Canadian children’s book author Jean Little, internationally recognized for her novels featuring characters who realistically deal with adversity, died on April 6 at Hospice Wellington in Guelph, Ontario. She was 88.
Jean Little was born January 2, 1932 in Taiwan, where her physician parents were serving as missionaries. From birth, Little’s corneas were scarred and it was determined she was legally blind, able to respond to light. She regained some sight throughout her childhood, and her parents, who routinely read to Little and her siblings, taught her to read on her own.
The family returned to Canada in 1939, moving to Toronto, and seven-year-old Jean was in a class for visually impaired students. A year later, in 1940, they settled in Guelph, and Little learned to adapt to a regular classroom, and was elevated to the fourth grade.
In her autobiography, Little by Little: A Writer’s Education (Viking, 1987), Little recalled that she wrote her first story at age 10. From then on, she found great joy in writing stories and poems, and also in the attention she received from her parents, who supported her burgeoning talent.
Little’s passion for writing led her to Victoria College’s English language and literature program at the University of Toronto. She tried her hand at writing a novel after completing her freshman year, and took encouragement from a Canadian publisher’s rejection letter that stated she had talent. During the summer between her junior and senior year, Little was a volunteer counselor at a camp for handicapped children.
Little earned her B.A. from the University of Toronto in 1955 and shortly after graduation became a teacher at a nearby treatment facility for handicapped children. She spent the next six years teaching there as well as taking positions as a visiting instructor at the Institute of Special Education in Salt Lake City and at Florida University, while continuing her studies. It was during her time as a teacher that Little discovered a dearth of books about children “in wheelchairs or on crutches,” she wrote in Little by Little. “I wanted the children I taught to know that they, too, could be worthy of featuring in a novel.” Her desire for her students to see themselves in books spurred her on in her writing.
Little took a one-year break from teaching and wrote her first children’s novel, Mine for Keeps, about a girl with cerebral palsy who returns home from a treatment center and must adjust to attending regular school. She submitted the manuscript for the Little, Brown Canadian Children’s Book Award and won the $1,000 prize and a publishing contract. Mine for Keeps was published by Little, Brown in 1962 and dedicated to Little’s father. Upon publication it won the Canadian Children’s Book Award. She wrote two novels featuring characters addressing blindness, and the second of those, Listen for the Singing (Dutton, 1977) was awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature, Canada Council.
Little’s sight worsened over time and she received a prosthetic left eye. In 1978, when her other eye developed glaucoma and her sight diminished further, Little learned some new writing skills—including dictating into a cassette recorder, and a few years after that, using a computer which had early speech-to-text technology. She also received her first guide dog.
Little went on to write more than 50 books, most of them for young readers. More recently she had written several picture books as well as an I Can Read series begun with Emma’s Magic Winter (HarperCollins, 1998).