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Jean Little was her family’s poet and a pioneer in the Canadian kidlit community

(David L Johnston)

Having one’s nose in a book was more than just a saying for children’s author Jean Little, who died at a hospice in Guelph on April 6, 2020, at 88 years old. Little was born with scarred corneas, which left her with very limited eyesight. In order to read as a child, she had to hold books right up to her face.

“She was always getting told to go and wash her nose because it would have print on it,” says her niece Maggie de Vries. “Luckily, she had a little nose so she could get the book really close to her eyes.”

Little was a voracious reader and prolific writer, publishing 50-plus middle-grade books, poetry collections, picture books, and two autobiographies. She travelled widely, received numerous honorary degrees, was named to the Order of Canada, gave the Margaret Laurence Lecture in 2016, and won many of the awards given to those who write young people’s fiction. Yet, there was one recognition that eluded her. She was the Susan Lucci of the Astrid Lindgren Award (one of the most prestigious international awards for children’s writers) – nominated at least four times but never won. “I don’t think she’d put it that way,” says de Vries, laughing. “But yes, she really, really, really would have liked to win it.” 

Little’s parents were medical missionaries and she was born in Taiwan before her family returned home to Canada and settled in Guelph. Her father recognized Little’s literary talents early on. He bound and sold booklets of her childhood poetry to churchgoers, and later he sent her poems off to Saturday Night Magazine for publication. He even wrote a pseudonymous letter to the editor, praising the new poet – which, Little told the audience during her Margaret Laurence Lecture, was mortifying. She studied English literature at the University of Toronto and was a student of Northrop Frye before becoming a teacher to students with disabilities. Unimpressed with the books about differently abled children at that time, she decided to write her own. “Ones where you don’t have to get rid of your disability in order to have a happy ending in a story,” says de Vries. “It needed to be possible to remain disabled and have a happy ending. That was her goal.” 

Little’s first book, Mine for Keeps – which has never been out of print in its 58 years – features Sally Copeland, a young heroine with cerebral palsy who is struggling to fit in at a new school. There are many characters with disabilities in Little’s body of work, including the beloved eponymous protagonist in From Anna, a 1972 bestseller about a visually impaired child, whose family moves from Germany to Canada just before the Second World War. But Little was not a niche writer. She touched and entertained a wide spectrum of children (and adults) with heartfelt stories that also had an edge. “She could capture family life in a way that was so accurate and also a little bit subversive,” says friend and fellow kidlit writer Sarah Ellis. “The books were so emotionally honest. People behave quite badly in them – they’re mean, they lose their temper, they keep secrets, they’re sneaky. In other words, they’re real.”

After Ellis published her first book, she received a letter from Little, whom she had yet to meet. “It said, ‘Congratulations on your book. I’ll just tell you that the second one is a lot harder.’” Much later in their friendship, the two authors were scheduled for a joint Vancouver Writers’ Festival appearance. “We got together and we planned it,” says Ellis. “But Jean being Jean, I asked the initial question of her and an hour later she was still talking. Afterward, I said, ‘Jean that wasn’t what we planned.’ And she just gave this mischievous smile – she was quite naughty.”

For de Vries, who is also a children’s author and a former editor at Orca Book Publishers, Little’s influence was immeasurable. “Her first book was published in 1962, I was born in 1961. Her writing and I, we grew up alongside each other.” Decades later, aunt and niece would write a picture book together, Once Upon a Golden Apple (1991), and Little was always de Vries’s first reader. “She was skilled at giving feedback which is in line with what the book really wants to be in its own writer’s hands, as opposed to people who give feedback that reflects what they would write if they were writing it.” 

Little once gave fellow kids’ writer Jo Ellen Bogart that kind of advice during a car ride to a CANSCAIP meeting. “I was working on my book Sarah Saw a Blue Macaw and I was reciting it to her,” says Bogart. “I was only partway through it when Jean said, ‘Oh, oh, yes, what if you did this: reverse that second line, boop, flip it around, and then add a fourth line.” It worked so well, Bogart dedicated the book to Little. For over 30 years, the friends drove from Guelph to the Toronto CANSCAIP meetings and back, talking about writing, kids, and both of their dogs. But once they were at the venue, Little was off holding court. “I was going to those meetings in my 20s,” says Diane Kerner, vice-president of publishing at Scholastic Canada, “and Jean and Claire Mackay would sit in the front row and they just kept up a running commentary on the proceedings, from quiet asides to actual heckling. It was witty and completely hilarious and I was kind of intimidated because they were so smart and so quick. I was a fan girl.” The room, says Bogart, was always full of Little devotees. “She could actually be swarmed.” 

