On January 21st, Kit Pearson spoke at UBC on the redemption of story.
In case you can’t read the print, comfortably large on the poster, rather minuscule as a photograph, here it is:
UBC Master of Arts in Children’s Literature Program
Colloquium on Writing and Criticism of Children’s Literature
Presents the award-winning writer of books for children
An Open Book: The Redemption of Story
[information about the date and location omitted]
Kit Pearson has been addicted to fiction all her life. In this talk, she will discuss the significance of imagining other worlds for herself, her characters, and her readers.
She has received seventeen awards for her books, including the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Children and the B.C. Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence in 2014. Kit received her MLS from UBC’s School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, and her MA from the Simmons College Center for the Study of Children’s Literature in Boston.
Kit lives in Victoria. Visit www.kitpearson.com
[information about the departments and faculties that sponsored the colloquium omitted.]
The air in the room was warm and friendly as seats filled up and comers chatted. A table of women at the front waved to Kit and called, “We’re your fans!”
Kit began her talk with a passage from her book Awake and Dreaming in which the ghost of a children’s book writer directs a (living) child to read the inscription on her tombstone. The passage is about the power of the imagination.
“Stories have been essential as breathing,” Kit said. I doubted very much that there was anyone in the room who would disagree with her. Kit elaborated on her need for stories as a child (she was given Dick and Jane readers: “I found their lives so bland that I made up [more exciting adventures]”) and her experiences identifying so closely with the child protagonist that while reading, she was Lucy, Arietty…
As an adult librarian who began writing stories for children, Kit “soon discovered that writing a novel was very similar to reading one.” She noted that in all of her novels, the characters are rescued by reading. Perhaps not surprisingly for a long-time librarian, she confessed “I can’t help recommending stories.” Real-life books play a role in Kit’s novels, as do oral stories. Stories have a redemptive power.
A library can be a sanctuary. In The Sky is Falling, Nora is enraptured by a librarian’s telling of the Russian folktale “Alenoushka and her Brother” (found in Arthur Ransome’s collection Old Peter’s Russian Tales). Kit admitted that Miss Gleeson, the overly enthusiastic librarian Nora meets afterward, is a parody of herself.
Children can, of course, be drawn too far into the world of story. In A Perfect Gentle Knight (which, if I may intrude, I loved), Sebastian becomes obsessed with being a Knight of the Round Table, an immersive experience much as like Bronte sisters’s imaginary realms, which they continued to create well into adulthood. Sebastian’s younger sister, our protagonist, finds refuge in their game but is worried by Sebastian’s disregard for real life. “Imagination saves them in the end, but lures them too far into fantasy along the way.” (rough quote) Similarly, in Awake and Dreaming, Theo “has to be in the real world, as well as in the magical [world] of reading” (rough quote).
However, despite the possibility of danger, stories are essential. Nourishing books, Kit emphasized, is transformative.
There is a keen difference between nourishing books – books that strengthen, equip, and transform readers – and books that are the literary equivalent of junk food. “I still remember the solace of reading a Bobbsey twins story, but it was the same easy comfort as eating a bag of cheezies.”
Of course, the point of writing is not to be didactic, but shallow cheezie-type stories are neither redemptive nor, ultimately, nourishing. “I … try to make each of my novels transformative as well as pleasurable… [so that] I [and readers] go back to the real world strengthened and healed.”
What do the best stories give us?
“Courage, love, and hope.”