2000 Writing Maniac- a book on the writing process for students
1999 The other author Arthur
1999 If I were the Moon
1998 The Hullaballo Bugaboo Day
1997 If You Could Wear My Sneakers
1995 Mable Murple
1994 I am Small
1993 In this House are Many Women
1992 There Were Monkeys in my Kitchen
1989 Sleeping Dragons All Around
1987 Toes in my Nose
2000 Vicky Metcalfe Award for a Body of Work
2000 Silver Birch Award for "If You Could Wear My Sneakers"
2000 Hackamtack Award for " If You Could Wear My Sneakers"
1995 Ann Connor-Brimer Award for " Mable Murple"
1992 Mr. Christie Book Award (best English languahe book age
8 and under) "There Were Monkeys in my Kitchen"
1990 Atlantic Provinces Bookseller's Choice Award for "Sleeping
Dragons All Around"
1987 Queen's Fellowship
Where were you born and brought up?
I was born in Ottawa where my father was stationed as a mountie
on Parliament Hill. When I was eight months old my parents moved back
to their home turf, the Maritimes. I was raised in the cities of Moncton
( until I was 13) and Fredericton, New Brunswick. I have been living
in Halifax, Nova Scotia (the province I spent my childhood summers)
for seven years now.
Where did you receive your eduction?
My B.A. is from St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick and
my M.A. from Acadia University. I was a mature student. My B.A. was
in 1987 when I was thirty, and my M.A. course work was completed in
1988 and the thesis, called "The Sweet Chorus of Ha Ha Hee: Polyphony
in Literature" was completed in '92. It was a study of the oral tradition
of children's poetry, and one chapter focused on the many child voices
in Dennis Lee's work. In 1998 I was awarded an honorary doctorate of
letters from St. Mary's University for my contribution to Canadian children's
literature and advocacy work for literacy. I have since taught children's
literature at St. Thomas and writing courses at various universities.
What have been the principal poetic influences on your work??
Raised by a father who had memorized lines from the Romantics... I was
a Keats, Byron, Shelley fan, and yes, later, especially a disciple of
Blake's! But I think the first book I ever read by myself was "The House
at Pooh Corner", and I was, and still am, a fan of Milne's nonsense.
Walter de la Mare was an influence not only in his writing but also
when I came across his anthology "Come Hither", and the introduction
to that book convinced me that children's poetry was not only worthy
of scholarly study and should be respected, but it made me realise that
someone else cared that much about it!
Any contemporary influences on your work?
As I studied children's poetry quite seriously for those years as an
English student I would say that all the modern day nonsense writers
were looked at and learned from, Dennis Lee in particular. I also do
read adult poetry and those influences range from Ted Hughes to Ferlinghetti
to Frost to Seamus Heaney to ee cummings to Margaret Atwood. I read
a lot of poetry.
The sound, the tripping-on-the-tongue of words
is obvious throughout your work. I know I always read poetry aloud to
understand and appreciate it better- not only sense, but emotion; and
I certainly did this with students constantly. How vital is this response
I know that poetry can be read in silence and solitude and that is valid,
especially if the reader has the music in their mind's ears, but I still
love this line from one of my old Norton Anthologies: a poem is a verbal
composition written for performance by the human voice. For me, poetry
is word-music, it is composition of sound and form and meaning... this
hearkens back to the beginnings of poetry, even Chaucer roamed up and
down and read out loud to the court, Shakespeare wrote poetry to be
heard of course, and on and on and on. This is why I call children's
poetry especially "utterature": "all literature written to be read out
loud to a community of listeners." Children receive poetry through their
ear not their eye at the pre-literate stage, so playing with sound and
the musicality of language is really essential for excellence in children's
Each of your own books has its own
centre and sense of sound, but shares a complexity of meanings and an
appreciation of the sound of words. What themes and senses are you happiest
about- in short have you a personal favourite?(I must admit to "Sleeping
Dragons all Around" a whiff of Keats!)?
Thank you for looking that closely, Andrea, at my work. It makes it
feel as if it is all worth while. To me "Dragons" thematically is about
breaking silence and finding voice. According to Jeannette Lynes , who
I think did a wonderful paper on my work for CCL ( Canadian Children's
Literature- a journal), she sees this reflected time and again in my
work. An empowerment of child and child's voice. I think she is on to
something there. There is also, I hope, in most of the works, a celebration
of the imagination too. In the mouse book, much to my surprise, I realized
that I was articulating that stories can save our souls, if not our
lives. I usually never know until a piece is done! My personal favourite
is always the poem I will write tomorrow!
Which came first-dragons or title?
