September 26, 2017 Groundwood Books

“Captain Canada” Ian Wallace reflects on forty years of storytelling

In my home stands a tall, finely crafted cabinet of curiosities. Its contents represent the four decades I have traveled Canada from sea to sea to sea, telling stories in words and pictures.

On those journeys, I flew over jagged Rocky Mountain peaks; crisscrossed golden prairies; traversed frozen tundra, boreal forests, pristine lakes and rivers; and swept over glistening icebergs. I visited cities and towns, villages and outports with arresting names like Come By Chance, Sheshatshit, Moose Jaw and Zeballos.

When not telling stories, I went salmon fishing off Vancouver Island and dogsledding with world-champion musher Eddy Streeper in northern British Columbia.

I was taken on a caribou hunt with Dene hunters in the Northwest Territories and stood on the Arctic Circle when the temperature hovered at -48 degrees Celsius (-54 degrees Fahrenheit).

On the shore of Pipestone Creek in northern Alberta, I encountered a cliff that held dinosaur bones, most likely of the Pachyrhinosaurus, in strata of dark sediment.

One November night I witnessed a rare sight, a solely red aurora borealis dancing in a wintery Whitehorse sky.

I ate things I’d never eaten before. Bannock and Arctic char, seal flipper pie and cod tongues, bear, elk, caribou and moose.

I met children, teens and adults from every walk of life, ethnicity and faith, and made new friends across the country.

One day I realized that this vast land was a nation of families and diverse neighborhoods, and that I had left a piece of myself in each one — and they in me. Always, I was welcomed with kindness, generous hospitality and good humor.

As the decades passed, the number of kilometers I traveled clicked into the tens of thousands, the number of provinces and territories climbed, the number of young people I read to approached one million and counting, causing a close friend to nickname me “Captain Canada.”

Often, teachers and librarians shared intimate stories of the impact my books had had on their students and readers. In elementary schools, my stories enabled two sensitive young girls, both select mutes, to speak for the first time in several years. One university student told me how my author/ illustrator visit had impacted him so profoundly that he decided that day to become an artist. Each story left me deeply touched and gratified.

I was given countless thanks-for-coming gifts: mugs, thermoses, pens, T-shirts, handwritten notes and notepads, student writing and art, and occasionally, something handcrafted by a town artisan to remind me of the community.

In one Winnipeg elementary school I found the greatest gift of my life — a teacher/librarian who became my wife.

Each of these gifts and experiences has become part of my curiosity cabinet. Most are not priceless treasures to anyone but me, yet they remind me of the extraordinary adventures I have had and the people who have enriched my life all across this land. As a child, I never could have imagined the wondrous life I would lead.

Come and take a look inside.

The Curiosity Cabinet
Written by Ian Wallace

Ian Wallace, one of Canada’s best-known children’s book creators, invites us to look inside his cabinet of curiosities, which contains treasures from his decades of traveling the country from sea to sea to sea, sharing stories with young readers.

Over the past forty years, Ian Wallace has made thousands of school and library visits in tiny communities, towns and huge cities all across this land. Some of these visits have inspired young readers to become artists themselves; others have moved children to speak or act in new ways; others have simply given rise to the laughter and sheer delight that come from a good book. In return, Ian has been the recipient of many gifts himself, from the wide range of experiences he has had to the mementos made by young children or artists in the communities he has visited. All these gifts come together in his cabinet of curiosities — an eclectic and personal collection that nonetheless represents and appreciates our rich and varied land.

Each double-page illustration shows a shelf in the cabinet dedicated to a province or territory with the gifts or special memories Ian has from that place — tamarack geese made by Cree artists in northern Ontario, a fishing-stage facade from Newfoundland, the Douglas fir trees in Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island, and much more.

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