Unbearably Charming — Sara O’Leary and The Henry Books
Like most children, I was obsessed with small things: the more miniaturized and lifelike, the better. I read a pop-up version of Thumbelina until it disintegrated. A bookseller at Toronto’s TYPE Books first placed a book by Sara O’Leary and illustrator Julie Morstad into my hands, and they were shaking slightly when I put it down. The book was When I Was Small, and if you and your child have yet to read it, you’re in for a treat.
Most children, after all, are trying to wrap their heads around how big or how small they are exactly. As parents we really confuse the issue – “Oh, what a big girl you are!” we tell our two-year-old who has mastered some skill but, “Aww, you’re my sweet little baby!” as we nuzzle a four-year-old on the verge of losing his baby-plump cheeks.
O’Leary and Morstad’s much-cherished first book When You Were Small taps into the absurdity and wonder of never knowing that you’re growing or just how big or how small you are exactly. It also captures the wistful magic, the “pre-nostalgia” as O’Leary puts it, of being a parent.
When You Were Small, Where You Came From and When I Was Small are the kind of books that are instantly captivating, for parent and child. Sara O’Leary and I spoke last week about her very popular first three books, and some exciting projects forthcoming.
Where do you live?
Sara: I left Vancouver about nine years ago, so Montreal and rural New Brunswick are home these days. The series got its start when I was still in Vancouver, and came about by accident really.
I interviewed Dimiter Savoff when I was writing a column for the Vancouver Sun. He was a Bulgarian architect who had just started a children’s press; I was fascinated by his dedication and enthusiasm. Simply Read‘s first book was Pinocchio — and the whole aesthetic was quite different from anything else I saw being done in Canadian children’s publishing. The quality of the paper, the printing, the little ribboned book marker. In our initial interview for the newspaper Dimiter told me that he’d spent months just sourcing the paper.
And then suddenly you were writing a children’s book …
I had a few little stories that I’d written either for my son or other children I knew. I gave him the first of the Henry stories and we went from there. He actually talked to me about illustrators. I’d seen Julie Morstad’s work displayed in a gallery, and he was happy to bring her on board. A good friend of mine who is also a visual artist knew her work and directed me to it, thinking we’d be sympathetic.
When You Were Small is my first picture book and also Julie’s first. None of this is the way any of this is supposed to work, so it was quite a charmed experience in some ways.
So is Henry a real boy, or imagined?
I made up the When You Were Small story for my son, Liam. The funny thing is that Julie was pregnant when she did the drawings for it, and then named the baby Henry. So he’s convinced it’s his book. And of course, he’s quite right.
Did you always love small things?
I always loved the idea of things being out of proportion–either that Borrower’s world where everything is too big because the people are small or the thing about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald living in a house where the furniture was scaled so large that they were made small. I also love the play on language, the literal-mindedness of the joke of “when you were small.”
And the feeling that you get as a parent that you are suddenly responsible for shaping the world view of a whole other person. What’s to stop you from just telling them outrageous lies?
It’s also, I think, a book in which I am trying to say I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU without actually saying it.
Were you really playing with him being pocket-sized at one point?
Oh, we told him all sorts of terrible fictions! He’s nineteen now, and I’m embarrassing enough as a mother as it is. The thing about the pocket in the first book was one of my husband’s jokes. He had a shirt with a torn pocket, and this was offered up as evidence to our then three- or four-year-old.
It took a few years to see the first book into print. My second son was born in 2000, and so Henry became a sort of amalgam of the two boys as I went along.
So there was a heightened sense of your sons leaving that age.
I think you’re right. I’ve always suffered from a sort of pre-nostalgia. Bemoaning things not yet lost, etc.
People love this book. What have they told you about it?
Some people have told me that the book was too nice to give their child, which is the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. A friend told me that it even smelled good. I told Dimiter, and he said he paid extra for scented glue in the binding.
When did you and Julie meet?
The first time I met Julie, we had coffee together with Dimiter on Granville Island to talk about the book.
He opened up this briefcase and took out this sheaf of papers to show us. They were all blank. It was an extended, surreal moment of wondering what it was that we were supposed to be seeing. Finally he asked which white we liked. Of course, they all looked exactly the same to me.
The other thing with the books is that the designer Robin Mitchell-Cranfield is quite brilliant: The ribbon spine, no book jacket, the stripping down of any superfluous text. Getting Julie to do the initial letters on each page. No dedications from us, no bios or pictures. Getting the necessary publication info shrunk as small as it could go. The whole thing meant to look very clean and timeless, I suppose.
Librarians dislike it though: Not enough author info, and no jacket to plastic-wrap!
I do love that seems like a book from long ago. You were ahead of the curve.
I like the way it feels like it has been around for a few generations already. I think all three books have won design awards for their covers. Getting the colour exactly right was very important for both Robin and Dimiter. The first press run was sent back to the printers.
Robin has a line of her own children’s books: Foggy, Windy, Sunny.
So you didn’t work closely with Julie on the illustrations?
On the first book there I didn’t see anything until it was completely finished. I actually cried the first time I saw the illustrations. It’s quite an amazing experience to have somebody so wonderful illustrate your work. I very much wanted to work with Julie, and it was sheer luck that it came to be. I wouldn’t truly describe our process as a collaboration, but there is something alchemical in the way the process works.
I think the drawings lift the text in a way that makes the whole greater than the parts. I count myself quite fortunate. My relationship with Julie is an interesting one. We’ve met up maybe four or five times in real life. But having made these books together it feels to me like we have co-parented these imaginary children and so I feel quite terribly fond of her.
The second book came out rather quickly after the first, didn’t it?
There’s actually one we didn’t do — between the first and the second book. It was called When I Am Big — I wrote about it on my blog. I think failure is interesting in its own way. Sort of belies how easy this may all seem. Conceptually, that book wasn’t ripe for illustration. And then I got the idea for Where You Came From.
And that also came from stories you’d make up for your kids?
It comes from the same impulse to fabricate, yes! That book is much more for parents than children, I think, in its humour and in its intent. I think I used to make the joke about the sale bin, and how he was in there because he was only slightly dented. Which in the end was a little too mean for the book.
And the eagle’s nest was connected to living very near Pacific Spirit Park when my guys were small, and taking walks in the woods all the time. As a prairie girl — I’m originally from Saskatoon — it was a source of amazement.
Henry is very much a character in my mind now, and separate from my own boys. The line was much less direct after the first book. And I suppose I am conscious of wanting some distance between the character and my own children. Christopher Robin grew up to massively resent his father’s stories, apparently.
The really interesting thing with Where You Came From is the response from people who have any unconventional family narrative, adoption or sperm donor of whatever. Even though it doesn’t speak to that, it does acknowledge that the important facts of our origin narratives are not biological. It’s not so much where you came from as “Look how much we wanted you — and now here you are!”
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Helen Spitzer is senior editor at Bunch Family and still wishes she were small.
(check in with Bunch tomorrow for Part Two)