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Janet Lunn

Canadian History from Cows to Catalogues

by Brenda Reed

Volume 20 Number 6
1992 November

Join Janet Lunn, co-author of The Story of Canada, the first illustrated history of Canada for young people, as she and CM reviewer Brenda Reed discuss two mutual passions--history and writing.

Janet Lunn, co-author with Christopher Moore of the much anticipated Story of Canada, is a woman many librarians across Canada would be eager to meet.

Teacher-librarians and teachers who have tried to integrate the teaching of information skills and Canadian history know how limited appropriate resources on Canada and Canadians can be in our school libraries. A search by a class of grade 7 students for information on, say, prominent women from Canada's past, may well begin and end at The Canadian (and Junior Canadian) Encyclopedia shelf. The Story of Canada is a book that every elementary and junior high teacher-librarian will want in his or her school's library collection because it serves to fill many current gaps and because the writing is so appropriate for its intended young audience.

Teacher-librarians who hastily flip through the pages to look at the lists of books for "Further Suggested Reading," however, will be disappointed. There is no bibliography either of sources used or of related non-fiction (or fiction). Lunn says this was an editorial decision. But teacher-librarians will sigh to know that Lunn kept notes on everything she used, and from our conversation, it is clear that she is a wealth of information on useful sources--particularly material on Canadian women.

One of Lunn's favourite resources for this project, and one that she urges us to turn to more often, is the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. "It's fabulous," she says. "It's absolutely wonderful. My lovely local library let me take the DCB home for weekends. I would sit there all day Sunday and plough through it. There are all kinds of people in it you're surprised to find there."

During the course of her research, Lunn also read many history books, "some of them quite obscure." She also read "a lot of local history" and she travelled widely in Canada. During her travels and her conversations, Lunn collected stories about the people who helped build Canada. Some of these stories made it into the book, although in the course of putting the book together, Lunn was forced to leave out some of her favourite stories. "We all did, of course," she says.

Although Lunn recently toured Canada from Victoria to Montréal alone to publicize The Story of Canada, in conversation she emphasizes the collaborative nature of the project. Coauthor Christopher Moore, Lunn points out, "is a writer, too, a writer of history, and a Governor General's Award winner for Louisbourg Portraits.

"The Story of Canada was a very even-steven arrangement. It was like an arranged marriage," Lunn jokes, adding that she and Moore are still friends. According to Lunn, Lester & Orpen Dennys (now defunct) had become interested in the project because so many people were asking them if their Illustrated History of Canada was suitable for children. Lunn and Moore had not known each other before they were brought together by the publisher, but Lunn says that they were both excited by the project. "From what I've written in the past," she says, "you know I love history. Chris writes history, and his writing in The Illustrated History of Canada was lively and possible for kids."

Moore is twenty years Lunn's junior --"he is exactly the age of my oldest son"--but the generational difference did not affect their work together. "We each took five chapters," explains Lunn, "and we each wrote our five chapters and then we exchanged them. And then we rewrote and reworked each other's work, and we did this back and forth, back and forth, until our editor said she really couldn't tell who did what."

Lunn says this continuity in the writing is what they were hoping for, and she laughingly points out, "that's not easy for two writers with a strong, healthy writer's ego. Writers are very idiosyncratic people, and we all have our own way to say something." There was compromise for both Moore and Lunn. "Sometimes he gave in to me, and sometimes I gave in to him, and sometimes we worked over each other's prose, and corrected each other's ideas and style."

Alan Daniel, the book's illustrator, had things to offer, too. "He is a very keen historian, and his research is meticulous." The illustrations play a major role in The Story of Canada and in large part are responsible for the book's appeal. Lunn says that Alan Daniel chose what he illustrated, but they all had some say about the illustrations. She praises Scott Richardson, the designer of the book, for doing a wonderful job. Readers will most likely agree with Lunn that the page design is "just fabulous."

The Story of Canada took five years to produce because Lunn and Moore lost their publisher part way through the project. "There was a period of uncertainty," Lunn says, "when we weren't sure what was going to happen. It wasn't a long gap, but during that uncertain time when we didn't know what was going to happen with the publisher, things just kind of slowed, and came to a grinding halt."

The five-year span did not bother her, Lunn says, "because if left to myself I would probably have taken twenty-five years. I'd have gone across the country and talked with more people, because I happen to be a very slow, plodding sort of worker--although you find out a lot of interesting things that way."

