Storyteller and children’s author Jan Andrews died on Sept. 2 at the age of 75, after falling down a flight of stairs at a friend’s home earlier in the week.
The author, who lived with her partner Jennifer Cayley in Lanark, Ont., was born in Sussex, England, and immigrated to Canada in her 20s after attending the University of Reading. She began studying at the University of Saskatchewan after arriving in Saskatoon in 1963. Andrews would go on to become a children’s book author and the first president of Storytellers of Canada – once putting on a telling of The Odyssey in her own backyard.
Andrews wrote books for children of all ages, often inspired by the people and landscape of her adopted home. In 1985, she published her first picture book, Very Last First Time (Groundwood Books), about an Inuit girl making a trip under the ice to collect mussels, and 1996’s young–adult book, Keri, about one weekend in the life of an adolescent girl in Newfoundland. “Jan’s experience as a storyteller gave her a particularly strong voice as a writer, and she used her strong and passionate voice to write honestly and without condescension for child readers,” says Sheila Barry, president and publisher of Groundwood. “My favourite book of hers is probably The Auction, which is a sad and wise book about a boy helping his grandfather get ready to sell the family farm. Really, though, like all the best stories, it’s about more than one farm or one boy – it’s about the inevitability of change and the importance of memory.”
Andrews also collected folklore stories from around the world and released them in the collections Stories at the Door (2007) and Rude Stories (2010) with Tundra. She reinvented the tales, making them more contemporary and often rewrote the traditionally male characters as female. British illustrator Francis Blake collaborated with Andrews on both those collections and the two became good friends. “She was always very careful to maintain the integrity of a story,” says Blake. “If it came from a cultural background that held certain traditions, then she would be sensitive to those traditions. There were some First Nation stories that she knew belonged to certain individuals within the community, rather than the community as a whole, and she would always get permission from those people before telling the story herself.” Blake and Andrews worked solely by email on their first book, but when Andrews came to England for a storytelling tour she accepted his invitation to stay with him, and she visited him in London again when working on Rude Stories. “She had a wonderful – and very scatological – sense of humour,” he says. “When discussing a certain story about flatulence, I pointed out that I could illustrate a fart as a rather weedy green man; and she leapt at the idea, saying that kids would love that! And they do! Jan had a joyful outlook on life: even when she was diagnosed with cancer, she was irrepressible, and pushed the boundaries of what she was capable of to the limits of her energies.”
In 2012, Andrews, an avid outdoorswoman and rock climber, was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. But she responded well to treatment and was leading an active life. “The cancer didn’t get her, she didn’t fall off a rock face, just a terrible, terrible, stupid accident,” Cayley posted on Facebook. In the days before her death, Andrews had attended her first Pride parade and a party at Rideau Hall for the Order of Canada she received in December. According to Cayley’s post it had been a wondrous weekend.