Even as Little became the grande dame of Canadian kidlit, she remained the poet laureate of her family, hosting her 11 nieces and nephews at the cottage she bought in Muskoka – which she named Gilead and which now belongs to Robert Munsch – and writing poems for them and about them. De Vries has a verse by Little glued into her baby book: “I have a little niece and her name is Maggie. Her face is comical. Her hair is shaggy. Her laugh is chortly. Her cheeks are rosy. Her walk is busy and her hug is cozy.” 

Little (centre) with Ben, Maggie, Jeanie and Pat de Vries

Little was in her mid-60s when she became a parent for the first time. She and her sister Pat de Vries moved in together and raised Pat’s two grandchildren, Jeanie, a toddler, and Ben, an infant. Their mother, Sarah de Vries, was one of the women murdered by Robert Pickton. “For the first time in her life she had a baby,” Maggie says of Little. “It was a great joy for her and it also gave vitality to her writing in the later decades. Moving forward with the times, her writing might have settled into a somewhat more old-fashioned feeling than it did. But she was raising these kids and they had all these strengths and challenges and her books reflected that.” Pat remembers her sister as the playful co-parent. “She would play princesses with Jeanie. Only Jeanie got to be the princess and Jean often had to be the ogre and all the other roles.”  

Little always seemed to be writing, according to her family. “She wrote a lot just in her head when she was sitting in a chair, staring into space,” says Pat. But it wasn’t always easy for her to get it down on paper. At first, Little wrote on a typewriter; she could see the type if she bent down or pulled the paper out. After she lost more of her sight, she was forced to move to a more complicated process. Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mocking Bird (1984) was recorded on cassette tapes – and it took her seven years to complete. She would speak into the recorder in a way that could be transcribed with exact punctuation, along the lines of: paragraph, quote, Can I come too, question mark, quote, Sara asked, period, paragraph, quote, No, exclamation mark, quote, snapped her brother, period, paragraph. “It was a huge, huge task,” says Maggie. “And not only did she manage to write a book that way, but she wrote one of her best books that way.” 

Talking computers were invented in time for her next book, which allowed Little to type and then the computer would read it back to her. It was this invention, along with her four consecutive seeing-eye dogs (Zephyr, Ritz, Honey, and Pippa) that really made writing, travelling, and attending events possible and enjoyable. “She had guide dogs but also little pet dogs,” says Bogart. “There were other animals too. At one point, they had a couple African grey parrots as well, who talked like they were in a sitcom.”

The full house made for lively get-togethers, says Bogart, including the sisters’ annual Charles Dickens Christmas party which included a group read-aloud of The Christmas Carol. Little structured it so that there were only two copies of the book, marked up for where you’d start and stop reading; only the person reading and the person who’s going next would have books in their hands. “It works really well,” says Maggie. “If everybody had a book it wouldn’t feel the same at all – people wouldn’t all laugh at the same moments.”

Recently, the women had started hosting a book club, with the members reading three books on the same topic. “Most people can’t even finish one book in time for a book club meeting,” Maggie says. “It was impressive.”

One morning, about a month before Little died, Pat found her on the bathroom floor; she had fallen and was confused. From that point on, Little’s health deteriorated quickly. “She could no longer find the words for anything and that drove her crazy,” says Pat. “Words were her thing, and she had them all in her head but couldn’t get them out.” Up until this point, Little had been working on a third autobiography. “I think it was mainly about the years that we lived together, with the kids growing up,” says Pat. “It’s called Sing Your Way Home, which is an old song she liked. She used to sing all the time, walking around the house, and it’d drive me buggy because she’d go off tune.”

When Little died, she had other kidlit projects on the go, including picture book Maya and the Monarch, which Scholastic will release in fall 2021. According to her publisher, Little’s writing remained relevant, six decades in. “Her books are popular, kids relate to what she’s writing,” says Kerner. “I once heard someone ask her a question about why she wrote for children. She said, ‘Because I get to be 10.’ That was the magic of her stories.”