Frame of Reference

Well over a decade ago, when I started teaching courses to teachers on Canadian children's literature, Sheila Egoff and Judith Saltman's The New Republic of Childhood was THE book on the subject. I read it. I poured over it. I assigned it to my students. Over time, I got to know Judi Saltman, but Sheila did not come into my life for years. She was someone I revered, someone of whom I was a little frightened if I'm honest, someone who knew a lot more than I did and whose authority on her subject (and mine) made me quail a little.
Then I became a writer and an editor and I saw Sheila at the British Columbia prizes and heard her speak of children's books with love and respect and a willingness to speak what she believed, and I began to know her a little better from afar, but I would never have imagined that I would have the privilege of working with her. Two years ago, Kathryn Shoemaker, a mutual friend, told me that Sheila was working on a book about her life. They were wondering if Orca might be interested in publishing it. I was interested immediately and when I read the first draft I grew more interested still.
Sheila has played an important role in the development of children's libraries in Canada. She has carried on the work of Lillian Smith and she has added her own stamp as well. She has also been an important authority on Canadian children's books and throughout her life she has pushed both our children's literature and our children's libraries to be the best that they can be.
I wish that Sheila were here to see the first copy of her book when it comes out in October, Once Upon a Time: My Life With Children's Books, written with Wendy Sutton and published by Orca Book Publishers, but she is not. I am glad for the rest of us that we have this last opportunity to hear Sheila's reflections on her life, her work, and the many books that she loved.
It was difficult to select passages from Once Upon a Time for inclusion here. In the end, I decided that a bit from the beginning and a bit from the end would give the strongest sense of the book overall, a bit about Sheila's childhood and a few of her thoughts about the value of children's literature. The titles for the chapters are drawn from poems in A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Maggie de Vries
Children's Book Editor
Orca Book Publishers, Victoria, British Columbia
August, 2005

Once Upon a Time: my life with children's books

by Sheila Egoff with Wendy Sutton

Chapter One — That Enchanted Ground

My mother, Lucy Joyce Egoff, could never have imagined that the most important thing she did for me would turn out to be sending me off to the local public library in our small Ontario city of Galt.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of resources, my older brother George and I did not grow up with books in our home. Even in the Catholic elementary school I attended, reading fiction or, for that matter, reading anything for pleasure was not valued and there was no school library or librarian. On Friday afternoons, the nuns would read to us as a reward for the week's work, but they always chose short, didactic religious stories such as "The Little Lady of the Snows." As a consequence, I was not an eager early reader. In the 1920s there were no kindergartens in Galt (now Cambridge), and when I began school in grade one, I had not learned to read. I came home weeping after my first day and told my mother that the teacher had written something on the board, and I had not recognized it as my name. I was particularly upset because my younger cousin Catherine Murray had proudly read out her name when it was written on the blackboard. My mother sat me down that minute and taught me the alphabet in one evening. For all practical purposes, I was reading the next day. She gave me the code, and I was soon ready and able to apply it. Many modern parents are keen to have their children read as soon as possible, and I agree that reading easily and well is important. But reading readiness is a necessary component: by grade one I was more than ready.

I feel I should provide a little personal history at this point. My father, Dane Egoff, had been a shoe designer in Bulgaria and, because of the shoe factories, had come to Galt where he met and later married my mother. They moved to Auburn, Maine, where I was born in 1918. Tragically, my father drowned in a swimming accident in 1920, and my mother, George and I returned to Galt where my mother soon remarried.

Our family house was built in the early 1850s, and I learned recently much to my surprise that it has been declared a heritage home. It was a duplex with no hot water and no bathroom except for a toilet. We had an inside pump by the sink but had to heat our water for cooking, laundry and bathing. From the kitchen, a trapdoor opened to stairs down to the cellar where we kept an icebox and coal for heating. I learned more about the house, 110/112 Wellington Street, from information provided by the Cambridge Archives and Cambridge Municipal Heritage Advisory Committee and published in the Cambridge Times. Described as an Ontario Gothic-style house popular across the province from 1850 to 1870, this house could date back as far as 1851 making it older than the first city hall. The house is described as architecturally unique because, rather than being a single family home, it is a semi-detached duplex constructed of painted brick. I wish my brother George were alive to share a good laugh with me about the special attention our old home is now receiving, a house that neither of us particularly loved.

