In this roundup of Canadian children’s publishing news: Robert Munsch’s picture book Love You Forever gets the pop-up book treatment; Kai Cheng Thom writes a picture book with a genderqueer child at its center; a middle-grade novel shows how friendship can redefine “normal”; and a nonfiction book about Indigenous Canadian history teaches kids about reconciliation.
'Love You Forever' Goes 3-D
Most adults with a child in their life have probably either bought or received a copy of Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever. The classic picture book was first released in 1986 and has sold more than 30 million copies. Until now, though, publisher Firefly Books has kept the editions of the book to a minimum: there was only a hardcover and a paperback version. This month a pop-up edition is hitting shelves, giving parents and kids a new way to interact with Munsch’s beloved book.
According to Lionel Koffler, president of Firefly Books, the publisher wanted to avoid watering down the appeal of the book with “cheap merchandise” over the years. Firefly had never made a pop-up book before, but the book’s illustrator, Sheila McGraw, recently found out about an American paper engineer named Bruce Foster—who created the pop-up designs for the 2007 Disney movie Enchanted—and brought him on board.
“There is a line in the book that’s repeated three or four or five times, where the mother rocks the child back and forth, back and forth, back and forth,” said Koffler. “And having a tab in a pop-up book that allows you to actually make the child go back and forth adds a new dimension to it.”
Munsch had avoided the idea of an abridged board book in the past because the book’s repetition is central to the story, but the pop-up book, with its three-dimensional tableaux and moveable elements, gives readers a whole new experience.
“A pop-up book has a tremendous amount of designing up front in the paper engineering, but also at the manufacturing end. Every one of the die-cut elements in it has to be carefully glued and placed so that it’ll work,” said Koffler. “So it has to rise as expected, and then fold back in without getting crushed. And if it’s a tab that you push or pull, it [has to] move properly, and not go too little or too far. So it has to be very carefully done.”
Despite these challenges, Koffler stressed the appeal of the format. “There’s a magic about pop-up books that everyone appreciates. It’s something that the public loves, and we want to judiciously satisfy the public demand, but not flood it.”
A Genderqueer Picture Book Inspired by Munsch’s Classic
The author of the new picture book From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea (Arsenal Pulp) was inspired by Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever—but she wanted to tell a story aimed at a different kind of family.
“The thing that I struggle with in [Love You Forever], and with children’s literature in general, is that the vast majority of the children’s lit canon is heteronormative and upholds a particular idea of family that doesn’t resonate with everyone,” said Kai Cheng Thom. “But I wanted to write a children’s book with that same beauty, that same sense of attachment and love between parent and child.”
Thom is an author and psychotherapist who was born in Vancouver, spent her post-secondary years in Montreal, and now lives in Toronto. She conceived of this book along with two friends—the book’s illustrators, Wai-Yant Li and Kai Yun Ching —with the goal of creating something to help transgender and genderqueer kids find that same feeling of love and acceptance.
In this book, with watercolor illustrations on every page, the main character is Miu Lan, a child born “when both the moon and the sun were in the sky, so the baby couldn’t decide what to be.” The story is fairytale-like, with the child’s appearance changing from page to page. First Miu Lan has a fish tail and rabbit ears, then a bird’s body and antlers, then tiger stripes and a peacock tail.
Every night, the child is comforted by their mother’s lullaby: “Whatever you dream of, I believe you can be, from the stars in the sky to the fish in the sea / you can crawl like a crab or with feathers fly high, and I’ll always be here, I’ll be near, standing by / and you know that I’ll love you till the day that I die.”
Miu Lan grows up to be a “strange, magical child,” but the real challenge comes when they go to school for the first time and are faced with the challenge of trying to fit in or win the other children over.
According to Thom, it was important to her and the book’s illustrators—all of whom are trans individuals of Chinese descent—that the book’s protagonist was also Chinese, and uses the pronoun “they,” something rare to find in children’s books.
