Seventeen years ago, the Festival of Trees and Nova Scotia Hospital commissioned Nova Scotia’s kidlit heavyweight Sheree Fitch to write a poem about mental illness and addiction that would raise awareness and contribute to classroom discussions. The poem she penned, EveryBody’s Different on EveryBody Street, was released in 2001 as a booklet to commemorate the Festival of Trees’ 10th anniversary. This spring, Nimbus Publishing re-released the text as a fully illustrated picture book with artwork by Vancouverite-turned-Haligonian Emma FitzGerald (Hand Drawn Halifax).
The poem is set on a fictional street where uniqueness is celebrated (“Some lope along giraffe-like / Some shuffle hippopotami / Some strut about like peacocks / Others? Ostrich-shy”); compassion is encouraged (“Some are mad as thunder / Some are sad as rain / Most of us are glad at times / And … all of us feel pain”); and connectedness is key (“You are EveryBody / And EveryOne you meet / That’s what EveryBody knows / Down on EveryBody Street.”)
With a style reminiscent of Quentin Blake, FitzGerald’s illustrations of people letting their freak flag fly complement Fitch’s exuberant, playful, and poignant rhymes. “The first time I read the poem,” says FitzGerald, “I was very excited and a bit intimidated. There’s a lot going on, all these different stanzas and different characters and different emotions.” But she knew her illustrative style – “very loose and quick and colourful” – was a good fit.
“I experimented with using a bit more shadow and drama,” she says of her early drawings for the project, “because in picture books at the moment you’re seeing a renaissance of grey palettes. But the feedback from Sheree was, ‘It needs to be colourful – needs to be uplifting, joyful.’ And that does ultimately resonate with me and the rest of my work.”
In the afterword to the new edition, Fitch explains that in 2001 she was hesitant to take on the weighty subject for fear of being preachy and because at that time the topic was still not widely talked about. “I was uncomfortable being associated with a subject like mental illness,” Fitch says. She credits her husband, Gilles Plante, for pushing her to do it. She writes that she was walking in New York City when the poem started coming together a few weeks prior to Sept. 11, 2001. “For me, this poem has many layers,” writes Fitch. “It is also a bit of a love song for that city and for our world.”
In the afterword, Fitch speaks of all the different people who inspired her while writing the poem and makes specific reference to members of her own family. This March, Fitch’s 37-year-old son Dustin, who has struggled with mental illness since childhood, died. “The last thing I wanted to do was a book launch and all that,” Fitch told CBC Radio. “But when I got the book and saw it and saw Emma’s beautiful illustrations, I had a sense that maybe the timing was right, because it does honour him in a way.”
While the poem at the heart of the book is fun and light and perfect for all ages, the afterword is intensely powerful. “I hope,” Fitch writes, “this poem reaches those who need it, and that it is read out loud and read with gusto and echoes far, that it sparks discussions that still need to be had as we travel together in a world that throws so much at us and demands such resilience.”