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Hans Christian Andersen Award nominees Deborah Ellis and Isabelle Arsenault on genre, process, and fostering curiosity

Deborah Ellis and Isabelle Arsenault

Deborah Ellis (photo by Heidy van Dyk) and Isabelle Arsenault (photo by Dominique Lafond)

In this Q&Q guest feature, Rob Bittner and Lesley Clement, co-chairs of IBBY Canada’s Hans Christian Andersen Award nominating committee, write about the prestigious award, their reasons for putting forward Deborah Ellis (Writing) and Isabelle Arsenault (Illustration) – and share highlights from their Q&A with the nominees.

The Hans Christian Andersen Award is the highest international recognition given to authors and illustrators whose entire body of work has made a significant contribution to children’s literature. Nominees Deborah Ellis and Isabelle Arsenault are outstanding in their fields and loved and respected by readers and reviewers due to the sensitivity with which they approach difficult topics in ways that make children think and feel deeply. IBBY International will announce all the nominees in April, the shortlist in January 2020, and the winners at the Bologna International Children’s Book Fair in March/April 2020. We asked Ellis and Arsenault what award recognition means to them as well as about their creative process and sources of inspiration.

Winning awards

While perhaps best known for The Breadwinner (2000), Ellis first came to popularity and critical acclaim after her debut novel, Looking for X, won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature – Text in 2000. Since then she’s also won the Ruth & Sylvia Schwartz Award, the Jane Addam’s Children’s Book Award, and been named to the Order of Ontario. Ellis says that the recognition presents a bit of a paradox for her: “Having been given awards for my work in the past makes it easier to approach people for future projects, especially around projects that have severe gatekeepers, such as the book about military families or the one about kids in trouble with the law. But when I meet with people whose lives have been turned upside down, they don’t care about awards. They want to be heard, and they hope they can trust me with their stories. That is a trust I have to earn new each time.”

Arsenault has won the Governor General’s Literary Award, Children’s Literature – Illustration three times (twice in the French-language category): for Le cœur de monsieur Gauguin (2004), Virginia Wolf (2012), and Jane, le renard & moi (2013). The 2018 Hans Christian Andersen jury recommended Jane, le renard & moi as one of 15 outstanding works that merit translation everywhere. And she won the Bologna Ragazzi Award for art books in 2017 for Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois, written by Amy Novesky. For Arsenault, the international recognition has given her opportunities to travel to book fairs and she says that those trips are “very uplifting and inspiring.” She adds, “the awards are the cherry on top – unexpected validation” that encourage her to continue her creative pursuits.

Genre and process

Both nominees have worked in genres other than fiction. Ellis edited a number of essay collections in which she has interviewed people in war-torn countries and from marginalized communities. She says her goal in projects like Looks Like Daylight: Voices of Indigenous Kids (2013) “is to keep myself out of it, to use the introduction to state my background, point of view, how and why I did the book and then work hard to never appear in the book again.” She adds, “When we are organizing the book after all the interviews are done, we try to do it in a way that the young readers can come away with an understanding of the impact of past decisions on present life, and therefore think about how to make their present-day decisions have a kind impact on the future. In short, we want the young readers to see themselves in the kids interviewed.”

Arsenault’s non-fiction projects include Cloth Lullaby and Kristen Hall’s The Honey Bee (2018). She considers herself an “interpreter,” and approaches each work as would “an actor,” who can play different roles within a specific genre. “Being able to project myself in a story, seeing ways I could approach it visually, feeling an opportunity for trying something new that would push my creation further, being touched, surprised, concerned by the subject matter itself – these are all aspects I’m considering when taking on a book project.”

Fostering curiosity and imagination

The selection criteria for the Hans Christian Andersen Awards include not only “literary and aesthetic qualities” but also “the ability to see things from the child’s point of view and the ability to stretch the child’s curiosity and imagination.”

Ellis makes a link between curiosity and imagination and how much personal time and space we allow young people to have. “It’s rare, even in my small town [of Simcoe, Ontario], to see a child walking home from school by herself, or sitting by himself in Tim Hortons with a hot chocolate and a book, or even sitting alone and reading in a library. Too many hovering adults. Too many things plugged into their ears. Too many flickering images on screens. Kids need alone time, quiet time, private time.” A hallmark of Ellis’s work is child characters who are given agency and space to be grow into themselves.

In Arsenault’s Mile End Kids series [Colette’s Lost Pet (2017) and Albert’s Quiet Quest (2019)], which she both writes and illustrates, she finds a way to reconcile her nature-filled childhood with her own children’s city upbringing in Montreal. “I was born in the northern part of Quebec, near a beach by the sea. My childhood was surrounded by nature, wide spaces, playing in the sand, building things with branches and rocks and it was a very happy one. I moved to Montreal later in life for my studies and gave birth to my two sons there. It was hard for me to conceive how they could possibly flourish in such an urban environment. But they did! When I observed them playing in our backyard alley in the Mile End, making things out of nothing, just as I did as a kid, using their imagination to transcend their fenced backyards and concrete walls, I started to visualize some sort of adventures with these urban kids that could become a book series.”

Looking Forward

Throughout their bodies of work, Ellis and Arsenault present a challenge to adults and young people to be present, aware, and vigilant as we look to literature as a way forward to a better future. In her keynote speech to the IBBY Congress in Athens in August, 2018, Ellis finished by stating: “The best of children’s literature can remind us who we are when we are at our best. It can remind us we need not be afraid of differences, and that we have the power to create beauty out of pain.”

You can view the IBBY dossiers for Deborah Ellis and Isabelle Arsenault here.

Rob Bittner is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The iSchool @ UBC

Lesley D. Clement (independent scholar) has held teaching and administrative positions at various Canadian universities. Starting in July, she will be the visiting scholar for the L.M. Montgomery Institute at UPEI. She has published on visual literacy, empathy, and death in children’s literature.