the page?

Finally, it’s hard to find poetry in a translated work and to feel in it the energy of the source language that it came from, but between Cao Wenxuang (winner of the 2016 Hans Christian Anderson award) and translator Helen Wang, that magic is conveyed across geographical and linguistic borders. Candlewick, 2017 (Walker Books UK, 2015).

Annie M.G. Schmidt, Come in Off the Roof

catwhocameinofftheroofI will admit that I am a sucker for books about cats. Give the cats inner lives or wings or anything like that, and I am quite willing to abandon doubt, suspend disbelief and leap joyfully off the roof–that is to say, into the story. I found The Cat Who Came in Off the Roof via a charming Guardian review by a 9-year-old reader. Having spent a great deal of my childhood assuming that one had to be dead to be a writer, I was easily convinced that I ought to read this book.

The Cat Who Came in Off the Roof begins with Tibble, a frustrated journalist. His finely wrought writing does not find favor with his editor because all Tibble ever seems to write about is cats! Then a cat who has inexplicably been changed into a human walks into Tibble’s apartment and settles in. The lovely Minou retains enough cat traits to set in motion a heartwarming tale, its twists and leaps and silliness completely true to its wacky characters and implausibly bold premise.

And so it was that I was introduced to the legendary work of Annie M. G. Schmidt. Dead, alas, just as my Guardian reviewer had discovered. Died in 1995 at the age of 84. One doesn’t need to “find” her in the Netherlands, it seems. Everyone knows her. She’s considered the queen of Dutch children’s literature. People at large can quote from her many songs and poems.  From the official Annie M.G. Schmidt web site:

Her work has appeared in translation all over the world, with the odd exception of the English-speaking countries, where very few of her books have been published. In 1988 the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren presented her with the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the “Nobel Prize” of children’s literature. The jury praised her “ironic tone, witty criticism and style that is amusing, clear, rebellious and simple to its essence.”

Odd exception indeed. However that happened, I’m delighted that The Cat Who Came in Off the Roof has made it across the Atlantic. I feel especially delighted to be able to channel Astrid Lindgren and cry, “Annie, I love you so much, where have you been all my life?”