Appreciating Jean Little

In a previous post, I mentioned Jean Little, one of Canada’s most notable children’s authors. She was a favourite of mine growing up, and so I decided to revisit her life and work and write about it here.

About Jean

Jean Little was born in 1932 in Japanese-occupied Taiwan.  Her parents Gorrie (Flora) and Llew were both doctors working as missionaries with the United Church of Canada. Gorrie herself grew up in a missionary family, which often meant a life of long-distance relationships, ably described in Jean’s His Banner over Me (2008).

Jean, the second eldest of four, was born with scars on her corneas, which resulted in her being legally blind. She was not completely blind but suffered from nystagmus, a condition causing constant movement of the eyes which can’t be controlled without intensive training. Still, she able to attend regular school, including completing a Bachelor of Arts in English Language and Literature.

Her father was a key influence on her decision to become a writer, a subject she addressed in her 2016 Margaret Laurence Lecture. He was her first editor, and he ensured she was exposed to the great literature of the day. Sadly, he died when she was only 21 years old.

Jean has lived with her family in Guelph, Ontario for many years, first with her mother, and now with her sister Pat and grand-nephew. And dogs, always dogs. After her vision declined in the 1970s and early 1980s, she got her first guide dog, and she’s had them ever since.

Resources for the visually impaired have changed considerably since she was a child, so her books  Little by Little (1987) and Stars Come Out Within (1992) provide invaluable insight about how she learned to overcome or cope with obstacles life has thrown in her wayIn particular, the creation of voice-activated computer software was a game-changer for Jean, allowing her to publish more than 50 books, the bulk of them since acquiring her computer.

iHer first book, Mine for Keeps (1962), about a young girl with cerebral palsy, won the Little Brown Children’s Book Award. Since then, she’s won many other awards including the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year award, the Ruth Schwartz Award, the Canada Council Literature Prize, The Vicky Metcalf Award and the Boston Globe Horn-Book Honor Book Award. She’s also been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Award eight times. She’s also been honoured with six honorary doctorates, the Order of Canada, and an elementary school in Guelph that was built in 1991. The school team is the Dragons, which I suspect is a tribute to her book Different Dragons (1986).

Given her age, it’s not a surprise that she doesn’t have a website, but here’s her official author’s page through Scholastic Canada.

Meeting Jean

Jean is one of a handful of Canadian celebrities I’ve had the honour of meeting in my life, and I didn’t even know that she was a celebrity when I met her! It’s probably just as well, as I feel very shy about famous people, being afraid I’ll make a colossal fool of myself, and so not likely to seek out opportunities to meet them, as much as I admire them or their work.

But I digress. When I was very young, my mother was the choir director at Chalmers United Church in Guelph. The church itself has since changed hands, though Chalmers lives on in the Chalmers Community Services Centre.  On Sundays, I stayed in Sunday School for the most part, (with Mr Sketch markers and wafer cookies!) so I didn’t have much interaction with the adults. The Little family were longtime congregants at Chalmers so it’s no surprise that Dr Little invited us over for lunch one day.

I wish I could say that I remember that day as if it were only yesterday, but I was only about four years old at the time, and it was an awfully long time ago. Here’s what I do remember: the house was big and old with an amazing attic and backyard. It was early spring because it was too messy to play outside. Dr Little was a small elderly lady. Jean was a bit taller, and I didn’t know at the time that she was blind. And there was at least one dog hanging around. When I asked them about it, my parents said that we got along very well. So all in all, probably not a red-letter day for anyone, but a nice day nonetheless.

It wasn’t until I was older and I discovered her books that I realized who she was, and my admiration grew. Jean’s books tend to be about every day life, either in contemporary times or by way of historical fiction. Some, though not all, of her protagonists, are children with disabilities. Others have challenges that may seem prosaic to adults, but can often colour and impact a child’s daily life (e.g., being afraid of dogs or being a chronic liar). But, whatever situation they’re in, Jean guides them through their personal darknesses and generally gives them a positive resolution. There does tend to be a Christian tone to Jean’s stories, but she doesn’t really prosthelytize.

As an awkward child with early glasses (Grade 2) and braces (Grade 5), I was drawn to Jean’s books because I could relate to her characters. They were real people to me, and re-reading her books is like visiting old friends. Before writing this piece, I borrowed some of her newer works from the library and was happy to see that she continues to write with compassion and good humour.

Here are three works I particularly recommend you check out:

Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird (1984)- A book about a family dealing with illness and death and the aftermath. It’s a particularly hard read for anyone who has lost someone to cancer, which is probably why I haven’t read it since my mother-in-law’s death in 2005. But I should probably pick it up again.

Spring Begins in March (1966) – the sequel to Mine for Keeps, focusing on the trials Meg Copeland faces as the youngest in the family, particularly when one member lives with a physical disability. But Meg’s challenges aren’t all about her place in the family hierarchy. Coming from a family with diagnosed learning disabilities, it’s pretty obvious that Meg has symptoms of ADHD or ADD, and that makes her story that much more relatable to those who live with it too.

Dancing Through the Snow (2007) – A sobering story about a ten-year-old girl who’s spent most of her life bouncing from foster home to foster home. This book is definitely meant for older children, as it deals with physical and emotional abuse, racism, neglect, animal cruelty and other issues. Dark paths indeed, but well worth the read, especially once you’re aching to know how it all turns out.

Copyright Jessica Allyson 2018

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Author: JAllyson

Jessica Allyson is a pen name derived from a fictitious twin (the doctors were mistaken). During the day, I work for a national members association, at night, I unleash my trivia-loving choir-singing fangirl self. I live in Ottawa, with my husband and our cat, who is our most vocal critic.

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