Jean Little, Great Canadian Author
October 20, 2013
Doing the research for this post was a joy. Jean Little is one of my favorite authors, a widely acclaimed author of both picture books and middle grade novels. She was born in Taiwan of Canadian parents in 1932, which makes her 81 — a fact which boggles my mind just a little. The family returned to Canada when she was quite young.
Her books often deal with tough subjects, and often have characters with disabilities — when she began writing, she wanted to not only give children with disabilities a voice, but also wanted them to be able to find themselves in books. It was and is important to her that these depictions be realistic, not the sort of disability that is found in books like Heidi, where the character is suddenly and miraculously healed. Her books are not depressing, however, despite their realism. They may show the difficulties a child faces, but they also show the joys of everyday life, and give hope — not hope of healing, but hope of having the life of a regular kid who just happens to have a challenge of some sort.
Jean has been legally blind nearly all her life, although for many years she did have some vision. Quoting the biography on her website, www.jeanlittle.ca, By 1939, Little’s family had moved to Toronto, Canada. There, she first attended a class for students with vision problems. By fourth grade, however, she transferred into a regular class and no longer received specialized treatment—large-print books, for example, or oversized lettering on the chalkboard. As a result, she struggled with many everyday tasks. “If I wanted to read what was written on the board,” she recalled in Little by Little, “I would have to stand up so that my face was only inches away from the writing. Then I would have to walk back and forth, following the words not only with my eyes but with my entire body.”
I count it as a privilege and a treasured memory that I attended a music workshop that she also attended, back in the 1970s. At that time, she was able to read the lyrics projected onto a screen if she stood right at the screen. I believe now she has virtually no sight. She has had a guide dog for years. Despite her lack of vision — at least physical vision — she has written over fifty books, many of them award winners. Since 1985 she has used computers, and now has one that can translate her typing into spoken words (even letter by letter, or including punctuation) so that she can “read” what she has written. The thought of her doing that makes me realize how wonderful it is to be able to see the words as I type them on the screen, and to readily know when I’ve misspelled something, or have chosen the wrong word. Talk about perspective!
I haven’t read many of her picture books, but her middle grade novels have moved, inspired, and motivated me over the years, since I first began reading them in my early 20s. Many of the earlier ones are out of print, but I hope you can find them at your library! My favorites are two of her earlier books, From Anna, in which she drew on her experience as a child with very limited vision to create a three-dimensional character, Anna, who must not only deal with the consequences of limited sight, but also with the struggle of adapting to a new country and a new school; and its sequel, Listen for the Singing, which takes the family into and through World War II. I’d urge you to click on the links for more detailed descriptions of the books. (The second is a blog review, as the book is out of print.)
Other books of Jean’s that particularly resonate with me are Different Dragons, in which a boy learns to deal with his anxiety; Mama’s Going to Buy You A Mockingbird, which sees a boy and his sister dealing with their father’s cancer (it was made into a TV movie in 1987); Willow and Twig, about two abandoned children who make a home for themselves with their grandmother; and, although I’m more a cat person than a dog person, two chapter books about a puppy who becomes a guide dog, Rescue Pup and Forward, Shakespeare! You can find a complete listing of Jean’s works at her website. Note: some of the links I’ve provided are to the Canadian bookstore, Chapters/Indigo, because certain books are available in Canada but not in the United States.
She has also written some historical novels in the Dear Canada series, which are well worth a read. I believe there is now another in the series, which isn’t mentioned yet on her website.
I also highly recommend Jean Little’s two autobiographies, Little by Little and Stars Come Out Within. (Aren’t those titles wonderful?) They touched me deeply. Not only do they tell of her life, her struggles with her vision and the heartbreaking process of losing what little vision she had, with bullying, with making a place for herself in the world, but they also talk about her writing process, and that is truly fascinating. I hope you’ll be able to find and read these two wonderful books!
This brief excerpt from Stars Come Out Within will certainly resonate with my writing friends. In it, she talks about working with her editor on yet another revision of Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird, which by her account was a difficult book to write. Of course, because of Jean’s visual difficulties, her editor had to read the book out loud to her. Reading from page 217 of the hardcover edition:
“Shall I read you what you had and then how I think it should be changed?” she asked, uncertain how to proceed.
“No,” I said resolutely, “read it leaving out the bits you’ve cut. If something important is missing, I’ll know. If I don’t miss it, it can’t have been all that important.”
It worked. Here and there I did miss something that mattered to me. When I explained my reasoning to her, Shelley frowned, stared at the script in front of her and came up with a solution. Or I did. What I loved was telling her a better phrase and her never needing to ask where I wanted it to go. She and I worked as one. And I knew the book was going to live when, even after all the years we had both spent fiddling with it, her voice broke as she read the final chapter.
I hope this has whetted your appetite for Jean Little’s writing. When you read her books, perhaps you’ll find, as I have, that stars come out within.