Sheree Fitch 



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I have been blessed enough to be able to do the thing I love to do the most, which is to write and to be among children. I always say I love to write children's books, because in the making of them there's the creation of a safe place. And I still need a safe place. It's not escapism, that's a different thing. Escapism is where you do something and you come back and you're not any different. In the writing and then storytelling of children's books you are changed.




Conjure the presence of the definitive author of books for young children. Create her in your mind. Make your creation a stereotype. Make her gamin, blonde, blue-eyed and not particularly tall. Have her dot her "i"s with hollow circles. Give her a couple of dimples and color her with a perpetual smile. Make her speaking voice pleasant but just a little bit different: heighten the pitch, perhaps and make some of the words burst forth in a frenetic tumble when she's especially excited about something. And, of course, she'd have to laugh a lot. It just goes with the smile. Make her have a social conscience -- because who else do we want in this intimate place in our young child's life? -- and a sense of responsibility that goes with her position. If you have colored her as per instructions, you've created a working likeness of one of Canada's best known authors of children's books, Sheree Fitch.

This describes the physical reality of Sheree Fitch -- the reality that she takes with her when she speaks at schools or one of her many other personal appearances that she has made across Canada and in places like Belize, Kenya, Tanzania and Guadalajara. It describes her precisely and yet it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface. It doesn't, for instance, touch on Fitch's very real reputation as a "literacy activist." Nor does it address Sheree Fitch the poet, author of In this House are Many Women (Goose Lane Editions, 1993) a book that partly focused on some of the darker corners of her world. It does not take into account the single parent that Fitch was for many years, or the fact the she put herself through university -- with honors, mind you -- to the Master's level. Nor does it mention the honorary doctorate she was given last year. ("And my family is like, 'Well now she thinks she's Dr. Seuss.'")

Sheree Fitch would say that none of this latter has any bearing on the person that goes into schools and talks to young children, something she loves to do better than almost anything. Fitch says that the kids are incredible, "They just give and give."

What they take concerns her as well, and directs her public actions. "If my hair is in a ponytail, the teachers call me a week later and say, 'Every girl in our school is wearing a ponytail like Sheree Fitch.' So it's very humbling." Humbling, says Fitch, as well as sobering. "It's an awesome responsibility. And I think if you don't see that, you're being irresponsible."

Fitch says she doesn't want kids to ever see her "dark shadowy side," though -- in truth -- it's hard to imagine that a side like this might exist in Fitch. She seems, somehow, to embody light. Seems, in fact, to inspire and be inspired by it. Think about it: just how shadowy can the author of books with names like There were Monkeys in My Kitchen, There's a Mouse In My House! and Toes in my nose be?

Though most of Fitch's children's books have been the sort of "nonsense poetry" that kids love so much, her latest book is quite different. The first draft of If I Were the Moon actually started as a love poem to Fitch's husband, the photojournalist Gilles Plante, whom she married five years ago. "When I completed it," Fitch has written, "I realized it was a child's voice who had once again found its way into my heart and wanted to speak. I also knew it was not just for one person after all. It was a love poem for my husband, my children, my best friends, siblings, and my own parents."

Linda Richards: Your newest book, If I Were the Moon , is a quiet book compared to others that you've written.

Sheree Fitch: It's a lullaby. It's a real departure, but I'm glad. I like it. The next one's all crazy again. [Laughs.] Frenetic and all that.

You were an on-air personality for a while weren't you?

Well, years ago on Gzowski [Morningside] there was a panel for two years. It was called "The Good Friends Panel," and I was on every other week. It's a scary medium. I'm still meeting people that say, "I hear you all the time on the radio." And I haven't been on, really, for five years. And they're still remembering things I said. That's when you realize how powerful the medium of radio really is. Because you're coming into people's homes and cars and they do listen.

It was really a fluke that I was included. He [Gzowski] had interviewed me for a book and it went really well. And then a year later he came and did a literacy thing which I'd been involved in. By this time I'd been on the show a few times. Then that night I read a poem that made him cry. And I think once you make Peter cry, he loves you. And I adore him. I do.

But the panel was an intergenerational panel. There was Doris McCarthy and she was a famous artist and she was in her 70s then. George who was in his 60s. Peter in his 50s. And I was in my 30s. We'd do these topics; like family dinners or monogamy -- which was a dicey one to do. And compromise and all kinds of topics. It went really well for two years. It was just so much fun. You had to be brave enough to be quite honest.

