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Profile: Tim Wynne-Jones

by Joyce MacPhee

Volume 22 Number 1
1994 January/February

While Tim Wynne-Jones was writing the collection of short stories for children published under the title One of the Kinder Planets (Groundwood Books/ Douglas & McIntyre, 1993), he felt he was writing better than ever before. His instincts served him well--the book won the 1993 Governor General's Award for Children's Literature.

"I felt I was writing with complete honesty for the first time and each story felt better than the last--it was just a great experience," he said in a telephone interview shortly after the award winners were announced.

Wynne-Jones was ecstatic about winning the award, as well as with the $10,000 prize money. He joked about buying gourmet bird seed to feed feathered friends in the woods near his home 80 kilometres southwest of Ottawa with the windfall.

Like many writers, Wynne-Jones arrived at his profession in a roundabout way. He was born in England, grew up in Ottawa, and attended university in Waterloo. Shortly before he began writing full time, he received a master's degree in visual arts from York University. To this day, visual images are an important part of his writing process.

"I'd like to think I began writing when I was drawing and started writing in the margins, but I was already thinking in terms of the story behind the picture," said Wynne-Jones. "When you imagine something, the word 'imagine' has the word 'image' in it, and what you want to give readers is an image in their heads."

Wynne-Jones won high acclaim early in his career. In 1979 he won the Seal First Novel Award for the suspenseful adult novel Odd's End. "I felt the $50,000 prize was a good way to begin a writing career. It was quite a start--it's been downhill ever since," quipped WynneJones. Since then he has completed two other novels and eight children's books, as well as an opera libretto, a children's musical and a dozen radio plays for CBC.

Wynne-Jones is perhaps best known for his children's books, in particular three popular books chronicling the adventures of Zoom the cat. He has also won the IODE Book Award, the Ruth Schwartz Award and an ACTRA award.

For the last five years he has lived near Perth with his wife, the writer and calligrapher Amanda Lewis, and three children, Xan, twelve, Maddy, ten, and Lewis, six. Although he doesn't often get the ideas for stories from his children, he said part of the material in Some of the Kinder Planets was inspired by his kids and their friends.

The stories in Some of the Kinder Planets tell the individual tales of nine seemingly average Ontario kids who embark on journeys of discovery and adventure. The collection is intended for children from eight to fourteen years old, an age group that fascinates him. "I just find that age group to be so extraordinary, so bright and interesting and funny ... it's kind of a wonderful golden age," he enthused.

Wynne-Jones commented that Canadian children's fiction has come an incredible distance in the past twenty years. When his first children's book was published in 1976 there were 35 children's books published that year in Canada, and now approximately 400 are published here annually. He noted that many of these books also sell in Europe and the United States. His own books about Zoom are soon to be released in Japan.

The fact that children's book sales are continuing to increase is a positive thing, according to Wynne-Jones, but he believes more books are selling to fewer people. "That is to say the people who believe in books buy a great deal of books, but a great number of kids don't see books at home and their parents don't buy books except at the grocery store--Garfield or something like that," he lamented.

Wynne-Jones strongly believes in the role of libraries in the community. Using the library was an important part of his own childhood. He observed that today there is a tremendous amount of competition drawing children away from books. On his worst days he fears we are living in a post-literate society. "Books don't mean that much in our society, yet books are still the best means of getting information. So I hope books are still around to inform and entertain people down the pike away when the batteries for video games die."

But he still has great optimism for children's writers in the 1990s: "If you write something good eventually it will probably get published. Similarly, if you publish something good it will probably hang around."

Wynne-Jones pointed out that children's books, unlike adult books, tend to stay in print for several years. "The competition is there, no doubt, but if the book is special people will find out about it," he concluded.

Wynne-Jones ended a one-year term as writer-in-residence at the Nepean Public Library in December. In the new year he resumed work on a novel for children. Obviously, he's one of those rare people who takes his own advice: "Just stick with it. Write because you love writing."

Joyce MacPhee writes for Feliciter, published by the Canadian Library Association

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