Behind the scenes of Read Me A Story, Stella, or How childhood books color your life

I think that of all the Stella and Sam books I have written, Read Me A Story, Stella is the one where I most recognize myself as the child I was.


From the age of six, I was a voracious, omnivorous and insatiable reader. I read all the time and everywhere: in bed, when I woke up at dawn; at breakfast (mainly cereal boxes); on the school bus, with erasers and paper airplanes flying over my head; in the classroom, hiding my book under my desk; and in various forts built out of ferns and branches (see Stella, Fairy of the Forest) in the forest across the road from our house. I read in the bathtub (see On my Island), which waterlogged quite a few of my books; while walking the dog; and, of course, in bed with a flashlight under the covers (I think flashlights should be mandatory in children's bedrooms). I carried the stories and images within me, making connections with the world that I was discovering as I grew up. They became part of my life, and, even today, evoke moments of great happiness.

That doesn't mean that I was a quiet, bookish, introspective child  au contraire. I was active and enthusiastic, eager to discover the world around me. But I needed books to nourish me  I was always hungry. Their characters would inspire my daydreams, my games of role-playing with my friends and my theatrical ventures in the basement of our house (see Rainy Day Magic). Big bad wolves and sly foxes, wicked stepmothers and hungry witches would make me thrill with fear, knowing all the while that there was often a happy ending. I would identify with the emotions of the heroes or heroines  the mischievousness of Curious George, the fearlessness of Madeline, the wise and mysterious Petit Prince, the hilarious Petit Nicolas, the intrepid Tintin or the tragic sadness of Hansel and Gretel abandoned by their parents. Later on, I would identify with Velvet Brown in National Velvet, Lucy and Peter in the Chronicles of Narnia or Anne of Green Gables. I would go on and on, throughout my adolescence and into adulthood.

In Read Me A Story, Stella, I wanted to suggest that books are a powerful and dynamic part of a child's life. They connect the child to the outside world and offer new perspectives. Books bring forward questions and stimulate the imagination. Books reassure children that they are not alone. But I did not want Read Me A Story, Stella, to have a heavy-handed message about the joys of reading. I wanted to continue to write about Stella and Sam enjoying another day of adventures with minute discoveries and moments of wonder, which is what childhood should be like, building a perfect wolf-proof doghouse for Fred, teaching Fred to fly a kite, watching carrots grow, and wondering if there are crocodiles and rhinoceroses in the pond. Stella and Sam see rabbit-shaped clouds, soft wriggly caterpillars and frogs that wear green velvet jackets.


But throughout this perfect summer day, Stella is seen reading books that make her laugh, that wax poetic or connect in unforeseen ways with the adventures that she and Sam are having.

Since a book shared with a child (or with a whole class) is meant to be read, to inspire the imagination and start a conversation, try this after reading Read Me A Story, Stella:

• Ask the child if she can think of a story where a wolf blows a house down. Does she think that Sam has read that story? Which is stronger, a wolf or a tornado?

• Stella says, "Caterpillars go to sleep for a long, long time and dream about flying." That's how they become butterflies. Is she right? Look up caterpillars in an insect book. Ask the child if he has seen any insects in Read Me a Story, Stella. Go through the book again and let him find them.


• Has the child ever read a book about flying cats? (see Caramba)

• Or a book about making soup with stones? (see Stone Soup)

• Or a book about bats?

• Go outside, and find a soft patch of grass to lie on. Look at the clouds and spot different cloud-shapes.

A book doesn't really end, it is the beginning of a thought process that colors our vision of the world.



Petites fenêtres sur le monde

À l'adolescence, j'avais des correspondants aux quatre coins du monde! Je trouvais leurs noms dans les petites annonces de la célèbre revue de bandes dessinées, Pilote. J'étais curieuse et avide de savoir comment vivaient les jeunes ailleurs dans le monde. Quels étaient leurs passe-temps ? Leur musique préférée ? À quoi rêvaient-ils ? Je recevais des lettres d'un peu partout, de l'Egypte, de l'Afrique, de la France ou de la Hollande, entre autres. Les enveloppes étaient toujours ornées de plusieurs timbres multicolores. On y retrouvait des plantes exotiques, des bêtes sauvages ou des oiseaux tropicaux. D'autres arboraient d'immenses palais, des pyramides ou de vastes déserts. J'étais fascinée par ces petites fenêtres qui s'ouvraient sur des mondes insolites et inconnus.  Je rêvais de voyager dans ces pays qui avaient choisi un éléphant ou un chameau, une mosquée ou une pagode, une oeuvre d'art ou un roi pour représenter leur pays.

