image map

Profile: Ian Wallace

Jon C. Stott [Language Arts, Vol. 66, No. 4, April 1989]

PALMERSTON BOULEVARD, the home of Canadian author-illustrator Ian Wallace, is only a block away from Toronto's busy, bustling College Street. But after I'd stepped off the street car, passed through the massive granite gateposts at the head of the street, and begun my walk down the shady, tree-lined boulevard, I felt as though I'd entered a new and special world – one that was quieter, simpler, and more natural. And a few minutes later, sitting on Ian Wallace's shady, second-story back veranda, sipping deliciously chilled, fresh squeezed orange juice, talking about art, literature, and human nature, I knew I'd entered a special world. It was the world of an artist and storyteller whose creativity has, for the last decade, been shared with thousands of children and adults in Canada and the United States. and around the world.

We talked about Wallace's childhood years in Niagara Falls. Ontario. Born in 1950, he grew up in a family which loved telling stories and reading books aloud to each other. "I remember my brothers and I piling into our parents' bed to hear them read The Wind in the Willows to us. It was our favorite book." He also loved to draw and paint. But when he moved to Toronto in 1967 to attend the Ontario College of Art, he had no thoughts of combining his youthful interests to become a children's author. Graphic art and the challenges and possible rewards of commercial art beckoned.

In 1974, the year after Wallace's graduation, a conversation at the Beverly Tavern, a meeting place of Toronto art students, renewed his interest in children's stories. A year earlier, Ann Powell, Esther Fine, Patti Stren, and Carol Pasternak had started Kids Can Press. Carol invited Ian to become a writer/illustrator for the summer. "It was a very exciting time for children's books in Canada," he remembers. "The Dennis Lee books had just come out and a lot of people were beginning to ask for a vigorous. imaginative national literature for kids."

Wallace's training at art school stood him in good stead. "A few inspired instructors taught me how to think visually," he remembers. "They made me realize that all creative activity begins in the head and the heart, not in the hand as I had naively imagined. These artists taught me how to see a project conceptually, recognizing it as a complete and total work unto itself. The next step involved choosing media to bring about the visual execution. This was a crucial decision whether to use paint or film or clay or wood. And not to rely on one media because one saw oneself as a painter,' 'a film maker,' 'a sculptor.' First and foremost we were artists." As admirers of Ian Wallace's books know, they're not only beautiful and engaging, they're very carefully planned and structured. Reading one of them is a total experience.

In his time with Kids Can. Wallace produced three books, Julie News (1974); The Sandwich (1975), illustrated by fellow art student Angela Wood; and The Christmas Tree House (1976). Faced with limited budgets, he could not use a full spectrum of colors. However. he used the restrictions to advantage. In The Christmas Tree House, for example. the greypencil illustrations suggest the wintry settings and create a luminous quality which reflects the warmth of new friendship the children experience.

Not only do these books present heart-warming incidents in the lives of children, but also they anticipate the themes of Ian Wallaces major books of the 1980s: individuals' discoveries of their inner worths and strengths, and their growing awareness of their relationships with their communities. Julie, a newspaper carrier, joins with her neighbors in an unsuccessful attempt to stop developers from expropriating their homes. Vincenzo Ferrante must eat his lunch at school for the first time. Embarrassed when his classmates laugh at his smelly monadella and provolone sandwich, he is told by his father, "You are who you are and you have nothing to be ashamed of." Soon he gains the acceptance of his friends. In The Christmas Tree House, Nick and his new friend Gloria discover that Don Valley Rose. the feared local eccentric, is a kindly and wise old lady.

After The Christmas Tree House, Ian Wallace did not publish another book for eight years. "I filled reams of paper with ideas and rough drafts of stories. But it was really a time of self-examination and self-discovery. I had a great deal of time to consider the nature of the art and skill of painting and writing for children. It was like the retreat period described by the psychologist Carl Jung, a period of drawing inward. I had to find my way to a threshold which needed to be crossed before I could begin publishing again."

Perhaps Wallace discovered that threshold one day while he was sitting at the information desk of the Art Gallery of Ontario. where he worked at the time. "I heard drums beating and, when I went to the door, I saw a dragon's dance in progress. Before I knew. it, I'd joined the crowd following the dragon, and I began to feel the importance of ritual traditions in a culture."