Was there something in the title that appealed and sparked? This is
a joyously eccentric collection of would-be monsters- Fagan, the with-it
teen with his pierced nose, shrunk t-shirt and, complements of your
illustrator Michelle Nidenoff, sneakers, or Pythagoras with his obsession
The title comes from Keats of course,"The Eve of St. Agnes". I was working
on a seminar to give at university and came across the line and went
"Wow!" What a metaphor for our lives! What a great musical line! Dustin
woke up having had a bad dream, and after calming him down I began.
I do not know at all where the dragons came from, I followed the music
and it took me where it did. I didn't name the dragons, they came forward
and told me their name and who they were, if that makes sense! It might
not ,but truly it feels how that process worked.
"I am Small" is for me a very moving
book, one that must touch anyone who deals with little children, even
if that compassion is lightened with laughter and a sudden appreciation
of the depth of this small philosopher. What led you to compose this
I wanted to work with the contemplative voice of a child instead of
my usual topsy-turvey frenetic energy, because truly this was the kind
of child I was. Sometimes a doer, more often a thinker and dreamer.
At the same time my two children would floor me with the depth of their
philosophical questions. Who gets to name the name of things? Who is
God? Of all my books, I really think this is the closest to the child
I once was. It is my husband's favourite for he thinks it is the essence
of me. He knows the quiet dreamer, not the one people in public get
to see when I'm giving a speech. Also...I often hear colours and see
words and taste sounds and did so when I was little. Synaesthesia. It
even has a name. I always thought everyone was like this. I guess that
is not so and some are more than others tuned in this way. I also think
children do have this but the world takes the poetic sensibility and
differences and squishes it far too often. We need to survive in the
real world as well. I wanted to go deeply as I could with language and
this concept, the textures of the world of childhood.
The books mainly deal with imagination
and the child, but there are exceptions. "Merry-Go-Day" describes a
child's day at a fair, and their reactions. "Mabel Murple" is alliteration
carried to high comic effect in a child's experiences living on a totally
As for " Merry-Go-Day" (a book which did not do well, although I think
it contains some of my best nonsense), it was a way to work with motion
and energy and echo this in poetry. The bumper cars for example, when
read start slowly, speed and wind up to the "Bam!" of hitting the next
car. I wanted shaped and free verse poetry as well. I have been lucky
that my publisher has always encouraged me to do my own thing and not
write to formula! Mable is simply a tongue-twister and celebration,
but she is a girl who imagines. This was written because the character
first appears in " Toes in my Nose" and would not go away until she
had a book of her own. My theory of tongue-twisters is the more mistakes
you make the more fun it is, and there are not many places we can embrace
mistakes! I enjoy the fact that speech pathologists and teachers use
this book with children having difficulty. It bears out my theory that
we need a place where it is all right to make mistakes.
What are you working on now??
A cycle of narrative poetry that chronicles the life of a twelve-year-old
girl for a period of about eight months and her discover of a disaster
that haunts her; and the letters of a twelve-year-old boy from England
in 1873. It's about lost souls and stories I think!
Who was your favourite character in children's
books as you were growing up?
Pooh when I was small, and then Harriet Tubman, Anne Frank and other
I love Frost's words, poetry is a momentary stay
against the chaos. More seriously in my own words, reading and writing
for me is the creation of a safe place. I do not always find the real
world safe or bearable. I go to those imaginative realms, for, like
Blake insisted, it leads us out of the darker world of experience."
Not escapism either, simply, a way to experience epiphenies that make
life bearable. There are no answers, but there is truth and beauty to
be found in the great works.
Any theme you have not explored that you would
like to tackle?
I'd love to do a hard-hitting novel for young
adults one day!
What great artist/ illustrator would you like
to illustrate your work?
Oh Sendak of course. Fat chance. Or Milne's Shepard.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
To say thank you so much for this. Randall Jarrell
had a great line in "The Bat Poet", one of my favourite books of all
time. The bat says at one point the trouble isn't writing poems, the
trouble is finding someone who will listen. I guess I would paraphrase,
the trouble is writing the best poems you can, and if you are blessed
enough to find someone who will listen, you hope then that, beneath
the surface of what people often call silly or trivial, people will
see that joy, which characterizes children's poetry, is actually a theology
of sorts for the poet. Simple does not equal easy. Laughter is almost
always born of tears. Good children's poetry is not just "cute", or
something a serious poet does to amuse themselves, or because it is
easier. It can be profound, if people hear it with their hearts. It
is an art form, maybe a folk art form, and its technical demands are,
for me at least, enormous. It is not something that is done glibly and
rarely in the first draught; it's worked at. I rewrite, rewrite, rewrite!
I like John Ciardi's line: he calls it serious joy.
© copyright 2000 ACHUKA