Prime Minister's Award winners:
Carolyn Wilson in Stratford
Mark Robbins in Barry's Bay
“I know exactly who I want to tell you about,” says Robert Munsch over the phone on a hectic Wednesday afternoon.
“She was the librarian, not a regular teacher. She let me live in the school library. I didn't do well in school but I was an avid reader and she was happy to let me muck around in the library.”
Robert Munsch was born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From Grade 1 through Grade 8 he went to All Saints School, a parochial school in the nearby town of Etna.
The teacher he remembers so vividly is Sister Emma Jean. “Nuns didn't have last names in those days. She was a very young nun, had a university degree and loved books. It was a new school and it was her job to start up the library. She kept saying, ‘Try this' and ‘Try that.' She even let me come in on Saturdays.”
Sister Emma Jean Middendorf remembers those Saturdays. “We worked on cataloguing. You know those cards they used to have in the backs of books? Well, I typed them. I wasn't very mechanically minded and I guess he wasn't either. When we got to the end of the ribbon we couldn't find the little lever, so we would rewind the ribbons by hand!” She laughs. “I can still see him at that school, dealing with the typewriter. “One time he gave me a sign that said, ‘You don't have to be crazy to work here but it helps,' and we put it up. He had a quirky sense of humour and it comes out in his books.”
She had no hint then that Munsch would become a spectacularly successful and beloved writer for children.
Munsch certainly did not foresee a future as Canada's best-selling children's author.
“When I went to high school, I didn't get along with anybody, read lots of books and decided to be a Catholic priest,” he has written. “I studied for seven years to be a Jesuit priest, only to find that I was lousy priest material.” During his studies he worked part-time in an orphanage. After he left the Jesuits he earned an MA in early childhood education and taught in daycare centres. On a student teaching placement in a preschool he told his first stories.
In 1975 Munsch and his wife, also a daycare teacher, moved to Canada. He taught at the University of Guelph and in the campus preschool. There, his boss prodded him into writing down his stories and seeking out a publisher.
“So I became a writer.”
His first book, Mud Puddle, sold 3,000 copies in 1976. In the years since, he has sold more than 30 million books around the world.
Inspired by real kids he's met, Munsch tells and retells his stories, sometimes for years, before he writes them down. The idea for Mud Puddle, for instance, came to him on a sloppy spring day when his nursery school's playground had turned into a mud hole: The kids couldn't help getting dirty because mud puddles jump on them from trees. The kids loved it.
“People identify with what he writes,” says Sister Emma Jean. “He had eight brothers and sisters and that made him very sensitive to people. I think his family had a good sense of values. He was kind and thoughtful and very inquisitive.”
“I needed someone to go to bat for me, and she went for bat for me,” says Munch. “I wasn't a discipline problem but I daydreamed and couldn't pay attention in class. I didn't fit in well with the rest of the school.
“These were the good old days, don't forget. We read out of school readers. We didn't get to do a book review until Grade 8. She did the same for other kids. She realized we were readers and just threw books at us.
“She even wrote to my parents, saying that I wasn't doing well in school but I was really smart and they shouldn't worry about my being an engineer or a doctor. Everything would work out.
“She made me feel good about myself and kept me interested.”
Are Robert Munsch and Sister Emma Jean Middendorf still in touch?
“Oh yes,” he says. He puts the phone down. It takes him just half a minute to find the current address of his teacher from the 1950s. “We exchange Christmas cards.”
She, in turn, is a devoted fan. She has donated some of his autographed books to her local library but keeps his letters. “Every time I go to a bookstore in a different town – and I travel a lot – I always look in the children's section to see if they have Robert Munsch books.”
If not, in her lively and friendly way, she suggests they stock some.
Sister Emma Jean Middendorf is still teaching. She is a Sister in the Congregation of Divine Providence in Kingston, Massachusetts and teaches German at Sacred Heart High School.
Robert Munsch has published 42 books, including The Paper Bag Princess, Mortimer, Thomas' Snowsuit, and Love You Forever. He has won many awards and tours regularly to book shows and festivals. He lives in Guelph.
“There's good news and bad news about class visits.”
THE GOOD NEWS
THE BETTER NEWS
THE EVEN BETTER NEWS
THE BAD NEWS
THE WORSE NEWS
THE EVEN BADDER WORSE NEWS
THE REALLY BAD, EVEN WORSER, TERRIBLE, LOUSY NEWS