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Q&A: Rosemary McCarney, children’s author and Canada’s ambassador to the UN


Rosemary McCarney has long been a champion of human rights and standing up for those in need. During her time as president and CEO of Plan Canada, she oversaw the Because I am a Girl campaign and became an author of children’s books. Her latest title in the Rosie the Red series, Being Me, was released by Second Story Press earlier this month, and another book, Because I am a Boy, is due in September. Q&Q caught up with McCarney, now Canada’s ambassador to the UN, to ask her about her work as an advocate and author.

You’ve been at the front lines of advocacy for many years, recently at Plan Canada, and now in your role at the UN. What drives you to pursue this kind of work? The “drive” comes easily because every day I get to work on the things I care most about: human rights, protection of the most vulnerable in conflict, global health, disarmament and non-proliferation, among others things. I was able to work on these things as a part of civil society and now as a representative of Canada to the United Nations.

It is really a question of how one effects change on the issues that you feel are important. There are many channels that children and adults can pursue in their personal and professional life. Some people run for elected office. Others are powerful voices for issues and causes simply in the way they conduct their daily lives. All of us can and should be advocates – we all have voices that can be used to amplify the voices and legitimate aspirations of those less able.

While at Plan Canada, you became an author. Where did this impulse come from, and why did you decide to concentrate on children’s books? I have been fortunate to have extraordinary experiences in diverse environments and compelling places all my working life. I started writing with the idea that this was something I could leave my children if something happened to me. It would give them an insight into what made their mother tick and why she was always coming and going. I wanted them to know that they had fundamental rights that were denied other children, and with rights come responsibilities. Leaving them was never easy but perhaps they would know that in my own way I was trying to make a difference for their future.

I also always loved rhyming, so notes to my children, their Easter egg hunts, their birthday cards were always in my crazy iambic pentameter. The Rosie books actually began life as rhyming books.

Where did the inspiration for the Rosie series come from? I think children’s literature is a perfect channel to introduce children from the earliest age to the concept that they have rights, and to empower them to assert those rights on their own behalf and on behalf of others. Rosie the Red, the character of a young child becoming aware of injustice and figuring out how to do something about it with her friends is a powerful way of teaching without preaching. Books provide wonderful learning moments for kids.

As for the title … this was my nickname when I was a young child! My family found me to be a bit of a rebel for causes from an early age.

Why is it important for young children to read books like the Rosie series and the upcoming Because I am a Boy? The Rosie the Red books are written for young readers who are, I think, going through the same process of figuring out right from wrong, how to navigate social relationships in the schoolyard, how to be sensitive to difference. She is not the lone heroine like many characters are presented in children’s books – she mobilizes her friends to find solutions to issues like stigma and poverty that kids everywhere are conscious of and are affected by. The Rosie books are an empowering message that these solutions or resolutions are in all of our hands, regardless of age. The adults in the books support but do not direct the children as they explore what they will do in the face of a problem affecting one of their peers.

Because I am a Boy was important to me. I am passionate about righting the inequality and the stacked deck that impacts the choices and self-images of young girls in every country of the world. But, this cannot be done without boys and men also becoming strong partners in the quest for gender equality. We also know that gender inequality does not work well for boys, either. They are pigeonholed into roles and behavioural expectations that are narrowly defined, limiting their right to live their lives fully. They have an important role in being advocates for the rights of the girls in their lives when they see them held back and left out and discriminated against simply because they are girls. Gender equality is everyone’s interest.

How do you see your new position with the UN influencing your work as an author? All of the books draw from my own life experiences. My current role, which is truly an honour, gives me the opportunity to advance Canada’s values and principles in the important institutions of the United Nations. I get to work on the most important issues of our time. I am certain that my experiences will allow me – compel me – to draw inspiration for the messages that I will be able to continue to share with children through my books.

With all that you do, what role does writing books for children play in your life? What’s your favourite part? Writing the books are my favourite hobby – I like to jot notes down as I go through a day from observation of people, reading the newspaper, or listening to friends and colleagues. Then, usually on my Christmas and summer holidays, with Margie Wolfe, the inspired founder and leader of Second Story Press, we take those first drafts and she and her team turn them into these beautiful books.

The photographic books are right for an audience just beginning to read, the Rosie books for a more advanced reader and Because I am a Girl I Can Change the World is non-fiction for older children. The principle focus remains the same: building awareness in children of the universality of human rights. In the process, entertain them and, most importantly, turn them all into advocates for their own rights and the rights of others.