Ces images inspirantes qui me permettaient de voyager dans mon imaginaire me sont revenues lorsque Poste Canada a proposé la création de deux timbres à l'effigie des héros de ma série de livres Stella et Sacha. Cette proposition me ravissait, je n'avais jamais imaginé que ces petits personnages que j'avais créés il y a quinze ans, en quelques coups de pinceaux et avec mes mots, auraient l'honneur de représenter le Canada sur des timbres. Mais j'étais surtout heureuse et fière parce que ces timbres allaient souligner l'importance de la littérature pour enfants, tout en faisant la promotion de la lecture.

Je suis très heureuse du choix des dessins. Ils représentent bien les personnalités de Stella et de Sacha. L’exubérance et la joie de vivre de Stella, suspendue à l'envers dans une branche d'arbre, imitant une chauve-souris… Et la douce ambiance de partage et d'amitié fraternelle entre Stella et Sacha qui lisent un livre ensemble. 

J'ai été étonnée que ces timbres, conçus par Peter Scott de Q30 Design, reflètent si fidèlement les couleurs des dessins originaux et

l'esprit de mon univers, jusque dans les moindres détails. Remarquez les cheveux de Stella qui débordent de l'image comme si le vent soufflait doucement, ou le voilier qui semble vouloir s'évader sur des mers lointaines en dehors du cadre. L'attention portée à ces petits détails donne une impression d'espace et de fluidité.

Quel plaisir d'imaginer ces timbres voyageant à travers le monde et, qui sait, inspirant peut-être des enfants à écrire des lettres ou à partager un livre avec un ami ...

Snow in Calgary

Fall was transformed into winter as I flew to Calgary to participate in the Kaleidoscope Conference. Kaleidoscope is a great conference where school librarians and teachers meet to discuss and listen to authors and illustrators talking about their creative process, as well as their books as well and ways to promote the joy and desire to read to children. We heard Kathi Appelt, Avi, Marty Chan, Timothy Basil Ering, Richard Scrimger, Tololwa Mollel, to name a few; a wonderful palette of  inspiring writers. We all received our official white cowboy hats during the White Hat Ceremony, a very curious and special event that, to my knowledge, only exists in Calgary.

I had also been asked to create the Kaleidoscope poster with the theme "twisting the lens", or how new technologies, digital formats, e-books, the internet, apps, and electronic devices are changing the literary landscape by creating new and different pictures as you 'twist the lens'.

Here is an excerpt of my keynote presentation that described, in part, my thoughts and creative process to produce the Kaleidoscope Poster:

What goes on in a child's mind as he or she reads a book?

I think of how stories span the past and present. How they open windows to every part of the world. I think of the contemplative time that a child can enjoy while reading a book; an all-absorbing timelessness that evolves from quietly making connections between words and pictures, recognizing emotions and feelings, identifying with humans, animals or trees.

A time when the child doesn't have to do something - push a button, click a mouse, touch a screen! The child only has to turn pages and immerse himself in another world, following his own rythm of understanding, of absorption. He is not being bombarded by frenetic, insistant music, images and non-stop action. There are no hyperlinks that invite a distraction. The child is in control.

A book is a place of refuge, of discovery of one's self.

 Finally, I think that throughout this whirlwind of change, this period of transition, of multiplied and varied reading platforms, one thing would remain the same: children, and adults for that matter, would always need and love and hunger for stories.

 And it will always be up to the creators to give them this opportunity to nourish their minds and souls.

So from sketch to sketch, and with these thoughts and images in mind, I created this timeless, ageless child, who is 'reading' and absorbing the world. Words dance in his mind connecting with images, the past becomes part of his present and flows into the future. The child's thoughts and feelings find a space to wander and explore between the art and the words. He sees the world through his own lens and he can twist it as fast or as slowly as he wants. He can stop and delight in that particular moment,

The child becomes part of the universe.

Kaleidoscope Poster

A Tree Full of Stories (voir ci-dessous Un arbre qui raconte)

Last fall, I was approached by The Jewish Public Library of Montreal to create a permanent signage for their Children's Library. They wanted an image that would underline the importance of a children's library, entice children to enter and celebrate the joy of reading. The illustration would be enlarged and printed on three vertical banners and hung at the entrance to the Norman Berman Children's Library. I have often been invited to give many talks at this wonderful, pro-active, community-oriented library, from presenting at their huge Young Author's Conference to more intimate talks for their  Mother-Daughter Book Club. I have always been impressed by the dedication and energy of the librarians who work there. I wanted to represent this energy with a dynamic, vibrant, colourful image. I also wanted it to be playful and humorous. Libraries are full to the brim with stories, so my illustration had to tell a story. I wanted children to stop and immerse themselves in my picture, "reading" it in the smallest details . . .


MLG JPL poster

(click on the image to see a larger version)

Did you notice the little grinning boy wearing a cape and plucking a star from the sky?

