COVER

A new paperback princess

DIANE TURBIDE December 11 1995
COVER

A new paperback princess

DIANE TURBIDE December 11 1995

A new paperback princess

COVER

KidLit superstar Robert Munsch gets a lot of letters from children. About 10,000 a year, he

estimates. Mostly, the youngsters write to thank the Guelph, Ont., author for his books—he has written 27 of them, of which there are more than 20 million copies in print, in languages ranging from Spanish to Mandarin— and to ask him to visit their school. But three years ago, a letter from a Grade 2 girl in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough stood out. Seven-yearold Saoussan Askar described how she had come from Lebanon when she was five and could not speak English. “A lot of funny things happened to me,” she wrote. Curious, Munsch replied, asking for details of what happened. Their correspondence has resulted in the recent From Far Away (Annick), co-authored by Munsch and Askar and with art by longtime Munsch illustrator Michael Martchenko. The young author says she almost turned down Munsch’s invitation to collaborate. “At first I thought I’d have to write it out 10,000 times,” recalls Askar, now 10. But Munsch explained the printing process, and now she says of the experience, “It’s pretty cool.” Written as a letter from Saoussan, the 24-page book begins with a description of how she and her Muslim family (parents Nick and Zawabe and older sister Zeina) fled Beirut after their home was partly demolished during the civil war. “My mother and fa-

ther said, There is no food and we are getting shot at. We have to leave,’ ” she writes. By page 4, the little girl is in a Canadian kindergarten class, unable to understand a word the teacher says. When she has to go to the washroom, she waits for the instructor to turn her back, then creeps under desks to the door. At Halloween, an event she knows nothing about, she is terrified to discover a paper skeleton in the school washroom and thinks people are going to start shooting again. But by the story’s end, she has gone out trick-or-treating herself, and has become the best speller and reader in the second grade. “I showed the book to an ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher before it was published, and she cried,” says Munsch. “She’d had kids hiding under their desks in fear in her class.”

Booksellers have £ ordered all 125,000 ; softcover copies of I From Far Away. And at a recent book-signing in a Scarborough mall, Saoussan and Munsch autographed more than 1,000 copies of the $4.95 paperback. They share half of the

royalties (the other half goes to Martchenko), but Munsch had to convince Saoussan’s father, a computer programmer, and her mother, who is studying English, to take the money. “They had this idea that I was the famous writer and that simply getting the story published was enough reward for them,” he recalls. But the author says Saoussan deserves it. “She’s a good writer, and quite a savage editor,” Munsch says. “I’d send her a draft and she’d cut my paragraphs up and insert something she thought worked better.” Munsch admits that at first he had misgivings about the subject mattermost of his books and spinoff videos, as well as his CD-ROMs, have been full of comic hyperbole. But the new volume, like Munsch’s previous work, authentically reflects a child’s point of view. And it has a streak of typical kids’ humor: while being comforted by the teacher, the little girl is so upset that she pees in the woman’s lap—a development that sends Munsch’s young listeners into hysterics when he reads at schools. Last week, Annick accepted a new manuscript from Saoussan and Munsch, about a paper plane that takes a girl to visit her Lebanese grandmother. Far from the strife that forced her to emigrate, Saoussan has found another home—and a new friend in Robert Munsch. DIANE TURBIDE