Just as Lunn and Moore divided the writing of the ten chapters, so, too, they divided the research. Lunn points out that in a history for children, there is not much original research: "it was not after all scholarship that we were after." The book is a synthesis of the coauthors' wide reading. "What we did was to research basically our own chapters. But then we'd go and check research that the other had done, and maybe say, 'I know a story that would fit in here."' Readers will see that this complementary style of research and writing was successful for Moore and Lunn. The vignettes and the inserted stories add depth and richness to the main narrative.

When asked what audience the book was written for, Lunn is specific: "We're aiming at twelve, hoping to find kids on either side. And we're doing that, and a lot of adults as well." Lunn hopes that adults and children will sit down and read this book together. As she says, "I can't see too many kids sitting down and reading it from beginning to end, but they will dip into it, and read this and that story." It is this sort of pleasurable browsing that the book encourages, with stories and illustrations attracting your attention and encouraging you to flip through the pages.

As far as curriculum connections are concerned, teachers and teacher-librarians will see possibilities for integrating The Story of Canada into school history programs. Lunn, however, emphasizes that she and Moore "did not write for anybody's specifications." Lunn says that many people are saying, "Can this be used as a textbook?" and her response is, "Well, if school boards want to adopt it, God bless, we'd sell a lot of books--how could I argue with that--but we certainly did not write to anybody's specifications. The Story of Canada is strictly a trade book." One of the reasons no bibliography is included is because the editors did not want the book to look too much like a textbook.

Lunn and Moore have taken more care than many earlier writers of Canadian history to include the stories of women and the Native North Americans. Lunn notes that the inclusion of women is, for many women, the first thing they look for in the text.

Lunn is very knowledgeable about prominent women in Canada's history, and she generously overestimates how much many of the rest of us actually know about, say, Molly Brant or Emily Murphy, or Catherine Schubert, or Martha Munger, or Emily Howard Stowe. Asked how she first found out about these women, she says, "I've always had my ear to that ground."

Lunn says there is plenty of information available on women from Canada's past. "Look through the Dictionary of Canadian Biography," she says. "They're there." Lunn says she has recently heard that the reason there aren't any books on women is because there aren't any women to find. "It's not true," she says. "Don't tell me there's nothing on women--on Nellie McClung, on Emily Murphy, or even earlier people. Even among the Vikings we know the name of the woman who was Snorrie's mother." (Snorrie was the first European baby we know of to be born in North America.)

Lunn says everyone who worked on the book agreed it was important to include the history of all Canadians. "We really did work at including Native people and women," she says. "We really did care."

Ojibwa writer Basil Johnston, of the Department of Ethnology at the Royal Ontario Museum, was asked to comment on a draft of the finished text for the authors, "to see what he felt about the content on the Native people--and he was delighted. He said he'd never read anything that really dealt with so many Native things, and with so much from the perspective of Native people."

So how did Lunn and Moore approach the challenge of including the voices of Native people and women in their narrative? "We did a lot of reading," says Lunn. "We were very determined that when the Europeans first appeared on the scene we would try to show what it seemed like from the Native peoples' perspective. I think it was Chris who wrote the line, 'It was a new world to Europeans, though millions of Native North and South Americans had called it home for a hundred centuries.' It wasn't new to them." This sense of Europeans as adventurers, and not discoverers, is well presented in the text.

The writing of the text offered both authors a chance to have fun and experience moments of pain. "I'd have to say there were two stories that I had the most fun with. One was that little one about the Loyalist cow. I loved writing that little vignette. And I loved the bit about the Eaton's and Simpson's catalogues. It's partly because I remember how much fun those catalogues were when I was a kid in rural Vermont." On the other hand, Lunn says both she and Moore "found the chapter on the world wars and the Depression the hardest to write because it was so painful. I do not love the War, the loss of all that life and the sadness. I can hardly stand it, even now." The piece on the "home children," too, Lunn found very heartbreaking. "It made me angry all over again about those kids," she says quietly.

Perhaps the writing of Canada's twentieth-century history brought the authors such pain because they, or their parents, lived through many of the difficult years. Indeed, Lunn says that as she was writing the last chapter, an odd thing happened. "Instead of writing 'they' I found myself writing 'we' because I remembered all of that. It came out almost like a personal diary, and I--we both--had to really work very hard to keep that same sense of history for the times we remembered." Lunn adds that it was harder to weed out the details in the last chapter because of remembering them all. "Whereas," Lunn notes, "weeding out details from 200 years ago is much easier."

