I don’t believe that any father was more proud of having a son for a writer than my own dad. Whenever I met somebody who knew him—it might be a waiter in a restaurant—the person would say, “Oh, so you’re the writer. Your father talks about you all the time.”
And my dad, who almost never read novels, preferring history and politics, always read mine. Although he had no background in literature, and came to Canada as a teenage refugee of WWII who was still learning English, he often made sensitive and astute comments about them that surprised and touched me. I miss those comments now that he is gone (my father died in the summer of 2017), but really I just miss him. And I’m sorry that he isn’t here to read the book that I’ve written about him.
That book, my first graphic novel for kids, is called Maurice and His Dictionary (Owlkids Books, October). It tells how my father, along with his parents and his brother and sister, had to flee Brussels when the Nazis invaded in 1940. They spent two years moving through Europe until they managed to get on a ship to Jamaica. There they spent another two years in a British refugee camp where my father, hungry for an education, talked his way into a school called Jamaica College, earned his high school diploma, and got accepted to the University of Toronto. (Since he was still only sixteen, the university had to make an exception to allow him in.)
My father was an optimist by nature, a wonderfully sociable man who loved to talk to people. He often told us about his early years and at one point sat down and dictated a sixty-page memoir for us. That memoir became a prime source for Maurice and His Dictionary but the process of making the book has taken many years. It was decades ago, before I’d published a single children’s title, when I tried to write a picture book manuscript called Papa’s New Trousers. It focused on a single, more lighthearted incident in the refugee camp when Maurice’s father (my grandfather) tried on a new pair of trousers and thought that there was a scorpion in them. I sent it to a publisher who suggested that I turn the story into a novel for kids, but I simply lacked the ability to do it. Besides, I thought that I would have to invent too much.
But every so often I would take the manuscript out and tinker with it. And then a literary journal, Taddle Creek, asked me if I had anything for a special children’s issue. I revised it once again, put it into short story form, and renamed it “The Dictionary” after the book that my father used to help him learn English. After the story was published a writer friend dropped me a line to say that it had made her cry.
Knowing that my father’s story could touch someone encouraged me to do something more with it. My regular publishers were already working on manuscripts of mine, so I asked Amy Tompkins, my agent, whether she might try to find another publisher for it. The most enthusiasm came from Karen Li at OwlKids Books. But Karen had her own idea for the manuscript; she thought it would work better as a graphic novel.
As soon as I heard the idea, I knew that it was right. My picture book manuscript left out too much of the story, especially the events and emotions that weren’t appropriate for such a young audience. A graphic novel for older kids—with pictures to help capture the characters, atmosphere, and danger—didn’t have to fill in as many details as a novel but could be just as evocative. And so I got to work.
I’d never before tried to write in the graphic-novel form. Suddenly I had the task of turning my father’s story into forty or fifty pages, each one divided into panels, where I had to write not only narration and dialogue but also descriptive notes for the illustrator. It felt very much like writing a screenplay. Working on the story would have been intense and emotional at any time, but as it turned out my father died just months before I began. Writing it brought me both pain and joy. I was glad to have this chance to imagine the teenage boy who would grow into the man I knew.
Karen Li (who has since moved to Groundwood Books) proved to be a sensitive editor. She found the perfect illustrator in Enzo Lord Mariano, who brought both a moody and a youthful energy to the images. Everyone at the house worked together to bring to life my father’s story.
I think that I’ve become reconciled to my father never seeing the book. My mother and brothers have read it now, and soon it will be in the hands of the rest of the family and then onto readers who didn’t know my father. They will encounter the story of a boy who wasn’t a hero, yet who didn’t lose his faith in people, or his belief in the power of education. A boy who refused to give up.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.