Wednesday, February 08, 2006

CAI Week: 3 - Robert Munsch and friends

On the third day of my Childrens Authors and Illustrators bonanza I’m giving you all a bit of CanCon. Robert Munsch is responsible for a sense of humour and wonder in me and almost every English speaking Canadian to follow me. His books are generally illustrated by Sami Suomalainen or Michael Martchenko. Together kids are given tales of everyday wonder with simple and verbose words and friendly expressive characters. If you have kids you owe it to yourself to get these books or the audio versions. He is a fantastic reader for kids.

These are stories where kids start out doing everyday activities that quickly barrel roll into stupendously unreality. The lines of reality and imagination get blurred where a child’s imagination is sparked and expressed by these stories. They build sandcastles that grow into ever increasing sizes full of sand kings and queens with sand dogs and the winner in the impromptu contest gets a bathtub full of ice cream. The stories present what children are always trying to do, reaching for the stars, and are given a prize just as big.

Munsch has a fairly neat history in that his books have been constant sellers. In fact they are all basically invisible bestsellers in Canada and around the world. In 1994 the 'New York Times' did an update of their list of bestselling children¹s books that they had last done in 1978. They did not update the list often since it was very stable. GOODNIGHT MOON had been #1 since forever! They found LOVE YOU FOREVER at the top of the list with 8,000,000 sold. {It¹s at 18,000,000 as of 1999} This was very strange as they had never reviewed it, did not know it existed, and it was Canadian (foreign) title that did not even have a US publisher or distributor. Somebody from the Times called Munsch up and wanted to know, "Who are You?"

But personally I’ll always remember the miniature sized books I had as a kid. The Mud Puddle, Jonathan Cleaned Up and Then He Heard a Sound, Thomas’s Snowsuit, and The Paper Bag Princess. I always responded to books with my name in the title, so Jonathan was a no brainer for me. It's the story of a kid that keeps trying to clean up but his house literally becomes a train wreck. Same with Thomas’s Snowsuit, most Canadian’s know the trauma of new snowsuits then the pure joy because you can go do snow things in them.

The Mud Puddle was brilliant. The attraction to the story of a puddle who would hide in trees, jump off roofs and be defeated by bars of soap thrown into it is the same attraction people bring to superhero comics. Julie Ann is constantly defeated by the mud puddle in new and clever ploys that always end up with her being forced to take a bath. Until she uses her cleverness, and the repetition of soapy water to remove mud, to come up with the one thing that will destroy the mud puddle once and for all. When I was doing my undergrad friends of mine produced this story into a children’s play that was phenomenal.

And finally we come to the best of them all, The Paper Bag Princess. It’s a very simple concept – why can’t the princess save a prince from a dragon for once? Munsch’s notion was kids simply don’t care who their heroes are as long as they’re heroes. He was right. The audience didn’t care that Elizabeth was saving Ronald, Elizabeth was a great heroic figure. She lost everything and through that she discovered herself. Is it any wonder that this was almost instantly adopted as a feminist text? The message is great. Even if you’re not the biggest person you can put your mind to accomplishing anything. You don’t need fancy clothes or anyone else telling you what you are.

While Munsch only mentions the issues around whether or not Elizabeth calls Ronald a toad or a bum, there was apparently a bit of hubbub surrounding the last image in the book. Apparently the English publishers took offence to the word bum and claimed that the English never called anyone a bum. As a result you can get both versions of the text in Canada. As for the image it was originally a silhouette of Elizabeth dancing off into the sunset on her own, naked. It wasn’t clear but the publishers sort of flipped out and added the silhouette of the paper bag. I guess they didn’t like the fact that Elizabeth was shedding away her layers to a point where she was happy completely by herself. Or they just didn’t think it was a good idea to have cartoon butts in a kid’s book.

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