The value of cultural diversity — guest post by Sarah Ellis

Sarah EllisI like a good festival. In Vancouver you can pretty much move right from the Vaisakhi parade through Italian Day on the Drive to Carnaval del Sol through to Chinese New Year if you’ve got the endurance and you love food trucks. (Apparently there is even a St. David’s Day celebration for my people but I haven’t attended because I don’t think there’s a Welsh food truck. Welsh food: now there’s an unrealized business opportunity. “Hey honey, wanna grab some Welsh takeout tonight?” But I digress.)

These cultural festivals make us feel good. They make us feel Canadian and mosaic-ey and hyphenated. Who doesn’t enjoy closing the streets to cars, drinking a beer outside in public, (it doesn’t take much to make a Canadian feel naughty), and watching those Ukrainian dancers, their ribbons flying? But festivals aren’t enough. At festivals nobody wants to bring up cultural divisions, political rifts, racism, alienation, appropriation or awkward historical truths. Festivals don’t give us the inside story. For the real inside story, fiction is an excellent source.

I review books for the American reviewing journal the Horn Book. Because I’m a Canadian I guess I count as international because they tend to assign me books in translation. I’m delighted by these assignments. What I learn from imported books is not so much that daily life in Finland or Tanzania is different from ours, it is that basic assumptions are different. Take the relationship between parents and children, for example, a subject of enduring fascination for the child reader. Everything we hold dear about the roles and responsibilities of parents? Guess what. That’s just us. There are other ideas about this relationship and we live with those ideas when we read a book that grew in that other place. That new immigrant kid in the class? He might hold those other ideas.

People talk about walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins. That’s true, of course, and books are great places to try on other people’s shoes. But after the book is over, if it has truly connected with the reader, that reader’s own shoes should feel slightly uncomfortable for a while. That’s a good thing. Let’s be slightly uncomfortable with our own assumptions. That’s the value of diversity.

Outside in by Sarah EllisOutside In

by Sarah Ellis

Lynn’s life is full — choir practice, school, shopping for the perfect jeans, and dealing with her free-spirited mother. Then one day her life is saved by a mysterious girl named Blossom, who introduces Lynn to her own world and family — both more bizarre, yet somehow more sane, than Lynn’s own.




Kipling’s house, Naulakha

Kipling’s house, Naulakha

In October 2012, while creating the illustrations for Just So Stories, Volumes I and II, my wife, Deb, and I rented Rudyard Kipling’s home in Dummerston, Vermont, for a long weekend and invited six of our friends to join in the experience.

I had gone there primarily in the hope of finding some detail or ornamentation that I could use as a motif, or motifs, to open and close each of the twelve stories throughout the two volumes. I must admit though, that the idea of hanging out in Kipling’s house, sitting at his writing desk, eating at his kitchen and dining tables, being warmed by his fireplace with glasses of red wine, sleeping in his bed and even taking a bath in his bathtub had a strangely delicious appeal. Who knew that the bathtub was Kipling’s favorite feature in the house? In 1892-1893 when the house was built, indoor plumbing wasn’t common in rural America and was only installed in homes of the wealthy.

Kipling’s bathtub.

Kipling’s bathtub.

The house had been designed by Kipling in conjunction with a respected New York architect, Henry Rutgers Marshall, and had been inspired by Kipling’s wish that it resemble a ship. The house was brilliantly laid out, of solid wood construction, was comfortable and inviting, and had been sensitively restored by the Landmark Trust of the UK.

Upon our arrival we toured the four floors of the house from attic to basement.

In the attic, we discovered an armadillo’s shell inside a glass case tucked in a room where one of the servant’s would have once slept. Was this the beginnings of the armadillo’s tale?

The armadillo found in the attic.

The armadillo found in the attic.


In the games room, there was a magnificent pool table circa 1895. Each night of our stay several games took place and we discovered which one of us was the “shark”. Her name was Sandy.

Kipling’s bathtub adjoining the master suite was on the second floor, the polished wood rim of the deep tub bore a small, brass plate with his name inscribed on it. Now that was a definite first. Who in the world has a monogrammed tub? Rudyard Kipling!

In the dining room, an exotic treasure awaited us on the first floor and when I saw it, I recognized in it what I had been hoping to find in the house. The hand-tooled leather trunk was patterned with flowers, birds and geometric designs. Had Kipling purchased it on one of his trips to the Far East? I have adapted five of the designs and you will find them throughout both volumes of Just So Stories.


On the same floor at the end of the house, or the “prow of the boat”, was Kipling’s den. It overlooked the gardens and terrace where he and his family and friends performed plays in summer, and the pastoral Connecticut River Valley beyond. His writing desk was still there opposite the fireplace. Editions of his books lined the shelves, and to the left of the desk hung a print of the Horseshoe Falls at Niagara Falls seen from the Canadian side of the Niagara River, from a painting by the American artist, Fredrick E. Church — a stunning work of art.

Kipling’s den with writing desk and the print of Niagara Falls.

