Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver Award Acceptance Speech
for The Name of the Tree
[November 13, 1990]
THIRTY TWO YEARS AGO this week I stood in a similar situation to the one this evening. The location was also a library, although a far smaller one and less prestigious in a community not known for its cultural literacy, but rather for the famous falls that border the city. The situation that night was somewhat out of character for the city, and the life of a boy who up until that moment had not been recognized for having any particular talents beyond the capabilities of his two brothers and friends.
If I had been asked to describe myself then I might have written, "I'm eight years old with freckles on my nose that I pray will fall off. On my birthday I got my first two-wheeler which I'd been longing to get. I joined the Boy Scouts where we tie all sorts of neat knots and throw a huge medicine ball at other guys' legs while aiming at their heads. I love to draw especially on my bedroom walls when I'm not goofing around with my friends. And this year if something really important happens in my life I want a pair of ears."
Now ears, if you will remember, were highly coveted by children in the 1950's. This particular pair belonged to no one whom I knew personally except through the power of television. Everybody whom I knew dreamed of owning them. The fact that in order to earn a pair of ears one had to at least live in or near, or visit California in order to become a Mouseketeer hadn't dawned on our singular and collective consciousness. Yet, television made the possibility real for Canadian kids through its power that enlarged our daily lives. It further afforded us the opportunity to enter the lives of a handful of talented youngsters, all Mouseketeers, who quickly became our TV pals.
0n evenings too numerous to remember, I stood brushing my teeth before the bathroom mirror, an imaginary pair of black plastic ears perched on top of my brushcut head. Staring back from my forehead through the glass was the image of my fearless leader, an adventurous, charismatic, forever cherubic mouse named Mickey. Even at that tender age, I knew that one did not get one's ears from doing nothing. "Nothing came from nothing," Mickey would say in my grandfather's best cautionary voice. And I would nod my head and spit into the sink.
Ears had to be earned like a Boy Scout badge. Unlike a badge, however, that was given for expertise in tying formidable knots around trees or bandages on my father's wounded head, ears were given to someone who had exhibited some degree of proficiency through tap dancing, baton twirling or singing a song. I understood that tap dancing would not become part of my daily routine. My parents would never have suffered the cacophony produced by two shoes with kleets located to these feet or those of any other child who chose to live at 1690 Lowell Avenue. Furthermore, no self-respecting boy in my neighbourhood would have been caught dead with those shoes on his feet or a sissy baton in his hand unless he was planning on changing his name to Oliver Button. As for singing a song, my talent in that regard was yet an untapped treasure trove waiting to be plundered. So the joys of making music that shattered crystal were left to those far more talented than I.
The realization began to dawn on me that I was just an average kid, smarter than some, less so than others, no more or less talented than those around me. And the dream of earning a pair of ears was one that might never be fulfilled. My travel through life was destined perhaps to be as a Mousketeer at heart, yet one without ears.
In the fall of that year the Niagara Falls Public Library brought the possibility a step closer. It announced a contest to draw a book jacket in celebration of Young Canada Book Week, now the Children's Book Festival. Prizes were to be awarded during the week's festivities in November.
Reading the announcement, I knew that that contest was designed with someone like me in mind. I loved to draw and with some diligent work on paper, not the walls, I just might win a prize. My drawing life had progressed with gleeful abandon since the fateful day I first picked up crayons to emulate the world around me. Those initial scribblings raced across reams of paper and numerous books. Until confined by those borders, my imagination craved wider frontiers. My crayons and pencils leapt higgledy-piggledy onto bedroom and hallway walls and flung far out along the sidewalk that ran in front of my house. My parents' response was an understandably negative one when taking into consideration the fact that my father had just finished painting the house.
The contest gave my drawing a mission and a purpose. I began to draw in earnest, and draw, and then redraw until I had completed what I felt was the finest drawing I had ever put on paper. Several weeks later my entry was chosen in my age category. I could not believe my good fortune. Even my family was surprised. Over all the other entries, the jury had selected mine. Until that moment, no one had told me in a tangible way that I had any sort of talent whatsoever or even more importantly that with nurturing, hard work, and maturity, my drawing life could lead somewhere in the future.
I remember the evening the award was presented. I stepped onto the stage of the library auditorium and experienced a sensation I had never felt before, public acceptance and acclaim through applause. The warmth of that moment enveloped me in the embrace of two hundred arms. Then into the glowing spotlight Miss Albrant, the children's librarian, stepped forward offering up her infectious smile, congratulating handshake, and my prize a book entitled Little Eskimo Hunter by Wanda Neill Tolboom. I thought my insides were going to burst with pride.
Turning toward the packed house, my hand instinctively reached toward the top of my head. "Oh, please, be there," I prayed. To my joyous relief, I wasn't let down. Crowning my head was the grinning face of my glorious leader, Mickey, caught between two shiny black ears burnished with light. No one in the room could see them, but I knew that they were there. Although this place wasn't California, it was close enough.
