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The Middle Child

Ian Wallace

I WAS BORN six weeks premature, on March 31, 1950, in Niagara Falls, on the Canadian side of the famous cataract. I weighed five pounds, four ounces. At birth, my parents claimed they had a chicken in the fridge that weighed more than me. My early arrival surprised my parents who often remarked, "Ian was in a hurry to get here and he's been in a hurry ever since." Patience was never my middle name.

I was the middle child of three boys. I shared a bedroom with my younger brother. I guess it was okay. We survived. I don't remember any major disagreements, bloody noses, or knocked-out teeth. I do recall sharing spankings and measles with him. My older brother got a room of his own. He was the firstborn and we weren't. He got to share the measles with himself.

My family lived in a two-storey brick house in a sub-division that was built a year after the end of the Second World War. All the houses were cut from the same pattern and looked mostly identical. You can see my house, my street, and roughly my sub-division in Architect of the Moon. My mother called it, "Diaper Alley". My neighbourhood was bursting with kids (families being larger than they are today), which meant that the street was always full of activity. I played sports with my friends, not in an organized way, just a bunch of kids hanging out. But we could only play until the street lights came on, then everyone had to go home and to bed. I liked baseball and I liked to run. We played hide-n-seek and "Nicky, Nicky nine doors" too. I really enjoyed "NNND".

I attended Barker St. Public School, which was built about sixty years before I was born – around 1890. The school stood on the battlefield of Lundy's Lane adjacent to Lundy's Lane Cemetery. The Battle of Lundy's Lane was a major conflict between British and American troops during the War of 1812. The British won. Every now and then my classmates and I would find arrow heads and cannon shot in the school yard. In spring, garter snakes slithered through the grass. And at the crest of the hill, just beyond the school yard, there were gravestones from the war. The cemetery was an adventurous place for any child, especially when night fell over the city.

I did well in elementary school. I was scared not to. Most of the teachers were tough and my parents expected me to work hard. My friends, my brothers, and I used to call the teachers "old battleaxes" behind their backs. We imagined they'd been teaching since the first blackboards were hung in 1890.

Being left-handed was a problem in Kindergarten. My teacher decided that she didn't want a "five-year-old witch" in her class and forced me to write with my right hand. She tied my left arm behind my back or rapped my knuckles with a twelve-inch ruler. After several weeks of abuse, I told my parents and they marched up to the school and put an end to it. I wished they'd put an end to my teacher too.

My favourite subject was art. My favourite teacher was Miss Todd. She taught Grade Four and was smart and pretty and kind and fresh out of teachers college. My fellow classmates and I were her first class and she was our first "beautiful" teacher. Every one of us was in love with her. She didn't wear orthopaedic shoes or pastel print dresses. Her hair wasn't grey but strawberry blonde. When she smiled the room lit up like a birthday sparkler. Before Miss Todd, we had endured strappings with wooden boards and leather straps, twisted ears, and thwacks on the back of the head. She was the first teacher who treated us with respect, and she never hit anyone in ten months. We knew she liked being with us. And we really liked being with her. At the end of the school year she broke our hearts by marrying a young doctor and moving to Guelph.

Every summer my family rented a cottage on Georgian Bay. The cottage was called "Ming Toy", which sounded foreign and exotic for a cottage on a Canadian lake. The cottage was so small it looked like a hobbit's cottage. It was a magical place even though it had an outhouse which I disliked intensely. I was always afraid of falling down the hole.

I loved Georgian Bay. I still do. The bay was so huge I imagined I was summering at the ocean. I loved the glistening white sand, the hot dunes, and the rolling surf, especially on stormy days when the wind whipped across the water and knocked over my brothers and me.

I began to draw when I was too young to remember picking up a crayon for the first time. I can't recall a time when I wasn't drawing. On paper. Cardboard. Sidewalks. My arms and frosted windows. The road that ran in front of my house and inside books. My parents weren't particularly pleased with my drawing on my freshly painted bedroom walls, so they provided me with reams of paper.

In the fall of my eighth year, the Niagara Falls Public Library announced a drawing contest in celebration of Young Canada Book Week, now Canadian Children's Book Festival. Prizes were to be awarded during the week's festivities. The contest gave my drawing a mission and a purpose. Several weeks later my entry was chosen the winner in my age category. Until that moment, no one had told me I had a special talent. On the evening of the award presentation, I stepped onto the stage of the library auditorium and experienced something I'd never felt before – applause. The head children's librarian, Miss Albrant, gave me my prize – a book, Little Eskimo Hunter, by Wanda Neill Tolboom. My head felt like an emormous red balloon. I thought my insides were about to burst.

I liked to read almost as much as I liked to play outside. So I came in and out of reading. My favourite books were The Wind in the Willows and Little Black Sambo; later, The Hardy Boys mystery series; and when I got older, To Kill a Mockingbird.

When I was thirteen I realized being an artist was a possible career choice and a logical one for a kid who'd been drawing since he could run. Six years later I went to the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, where I learned how to draw and paint and sculpt and much more. Most importantly I met a teacher, David Chavel, who taught me how to think creatively and to accept responsibilty for my artistic life. He changed the way I thought. He had a profound influence on me and was a source of inspiration.

My first book was published in 1974 the summer after graduation. The book was called Julie News. I was twenty-four years old and ready to take on the publishing world while in reality I knew very little about writing and illustrating picture books. Did I have a lot to learn! Publishing my first book opened a world of possibility I'd never imagined and gave my life a passion.

Twenty-nine years later I published my twentieth book. Several of my books have been honoured with awards and prizes. I've even been nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the most prestigious international award for a children s illustrator. All of my books, whether they've won prizes or not, have been labours of love that I love equally.

Today I live in Brookline, Massachusetts, with my wife Deb. I've travelled reading to young people across Canada, from sea to sea and north of the Arctic Circle. Many of the places I've visited have inspired my imagination. Some of them have found their way into my books. My favourite place to visit is the island province of Newfoundland. I visit schools and libraries in the United States too. In 2003, I went to China to tell stories and talk about my work. Best of all, I continue to write and illustrate picture books for readers, young and old.

And now to the future. The best is yet to come.

Copyright © Ian Wallace