When we did monogamy, Peter came right out and said something like, "Well, in your experience Sheree, have you been capable of it at all in your life?" And I just said, "Peter, my mother is listening." I mean, the whole country heard it. It was like, "Sheree's guilty, Sheree's guilty." [Laughs] And I'd been married and divorced a long time ago.

So I wasn't really ever an on-air personality, but that was fun.

But I guess you would have to be a little careful about what you say on-air in that way. I mean, all of your books are for kids.

All but one.

Right, so does that give you a feeling of responsibility? You're kind of like Wayne Gretzky.

Well, yeah. The truth is that I wouldn't want my readers to know that I smoke sometimes. That might sound hypocritical, but it's not. You know, you go into a school and those kids notice everything. If my hair is in a ponytail, the teachers call me a week later and say, "Every girl in our school is wearing a ponytail like Sheree Fitch." So it's very humbling. And you're right, it's an awesome responsibility. And I think if you don't see that, you're being irresponsible. It's true. There's an incredible impact. You can see it, "Sheree Fitch, I love you," incredible. They just give and give.

So yeah, I wouldn't want them to know the dark, shadowy sides of me. But I don't come across as some kind of saint, either. I think it's important to demystify [and show] that writers are real people. They're not some otherworldly beings from another planet. They should know I have kids and that I tell them to clean up their room. But there is a line. For sure.

How many kids do you have?

Two boys. Jordan and Dustin and they're 24 and 18.

You're a "literacy activist."


I imagined I'd come down here to see you and I'd see you ramming into a boat standing around with fatigues on and books in your hand. [Laughs] It's just that you're described that way in your bio and it sounds very militant. Very non-reading-like.

Actually in many ways it's had to be. I think the reason you get that name -- literacy activist -- is because it's true. As a poet, the thing I'm really interested in is getting kids excited about language. Then if I get them excited about language and words, even the kids who are reluctant to come to the printed page... I was very interested in literacy issues not just as a writer but as a mother. And I can say that. I've got their permission to say that. I've watched two boys who struggled very much through school.

So, as a mother, I became really, really interested in how we read. How we come to the printed word. And, as a poet, I'm in love with words. So, people gave me that label because I started doing things at literacy festivals and raising money for literacy and going up north and golfing with Peter Gzowski and Mr. Dressup and doing things like that.

Then I suppose the other thing that was a big thing -- it was quite militant, actually -- a couple of years ago on the East Coast, in addition to the GST, they were bringing in an additional tax called the harmonized tax. HST. It was just awful . And it was to be in addition to the GST. It was another tax that would be on a lot of our commodities. The book community went ballistic.

Here we were, many of us had been fighting the GST, saying that this was a tax on knowledge. And here were the four eastern provinces saying they were going to put another tax on top. So, what we did was to spring into action. We had a 24 hour reading marathon, I went on the radio and told people to write letters. Some people were saying, "Well, letter writing is good, but Sheree, do you really think it's going to work?" The bottom line is, between the writers that sprang into action, the publishers, the librarians and teachers and readers we got books exempted from the HST. It was a big fight. It took like four months of my life. And it was going to politicians and saying, "How can you justify this?"

The media was so helpful. One article had a big blow up of Mable Murple -- which is one of my better known books -- that said, "This book sells for $12.95. When it sells, the author gets 45 cents. After the additional tax, the government will get $1.50. Is this fair?"

I guess I would say that all writers are literary activists because we are talking about the printed word. Not everybody gets politically involved and I was glad when it was over. I had my eyes opened a lot.

And it is worthwhile doing something, because you don't want anything to deter people from buying books and learning.

You know, for me it was the principle. It was really hard to do it because I think everybody thought, "Well, she's a writer, so she's up in arms about this stuff because she's afraid people aren't going to buy her books now," and so on. That wasn't it. I've been in schools in tiny, rural, poverty stricken, low economic areas. I know how hard it is for those parents to buy books for their kids. I know that. I just do not believe we should live in a country where they make it harder for books to get into the hands of children. It's just that simple. You are taxing knowledge. It's just the principle. It's got nothing to do with me. If the tax was taken off tomorrow, people aren't going to go out and buy more books and me make more money in royalties. That's not going to happen. It's the principle that we live in a country where our government thinks that you should tax reading. Tax knowledge. I believe that, actually, with a passion. So it was easy to fight that extra tax on it.

