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GG Winners Circle: Eric Walters (Young people’s literature – text)

Throughout his acclaimed career, children’s author Eric Walters has always fostered a close connection with his readers. He speaks to more than 100,000 students across Canada and around the globe each year, and personally replies to every email sent by fans.

Walters shares even more of himself in his Governor General’s Literary Award-winning novel The King of Jam Sandwiches, which is based on his own childhood growing up in poverty with a mentally ill parent. “It marks you in a way that is profound. No question. You can’t regret what has happened, you simply have to go with what has happened.”

Walters spoke to Q&Q about writing The King of Jam Sandwiches.

The King of Jam Sandwiches is a very personal book. There are few books for children that present the realities of growing up in poverty so authentically. Your novel is about survival and also about hope. What brings you hope?
My wife, my kids, my grandkids. You’ve got to have a sense of hope. I’m relentlessly optimistic, even when I shouldn’t be. This book is so much a part of who I am. Just like the main character Robbie, I really believed that if I got up earlier than everybody every single day and worked harder and longer than everybody else, then I could get somewhere. That’s been my ongoing life passage. And I always knew everything was going to work out, and I believe that continually. What’s that saying – if you haven’t reached a happy ending, it’s obviously not the ending. We just keep moving forward.

Was it difficult to write some passages?  
Yes. And there are some parts that are difficult for me to read. There’s a section at the beginning where Robbie talks about walking down the stairs and trying to avoid making sounds because he wants to be invisible. The first time I said that line out loud, I actually had my heart catch on me. I thought, okay, I’ve said it once, it won’t be a problem. But every time I say that line, I feel it intensely. The irony is, putting it on paper has made it less personal. I read it now more as a story than as a life experience.

What do you want readers – both kids and adults – to take away from this novel?
We are all in the same ocean, but we are in very different boats. The learning loss during the pandemic is going to hit the kids the most who have the least to start with. These are the kids that I taught. When you grow up poor, you grow up feeling ashamed. You try to hide your background because you’re afraid of how people will react when they find out. This sense of being different stays locked in your soul. This book is for those kids. The world isn’t fair. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance. You just have to work harder all the time. The kids need to know there is a way out and that they can succeed.

I hope this book will help teachers. There’s no training that happens in Faculty of Education to deal with economic diversity. It’s not talked about. I want people to understand that poverty is a big factor in many children’s lives and is a real thing. And I want teachers to help kids move beyond it.

In your note at the end of the novel, you write about how words are powerful and can change lives. What words have changed yours?
My Grade 5 teacher told me she thought I could be a writer when I grew up. In hindsight, I didn’t realize all of the things she did for me. I was the milk monitor in her class and I assumed it was because I was very organized, but it was because she wanted to make sure I got a free milk to drink. You don’t forget those things. And you try to give back.

When you were a Grade 5 teacher, you wrote stories for your students to hook them on reading. What do you think is the best way to get kids excited about books?
Read. Model reading Canadian books yourself. Let them explore different genres. As a teacher, I had a book on the go all the time and I was always reading to my students. Make it a full school reading opportunity. A gym teacher can make an impact on literacy in their school by reading a book every time a class comes in for gym. And I’d like them to say to the students, “Can you hang on a second? Give me two laps. I’m right at a really critical point in this book right now, and I can’t put it down.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.