What about the boy who should be flying a kite but is actually "flying" a book opened to the "How to Build a Kite" page? Did you see Shelley the Turtle (a much loved resident of the Library), reading Shelley, A Turtle's Life? Or the young girl reading Romeo and Juliet just above a leaf that spells amour?

Books are full of words, so I also decided that I would draw words in the picture in English, French, Hebrew and Yiddish. (I must admit I did have to ask for help with the Hebrew and Yiddish.) I drew the illustration in pencil, painted in watercolour and working with handmade Japanese paper, cut out and painstakingly glued every one of the leaves!

I  realize that this is exactly the way I work when I create the illustrations for my books: details and substories abound, every character and animal or object has a role . . .

I think this is the way very young children see the world. Everything has a story to tell.

Un arbre qui raconte...

L'automne dernier, la Bibliothèque publique juive m'a proposé de créer une illustration pour la Bibliothèque des enfants Norman Berman. Ils voulaient une image qui soulignerait l'importance d'une bibliothèque pour enfants, une image qui capterait immédiatement l'intérêt des enfants et qui célèbrerait la joie de lire. Cette illustration serait agrandie et imprimée sur trois bannières verticales et serait placée à l'entrée de la bibliothèque.

Au fil des ans, j'ai souvent été invitée à lire et à faire de présentations dans cette  merveilleuse bibliothèque très active et dynamique. J'ai donné des ateliers lors de leur Conférence pour jeunes auteurs ainsi que des présentations plus intimes au Club de lecture Mère-Fille. J'ai été impressionné par l'énergie et le dévouement des bibliothécaires qui y travaillent. J'ai voulu représenter cette énergie par une image colorée et vibrante. J'ai voulu que mon illustration soit drôle et fantaisiste. Les bibliothèques sont remplies d'histoires alors mon dessin devait raconter une histoire... ou plusieurs. Je voulais que les enfants plongent dans mon dessin et qu'ils le lisent dans ses plus petits détails.

Avez-vous remarqué le petit bonhomme souriant qui cueille une étoile du haut de l'arbre? Ou la jeune fille qui lit Romeo et Juliette perchée au-dessus d'une feuille où s'inscrit le mot 'amour'? La famille de lapins-lecteurs? Autant de petites histoires . . .

Les livres sont pleins de beaux mots, de mots étranges ou de mots qui piquent notre curiosité, j'ai donc décidé d'inscrire des mots sur les feuilles de l'arbre en anglais, français, hébreu et yiddish. Mon illustration a été crée à l'aquarelle et au crayon. En travaillant avec du papier japonais fait-main j'ai découpé et collé chaque feuille de cet immense arbre.

Des heures de travail.

En fait, je travaille de la même manière lorsque je crée les illustrations de mes livres. Elles débordent de détails et petites histoires complices des enfants. Chaque personnage, chaque animal, chaque objet ont un rôle. Tous racontent une histoire. Je crois que c'est ainsi que les enfants voient le monde. Qui sait?

Girl on cloud

This August, CARAMBA will meet his new baby brother, HENRY!

“. . . Caramba had always wished for a brother. A brother he could go fishing with. A brother to collect caterpillars with. A brother who would love his cheese omelets A brother who would share all his secrets. But Caramba never imagined a brother like Henry . . .”

Caramba and Henry Back Cover

Caramba is in for a big surprise . . . But, while we wait for the arrival of my new book Caramba and Henry, I thought it would be interesting to look at a short animation of Caramba’s attempts to fly in the first book as well as the swooping and loop-de-looping antics of Caramba’s friends . . .

I also want to thank all the inventive and enthusiastic first grade teachers and librarians across Canada who enjoyed reading Caramba with their students and created drawing and writing projects to extend the pleasure of reading…


A la fin de l’été, CARAMBA rencontrera son petit frère, HENRI!

“. . . Caramba a toujours rêvé d’avoir un petit frère. Un petit frère qu’il emmènerait à la pêche. Un petit frère qui chercherait des chenilles de toutes les couleurs avec lui.

Un petit frère qui adorerait ses omelettes au fromage et partagerait avec lui tous ses secrets. Mais jamais Caramba n’aurait pu imaginer un frère comme Henri . . .”


Il va sans dire que Caramba sera très surpris! . . . Mais en attendant de lire les aventures de Caramba et Henri, j’ai pensé qu’il serait intéressant de voir Caramba en action . . . (voir le petit vidéo ci-dessus)

Je tiens aussi à remercier les enseignant(e)s et bibliothècaires à travers le Canada qui ont lu Caramba avec leurs élèves de première année et ont su explorer les dessins et l’histoire en créant des projets fabuleux avec leurs élèves, prolongeant ainsi le plaisir de lire . . .


Marie-Louise Gay's books are available from your favourite wholesaler or bookstore.
Or visit Groundwood Books.