Then, of course, as a single parent for so many years, what happened is we won our battle and then I'm thinking about how there is still a tax on the clothing. But somehow I think that people will find a way to get boots on their kid's feet in the winter and they will get the food in their bellies, but sometimes you won't go out of your way to get books.

So that's kind of how that reputation came and again all of the literacy activities that I'm involved in. Really, my big thing is under the umbrella of family literacy because under that umbrella, you bring in all of those things. Like there are adults who don't read, but there's also so many parents who have kids who struggle in school. It's not true that you just surround kids with books and read to them and they'll grow up to be avid readers. That's not the way it works. There are kids who actually are more visual learners and we should be questioning the very structure of the way we assume people learn because people keep saying, "Well, it works for the majority." I meet a helluva lot of kids that it doesn't work for. And I had them. So that's why I'm very interested in the reading process.

It's interesting, too because speech pathologists take my books and use them. Like "Mable Murple's house is purple." The thing about tongue twisters is the more mistakes you make, the more fun it is, so it's a safe place to make mistakes. My thing is really how delicious words taste on the tongue. You don't really know it by If I Were the Moon because I decided to do something different with this one. This is more a lullaby. And because I really believe you need those soft, I call them flannel places. To me this is a flannel book.

This book was illustrated by the same person as your last book.

Yes. Leslie Watts did the last book. She did There's a Mouse In My House! which has been nominated for all kinds of awards. I don't usually use the same illustrators and the next book I won't use Leslie either, but I love what she did in this book so much. And when I finished Moon I knew she could do something different but equally as nice, so I'm really pleased.

The illustrations really work for this book, because they're sort of soft and pastel.

Exactly. She was wonderful with the mouse book and again with this book she kind of asked what my vision was.

How this book started is, for so many years I was alone and after I was with Gilles about two or three years I woke up one morning and I said, "You know what? I've been writing 20-something years and I've never written a love poem." I never have. I just thought, "I love Gilles, I'm so lucky he's in my life. I'm going to write Gilles a poem."

So I start out, "If I were the moon, I'd shine down my light," and when I'd done -- which wasn't that day... I always say this book took me 20 years to write. It was a lifetime. Because simple does not equal easy. I believe you have to get there before you can get there sometimes.

Anyway, when I finally finished it, I thought, "Oh my God: it would come out this way." Here I want to write a love poem to my husband, and it comes out like some little girl. And I thought, well, this is really, really who I am, right?

So then I read it to Gilles and he says, "Thanks honey, I really love it blah, blah, blah," and then I read it to Jordan, my eldest son and he said, "Oh mom, thank you for writing me a poem," and he got all teary. I read it to my best friend Dulcie, and she got all teary and I said, "It's for you, Dulcie." So all of these people that I loved thought that I'd written it for them. It was just sort of an accident.

So I told Leslie, "It started out as a love poem for one person. It's not. It's about all the people I love."

It's so hard to talk about this book because it's so simple. The other books I can talk about all the things I do with language but this book came from a different place.

How many books are there?

This is number 12. And almost all of them continue to be in print and continue to be bestselling Canadian books.

This could be a hard question, but which is your favorite?

You know, kids always ask me that in schools and I always say, "The one I'm going to write tomorrow." And that's really the truth. It's kind of what comes next. But two years ago I did the book If You Could Wear My Sneakers and it was for Unicef. And it was all nonsense poems connected to the rights of children. That one is special to me because it's about starting a dialog between kids and what their rights are. A lot of kids are confused about that and a lot of adults are too. People are confused between rights and freedoms and religions and responsibilities.

Have you done any young adult books?

Well, I always say poetry and especially nonsense poetry for two to 102. But there's no age. I just don't do that age thing. But I don't have any young adult novels. I have a chapter book for grade three/four and the adult book but no young adult.

Where are you from?

I grew up in New Brunswick. But I live in Nova Scotia now. In Halifax. And I love it there. It's by the ocean.

Your passion for your work is obvious. It's easy to see you love your work very much.

I have been blessed enough to be able to do the thing I love to do the most, which is to write and to be among children. I always say I love to write children's books, because in the making of them there's the creation of a safe place. And I still need a safe place. It's not escapism, that's a different thing. Escapism is where you do something and you come back and you're not any different. In the writing and then storytelling of children's books you are changed. There's this creation of a safe place and when you come back you're not the same person. Magic has happened. | August 1999


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.