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Portraits: Ian Wallace

Dave Jenkinson [Emergency Librarian 12:3]

AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR Ian Wallace readily admits that some of his creations definitely stink. In fact, they have consistently been so bad that kids across the nation have taken to calling him "Stinky", but the children's nickname for Ian does not reflect their assessment of his literary works. Instead, the appellation aptly and fondly describes Ianšs culinary output – mortadella and provolone sandwiches in particular.

Ian is the author of The Sandwich, which focuses on an episode in the life of Vincenzo Ferrante, a grade two Italian boy who lives in Toronto. A family illness forces Vincenzo to eat lunch at school, and he and his father construct a sandwich of highly odoriferous provolone cheese and pepper and garlic seasoned mortadella sausage. At lunch time, Vincenzo visually compares his sandwich with everyone elsešs and notices that "they're all the same except mine". Unlike the other children, Vincenzo had used bread from an Italian bakery, and its shape differed from that of the typical North American produce. When the children get a whiff of his sandwich, they begin chanting, "Vincenzo eats stinky!" Devastated by his classmates' taunting, Vincenzo leaves the cafeteria with his sandwich. That evening, Vincenzo is comforted by his Papa who advises, "Always remember, you are who you are and you have nothing to be ashamed of." Armed with his father's advice and also the suggestion to disarm his lunch mates by laughing along with them, Vincenzo and his "stinky" concoction conquer the cafeteria group.

The book and the sandwich makings have been taken on tour across Canada. "If anyone deserved to be called 'The Stinky Meat Man' or 'Stinky' for short," says Ian, "I do. I have made 40,000 mortadella and provolone sandwiches in schools and libraries over the last seven years. In fact, I've had to sleep in hotel rooms with it, arriving in libraries with the most fragrant aroma and leaving later in the morning with the meat and cheese having been ground into the carpet. I've been told that my reputation lingers long after my departure." Ian has been impressed by the impact that this story about being different has had on some children. "After telling The Sandwich in schools and libraries, I talk to the kids about similar experiences they have had. For me, that is the most moving and difficult part of the program as I tread gingerly on their emotional ground. I've had kids break down in tears in front of me and kids who tell stories that make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck."

The inspiration for The Sandwich came from an incident related to Ian by the illustrator of the book, Angela Wood, who had worked as a teacher's aide in a Toronto school. She described a little girl, Anna, who "brought sardine and onion sandwiches on pumpernickel bread. Anna sat at the back of the cafeteria by herself because no one would sit beside her. Every day she would come up to Mrs. Wood and say, 'Tomorrow I'm going to bring peanut butter and jam,' but every day for the entire year poor Anna sat at the back of the cafeteria eating those sandwiches. Somewhere in that incident, I knew that there was a wonderful story."

Appropriately, The Sandwich was sandwiched between two other books. Both had Toronto's Cabbagetown as their setting. Julie News allowed young readers to become acquainted with newspaper delivery girl Julie and the range of ethnic origin, age, and lifestyle found amongst her customers. The Christmas Tree House involved two children who discovered the inappropriateness of superficially judging people by their outward appearance. After this third book, Ian felt he had to leave Kids Can Press. Funding was then quite limited at Kids Can Press, and books were being illustrated in only one or two colors. "I didn't want that for the rest of my life, and I knew that I had to make some kind of gargantuan leap."

But it was not just the dream of some day being able to illustrate in full color that prompted Ian to cease being part of Kids Can. "It was really difficult for me to handle the success of The Sandwich. I found I couldn't understand how something that I had written in a period of two weeks could get the acclaim that it had gained. And it was only the second thing that I had ever written. I realized that I had been drawing since I was four years old and that I had 20 years of art experience ahead of my writing. Somehow I had some catching up to do. I had to get my writing skills and hone them and really understand structure, themes, plots, character development, and all that sort of thing. That's why I removed myself and wrote voraciously for the next two years. I submitted to nobody and those stories are now hidden under my bed, locked in closets and in drawers where nobody will ever see them."

One story, however, did keep returning to Ian, and that was the tale that would become Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance. An article in the Globe and Mail also stimulated Ian. "It reported that young Chinese children growing up in this country were suffering from the same problems that Black children were experiencing in the United States and Canada. Because of the way they looked they had a problem assimilating into the culture. I decided that somehow I would link the two things together and create a story about a child coming to terms with his identity at a time of the most important festival of the new year, a time of celebration and rejoicing."