“There’s a lot of shaming that goes on in early childhood, unfortunately,” Thom said. “When I was a little kid, I think that having a book like this would have just told me it’s OK to be who you are. What would have been really great is if a parent had read it to me, or if a teacher had read it in class and used it as a talking tool. That’s what I hope comes for this book.”
Hummingbirds Teach That There’s No Such Thing as Normal
Australian-born, Toronto-based author Michelle Kadarusman was born with a club foot. And even though she was able to complete her surgeries to straighten her foot by the first grade, she can still recall the awkwardness she felt for being “different” from the other kids. In her new middle-grade book The Theory of Hummingbirds (Pajama Press)—which hits shelves this month in Canada, and on October 16 in the U.S.—protagonist Alba is still dealing with her twisted foot in the sixth grade. What’s more, she is eager to get her cast off and participate in the school’s cross-country race.
“Being born with a ‘defect,’ the shame that I felt as a child, that awkwardness, you never really forget that feeling,” said Kadarusman, who is also the founder of a literacy initiative called Raising Readers, and marketing manager for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. “I really wanted to write a book about self-acceptance, because I think we all have something that makes us feel different. Whether it’s something obvious, like a physical disability, or it’s something internal, we all carry that—and as children, it seems so much more acute.”
Alba’s mother tries to cheer her up with the knowledge that hummingbirds, those delicate and beautiful creatures, can’t walk either, because their feet are too tiny. According to Kadarusman, who sprinkles hummingbird trivia throughout the book, she saw her first hummingbird as an adult, while staying at a friend’s cottage in Muskoka, Ont. The experience, she said, was like “accidentally seeing some magical being.” She was “completely spellbound,” and read a book about hummingbirds from cover to cover.
In The Theory of Hummingbirds, Alba’s best friend is Levi, a boy with his own reason to avoid gym class: his asthma. While Levi, inspired by Stephen Hawking’s The Theory of Everything, tries to prove that the librarian has a secret wormhole hidden in her office, Alba tries to persuade everyone that she’ll be ready to compete in the big race. As both children confront their differences, their friendship helps them to see that those differences aren’t a big deal.
“You long to fit in, you long to feel normal; but really, what is normal?” Kadarusman asked. “I hope the takeaway from the book is that it helps kids gain self-acceptance and acceptance of the differences of others. There’s no such thing as normal.”
Teaching Kids to Take Part in Canada’s Reconciliation
Ever since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report in 2015, the subject of Indigenous people in Canada and the struggles they’ve endured has been increasingly prominent in the media. But in Canadian schools today, many children still know very little about the harmful residential school system of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Monique Gray Smith, an author and mixed-heritage woman of Cree, Lakota, and Scottish descent, has a middle-grade nonfiction book out this month called Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation (Orca Books). The book is intended to be a learning tool to help fill in the gaps in the school curriculum. The first section is meant to stand on its own, while the last three sections are intertwined like a blade of sweetgrass—the healing herb is commonly used in Indigenous communities, and is braided using three strands. She has another book coming out this fall, a picture book called You Hold Me Up, illustrated by Danielle Daniel, which aims to foster reconciliation and love among children.
“For me, it’s really important that our young citizens really know the truth [about Canada’s history], because that’s the part that will help them to never repeat that history again,” Smith said. “That’s why it felt like this was an important time.”
The final chapter of Speaking Our Truth lays out some of the ways young people can help, such as by encouraging their schools to host Orange Shirt Day, an annual event meant to show support for reconciliation. Children can also learn more about the Indigenous territory where they’re living. The most important part of the actions anyone takes, Smith said, is that they’re authentic, so that one can truly believe in one’s actions.
“It was a really fine line, writing the book so that young readers would understand the history and be inspired to do something different, rather than giving a history that traumatizes them and immobilizes them,” Smith said. “I hope that children will take away a true reflection of the history of Canada. And I hope they find within them a spark to be an ally, to ensure that the citizens of this country are held up with respect and dignity.”