The list of Canadian novelists who have ventured into the realm of children’s literature includes, among others, Margaret Atwood, Wab Kinew, Farah Heron, Thomas King, and Nina Laurin. This month, Lawrence Hill joins their ranks with his middle-grade debut, Beatrice and Croc Harry, with HarperCollins.
Hill, a professor of creative writing at the University of Guelph, has received critical acclaim for his fiction and nonfiction titles. He is the winner of several awards, including the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for 2007’s internationally bestselling The Book of Negroes.
So, why pen a middle-grade novel? Hill says it came from the need to open a dialogue with children on the issues of migration, the search for home, as well as the loss and rediscovery of identity. The latter is of great importance to Hill since it is central to the historical experiences of peoples of the African diaspora.
“In a way, this story is an allegory about the slave trade or about the after-effects of it in terms of the loss of identity,” he says. “I haven’t seen a lot of literature for children that explores the concept of the utter rupture of identity as a result of something that’s not your fault.”
It’s a rupture Hill brings into stark focus on the opening page, when Beatrice – a young Black girl of unknown age – awakens alone in a massive forest with no memory of who she is, where she’s from, or any knowledge of her racial identity.
Beatrice, whose powers of empathy are nothing short of extraordinary, claims her racial identity while confronting inhumane notions such as purity, a topic Hill examined in Blood: The Stuff of Life (House of Anansi Press, 2013), the springboard for his subsequent CBC Massey Lecture. “I think children are exposed at a very early age to people who are speaking about these ideas even when they’re not attempting to be hateful,” he says. “I did want to address that, because [the idea of blood purity] still permeates the ways we as adults speak about identity. I wanted to challenge that, and I wanted children to challenge that too.”
To navigate the sensitivities around these tough issues for a younger audience, Hill relied on humour, zaniness, and a deep love of language that was nurtured by his parents. When Hill was growing up, his father, Daniel G. Hill III, taught him a rich vernacular of Black idiomatic language, and his mother, Donna Hill, read him nonsense poetry that “luxuriated in the silliness and absurdity of language.” Hill instilled this same playful relationship with language in his own children by challenging them to fun word games.
It’s a sensibility that he also brings to the page with the creation of The St. Lawrence Dictionary of Only the Best Words, Real and Concocted, which Beatrice studies to improve her vocabulary. An excerpt of the fictional dictionary appears at the back of the book, despite some initial resistance from his editor. “I just so loved the idea of giving a child a playful, ridiculous dictionary with many words that were made up or concocted,” Hill says. “My hope is that it will help the voice of the novel live on in the heart of the reader after they’ve finished reading.”
Hill also had a personal reason to pen Beatrice and Croc Harry: it is inspired by the bedtime stories he invented for his youngest daughter, Beatrice, who came into his life at the tender age of three by way of a blended family. “She really delighted in these stories, and it was a way for us to get close,” he says. “I promised her that one day I would write a book about this.”
Writing Beatrice and Croc Harry brought Hill such joy. “I think one of the reasons is that the book gave me permission to go into a more zany, playful spot,” says Hill. “It opened up avenues of creativity that I just wouldn’t normally access. I think it was writing for children and just imagining that this was one big romp of a bedtime story that allowed me to go there.”