Kipling’s den with writing desk and the print of Niagara Falls.

Kiplings Trip 125

Now, no one but me would have reacted to that image hanging next to Kipling’s desk. But that moment gave me shivers from the bizarre coincidence and serendipity of it. Niagara Falls is my hometown. This moment of recognition was further enhanced by a print hanging in Kipling’s bedroom. It was titled, “The Bible of Amiens”. Again, no one but me would have reacted to the title. My father’s middle name was Amiens. His father had been wounded in the Battle of Amiens during World War I and that injury brought my grandfather home to his family and a short time later my father’s birth. In a strange way, I began to feel that perhaps I was destined to illustrate Just So Stories. Spooky. Very spooky.

Kipling’s ghost did not appear in the dead of night.  And no furniture was moved while we slept. Instead, the house just wrapped us in its warm embrace and we were besotted by it and the chance to hang out there if only for a long weekend.

Stella is coming to a stage near you!

Stella and Sam fans will be very happy to hear that The Mermaid Theatre Comany (motto: Have Puppets Will Travel!) is preparing Marie-Louise Gay’s Stella, Queen of the Snow for the stage. The show will premier at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival in Halifax on June 21, 2014, and then will tour the US and Canada in the fall.

Rehearsals are now underway, but Mermaid Theatre has prepared a little behind-the-scenes video that shows the making of the gorgeous stage and puppets for the production. Check it out!


GPB Gay Stella 2 J Recon

Stella, Queen of the Snow
Written and illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay

In this book in the Stella and Sam series, Sam is experiencing his first snowstorm. Older and bolder, Stella knows all the answers, and she delights in showing Sam the many pleasures of a beautiful winter’s day.



Read Mermaid Theatre’s blog post about the show

National Day to End Bullying — Guest post by Christine Baldacchino

Little Christine BaldacchinoWhen I was about four or five, an aunt told me that if I wasn’t careful when I was eating fruit, if I somehow accidentally swallowed a seed, it would grow in the pit of my stomach into a tree. For years I was terrified it would happen — a seed would somehow get past my teeth and I’d swallow it. The tree’s branches would grow every which way for as long as it took to find a source of light, even if that meant shredding me to ribbons from the inside out in the process. And it would be all my fault. I shouldn’t have swallowed that seed. I deserved what I got. So I started tearing into every little piece of fruit that would eventually pass my lips with my fingernails, just to be one hundred percent sure my stomach stayed tree-free.

My experiences being bullied were very similar, and have had similarly lasting effects. The words and actions of bullies have stayed with me. Once the seed was planted in the pit of my stomach, something ugly grew from it. It slowly made its best attempts to destroy me from the inside out, and, like swallowing the apple seed, I thought it was my fault. Maybe it was because I cut my hair too short, or because I wore no-name sneakers and sweatshirts. Maybe I read too many books, or didn’t listen to the right music. Whatever it was, it was my fault. It just had to be. The girls didn’t make fun of everyone at our school, after all.

For years, I was afraid to be me outside of my own bedroom. It was the only place I felt safe. Even then, though, I would lie in bed at night and stare at my bedside clock, counting down the hours until my mum would wake me up for school. My stomach would start to ache as I thought about what I could wear that would allow me to blend in with all the other kids in the hopes that the bullies would give me a day off from their cutting remarks or cruel pranks, not that it ever worked. Sometimes I would pretend I was sick so I could stay home. I got very good at that. Eventually I turned an emotional survival tactic into an art form.

Whenever it came to letting people into my life, I would tear them open and look for seeds before letting them get too close to me. I had grown up with a lot of the girls that bullied me. They weren’t always bullies. I don’t know what changed, what made them suddenly turn on me, but it made me distrustful of anyone who approached me with an offer of real friendship. One day they could turn on me just like the other girls, I thought. Best to keep them at arm’s length.

The universe kept expanding, but my world, my room, stayed the same size. I was safe in there, but I was alone with my thoughts, and they weren’t always altogether pleasant ones

I wish I could tell you what changed. The clouds didn’t break apart one day to reveal clear blue skies behind them. One day I just decided that instead of hiding in my room, I needed to make a picnic of some of my favourite things, pack them up and take them out with me. Just like Morris, I drank my apple juice, did some puzzles, sang a song and put on my tangerine dress. I had put enough effort into trying to make everyone around me happy in the hopes that they’d leave me alone, when I should have been putting that effort into making myself happy. I stopped looking for seeds, and concentrated on enjoying the fruit.

If you’re being bullied, what they say is true — it gets better. It really does. Do what makes you happy. Wear your heart on the sleeve of your favourite tangerine dress and enjoy the fruit. Share it with the people who love you, and never doubt that you are loved.

If you suspect that you might be a bully, I hope you’ll one day open yourself up to the experience of seeing a seed that you’ve planted and nurtured in someone’s heart with kindness bear a sweet fruit that will eventually bear more like it, rather than a barren, thorny plant in the same place a special soul not unlike your own once dwelled.

Learn more about the National Day to End Bullying

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