That moment marked the conception of Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance. But the story didn't appear for another six years. In 1980, Wallace travelled to New York with a version of Chin Chiang that had been worked on for two years and was titled The Night of the Dragon and the Day of the Hare. "I had five water colors for the story. Margaret McElderry, one of the foremost children's book editors in the world, examined the manuscript and paintings and wrote a warm letter that explained the exciting and intriguing aspects of my written and visual work. More importantly she outlined for the first time in my professional career how and why the story was structurally faulty and where thematically it lost focus. My task for completing the book was only half realized." With the help of McElderry and Canadian editor-publisher Patsy Aldana, he learned about the importance of the illustrations and how they had to carry what he refers to as "an emotional wallop." "That's what's so good about Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg, and Warwick Hutton," he notes, referring to three artists whose children's books he greatly admires. One of the methods of creating an emotional wallop in Chin Chiang was to use different colors to depict the heros changing emotions. "I started with softer colors, browns and greens. As the excitement grew, I introduced more red, reaching the climax as the red dragon moved through the ceremonial gate against a Chinese red sky."

And the rest, as they say, is history. Chin Chiang and the Dragons Dance, the story of a Chinese Canadian boy who must face his inner fears and feelings of inadequacy before he can make his first performance in his communitys most important ritual, appeared in 1984. The Canadian Association of Children's Librarians named it the top picture book of the year. It was published in Canada, the United States, and Europe, has received high critical acclaim, and has become a favorite of thousands of children. In 1986, it was named an IBBY Honor Book.

During the course of our conversation, we moved into Ian's studio. where he showed me the original paintings for Very Last First Time. They are even brighter and more breathtaking than the printed versions.

When he began to illustrate Very Last First Time (1985), Wallace faced new challenges. The story of a modern Inuit girl's first trip under the sea ice to gather mussels, it was written by another author, Jan Andrews, and it was about a culture vastly different from that of prospective readers. "I had to be true to Jan's words, which really thrilled me; but I wanted to give added emotional dimensions. And I needed to understand Eva, the heroine, as a contemporary Inuit and as the heir of a centuries old spiritual tradition."

To depict this culture, he used water colors, as he had for Chin Chiang, but he altered the style. In the earlier book. he had used pen and ink outlining to give a crispness to the paintings and had placed a formal, scrolled border above and below each one. "The formal tone of the text and illustrations stemmed from the inherently formal culture and society the book was interpreting. In Very Last First Time I needed a style that was much looser and freer to reflect accurately Inuit society." The pen-and-ink lines are gone and the viewer is conscious of larger, less intricate blocks of color.

"I realized as I read Jan's text that the story wasn't just about Eva Padlyat picking mussels alone for the first time. It was a very important and really dangerous journey of initiation. She was entering a new area of experience. There were two worlds, one of light and one of dark, which had to be contrasted sharply in both their treatment of color and in the design and shape of the spaces. The above-ice world is yellow, and that below is purple. I also changed the size and shape of the pictures." Readers of the book will notice that the pictures of Eva before and after her descent take up only one side of the page. When she is below the ice, the double spreads give a claustrophobic feeling as if the ice overhead were pressing down.

In his research Wallace learned about the deeply religious nature of the traditional Inuit people. They lived in a world filled with spirit beings, good and evil, who often held the power of life and death. As she climbs through the hole in the ice, Eva enters their world. The shapes seen in the rocks and shadows represent them: she faces these spirits and understands their importance in her life.

In The Sparrow's Song (1976), Ian Wallace turns the clock back three times: to the Niagara Falls of his childhood, to the early twentieth century, and to the era before the coming of the Europeans. While in his teens. he'd taken care of an orphaned sparrow. "I was awed by the strength of that fragile bird; but I was embarrassed when my mother kept telling people about it years later. She kept the story alive, and I dedicated the book to her." But when he came to tell the story of the relationship between a brother. a sister, and a helpless fledgling, he chose the period of the turn of the century, when Niagara Falls was a place surrounded by nature instead of tourist establishments. And in his illustrations, he made visual references to the Onondaga beliefs of the sacred, spiritual quality of the Niagara Gorge.

