“A little bit Charlie Brown, a little bit Peppermint Patty, a little bit Linus.” That’s how author Kyo Maclear, an avowed Charles M. Schulz fan, describes her picture-book writing style. And it’s an apt description. Maclear’s stories are infused with the Peanuts’ sensibility of melancholy, humanity, and philosophical wisdom: from Spork, about a mixed utensil that doesn’t fit in, to the recently released Yak and Dove, about an odd-couple friendship, to the upcoming Flo, about a panda who enjoys observing life around her. “I think about the way I see the world, and that’s what I like to share,” says Maclear. “The books come out of a question I have about something.”
Maclear has written two novels for adults, 12 pictures books, and the memoir Birds Art Life in a little over 10 years, winning multiple awards along the way. Her first children’s book, 2010’s Spork, was co-conceived with her husband, singer David Wall. They were inspired by the birth of their son, Yoshi, now 16, and Maclear’s own multiracial background.
An only child, Maclear was born in England to a British father (CBC foreign correspondent, independent filmmaker, and writer Michael Maclear) and a Japanese mother (art dealer Mariko Maclear). They moved to Canada when Maclear was four, but she constantly travelled to England and Tokyo, which she says made her a somewhat solitary person – and a big reader. She went on to study fine art and art history at the University of Toronto and spent her early career writing about art for various publications.
Her admiration for – and the inspiration she takes from – visual artists is apparent throughout her work. And the illustrators she collaborates with tend to be less on the commercial side, and more closely associated with fine art. Maclear hopes to illustrate more of her own books in the future, as she did for her memoir.
For now, she’s veered in a scholarly direction, writing a dissertation at York University on climate change as seen through the lens of children’s literature and film. “I want to keep doing things that feel fresh and that take me in new directions,” says the author. “The dissertation is almost an alibi, allowing me to go underground a bit and refuel the creative juices.”
But she hasn’t drifted too far from the world of children’s publishing: she’s got a graphic novel in the works with Groundwood Books. “It’s such a learning curve,” says Maclear. “It’s not a skill set that I know.” And Bloom – her latest picture book with illustrator Julie Morstad – comes out in the spring. It’s based on the turbulent childhood of iconoclast Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. “I’m really drawn to strong women,” says Maclear, who’s done similar fictionalizations in Julia, Child and Virginia Wolf. “We were trying to redo “The Ugly Duckling” story. Elsa had such an interesting life and a complicated, almost tragic childhood. But she never compromised, never conformed to the standard of beauty.”
Maclear certainly isn’t afraid of taking readers to dark places, and like Schulz, she does so with humour. “She’s magical at translating things that might seem like difficult topics for children,” marvels Morstad. “She can infuse a hard topic with a weightlessness.”
Maclear’s publisher, Tara Walker at Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers, calls it a spirit of fearlessness. “The greatest children’s writers aren’t much concerned with whether something is too scary for kids or too challenging for a child to comprehend. And Kyo has such a deep respect for children.”
While academia may have Maclear’s focus right now, she says there will be more picture books in the future. “I just think they’re beautiful objects,” she says. “The marriage of words and images is perfect for me and what you can do with them is infinite.”