Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Sharing a Story for Children's Book Week

Ben Mulroney Visits Hawthorne II Bilingual Alternative Junior School/Essex Public School
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The same morning Canadians woke to a now-majority Conservative government, I sat down with Ben Mulroney, son of former Tory PM Brian Mulroney, to talk about books and literacy and his role as 2011’s TD Canadian Children’s Book Week Idol.

While I didn’t probe the logistical complexities of securing reading time with a busy politician-dad, the subject crossed my mind as I watched Mr. Harper segue into a new four-year term, having juggled the dual role of father and Prime Minister for a long time now.

And, ultimately, Mulroney touched on the issue on his own accord.

Though he offered one interviewer a humourous anecdote, crediting an audio recording of Peter and the Wolf with making him a self-taught reading-prodigy by age three, he also referred to the active role both of his parents played in helping him to form his identity as a young reader. “My parents would read to us all the time,” he said, and once he and his siblings could engage with books autonomously, personal reading time was scripted into their schedules. His mother implemented a firm rule early on: “'From 4 or 5 o’clock…for an hour every day,' she said, ‘you can do whatever you want, so long as you stay on your bed.’” They could sleep, of course, but they were young and energetic — she knew, no doubt, that “the other option — the only other option — was to read.”

Mulroney expressed minimal concern over the decline of physical books in the face of e-readers (he views the book-as-object as a nice and nostalgic, rather than a necessary literacy tool), but he spoke animatedly about the act of sharing stories – and particularly of being read to — as crucial in the cultivation of a child’s relationship with literature.

As the public face of Book Week, fostering this relationship is one of his primary tasks, which is why I found him at Hawthorne II Bilingual Alternative Junior School/Essex Public School at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. The week-long festival, organized by the non-profit Canadian Children's Book Centre (CCBC), runs until Saturday, May 7. In the course of this week, the CCBC will connect 30 English-speaking authors, illustrators and storytellers to schools, stores and libraries in each province and territory.

Mulroney accepted his role at the request of a CCBC board member — and out of his own commitment to “the concept” — to “getting kids into books as early as possible, and as enthusiastically as possible.” Reflecting on the daily reading ritual of his childhood he said, “We as kids developed this belief that [reading] was something that you had to do to become more interesting — to become more curious, to fulfill some part of your personality that you can’t get elsewhere.” And, in a nod to his parents’ influence, he suggested that part of the success of children’s literacy initiatives lies merely in proving “that being alone with your thoughts and your books is essential to growing up — [that] it makes you a more interesting person.”

Equipped with a copy of Marie-Louise Gay’s Caramba, the text distributed to 500,000 students across the country through this year’s TD Grade One Book Giveaway, Mulroney sat down to try his hand at the task, face to face with a group he’d never performed for. Young children — that most disarmingly honest of audiences — are a departure from the adult viewers he caters to as anchor of CTV’s ETALK. But the admittedly “daunting” task proved gratifying.

Where there are no filters, “there is no pretense.” As little hands shot up in the air, responding to Mulroney’s questions and his requests for them to test the limits of their imaginations, it was clear that reader and listener were sharing a story.

“If you see a smile, it’s because they’re happy,” he said, when the assembly disbanded. “If they’re looking you in the eye, if they’re quiet, it’s because they’re paying attention — they’re not thinking about something else….You know when you have their attention, and you know if you’re on the right track .” Reflecting on the room’s response to Caramba, he said: “I think they were listening, I think they were getting the story.”

That story — one about a cat named Caramba that can’t fly — is threaded with socially potent themes. Caramba negotiates issues of difference, concepts of normalcy (and the pain of self-judgment in the face of that normalcy), before finding solace in individualism — in the self-acceptance that comes with discovering unique gifts (like, say, being the cat that can swim when everyone else must fly). All this happens under a veil of humour, with topics like diversity, tolerance and self-esteem coming to the fore through moments that trigger laughter, engagement and, hopefully, understanding in Gay’s young target audience.

It struck me, as I listened to Mulroney read and watched the children respond, that Gay’s covert, humour-laced social statements bear an apt parallel to the structure of the Book Week initiative itself. While literacy skills among young Canadians remain a concern, the CCBC’s mandate, as an organization “dedicated to encouraging, promoting and supporting the reading, writing, illustrating and publishing of Canadian books for young readers,” calls for national attention to youth literacy through framework of celebration rather than fear.

Hilary Fair is new to the city and is trying to find her footing in its literary community while curbing her nomadic tendencies. She’s a new grad from a Master of English program and thinks that she’s finally at the end of her “long road to Toronto.” The last eight years have taken her to various pockets of this province, through Europe a couple of times and to the west coast of Canada for a short stint as an islander. Hilary is pleased to be part of Open Book: Toronto and to have more opportunities to participate in the city’s literary events. She is working at various internships while she also works on getting brave and sharing her words.

Photos by Hilary Fair and Amy Logan Holmes.

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