While talking about the twentieth century, Lunn expresses a mixture of hope and disappointment about the way Canada's history is unfolding. When asked to imagine what period of Canada's history she would return to if she could, she says that she would go back to 1946, when she first moved to Canada. "I was so full of hope. My husband and I weren't young people who were going to make a lot of money, and we never thought about making a lot of money. We were going to make the world into something better. It didn't work, but I've lived through the flowering of literature and the arts in Canada, and I think I've been here in the best time Canada has ever had."

One of the things that makes Lunn uneasy about the future is the state of the environment. The Story of Canada ends with a short essay about two young people who, in 1986, set out to travel through the Northwest Passage. The motto of their journey was "nature must be ridden, not driven," and this is the message that Lunn and Moore leave their readers with. "I feel very strongly about the environment," Lunn says, "and, well, how can you not?"

Readers of Lunn's historical fiction, particularly The Root Cellar and Shadow in Hawthorn Bay, will be glad to hear that Lunn plans to return to her favourite genre now that The Story of Canada project is finished. And readers who like it when there are threads linking an author's books together will be pleased to learn that the new book will be the story of Will's grandmother (from The Root Cellar).

Students who have read The Root Cellar might be interested to know that Lunn does research for her fiction as well as her non-fiction. While doing research in Oswego, New York, for The Root Cellar, Lunn learned about young Canadians who went down to the United States to fight in the Civil War. "A man there (in Oswego) said, 'Well, of course, we did have quite a few Canadians.' I think I even used his line: 'They didn't always say that's where they'd come from."' Lunn adds that some of the recruiting officers also came looking for recruits in Canada. "Although it was strictly illegal," Lunn remarks, "they did come recruiting for the Union Army."

As for the time travel device in The Root Cellar, Lunn says that the idea of using the shadow on the root cellar door just came to her out of the blue one day. "I was puzzling and puzzling how I was going to get this girl back in time, and we had friends visiting, and I was walking through the back yard. We were just nattering away and suddenly I thought, 'I know what.' That's what happens to you when you've got a puzzle. You puzzle about something until you can hardly stand it anymore, and then you do something else entirely and the thing works away in your subconscious, and so it just comes to you."

Lunn says that she likes the time shift technique because it allows her to recreate, and in ways even resurrect, the character who travels through time. The character can be born anew and given a new perspective on his or her life. In The Root Cellar, the time shift allows Rose to come to terms with her situation, and to better understand other people's point of view.

Readers of The Story of Canada will probably guess that Lunn was the main author of "Turn-of-the-Century Time Trip" in the chapter on the early twentieth century. "I can't stay away from fiction for long," Lunn admits. Young readers should be assured that The Story of Canada is an entrancing book, and know that they can now look forward to Janet Lunn's next historical novel.


Bagnell, Kenneth. The Little Immigrants: The Orphans Who Came to Canada. Stoddart, 1986.

Corbett, Gail H. Bernardo Children in Canada. Woodland Publishing, 1981.

Johnston, Jean. Wilderness Women. P. Martin, 1973. Includes a section on Martha Munger.

Lunn, Janet. Larger Than Life. Press Porcépic, 1979. Includes a section on Madeleine de Verchères.

Robinson, Helen Caister. Mistress Molly, The Brown Lady: A Portrait of Molly Brant. Dundurn Press,1980.

Wagner, Gillian. Children of the Empire. Weidenfeld & Micholson, 1982.


Amos's Sweater. Illustrated by Kim LaFave. Groundwood/Douglas & McIntyre, 1988. Also available in French as Le chandail d'Amos. Translated by Christiane Duchesne. Scholastic Canada, 1990.

Canadian Children's Treasury. Key Porter Books, 1988.

Double Spell. Stoddart, 1983 (reprinted by Penguin,1986).

Duck Cakes for Sale. Illustrated by Kim LaFave. Groundwood/ Douglas & McIntyre, 1989.

One Hundred Shining Candles. Illustrated by Lindsay Grater. Lester & Orpen Dennys,1990. Distributed by Key Porter Books.

One Proud Summer. Penguin, 1988.

The Root Cellar. Penguin, 1986.

Shadow in Hawthorn Bay. Penguin, 1988.

The Story of Canada. (With Christopher Moore.) Lester Publishing/ KeyPorter Books, 1992.

Brenda Reed has been the librarian at Bishop's College School in Lennoxville, Quebec, since 1988, and reviews history and geography for CM.

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