Around 1939, as I remember that I was working fulltime, we got our first telephone. The first time it rang, a girl was on the line asking for George. Mother warned me, "Don't ever let me catch you phoning up a boy!" Actually, although I had some experience answering the telephone at the Galt Public Library, I was never comfortable using it.

Born in Bally Bay, Ireland, in 1891, my mother never had a paid job until after World War II began, and she started working in a munitions factory in Galt. She liked working there and enjoyed the independence that earning money gave her. I remember that when she received her first paycheque, she spent most of it on clothes for me. Then we celebrated by having Boston cream pie at the Chinese restaurant.

Despite her delay in teaching me to read, my mother was a great reader herself, chiefly of what I later came to know as "romantic novels." She was also very shy, so when I turned eight in 1926, she decided that I was old enough and reliable enough to go to the library on her behalf. Down I went to the riverfront and up the stairs I climbed to the front door of a formidable redbrick building. Once inside, I made my way up another flight of stairs to the main floor. I later learned that this intimidating building, the typical style of a monument to knowledge and to Andrew Carnegie, was also designed to serve as a protection against the periodic flooding of the Grand River. I approached a long wooden desk and handed my mother's book request and her library card to the person standing on the other side. While waiting, I looked around and found myself in a huge room filled with elderly men reading newspapers. Of more interest to me was yet another staircase, at the top of which were two signs: one sign read "Children's Library" and another read "Shhh." The latter had been amended with the addition of "it." A boy, I thought to myself disdainfully.

After I collected my mother's books, I went up that tempting staircase and stepped through the doorway to discover one of the most beautiful rooms I had ever seen. Sunlight poured through large windows overlooking the river. Gaily coloured material curtained those and the windows of another wall; the remaining two walls were covered with shelves of books, and a long central table was strewn with magazines. I paused in the doorway, spellbound. I had no idea that twelve years later I would be in charge of that magnificent room. Seeing me standing in the doorway, a friendly woman approached and asked if I needed any assistance. When she realized that this was my first visit, she gave me an application for a library card—my very own library card!—to take home for my mother to sign.

The next day I was waiting outside the library at opening time with my signed application. I selected a book for myself, likely the Grimm's fairy tales, and could not wait to start reading it. I turned to the first page on the way out of the library and finished the book while walking home. I turned right around and went back to the library for another book. But the now not-so-friendly woman would not give me another one, likely because, as I learned years later, doing so would have spoiled their circulation records. I was informed that I could borrow only one fiction and one non-fiction book a day.

Disappointed, I reread the same book during my second trip home that day and discovered, to my delight, that I enjoyed it even more. I have been a great re-reader ever since. Not surprisingly, I continued to read fairy tales: Hans Christian Andersen, the Andrew Lang coloured fairy-tale books, and certainly more books by the Brothers Grimm. Then I discovered fairy tales with the word Canadian in the title: Canadian Wonder Tales (1918) and Canadian Fairy Tales (1922) by Cyrus Macmillan. These collections were my first introduction to our First Nations legends, and I loved them. For many years these two books were Canadian children's only access to such stories. Each was beautifully bound and illustrated in soft colours with the characters dressed in fairy-tale-like costumes.

Chapter Seven — Till I Can See So Wide

Throughout my career, I have been asked, "What is a children's book?" I have now decided that a children's book is any book that a child is caught enjoying. For that moment the book in the child's hand is a children's book. I had my own childhood love affair with Eaton's Catalogue, a staple of Canadian lives in the early twentieth century. Not having Barbie dolls, we cut out paper dolls from this essential part of our lives. For me at that time, the Eaton's catalogue was a much-loved children's book.

But this book is about what, in my opinion, characterizes quality books for children and young adults. The question is too large for a narrow answer. As C.S. Lewis proposed, writing for children can be approached in three ways. He identified two good approaches and one poor one. The poor one is to presume to know what all children want as if they were perfect duplicates of one another. The second approach, which he felt was acceptable, is to write for a particular child with whom the writer has a relationship. Here I salute Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, Kenneth Grahame and our own Grey Owl and his Sajo and Her Beaver People. Lewis's third and best approach "consists in writing a children's story because a children's story is the best art-form for something you have to say." This is the form, simple but not simplistic, filled with sentiment but not with sentimentality, that has a common touch that guarantees a wide appeal. Many newer books are so narrowly concerned with a particular child's problems that the story does not touch the heart or strike a chord of universality.

