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An Interview with Mary-Louise Gay

By Lacy O'Brien
Manager, Membership Services,
Canadian Library Association

Volume 17 Number 2

"I wasn't the kind of child who is always drawing, scribbling in notebooks," says Marie-Louise Gay, but she has grown up to become one of this country's most honoured author/illustrators. Gay's recent visit to CLA's Ottawa headquarters was something of a home-coming for this multi-talented a rust. She is a two-time winner of the Canadian Library Association Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon medal for Moonbeam on a Cat's Ear in 1987 and for Rainy Day Magic in 1988. The latter book also earned her the coveted Governor General's Award for illustration; she has also achieved the unique distinction of receiving two Canada Council prizes in the same year.

In 1984 Gay won the Canada Council Children's Literature Prize for illustration of an English language book for her work on Dennis Lee's Lizzy's Lion; the same year, Gay's own series "Drôle d'é" (Rond comme ton visage, Blanc comme neige, Petit et grand and Un léopard dans mon placard) was selected as winner of the Council's illustration prize for a French language children's book. Four years later, Gay remains amused at the publicity that resulted from the dual award and recalls how everyone marvelled at how very "Canadian" it was to have won prizes In both official languages. "After all," she laughs, "the prizes were given for illustration, which has a language all Its own."

Gay is perfectly at ease in English and French. She was born In Quebec City but her family moved frequently throughout her early childhood, living in centres all across Canada before settling in Montréal when Gay was twelve. While the family spoke French at home, Gay's primary education was completed in English schools and so today she finds it easy to work in either language.

Gay's interest In art grew out of adolescent boredom with high school classes. When she began to fill up notebooks with talented drawings, her mother suggested art school and a career was launched. Gay studied design, drawing and animation in Montréal for three years and was soon amazed to learn that she could earn a living "doing something that was so much fun"--selling cartoon strips and illustrations to local magazines.

Her already considerable talents were further honed by three years of work, research and study in San Francisco: "That's where I really learned to draw." On her return to Canada, she worked as a freelance art director/production manager for a Montréal publisher, where she picked up valuable technical skills that give her a distinct advantage today as she negotiates the printing and publication details of her own books.

One of Gay's first clients was a children's author from Montréal. As she worked to bring his words to life in pictures, she soon realized that she, too, had important thoughts to share with children. "I felt it was important to talk to children on a level they can appreciate ... to take children seriously."

Out of this self-discovery grew her first book, De zéro & minuit. A dozen books later, it's obvious that Gay still delights in sharing her thoughts and creativity with as many young readers as she can. She reaches out to her audience through the words and pictures of her latest book Angel and the Polar Bear and the children respond with rewarding enthusiasm when she visits classrooms and libraries across the country.

Angel and the Polar Bear is the most highly narrative of Gay's English books with Just the slightest echo of a Dennis Lee rhyme, and it has generated some of the liveliest classroom discussions yet. "Children are so open," says Gay, "and their link between fantasy and reality is so fragile. I'm always amazed at what they will and won't believe. They have no problem accepting that a polar bear might come out of the refrigerator, but then they tell me that everyone knows that you don't keep bananas in the refrigerators !"

To Gay, the classroom visits are energizing. She finds the children's interpretations of her stories wonderful sources of inspiration for future projects. These visits also allow her to share with teachers and librarians an artist's vision of the educator's role in developing a creative process for children. Gay believes a book should be a springboard to the imagination, and she's encouraged by the number of classes that have "gone beyond the book" to create dramas, artwork and other projects inspired by one of her stories.

When she is not on tour with her latest book Gay draws on "in-house" sources of youthful inspiration. The games of her two active boys often plant seeds that flower into scenarios for new books and drawings. And, she says, motherhood has honed her time-management skills to the point where she can Juggle a formidable work-load with amazing ease. A day in the life of Marie-Louise Gay means work on Fat Charlie's Circus, a new book for Stoddart, an animation project for the National Film Board of Canada, time for her illustration students at the Universite de Montréal, and occasional commercial illustration projects.

And what lies ahead? More books, of course, plus something new and very exciting. A puppet play called Bonne fête Willy the culmination of two years' work, premieres this spring. Gay wrote the script and designed and produced the puppets, costumes and sets, and she can't wait to see the show when It plays at the Toronto Harbourfront children's theatre festival in May. Is there a movie in Marie-Louise Gay? She's non-committal BUT ... "perhaps, perhaps one day."

Books by Marie-Louse Gay

Angel and the Polar Bear. Stoddart, 1988.

Blanc comme neige. Ovale, 1984.

Le zéro a minuit. La Courte échelle, 1981.

The Garden. Lorimer, 1985.

Un Léopard dons mon placard. Ovale, 1984.

Moonbeam on a Cat's Ear. Stoddart, 1986.

Petit et grand. Ovale, 1984.

Rainy Day Magic. Stoddart, 1987.

Rond comme ton visage. Ovale, 1984.

La soeur de Robert. La Courte échelle, 1983.

Voyage au clair de lune. Heritage, 1986. (Translation of Moonbeam on a Cat's Ear).

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1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995


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