After experiencing health issues for the past few months, beloved children’s author Jean Little died at Hospice Wellington in Guelph on April 6. She was 88.
The writer, who lived with her sister Pat de Vries, published over 50 books, including the middle-grade bestsellers Mine for Keeps and From Anna, as well as picture books, poetry collections, and two biographies. She was nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award multiple times and won numerous Canadian and international prizes, including the Little, Brown Canadian Children’s Book Award, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature, and the Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People. Little was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1992.
Little was born with scarred corneas and was legally blind. After attending University of Toronto, she was a teacher for differently abled children and was unimpressed with kids’ books about disabilities. She decided to write her own. According to a tribute from her editors at Scholastic, Little “became known for changing the way children with physical and psychological disabilities were portrayed in books for young readers – not idealized, suffering characters waiting to be miraculously ‘fixed,’ but as ordinary and imperfect children whose concerns and trials, while far from average, were universal.”
Picture-book writer Jo Ellen Bogart drove Little from Guelph to their CANSCAIP meetings in Toronto for 30 years and a strong friendship developed as they talked about dogs, Bogart’s kids, and writing. “Her grammar was impeccable. She spoke well, she wrote well,” says Bogart. “You couldn’t hang out with a better person, as far as thinking about writing and what it means, and what it does for people. We talked our way through so many books for all those years.”
Little was still writing until close to the end of her life and a new picture book, Maya and the Monarch, will be released by Scholastic in fall 2021.
Staff at Quill & Quire are currently working on a longer appreciation of the life and work of Jean Little, to be published soon.