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Children's Author Says Every Day a New Adventure

By Sydney Jones, Daily News Staff Reporter

IF YOU COULD live your life again, posed the 10-year-old, would you live it as an artist?

Author-illustrator Ian Wallace was somewhat stunned at the profundity of the question put to him after a session with a school class. Usually he's asked how much money he makes.

"Standing before you is a very privileged man. Every day is a new adventure and a new journey," said Wallace, as he related the incident to a crowd of about 50 Monday night at Cariboo College.

In an exuberant presentation that raced along, the Toronto resident discussed his career and works and signed numerous copies of his books as a guest of Kamloops Children's Literature Roundtable.

His week-long visit here will take him to area schools, libraries and the annual Young Authors' Conference Friday at the college.

Wallace has a lengthy list of published books to his credit, including Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance, Very Last First Time, The Sparrow's Song, The Name of the Tree and Mr. Kneebone's New Digs. However, he also has many unpublished texts and illustrations stashed under his bed.

He likened a book to a human body. The story is the skeleton, the illustrations are organs, muscles and sinew, and the cover is the skin.

First and foremost, books are published by solid stories, he said.

Born in Niagara Falls, Wallace studied graphic design at the Ontario College of Art.

After college, he found himself in the right place at the right time when he struck up a conversation with the founder of Kids Can Press publishing house.

That led to a summer job at the house where he earned $90 a week and worked in a group with nine women.

"I learned more about women in that summer than I'd learned for the 24 years before," said Wallace.

He went on to publish The Sandwich, about a boy, Vincenzo, who eats a stinky mortadella and provolone sandwich at school and is mocked by his classmates. His father reassures him that people laughed because it's different and he shouldn't be ashamed of who he is.

"At age 25,I had the necessary sensibility and responsibility to deal with issues in the book. The story fell out of my head, up from my gut and out of my heart," said Wallace.

The Sandwich was a great success, but he decided to pull back for awhile, write, rewrite and read. It's a frightening experience to submit work to a publisher for judgment and he wrote for three years without showing anything to anyone, he said.

In 1979, Wallace approached a major Canadian publishing house and was discouraged by the lack of response. In a time when the only authors who were getting published were named Atwood, Laurence, Berton and Mowat, no one was interested in Ian Wallace.

He looked at countless children's books, determined what he liked and didn't like and who published what, and the faces of the different houses emerged. He cleaned out his bank account, went to Manhattan and immediately got appointments with eight editors.

His story about a Chinese boy preparing to participate with his grandfather in his first dragon's dance was his foot in the door. One editor wrote him a six-page letter, summing up that his illustrations were terrific, but his story was weak.

So he rewrote the story and sent it back. It's far too long, said the editor. Cut it in half.

Wallace said he chopped it in half and ended up with chopped liver. To try to make this story short, Groundwood Books in Canada became involved, as did a British publisher, and ultimately Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance came out in hardcover.

He took the Kamloops audience on a visual tour through the illustrations, pointing out such things as expressions, color and subtleties.

"What I created in this book was an emotional barometer ... the reader would react to the color," said Wallace.

Very Last First Time is a book he illustrated for author Jan Andrews. He said he was attracted to the project because it was destined to become a classic in literature.

The story, about a 12-year-old Inuit girl who experiences the rites of adulthood by walking underneath ice to collect mussels when the tide is out, is frightening, haunting and exhilarating. It also helps dispel the notion that only boys can have adventures, said Wallace.

He showed the group the 17 original illustrations that took him nine months to draw and paint. Every detail was considered, such as the outside cover being printed in yellow to represent light above the ice and the inside in purple for darkness below the ice.

Why purple, instead of black or dark blue or grey? Inuit people call their home the land of the purple twilight, he said.

Very Last First Time is a story of survival. The title is a play on words – you only have one very last first time, he said

His latest book, Mr. Kneebone's New Digs, which he wrote and illustrated, deals with the issue of homelessness. He determined that the character of April Moth. who goes looking for a new home for herself and her dog, must have dignity, courage and a sense of humor.

"You see these characters moving about your neighborhood and so does a six-year-old child. How do we as a society allow this character to end up outdoors?" said Wallace.

His next book is The Year of the Fire, due to be published in September.

Copyright © Ian Wallace