Each year the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award celebrates the most distinguished book for young people in Canada. This year’s nominated title are Afterlife: Ways We Think About Death by Merrie-Ellen Wilcox, Ebb & Flow by Heather Smith, Mustafa by Marie-Louise Gay, Sweep by Jonathan Auxier and They Say Blue by Jillian Tamaki. We asked the nominees what book from your youth influenced you the most and helped you to become the creator you are today?
Merrie-Ellen Wilcox has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 30 years. After Life: Ways We Think About Death, her second book for children, grew out of her time as a volunteer at Victoria Hospice. Parents and grandparents, teachers, librarians, counsellors and health professionals told her there was a great need for a straightforward non-fiction book on death and grief for young readers; she set out to meet that need with After Life. Merrie-Ellen has two grown children and lives in Victoria, BC, with her husband and a busy Jack Russell.
I spent much of my youth as an elite athlete; the hours that might have been spent reading were taken up with training — on balance beams, uneven bars, floor exercise mats. But as I young child, I had Winnie-the-Pooh and the Thornton W. Burgess books. Then it was Heidi, all the Anne books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I first read The Wind in the Willows — one of my all-time favourites — in my mid-20s when I was sick in bed. My son’s strong preference for information — mostly about culture, language and religion — later introduced me to the world of children’s non-fiction, and my love of adult non-fiction developed a few years after that when I was taking university courses on ecology. The common thread in all of my childhood fiction is strong (or perhaps, in the case of Pooh and Mr. Toad, lovable) characters who live in and love the natural world. And it is the natural world and our place in it that shapes my own thinking and writing today.
Heather Smith is the author of Chicken Girl and The Agony of Bun O’Keefe, winner of the 2019 White Pine Award. Her middle-grade novel, Ebb & Flow, was shortlisted for the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award. A proud Newfoundlander, Heather’s east coast roots inspire much of her writing.
As a former reluctant reader, one book that stands out in my memory is The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. It was one of the few books that kept me interested from beginning to end. I can still remember the night I stayed up into the wee hours desperate to reach the end. As a creator, this book inspires me to tell stories that will keep readers drawn in from the first word to the last… stories that will help the most reluctant of readers feel the thrill of being glued to a book.
Marie-Louise Gay has written and/or illustrated over 60 books for children: the Stella and Sam series, Any Questions?, Short Stories for Little Monsters and Mustafa, to name a few. Her books have been published in 20 languages. Marie-Louise has also written puppet plays, illustrated posters and has been a creative consultant on the Stella and Sam show, an award-winning animated TV series. She has won awards for her work, such as two Governor General’s Literary Awards, Mr. Christie’s Book Award, the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award, the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award, the Vicky Metcalfe Award and the E.B.White Award. She has been nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.
When I was 12 or 13 years old I discovered the French bandes-dessinées. I was fascinated and awestruck by the surrealistic, funny, intellectual and visual musings of the French bédéistes (cartoonists): F’Murr with his Génie des Alpages, Claire Brétécher and her Céllulite, Mandryka with his Concombre Masqué, Fred, Gotlib and Michel Folon.
At the age of 16, I started drawing everywhere and anywhere: sketchbooks, napkins, placemats, and in the margin of my school books. I was inspired by these illustrated stories which I read in the famous magazine, Pilote, to create scenarios driven by images and enriched by words.
Jonathan Auxier writes strange stories for strange children. His books include the Peter Nimble series, and the bestselling The Night Gardener, which won the 2015 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award. His latest novel, Sweep, won the Governor General’s Literary Award, Charlotte Huck Award, and Sydney Taylor Award. Jonathan grew up outside of Vancouver and now lives in Pittsburgh with his family and their adorable pet umbrella.
It’s impossible to pick just one! The book that most helped me write Sweep was Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. I can’t think of another story that so powerfully captures the whole experience life and death — it’s a book that gains new resonance every time I read it.
Jillian Tamaki is an illustrator, cartoonist and teacher who makes books and comics for people of all different ages. She is the co-creator (with her cousin Mariko Tamaki) of the Caldecott Honor-winning YA graphic novel This One Summer and will publish two picture books in 2020: My Best Friend (with Julie Fogliano) and the self-authored Our Little Kitchen. Jillian was raised in Calgary and currently lives in Toronto.
I doubt anything can be attributed to just one book or source of inspiration. I believe we are a crazy jumble of influences, some we are not even aware of! I’ll choose one. I had a very nice copy of The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett and full-colour illustrations by Graham Rust. I loved the story (does it hold up to a contemporary reading? Maybe not!) but what I remember so vividly was the physicality of that book. Hardbound with glossy, good-smelling heavy pages, sprinkled with so many full-colour illustrations. Sara Crewe peering out from the cover, unaware of her pitiable fate. It felt special, almost magical. Nowadays I don’t think the production is always the source of the magic, but rather the care and deep attention transmitted through the work. I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to make books, to even attempt such a connection with readers.