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Camilla Gryski: A Profile

Volume 14 Number 2

Camilla Gryski is never without a piece of string in her pocket. The author of two extremely popular books on string games and figures for children, Cat's Cradle, Owl's Eyes: A Book of String Games* and Many Stars and More String Games**, she is ready at anytime to show a newly learned figure to a friend or teach an interested child "Cup and Saucer." The publication of her first book came about as Gryski was demonstrating the complex figure, "Little Dog With Big Ears," at a party. A friend called Ricky Englander of Kids Can Press over to watch. An interested Englander phoned a few days later to ask if Gryski thought the string figures could successfully be described and illustrated in a book for children. "In a sense," says Gryski, "I had wanted to do something like this for some time, so the offer from Kids Can tied in with what I had been feeling should be done." Ever since she had learned her first string figures, at a 1980 Toronto folk festival in a group led by Ken McCuaig, she had been teaching them to children at one or two libraries. "The children wouldn't let me go. They wanted more and more, and I knew there was a need for a book that could be left behind with them."


Apart from her, by now, wide knowledge of string figures and their history and traditions, Gryski's background made her the ideal person to put together a book of this kind. After graduating from the University of Toronto, she trained as a Montessori teacher and subsequently taught for two years. At the end of this time she decided to change careers, as she found that Montessori teaching meant losing the children at age six, just when she felt they were entering the most exciting age range. Knowing she still wanted to work with children, and also wanting to further her increasing interest in children's literature, she entered the MLS program at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Library Science. Here she specialized in children's literature, while working part-time at the Osborne Collection, the historical collection of children's books at Boys and Girls House. By the time of graduation, her son Mark had arrived, and some months were spent at home with him, and later with his younger brother Damian.

Since 1977, Gryski has worked two days a week as children's librarian at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. A fast-paced and demanding job, it principally involves visits to the wards with a selection of books and advisory work with the children. The range of books has to be wide enough to include everything from board books to recreational reading for teenagers, and occasionally their parents. Part of her work is the evaluation and stocking of books for children that deal with specific problems patients in the hospital may be having to deal with, such as brain surgery or loss of eyesight. She works too with the adolescent psychiatric clinic and the Child and Family Unit, as well as the teachers at the hospital, whose pupils are the patients. But, as in other children's libraries, there is also story time, held in one of the playrooms for one or two children, or in the small room that houses the library. String figures go along with these stories. In her work with the recreation therapy staff too, good use is made of string figures and games. An immobilized child can have a lot of fun with a piece of string and the know how to make one or two figures. "All aspects of my work with children come together in string games," is how Gryski sums it up.

Her first book, published in 1983, was written late at night, as this was the only time she had that was not taken up by child care or her job. "The sense of writing to a deadline made me keep going and write it," she recalls. With the help of what she describes as a "really good editor" and a "wonderful artist," the whole production process went very smoothly. Tom Sankey, the book's illustrator, worked both from photographs and from posed rubber gloves on which he set up each step of each figure in order to analyse how best they could be drawn. Cat's Cradle, Owl's Eyes has been phenomenally successful, both in Canada and abroad. It has been published in the United States by William Morrow, in Australia and the United Kingdom by Angus and Robertson, and in Denmark, Germany, and Sweden by Carlsen If.

As a result of its success Gryski is now in great demand by schools and libraries for string figure sessions. She finds that children, even those who have not seen her books, will often know "Cat's Cradle" and perhaps a trick as well, and she is able to help them to build on this base. "The nice thing is meeting children from different cultures for whom string games are part of their lives already," she says. Occasionally she is still able to learn from them a new string trick or a different name for an old game.

For her second book, Many Stars and More String Games, published in 1985, Gryski was able to build a little on her first, and although it begins at the same level of difficulty, "it gets harder faster." Each book, however, includes all the basics for understanding and learning the figures, and each has a balance between figures that move and those that do not, between one-person and two-person games, and geographically between figures from the northern and southern hemispheres.

Both books have taken her across Canada on promotional tours and to festivals, where she talks about and teaches string games to enthusiastic participants in group sessions. A recent one-week trip to Prince Edward Island for the Children's Book Festival meant the manufacture of fifteen hundred pieces of figure string to accommodate all the children who wanted to learn. Even her hosts were pressed into service to help prepare the number needed.

What of the future? There is the possibility of a third book of "difficult and spectacular string games." She is also very interested in marbles, stone, and skipping games; the other games of the playground. "They have the same kind of history, the same kind of multi-cultural spread," she points out. But she will always be, as she puts it,"fascinated by the variety, the beauty, the tradition, and the stories of string games, and the sense of being able to create something out of nothing."

*Reviewed Volume. XII/4 July 1984 p.159.
**Reviewed in this issue.

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