The Sparrow's Song is about kindness, forgiveness. and the physical and spiritual healing powers of nature. After Charles has thoughtlessly killed the mother bird, his sister cares for the baby and comes to understand that she must teach it to fly so that it can become independent. She and her brother mature in the story, growing in knowledge of each other and the world in which they live. To express his themes, Wallace again carefully chose the appropriate visual effects. The dominant color is green, representing the natural and supernatural powers of the Niagara Gorge. "When I had the children enter the Gorge, I removed the white borders and bled the illustrations to the edge of the page. I wanted the reader to experience their coming into contact with those powers." The overall shape of the book is different from Chin Chiang and Very Last First Time. Those were horizontal; this is vertical, suggesting the descent into the Gorge that the children make. Incidentally, the six illustrations of the gorge, if strung together, would make up a 360 degree view of Niagara Falls at the turn of the century.

The children in The Sparrow's Song travel downwards: The heroine of Morgan the Magnificent (1987) travels upwards – to a highwire far above the sawdust floor of a circus. Ian Wallace had long wanted to write a circus story, and he'd made a research trip to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. "But I still didn't have a central character. One day, after I'd finished an exhausting five-week reading tour, talking to over ten thousand children, I was supposed to go to dinner with a Vancouver librarian. The last thing I wanted to do was see more children, and I wasn't very happy when she arrived at my hotel door with her daughter.

But in ten minutes the girl had me captivated. She told about how she'd been on the 'Scream Machine,' the roller coaster at Expo 86, three times. I'd found my heroine."

Morgan the Magnificent is another "very last first lime" story. The heroine worships the Amazing Anastasia, the highwire artist, and walks along the ridge pole and high beams of her father's barn every chance she can. When the circus comes to town, she goes alone to the grounds, sneaks into Anastasia's hut and dons the star's costume. Entering the big top, she climbs to the highwire where she begins her walk. Panic seizes and she is talked back to safety by Anastasia.

"Morgan presented new visual challenges," Wallace notes. "I wanted to integrate text and illustration, just the way the old circus posters did. and I wanted to capture the feeling of an old-time circus parade. When I was in Baraboo, I was fascinated with the gilt figures on the sides of the circus wagons. The angel in the corner of each of my pictures is based on these carvings, and I tried to make the illustrations like the paintings on the wagons."

The angel is much more than a decoration: she's a guardian spirit watching over Morgan, caring deeply but allowing the girl to learn and grow on her own. "Morgan is a girl living alone with her father; but there's a female spirit caring for her, and she's given guidance by a woman, Anastasia. I hope children will read the pictures of the angel and interpret her thoughts and emotions."

The illustrations, like those of the earlier books, use watercolor and pen and ink, and add another medium, pencil crayon, "to create texture," Wallace says. What the attentive viewer will notice is that the pen-and-ink lines become less dominant as Morgan enters the dreamlike world of the big top. When she again has her feet on the ground and returns home with her father, the lines reappear.

As my visit drew to a close, Ian discussed his latest project, illustrating Architect of the Moon, a story by Toronto writer Tim Wynne-Jones, author of the award-winning children's books Zoom Away and Zoom at Sea, and talked about one of his greatest joys, visiting schools across Canada to share his art and experiences with young readers.

"After I've finished writing and/or illustrating a book there's a period of time that for me is similar to mourning. The book, 'my child,' with its story and pictures has left home for the printer. All the physical evidence of the completed work is missing. And I lose the book. But when the book is published, a very intriguing occurrence unfolds through my contact with children. In reading after reading they give the book back to me. They breathe life anew into those words, those pictures, but more importantly those characters. The evidence is in their eyes. in the way they sit with their ears perked, and in their body movement." One time while showing the paintings of Very Last First Time to a group of grade three students, one of the children pointed out to Ian the presence of Eva's mother watching over her in the under-ice world. "I must have put it there subconsciously; Id never noticed it before. What a wonderful gift for the child to present to me."

Our conversation over, I leave and walk along the shaded sidewalk toward College Street and the busy everyday world of Toronto. But as I do, I carry with me a gift, memories of my visit to the special world of Ian Wallace. It's a world of beauty and sensitivity, a world filled not only with finely crafted words and exquisitely executed illustrations, but also with an understanding of and empathy with young people whose hopes and fears he has expressed in books which are his gift to them – a gift which is also an invitation for them to enter into a world of the imagination which is both Ian Wallace's and that of every sensitive young reader.

Copyright © Ian Wallace