Thirty-two years have passed since that memorable night touched my life in so many tangible ways and in a few that I have yet to understand. Its very place in my history stands as an incalculable marker for a dramatic new course of artistic possibility. It gave me a direction I had never imagined. That first award allowed me to grow from the confidence the library jury expressed in my work. It heralded the challenge of new frontiers to explore and gave wings to walls that stood firm.
This moment tonight stands as an equally cherished marker in my life for it too has enabled me to grow by your confidence in my work.
Any illustrator worth his or her mettle would never deliberately intend to create images with the sole reason of winning an award. One can only imagine the disastrous consequences of such misplaced logic. Nor does an award suddenly make a book more accomplished or more finely crafted than the book was before the award was given. The book had its marrowed bones, its blood rich veins and its unique voice that set it apart from all the others long before the reader found it outside over there. What an award does do is honour the adage my grandfather so often repeated,"Nothing came from nothing." In that respect, it is a studied day's work and a focused vision that brings a natural marriage to words and pictures. Honest effort will bring endless pleasure to readers young and old, until time stands still.
I am deeply touched that you have honoured "The Name of the Tree" so generously with the Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver Award. Your thoughts, words and acts of kindness on behalf of Celia Lotteridge, me, and the book have given Celia and me a string of treasured memories.
I am honoured to accept this award for a book of which I am extremely proud.
Recently I was asked, "When you were drawing The Name of the Tree, did you know that it would be as successful as it has become?"
I replied, "During that fragile period of the book's creation, I cannot dwell on how it will be received by its readers or I would go mad. All of my energies are so focused on muddling through dust. I am, however, ever optimistic that readers will embrace the characters and their journey with the same passion I experienced when I first encountered them. I hope for nothing more and pray for nothing less."
Thank you for embracing a motley crew of animals who in their struggle to survive a daunting quest for food by serendipity permit a lowly young tortoise to triumph over scepticism and earn his ears.
Today if I was asked to describe myself, I would write, "I just turned 40 and yes, my freckles fell off my nose many years ago. On my birthday I got a rude coffee cup from my sister-in-law who revels in my offbeat sense of humour. I didn't join any organizations this year, so I can't demonstrate any new knots. And you don't have to worry, I don't have a medicine ball hiding behind my back. I still love to draw, but for books, no longer on my on my bedroom walls. I still love goofing around with my friends, although I prefer to spend my spare time with my wife. And this year, something important has happened. I earned a new set of ears. See them? They're right up here, grinning from the top of my head.
Congratulations from Irene Aubrey, National Library of Canada,
and Scott McIntyre, President, Douglas McIntyre Books
Opportunities to thank publicly those who have influenced my work over the past several years come so fleetingly that I would like to take a few moments to acknowledge them tonight.
The loudest and most joyful noise must go out to Celia Lotteridge, with whom I share this honour. You have graced me, Celia, and each of the readers of the world with one of the finest texts this country has ever published. Your eloquent prose, rich in imagery, brimful of your resonant storyteller's voice will reverberate in our hearts and minds forever. No reader will ever forget the word UNGALLI!
My editor, Patsy Aldana. I applaud her ability to challenge me year after year, and for allowing me the freedom to test my creative skills in far reaching directions book after book. I salute her uncanny ear for language and her astute eye for illustration and gratefully acknowledge the unsung star of The Name of the Tree and the Canadian publishing industry.
Michael Solomon, whose thoughtful provoking notes on each of the illustrations and the book's overall design added immeasurably to its success.
Kelly Mitchell, Lucy Fraser, and Susan McIntosh the Gang of Three at Groundwood Books for their continued support and encouragement and for their individual and collective wits that keep our lives together just chortling along.
Mary Anne Cree, Joanne Graeme, Theo Hirsh and the staff of the Metro Toronto Reference Library Picture Loan Collection, whose efforts contributed immensely to my research.
My friend Virginia Davis, whose infectious enthusiasm for authors, illustrators, publishers, and books is a bounty to us all.
And second to the end, but certainly not least in importance, the one constant in my life, my wife Deb, without whose love none of what I do would have the breadth of significance it has for me.
Lastly I would not be here this evening if it had not been for the generosity of the woman for whom this award is named, Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver. Ms Cleaver's life and her body of work stand as a testament to tenacity through courage. Her artistic integrity and scholarship set a standard of excellence that illustrators will struggle to emulate, but few will achieve with any relative degree of her success.
In closing, I would like to leave you with a few words from Elizabeth. This quote is from an article she wrote entitled " The Visual Artist and the Creative Process in Picture books". She wrote, "All children's books will influence the way in which the child will see. But artistically valuable books will educate the child's taste and visual sense. They will stimulate imagination. They will also encourage the child to create his own image of life and thus help him find his own way."
Thank you for helping this artist find his way.
Copyright © Ian Wallace