Each year, the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction honours achievements in Canadian children’s non-fiction. This year’s nominated titles are After Life: Ways We Think About Death by Merrie-Ellen Wilcox, Bat Citizen: Defending the Ninjas of the Night by Rob Laidlaw, Go Show the World: A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes by Wab Kinew, illustrated by Joe Morse; Trash Revolution: Breaking the Waste Cycle by Erica Fyvie, illustrated by Bill Slavin; and Turtle Pond by James Gladstone , illustrated by Karen Reczuch. 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.
Rob Laidlaw has spent nearly 40 years working to protect animals of all kinds. His campaigns and projects have been delivered throughout the world, from Canada’s north to tropical Asia, and have benefited animals ranging from lizards to elephants. He is Chartered Biologist, founder of the international wildlife protection charity Zoocheck and a recipient of the prestigious Frederic A. McGrand Lifetime Achievement Award for substantial contributions to animal welfare in Canada. Rob is regularly consulted by other groups and agencies from around the world and has spoken to tens of thousands of kids and adults about why animals and nature are important and should be protected. In his spare time, Rob enjoys long-distance bicycle rides, cave exploration and travelling the world.
I’ve always been a voracious reader of mostly non-fiction books. In elementary school I read nearly every book in the library about animals, wildlife conservation and the environment and I always looked forward to reading more. I couldn’t get enough. From a very young age I even kept a list of the books I’d read and I tried to add at least one book per week to it. So it’s safe to say that I’ve been heavily influenced by books throughout my life but there wasn’t just one book that influenced me the most when I was young. There were many. However I do recall some of the books that had a particularly profound impact on me and they were predominantly reference books. For example, I remember reading all 600 plus pages of the Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life and other books like it. I didn’t know that most people used books like that as reference sources and that they didn’t read every page. But I’m glad I didn’t because sifting through all those pages opened my eyes to the amazing diversity of life, how fascinating every animal and other living thing is, the threats they face and why we should all try to help them. Those books provided me with a foundation of knowledge that has allowed me to pursue helping them in my adult life and sharing my thoughts and experiences to others through writing.
Joe Morse’s illustration work has crossed the globe, commissioned by Nike, Universal Pictures, Coca Cola and international magazines and newspapers. His picture books include the celebrated Casey at the Bat, Go Show the World, and was honoured to work on the only illustrated edition of Beloved with Toni Morrison.
As a visual artist I have to be honest that MAD magazine and Spider-Man comics were my treasured companions. When I was 10, the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America, inspired my first ‘art’ project. I created a series of images, detailing the birds I had seen on a family trip through New England. I was hooked, not on the birds, but on telling a story with pictures that others could read and enjoy.
Erica Fyvie earned her bachelor’s degree in English and drama from the University of Guelph, and her master’s degree in film from York University. She’s been a script reader for a production company, and a writer and editor in educational publishing. She’s in awe of those storytellers who manage to remind us of our shared humanity. She lives in Toronto with her family, including two beloved pets: Marzipan the cat and Clover the dog. Trash Revolution: Breaking the Waste Cycle is her first book.
It’s a tie, which I hope counts because they’re both by Judy Blume: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. My family moved a lot when I was a child, and both books capture that particular observer quality that I felt going into every new situation. Both Margaret and Sally are typical kids, and by giving life to them in a book, it kind of felt like all stories have value — you don’t have to be a superstar to merit an exploration of your world. They were allowed to be fearful and wary, as well as happy, which I think, looking back, is probably the reason I read them over and over. So, even though Trash Revolution is non-fiction, that’s the quality I tried to create: how the observation of the small details can justify a new perspective of our everyday lives.
Bill Slavin has illustrated over 100 children’s books, fiction and non-fiction. Titles include Stanley’s Party by Linda Bailey, winner of the 2004 Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator’s Award, and Transformed, winner of the 2006 Norma Fleck Award. He has also written and illustrated a graphic novel trilogy entitled Elephants Never Forget. The summer of 2016 launched the release of his picture book, Who Broke the Teapot?!, a lively whodunnit picture book he both wrote and illustrated. Today he lives in Millbrook with his partner, Esperança Melo, who is also an artist and book illustrator.
That is a tough question — there are so many I could name. But I think the single most influential book that I received was the comic book Asterix and Cleopatra, which my older brother brought me back from England in 1970. I had never realized that cartooning could be so good and it brought my three loves — history, bad humour and good drawing — together in one book. I say that I learned to draw by copying the Asterix cartoons of Alberto Uderzo.
Karen Reczuch was born in Woodstock, Ontario. As a little girl she dreamed of growing up to be a dancer and so she drew many, many pictures of ballerinas hoping her parents would send her to dance classes. Her mother was so impressed with these drawings that she did send Karen to classes — painting classes!
Karen studied illustration at Sheridan College in Oakville and then worked for two years as an artist in West Africa illustrating texts for a literacy mission. When she returned to Canada she continued to do text book illustrations until her first book with black-and-white line drawings — The Girl on the Hat, by Jane Jacobs, was released.
Her first picture book was The Auction with Jan Andrews, short-listed for the Mr. Christie Award in 1990. She has since illustrated 15 titles, among them numerous award winners including the 1996 Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator’s Award for Just Like New with Ainslie Manson, the 2002 Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Prize for Salmon Creek with Annette LeBox and the 2012 Norma Fleck Award for Loon with Susan Vande Griek.
Was there a single book that sent me on the path to illustration? I always had my nose in something and hid out from my siblings to emerge myself in stories. The pictures I remember most from childhood were mostly the ones that adorned my school texts — readers and spellers and social studies books — but I have been haunted by imagery from a picture book that I’ve never been able to find again. I remember it as a version of Peter Rabbit but I’ve never found the edition: rich with lavish and detailed watercolours of mulberries and tangled foliage. My memory of it remained so clear that when, in my 20s, I first stumbled on a mulberry bush spilling dark fruit onto the sidewalk in my Toronto neighbourhood I recognized it immediately. I’m still attempting to recreate the remembered detail of those illustrations each time I create a painting of my own.
Yet it would be Chris Van Allsberg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick that I credit with launching my illustration career. I was trying to work up the courage to head out with my portfolio and was not overly confident in my work. Finding Allsberg’s black-and-white illustrations inspired me to create a series of pencil drawings for my portfolio which were the images that caught editors’ attention and led to my first contracts. Although I never did a black-and-white picture book of my own, pencil underlaid my coloured work through most of my early books.