Volume 94, Issue 81
Thursday, February 15, 2001
|ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
A conversation with...Robert Munsch - Best selling children's author on life and art
Gazette File Photo
By Aaron St. John
Let me tell you a story.
A story about a man from Pittsburgh. A man from a big family who loved nothing more as a boy than to read. This man grew up and discovered that he loved to make up stories. His stories were wonderful and he told them to all that would listen.
Eventually, the man began writing his stories down so children everywhere could enjoy them. The man's stories are so popular that he has now become Canada's biggest selling children's author. This man's name is Robert Munsch.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1945, Munsch grew up as the middle child in a family of nine. He suggests his choice of profession is at odds with the rest of the family.
"I'm from a big Catholic family. I was the fourth. The others are doctors, engineers and there are four lawyers in the family. I kind of ran away from that, I guess."
Munsch fondly describes his childhood as being pleasant, but hints there may also have been some things troubling him. "I had a pretty happy childhood. We had a nice family. Looking back though, I had pretty big mood swings from the time I was nine. In retrospect, I think I was manic depressive."
When asked about his interests growing up, Munsch doesn't hesitate before naming the one thing he was passionate about: Reading. "I read about 200 or 300 books a year. [I've] read every issue of National Geographic from 1918 on. I read a lot of science fiction. I was pretty voracious."
Despite this interest, Munsch was not a good student and nearly failed several grades, a fact that remains a mystery to him to this day.
Eventually, he made his way to university, where he studied to be a Catholic priest, but his plans changed along the way. "I studied with the Jesuits for seven years, but then I got married and got a job in daycare."
The next few years were somewhat transitory ones, with Munsch and his wife moving several times across the United States. Although the couple worked at several different daycares and Munsch attended prestigious Tufts University, they decided they needed to make a change.
"My wife and I were real '60s types, trying to save the world," Munsch says. "But the USA, from the bottom up, wasn't a very nice place and we eventually had enough and came up to Canada."
Settling in Toronto, it wasn't long before the couple found themselves living in Guelph, where Munsch has remained and raised his family. "We were in Toronto and a friend at [University of Toronto] told me that there was an opening in the daycare lab program at [The University Of] Guelph, so I applied and got the job. We've been here ever since, for 26 years, although I quit in 1986. I didn't really feel like I fit in there."
It was while working at daycare centres that Munsch discovered that he had a talent for telling stories that children enjoyed, capturing their attention during storytime and enrapturing them with his words.
"I just really liked kids, working with kids. Some people like Play-Doh. I liked telling stories," he reveals. "Most of my early stories came from daycare and playschool. The Paper Bag Princess is exactly how I told it to kids, minus the weird sound effects."
After 10 years of telling stories to kids, it was suggested that he try and get some of them published. So, for the first time, he wrote down the ideas floating around in his head and shopped them to publishing houses across Canada.
One, Annick Press, decided they wanted his work and in 1979 at the age of 35, Munsch published his first book, The Mud Puddle. Twenty-two years later, Munsch is still proud of the book. "I think it's a wonderful story," he enthuses. "Interestingly, its best year for sales was 12 years after it came out, which isn't usually how sales curves work."
In the years since the publication of The Mud Puddle, Munsch has published 35 books, among them Mortimer, Jonathan Cleaned Up And Then He Heard A Sound and Murmel Murmel Murmel.
Munsch says there are many more where those came from. "I get new ideas all the time. Books are expensive, ideas are cheap," he explains. "I've got between 30 and 40 stories on my computer right now. They're all fighting to be the next book. They fight pretty dirty, too. They steal from each other and they stab each other in the back."
Everyone has their personal pick for the best Robert Munsch book, but the question remains of all his books, which is Munsch's personal favourite? He doesn't take long to answer. "I think my favourite is Love You Forever," he replies. Published in 1986, Love You Forever is probably the book he's best known for and remains a perennial bestseller, a fact which Munsch has a theory about.
"I think it's because it's about as expensive as a nice Valentine's card, but its not smarmy. It's about people who love each other and it represents an ideal," he says. "Nobody really gets along with their parents that well, although they'd like to. It starts out funny, but then about half way through, you realize that's its about life and death and that whole cycle. You know, people don't always think about that connection when they're going about their life, but it's always there."
Despite being best known for his published writing, Munsch still considers himself a storyteller first and foremost. In addition to the sheer joy he gets from being in front of an audience of ecstatic kids, Munsch says the process helps him work on new story ideas.
"Most of what you would call editing, I do in front of an audience. It evolves as I go. I'll tell a story to a group, and based on how they react, the story will change," Munsch notes. "Sometimes, I'll be talking to a grade one class, and a kid will yell, 'Does she wear perfume?' and I'll be like, 'Good idea kid. I'll give you a footnote and a copyright.'"
Continuing, Munsch stresses that when one sees him, it's never a simple reading."I don't read from my books, I just tell stories. Half of those stories won't be books, they'll just be something I'm working on. I'm like a comedian, trying out new material to gauge the reaction. It's interesting to see how different audiences react to things. Something might really work in front of a grade one class, but it bombs everywhere else, so it could be situational"
Looking back at his career, Munsch isn't sure why he's been so successful, but he has some words of advice for anyone pursuing a career as a writer. "Real writers write. I get people saying that they want to be writers and I ask what they write and they say, 'Oh, I don't write now, I just want to.' It's gotta be something you just do," he suggests.
"And if you really want to be a writer, be patient, get a job. You have to do good stuff, but it's just as much about luck as it is talent. So you can't put all your eggs in. Get a job."
There's little doubt about the impact Munsch has had on an entire generation of people and that continues today (he gets more than 15,000 letters a year and answers them all). As for the fact that there are now adults, albeit young ones, who have grown up with his books and still cherish them, Munsch says that's something that is just starting to become apparent to him, though he is pleased with it.
"I haven't really thought about it. It's just starting to happen where I'm getting people who have grown up on my stuff. The last show I did in Guelph, there were about 50 students in the crowd and I was surprised. It's a nice feeling."
But why do his books have such a lasting impact? Munsch thinks it has something to do with the universal nature of his work, adding his books aren't strictly for children. "Kids are read to by adults, so I think that it works best if the adults like them, too. That's important to me and that's what I try to do."
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