Deciding to create such a book and actually doing it are two quite distinct activities. Chin Chiang has, in addition to its illustrations, only fourteen pages of text containing some 1,650 words. In terms of text, the book is about the length of this portrait, but for Ian to achieve this end product, he produced a pile of drafts and re-drafts that measures nearly 14 cm (5-1/2 inches) in height. The towering pile came about because of two problems. The first was to find the correct story to tell about Chin Chiang and then, having found it, there was "the difficult task of going into each sentence and looking at every word to discover the right words and only those sentences make that story. The text was weeded down to let the illustrations carry the emotional intensity of the scenes."

Though Ian was already a published author, finding a publisher was a problem. Ian's disenchantment with Canadian publishing houses grew. He relates a story about one firm where a scheduled interview began with the editor's being 45 minutes late and wherein the editor evidenced only the most superficial attention. "Six months later I called to discover what they were doing with the material I had left with them. They could not remember me, and they had lost all the material. It wasn't until three months later that I received a letter rejecting those stories. They didn't return the material because they still couldn't find it."

Such encounters led Ian to New York where, in the fall of 1980, he, an unknown, made appointments with eight of the largest houses in the United States. "Two weeks later, not six months, I received a letter for Atheneum's Margaret McElderry." Though her communication contained several pages of constructive criticism, it also included the sentence, "The illustrations and the basic quality of your writing are so exceptional." Ian says that the letter "was one of the most incredible moments of my life". A short time later, McElderry "contacted Patsy Aldana of Groundwood/Douglas & Mcintyre and suggested the possibility of a co-production which would be edited in both countries".

To research the Chinese culture, Ian spent two months at the reference library in Toronto and then went to Vancouver's Chinatown visiting the Chinese Cultural Center. "For the first four days at the Center, nobody would speak to me, and it wasn't until they saw me coming in every day and saw that I was serious about what I was doing that they begin to open up." The book's details reflect Ian's study. For example, the decal pattern above and below the illustrations is actually the symbol for dragon in the Chinese culture.

Ian brought the same intensity to the illustrations that he had to the text. "The color was designed so that it became the emotional barometer of the text. As you move through the story, it starts out very subtly in browns and greens, but as you go through the tale it progresses through all the primaries. Moving closer and closer to the climax, the color intensifies. I had an image in my head from the start of the project that at the climax of the story the sky would be Chinese red. If you watch, you can see the colors grow as you move through the story. Part of the reason the colors are so intense in this book is because, for some of the deepest colors, there are twelve layers of color placed one on top of the other. I don't paint dark to begin with. I start very, very light and then I build. It's this layering process that allows me to get the subtle gradations I want to achieve and that plus the incredible detail is why it took me so long to complete the illustrations."

While the water colors took some nine months to complete, for a period of five and a half months Ian worked ten to fourteen hours a day, six days a week, to meet his deadline. "To retain sanity throughout this process, I had to put things into the illustrations that kept me going." On a shelf in Chin Chiang's parents' shop, the paperback edition of Bridge to Terabithia can be seen. "It's my favorite YA novel, and so in this illustration, I decided there was going to be a dedication to Katherine Paterson. I wanted my 'book' to look exactly like the real cover, and so I took a magnifying glass and spent an hour and a half to make sure it looked like the original. Of all the illustrators in the world, Maurice Sendak has been the one who has given me incredible inspiration. I decided in this book Sendak was going to appear somehow, and the only way I could figure doing that was by using "Max." Readers will recognize Max on the banner in the public library illustration.

Chin Chiang is dedicated "To my grandparents for their stories and their songs". Ian was born on March 31, 1950, in Niagara Falls and he remembers that "when I was a little boy my grandparents were story-tellers and singers, and our house was always filled with the sound of their voices rising up to the rafters. My parents were great readers to us. Everyone loves being read to, and I still remember those winter evenings being read The Wind in the Willows. All of Ian's public schooling took place in Niagara Falls with the exception of three years between the ages of thirteen to sixteen when he lived in Toronto. He says that the school system did not play a major role in nurturing his interest in art, but Ian did notice the differences between the art programs in the two locales. "When I returned to Niagara Falls, I had to rely on my own resources. There were no kilns or acrylics. It was like 'Mother Hubbard's cupboards'. I think when you don't have equipment and all sorts of media, it sometimes works to your advantage."

Following public school, Ian went to the Ontario College of Art for four years, receiving an Associateship and winning a scholarship to return for a year of post-graduate studies. A chance meeting with an employee of Kids Can Press in a bar led to an interview, a job offer, and the beginning of Ian's writing-illustrating career.

Currently, Ian is illustrating Jan Andrews' story The Very Last First Time, which is about an Inuit girl who, for her very first time, is going to take a dangerous walk under the ice to collect mussels on the bottom of the sea. "This is done in the winter when the tide is out. I'm really excited about the possibilities. It's a privilege to be given somebody else's text and bring your vision to it. Hopefully, it'll also be their vision too."

Copyright © Ian Wallace