For a time, many felt that the mission of children's literature was to link children around the world and thus raise adults who would be able to heal all the world's ills. This once-widespread feeling among experts in children's reading was based upon the belief that fine books would establish a universal bond among young people, promote understanding and rid the world of prejudice, ignorance and intolerance. When the children who read these wonderful books grew up, wars would be outmoded, extreme nationalism despised and cooperation extolled. Unfortunately, it did not happen as hoped; it was mission impossible. As the speaker from South America at the first Pacific Rim Conference stated bluntly, "How can you teach children to read before you can feed and house them?"

Ultimately, children's literature passes adult values to younger generations. Children's literature is written, published and purchased by adults in an attempt to pass on information, experience and values. Since the days of the Puritans, this has been the intention of most sophisticated modern writers for children, although some writers can do it much more entertainingly and delicately than others. For example, I have always felt that the chief genius of Winnie-the-Pooh lies in the fact that child readers could feel themselves superior to the rather bumbling animals.

All my life I have had access to information and literature through our public library system. In this country we all pay for other people. I respect other people, and I am willing to pay my share of taxes to support a diversity of needs and interests. I grew up in public libraries, worked in public libraries, taught students to work in public libraries and consider libraries the greatest democratic institutions in the world. If a society were to lose its access to public libraries, it would no longer be a democracy. The Internet has speed and cunning and its place in libraries, but to me there is nothing as rewarding as personal contact and service. I remember the story about a professor who needed to leave his university for a period of time. He recorded his lectures and asked his students to attend class to listen to them. When he returned, he found an empty room and forty tape recorders lined up on desks recording his taped lectures.

I have often asked myself why reading has had such an appeal for me and why I have spent a lifetime trying to convince other people that it is important. I think that it is because each of us is only given one life to live, but reading opens a multitude of lives and worlds from outerspace to personal inner space. The ending to Penelope Lively's The House in Norham Gardens (1974) addresses this view. A young English girl, about fourteen years old, has the considerable task of looking after two great aunts. In the final paragraph of the story, her great aunt Susan passes on an important piece of wisdom.

"It is only those who have never listened who find themselves in trouble eventually."
"Because it is extremely dull," said Aunt Susan tartly, "to grow old with nothing inside your head but your own voice. Tedious, to put it mildly."

We all need to hear voices other than our own. Fanaticism is born from listening only to yourself. Reading has helped me with writing, spelling, the organization of material and crossword puzzles, but, most important, reading has given me insight into the minds and lives of other people, often people very different from myself.

Reading has also given me a great deal of pleasure. Good books give all of us, especially children, entry into worlds that we may never experience personally, and into new aspects of the world we think we know. I am strongly against the theory that it does not matter what children read as long as they read. Let's take this theory to its inevitable conclusion. Would you want them to read nothing but pornography? Would you want them to read nothing but comic books or the Disney interpretations of the folktales? Children should be offered the very best of a wide spectrum of reading. If they reject what is offered to them, perhaps we have not been sensitive enough to their needs or interests. We should provide them with every opportunity to have the best—the best teachers, the best books, the best doctors, the best medicine, the best libraries and, of course, the best librarians.

I have often wondered about the practice of placing mediocre books in libraries. No one expects the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra to choose a poor piece of music deliberately and play it badly. No one expects an art gallery to exhibit a poor piece of art deliberately. Yet, libraries are expected to be all things to all people. Is it more democratic to have poor quality material in libraries if people want it? I certainly have had junk in my life. I have read masses of junk, but at least I found it for myself. Junk is not difficult to find. It surrounds us. To identify the best is quite a different thing. That takes time, trouble and the training of children on the part of parents, librarians and teachers. It takes thoughtfulness and an understanding of children and their interests. The effect of a quality piece of literature upon a reader is not easily understood. Books have to have some holding quality that makes you want to keep turning the pages. I am sure we are all familiar with the expression associated with reading a book, "I just didn't want it to end." You can read such a book several times. My approach is to give children the best first. Then they will recognize the shallow when they encounter it.

Once Upon a Time: My Life With Children's Books will be available in October, 2005. For more information see the Orca catalogue at


These passages appear with the permission of Orca Book Publishers. Sheila Egoff and Wendy Sutton hold the copyright. Please note that passages do not reflect the final editing by the publisher.


Sheila Egoff and Wendy Sutton

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