Acclaimed Canadian author Jean Little was at Elmira’s St. Teresa Catholic Elementary School on Monday, helping students learn something about the writing process during the school’s annual “We Love to Read-a-Thon.”
Little, who lives in Guelph and is legally blind, was accompanied by her guide dog Honey and her younger sister Pat.
She is recognized throughout North America for her children’s literature. Many of the characters in her books deal with physical disabilities, such as blindness or cerebral palsy. She has written more than 25 children’s books during her career.
“The school council does a great job of organizing an author to come and speak with the children,” explained principal Sherry Peeples. “I was really happy when we got Jean this year: she’s a very busy woman.”
Little spent the afternoon with the school’s writing club, answered questions from students in an assembly, and had her sister read from one of her newer books, “Pippin the Christmas Pig.”
“The best thing about writing isn’t getting published,” she told the students. “The best thing about writing, is writing.
It lets you be a different person. When I sit down at my computer I’m me, but when I start writing, I become whoever is telling the story.”
Little introduced the students to her sister – whom she described as her “best friend” – and discussed how Honey, who is half golden retriever and half Labrador, was trained to help her with her everyday tasks, such as crossing the street or opening a door.
She also described how she writes her books, despite being legally blind.
“I do it with a talking computer,” she explained. “I type, and it will read the words out to me. If I type in capitals, the words get louder. I can Braille, but I’m very bad at it. I’m very slow.”
Little was born in Taiwan in 1932, and doctors soon realized that she had scars over both of her corneas, which led to deteriorating eyesight throughout her youth. She was taught English at home, before her family moved back to Canada a few years later. The family settled in Toronto before moving to Guelph. She also skipped the third grade – “I’m 78 and I’ve never missed it,” she joked with the children – and began to write when she was in the fourth grade. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Toronto in 1955.
She uses her real-life experience of living with a disability, as well as six years she spent helping special needs children at camps, in school and at home, as the basis for much of her writing. She has been credited for writing stories that are non-apologetic and which take a realistic outlook on life. According to her website, “None of her characters find magical cures for their problems. Instead they learn to cope with and survive the challenges they face.”
A member of the Order of Canada, she was also the recipient of the 1977 Governor General’s Award for children’s literature for her book, “Listen for the Singing,” about a German girl named Anna who starts public school in England just as war is declared on Germany in 1939. She faces hostility and prejudice because of her background, but also finds friends willing to defend her.
Little also told the children that she loved reading almost as much as writing, that her favourite book is The Secret Garden, and that of all her own books that she has written, she didn’t have a favourite. “It changes all the time,” she said.
Little is involved in many other kinds of writing as well, including poetry, history, short stories, and her own biography’s titled, “Little by Little” and “Stars Come Out Within.” And throughout all of her success, she does admit that there is one demographic she avoids.
“I don’t write for teenagers,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t understand their language.”