Can Write: Meeting Canadian Writers and Illustrators of Children’s Books
What inspires the writers of the books your students read? How does an illustrator decide what to draw? Is it true that most authors and illustrators don’t know each other? This column features a different Canadian children’s book creator in each issue and shows you the story beyond the covers.
I was spending a week in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut to conduct readings in the local school for Canadian Children’s Book Week. Local author, and Canadian icon, Michael Kusugak picked me up for a tour on his beloved tundra. He handed me a huge down jacket and told me to climb on the back of his snowmobile. For several hours we jarred and bumped over the frozen, rocky tundra, spotted molting ptarmigan and marveled at the haunting beauty of this wilderness. Now Michael has traded in the land of his childhood for a milder, southern climate. He recently moved to Vancouver Island. I was curious about this transition and asked him some questions.
Margriet: You grew up and lived most of your life in Nunavut. How did your cultural background contribute to your life as a storyteller?
Michael: It was in the mid-80s, when my boys were little, that I realized there was nothing to read to them that had any relevance to where we lived. Not only that but there were hardly any Canadian children’s books. So, one day, I told them a story. That story became A Promise Is A Promise with a little tinkering from Robert Munsch. And then, I realized there was all this culture that I grew up with that was being upstaged by TV, a culture rich in real life lessons that were buried in wonderful stories.
Margriet: Tell us how you became a published author.
Michael: I learned English in school. We studied grammar. We studied literature. We studied poetry. I loved it. I read and read and wrote essays, short stories and poetry in school. My first published stories and poetry were in my high school yearbook in Saskatoon. So I have always loved to write and tell stories.
Margriet: Recently you moved to BC. How do you like it here? Is it hard for you to adjust to life in the south?
Michael: Yes, we now live on Vancouver Island. The summers are nice but it rains all the time in winter. There are too many trees. I get claustrophobic. But I will be fine as soon as I have a boat. Soon. I can’t wait to fish. The people are nice and I am adjusting nicely. But I love it back home, the wide open spaces, the cold clear weather and the food. I spend a lot of time up there anyway, so I am fine. I love going out on my snowmobile on a beautiful day whether it is 10 below or 40 below. I love to chisel my way through 8 feet of ice to fish in the lakes. But here, I can wear shorts and sandals and a summer coat all year long and the food is really cheap. No $8 for 2 litres of orange juice, no $16 jugs of milk, no $104 turkeys. And it does not cost $3,000 every time I fly out and back again.
Margriet: You visit many schools. What do you generally do during an author visit?
Michael: I talk about what it was like to travel by dog sled, to live in igloos and to listen to all those wonderful stories my grandmother used to tell me. I talk about Inuit: we live in Siberia, Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland. We all speak Inuktitut and we share the same stories that have been passed down to us over thousands of years. I talk about my books, where the inspiration comes from and I play with toys (a bone toy and a piece of string). Once in Winnipeg, a couple of little boys started arguing, “That string is not magic!” “Yes it is magic!” “Not!” This went on until the dissenter finally agreed the string was truly magic.
Margriet: What kind of role have libraries played in your life?
Michael: Libraries have been wonderful. They offer the greatest venue because they not only invite whole school classes but, because they are public, many adults and people come. In Medicine Hat, Alberta, the library advertised my reading in the local paper a week before I came and put another ad in on the day of my reading. Over 250 people came. It was incredible. I have had some really big audiences in libraries all over the country.
Margriet: Which is your latest title? Are you working on a new book?
Michael: My latest book is The Littlest Sled Dog, published by Orca. I am working on the next Marble Island story, a sequel to The Curse Of The Shaman an ABC book about the three territories and another book about my little dog.
Margriet: What are you currently reading?
Michael: I keep buying second-hand books. I am rereading Huckleberry Finn. But I also read books I can discard like The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown on airplanes. I am also reading a new translation of Les Miserables.
Michael Kusugak might not take me on any more snowmobile rides, but I’m waiting for an invitation to go fishing—just so I can listen to more of his stories.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Margriet Ruurs is the author of 28 books for children. She conducts author presentations in schools around the country. http://www.margrietruurs.com/.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s May/June 2011 issue.