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What Should a "Stinky" Look Like?

[Kelowna Capital News, Oct. 17, 1984]

WHAT DO YOU think an author should look like, especially one whose nickname was "Stinky"?

Ian Wallace, an artist-turned-author who now writes and illustrates books for children, throws the question out at young audiences and it's clear he doesn't fit the image they (or probably adults either) have of an author: neither old nor bearded nor bespectacled. And as for his childhood nickname, though he admits it to kids to win their laughter, it's also to win their trust. In person, as in his stories, he shows an understanding of and sympathy for the hurt and loneliness children often suffer but also how these feelings can be overcome.

The 34-year-old Torontonian, youthful in face and manner despite prematurely silvered hair, was in Kelowna recently to give a reading for school children and discuss his work with them.

Addressing some 60 elementary grade students at the Public library he read "The Sandwich," about a Canadian Italian boy whose Italian-style sandwich at first arouses the scorn of his classmates; and "Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance," about a Vancouver boy who is helped by an old woman to overcome his fear about his first performance of an important Chinese ritual.

The language isn't simplified – Wallace has great admiration for language and believes children should be exposed to its beauty and variety – but the stories are interesting and easy to follow and include many concrete details. In the case of "Chin Chiang" there are beautiful pen and watercolor illustrations by Wallace that also help hold young listeners' attention.

It's clear, too, that the stories describe situations to which children can relate; and that this is one author who's quite the actor.

"Reading in front of kids has really brought out the desire for acting that I guess was buried in me all those years," Wallace says, and his dramatic reading style brings to life all the humor and pathos in seemingly simple stories.

Following the reading, Wallace took plenty of time to describe how a book is made, and then to answer questions about writing and illustrating. He confided that as a child he also endured laughter at his "funny haircut" and long underwear, and in turn drew out from the children not only descriptions of their favorite sandwiches, but, more seriously, their own experiences of being laughed at.

Sometimes, Wallace says, this can result in quite an emotional outburst after a reading, as children often bottle up deeper tragedies than adults realize.

Wallace's Kelowna visit was part of a two-week tour sponsored by the Author's Reading Program of the National Children's Book Centre, in which he has been participating since 1977. He's a firm believer in the program because of the chance it gives children to experience the tradition of oral storytelling (something he grew up with, hearing the tales of his Yorkshire-miner grandfather) and to meet authors in the flesh, question them and perhaps discover writers are real people, too, doing something anyone who wants to can try.

He also enjoys the chance it gives him to meet and talk with his readers, for it's obvious that though unmarried and without children of his own, he really likes kids and still feels close to his own childhood – "at the moment I'm my own kid."

In fact, he likes meeting and talking with people in general, which makes his job at the information desk of the Art Gallery of Ontario very interesting, though he admitted to nervousness at the thought of giving his first workshop for adults at the Kaleidoscope 3 conference on children's literature in Calgary, held Oct. 5 to 7.

"Kids accept you for the idiot you are."

Wallace's first achievements were in the field of visual rather than written art. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, he graduated with honors from the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, received several scholarships and exhibited in galleries across Canada, his main area of work being in printmaking.

While still a student, however, in 1974, he got a job with Kids Can Press and wrote and illustrated a short book, "Julie News" and was "hooked." Then came "The Sandwich" in 1975, which he wrote but didn't illustrate and "The Christmas Tree House" in 1976.

Writing was something he'd never done or considered doing professionally; then he just decided to start; which, as he tells kids, ≥just shows if you want to do something enough you can do it."

Not that there wasn't a lot of work, learning and self-doubt involved. "Chin Chiang", his favorite book, started in 1978, turned into a six-year project, with writing and rewriting (12 pounds worth), illustrating and struggling to find a publisher. He finally did, at Atheneum in New York. That was his international debut, and the book has since been published by Douglas and McIntyre in Canada and Methuen in Britain.

He's still growing as a writer, he says, and has lots of stories locked in closets, hidden under the bed and thrown in the garbage, but has two current projects about which he's very excited - one still a secret, the other illustrating Jan Andrews' "The Very Last First Time," about an Inuit girl's walk beneath the frozen sea to collect mussels. His only regret about that beautiful story, he admits, is envy that he didn't write it himself.

Wallace's various commitments as a children's author haven't allowed him to return to his former work in art, though he'd like to; but his present career is in many ways more fulfilling. He may joke that he started writing and illustrating children's books because "I couldn't do anything else" or "I'm just a big kid," but adds seriously that "I like writing for children because it brings together two equally important areas of my life – the printed word and the visual image ... It's an opportunity to create literally a film in books – where you're the writer, director, set designer, actor. There are two stories going on in a book – one when you read words, another when you look at the pictures."

In "Chin Chiang" he's taken care to ensure the pictures aren't just illustrating what is written, but add an extra dimension, their colors (growing progressively more intensive) and lines and angles creating different moods, emphasizing or expressing feelings and ideas.

"Children's picture books are the only way to go, artistically."

Copyright © Ian Wallace