Monday, January 21, 2008

Author Focus: Robert Munsch

I thought I might regularly feature a children's author who has written excellent books that children seem to enjoy. The author I've chosen for the first of these is Robert Munsch.

The Power House Museum is presenting a children's play based on one of his best known books during January - The Paper Bag Princess.

He was born on June 11, 1945 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, but has lived much of his life in Canada. He grew up in a family of 9 kids. In his words “when I went to high school, I didn't get along with anybody, read lots of books and decided to be a Catholic Priest. I studied for 7 years to be a Jesuit priest, only to find that I was lousy priest material.” He picked up an undergraduate degree in History and a Master's degree in Anthropology along the way. While studying for the priesthood he worked part-time at an orphanage and discovered that he liked working with kids. He left the priesthood, studied early childhood and spent 10 years in daycare where he discovered that he could tell stories that could make kids “shut up during naptime”.

He later met a great librarian who encouraged him to write, which eventually he did. He wrote 10 different stories and sent them to 10 different publishers. One publisher accepted a story called 'Mud Puddle', it was published in 1979 and sold just 3,000 copies.

These days before he puts a story to paper, Munsch spends up to three years telling, revising and fine-tuning the tale in front of his rapt audiences. His purpose in doing this is to see what children like; his story telling feeds his writing.

Munsch describes his stories as “middle of the road taboo”. So be warned, he uses words like pee and underwear and in his words, “the kids go absolutely bananas.” He also challenges traditional stereotypes and story forms. He uses characters that have spirit and are often unconventional.

But it was the book Love You Forever that made him one of the most read authors in the world. It started out as a song that he wrote as a memorial for two stillborn babies his wife gave birth to in 1979 and 1980. He did little with the song because of the emotion it created, but one day sang it and decided that he should use it as the basis of a story. It was published in 1986. It tells the story of a little boy who goes through the stages of childhood and becomes a man. It speaks of the enduring love of parents and the cycle of life. Some will find it unusual. Even his early publishers said it was really better for adults.

It sold 30,000 in 1986 and was the bestselling children's book in Canada that year. It sold 1,000,000 in 1988; was ranked number one on the list of bestselling children’s books in 1994 (8,000,000) and has now sold over 20,000,000 copies.

The Paper Bag Princess is a simpler story. A tale about a prince who is rescued by an unlikely hero - an ordinary princess who doesn't want to be held to the stereotypes. It starts with the tantalising line:

"Elizabeth was a beautiful princess. She lived in a castle and had expensive princess clothes. She was going to marry a prince named Ronald".

You can hear Munsch reading it on his website. In fact you can find information and hear him read all his books on his personal site.

He has over 50 books in print and today is one of Canada's most popular children's authors. For more information you can visit the Official Robert Munsch website.

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