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Writing Kids' Books Not Child's Play

By Casey Mahood [Whig-Standard 28 July 1989]

CHILDREN'S BOOKS seem simple enough.

Little stories with colorful pictures about eating "stinky meat" or dancing in a parade are what Ian Wallace, at 38, creates.

Contrary to appearances. it's hard and demanding work, but he's always running into someone planning on banging one off on their typewriter when they get a spare minute.

"If I had a dollar for every person who was writing a children's book I'd be a rich man" said the native of Niagara Falls, a hint of exasperation in his voice.

Although he's not rich, Mr. Wallace is comfortable, and for a full-time children's author and illustrator just being comfortable is an accomplishment.

His second book, The Sandwich (Kids Can Press), which he created with Angela Wood, is one of the most successful children's books ever published in Canada, having sold more than 30,000 copies since it was first printed in 1975. Mr. Wallace has also garnered several awards in Canada and has been published internationally.

Some books, such as his award-winning Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance (Douglas & Mcintyre), take years to complete as he wrestles with the wording and the accompanying illustrations. Others, such as The Sandwich, took only 12 hours to write.

"That happened once and that will never happen again," he said.

The book was inspired by a girl named Anna who was ridiculed by her classmates for bringing a sardine and onion sandwich on pumpernickel bread to school every day for lunch. Like her fictional counterpart she withstood the peer pressure.

"I thought there was a very moving story there," Mr. Wallace said. So did Kids Can Press where he first worked as an illustrator after graduating from the Ontario College of Art.

Mr. Wallace said most people talk of writing a children's book because it seems easy and a way of making a lot of money.

³Both assumptions are dead wrong," he said.

But for others the desire to create such a book arises from the fact that the books they remember best, and which touched them the most, were the ones they read as children.

"We all, in our lives, like to think we have left something behind," he said, "There is something so deeply human about that feeling."

In the eight books he's published he said he tries to kindle in children his own love of art and reading.

Mr. Wallace, whose father managed a trucking firm, was surrounded by stories while growing up in Niagara Falls. His parents read to him every night favorites from the local library, and "my grandparents were wonderful story-tellers," he said.

"I'm very conscious when I'm writing that the story will have to work well when a child is reading it and when a parent is reading it aloud."

And while he is struggling to ensure every word is "the right word" he must also find that delicate balance between the story and its illustrations.

In his most recent effort – illustrating a book due out in October that is set in the Sudan of Africa – he tried several methods of creating the feeling of the land's searing heat. He finally settled on pencil crayon on a textured paper.

"The illustrations are very soft: it's as if they're not on the page at all," he said.

Mr. Wallace said children, on a conscious level, don't necessarily appreciate these details, but subconsciously they do. In his book The Very Last First Time, which is about an Inuit girl's rites of passage, the colors are at times dark and menacing. Young children who can't even read will shut the book immediately, he said.

They know it's a scary book.

"As an artist you do these things hoping to connect emotionally."

Mr. Wallace is currently living in Toronto with his wife who "says jokingly that when I grow up she'll consider having kids." After a brief rest following his latest work, he plans to begin one or two projects that he has in mind.

"I can't imagine doing anything else ... I create my own life," he said.

Copyright © Ian Wallace