One of my best childhood memories is from grade one at John XXIII elementary school in Calgary, Alberta. Every student from kindergarten to grade three packed the school’s library to listen to stories from their favourite author, Robert Munsch. I am one of thousands of fortunate Canadians from several generations of children who have experienced one of Munsch’s animated readings.
Munsch’s stories are the most beloved works of Canadian children’s literature of all time, and his books—over 50 of them—have sold more 30 million copies worldwide (“Love You Forever”, written for his two stillborn children, has sold 15 million). Although he is American—moving to Canada at age 30 to work at the University of Guelph, Ontario—Robert Munsch is the number one selling Canadian author of all time and a member of the Order of Canada.
For 30 years, Munsch has toured the country, dropping in for surprise visits at schools and daycares, and adding a personal touch to city visits:
I still like to stay with families. When I was a prize for Scholastic USA book clubs they thought I would fly to the winning school and tell stories for an hour. Instead I called up the winning teacher and told her to choose 2 kids by lottery and I would stay with their families.
Munsch wrote stories based on the humorous idiosyncrasies or silly experiences with children he met during his travels. For example, Munsch based on of my favourite stories, “50 Below Zero” on a storytelling trip he made to Watson Lake, Yukon. The story is about a young boy who has to retrieve his sleepwalking father from a brutal winter evening:
I said to myself “These kids would like a story about cold.” So I made up a story about being cold and they definitely did like it. 50 Below quickly went onto the list of stories I tell all the time, but the reaction of children to the story depended a lot on where they live. Kids who live where does not get very cold just think it is a funny story. Kids who have had their cheeks frozen and know cold as a very dangerous thing react with a lot of empathy, especially when the dad goes outside in his pajamas at -50. They know that in the real world, that dad would die in about a minute.
A storytelling session in Cookstown, Ontario generated another Munsch classic, “I Have to Go!”:
A little boy in the front row started to jump up and down on his seat. I didn’t pay attention.
This was the end of the storytelling and I was making up a new story. I said “Who wants to be in a new story?” The little kid who had to go pee stuck up his hand and said “me, me.”
His name was Andrew. The same name as my son who had peed his bed four times the night before.
I suddenly felt a pee story coming on; so I made up a story about a little kid who goes pee at all the wrong times. The kids loved it. They fell off their seats laughing.
The minute I made it up I thought, “Why have I never done this before! Of course kids would like a story about pee. Why didn’t I ever think about that before?” [It is that way with a lot of my stories. Once I make them up they seem so obvious I can’t understand why I didn’t think of them years before.]
Munsch has been touring the country, visiting school, and collaboratively writing with young students for dozens of years. Sadly, Munsch suffered a stroke four months ago and says he’s hasn’t been able to create new stories or poetry since:
“I try to do poetry and make up stories and it doesn’t work, and [the doctors] told me that I should probably wait for a year for that to come back,” he said in a recent interview from his home in Guelph, Ont.
“It teaches you to be very patient.”
Robert Munsch has devoted his life to telling stories to children, inspiring thousands with the power of stories. On Family Literacy Day, January 27th, Robert Munsch will give his last public reading before a medical hiatus. I can’t imagine the struggle he must be facing at having to leave behind the activity that he has devoted his life to.
Truly one of Canada’s overlooked major literary figures, this post is my way of saying thank you for reading to me that day, Robert Munsch. Your stories captivated my imagination and stimulated a lifelong love of reading. Now I believe in the transformative power of stories (which is why I’m researching a unique alternative sentencing program called Changing Lives Through Literature). Again, Thank you.
I’ll end this post with a beautiful video rendition of Robert Munsch’s quintessential “Love You Forever”—the fourth best selling children’s paperback book of all time, sitting behind “Charlotte’s Web“, “The Outsiders“, and “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing“.