For Janet Lunn, writing was like yeast dough. It "crawls out of its bowl and sneaks across the floor at you," she explained. It was also like the dog that "chases after you when you thought you'd locked him in the yard on your way out to get the groceries."
Ms. Lunn loved writing, she once said, "long before I could even imagine doing it." She wrote dialogue while stirring soup. Often, after reading something interesting, she would race to the typewriter. Her father warned her that she would lose her husband if she didn't take a break.
For young readers across Canada and beyond, it's a good thing she rarely paused through 60 years of writing. Ms. Lunn became an acclaimed and beloved children's author of 18 historically rich, meticulously researched novels, works of non-fiction and picture books.
These included The Hollow Tree, which won a Governor-General's Literary Award in 1998, and The Story of Canada, co-authored with Christopher Moore, the first illustrated history of Canada for young people and winner of a Mr. Christie's Book Award in 1993. Other titles were The Root Cellar (1981), about a ghost that becomes a young girl's best friend and guide in an old root cellar that's actually a portal to the time of the U.S. Civil War; Shadow in Hawthorn Bay (1988), a supernatural tale with a Celtic twist that took her to the north of Scotland to research the look, sounds and smell of the landscape; and well-received biographies of Laura Secord and Lucy Maud Montgomery.
Teachers across the country wrote to thank her for writing the historical novels they used to teach history to children in an interesting way. Ms. Lunn protested, though: "I don't write historical novels to teach anything. I write them because some small, stubborn part of me still feels that, if I am quick enough, or wily enough, one day I will find my way through that time barrier" – like her heroine, Rose, in The Root Cellar.
She was the first children's author to serve as chair of the Writers' Union of Canada, in 1984-85. In that role, she advocated fiercely to reverse cuts to the budget of the Canada Council for the Arts.
Kudos were many upon Ms. Lunn's death of heart failure on June 26 in Ottawa at the age of 88. Mr. Moore, her collaborator and another former chair of the Writers' Union, said he thought of Ms. Lunn as "a model of what a Canadian writer should be. She was righteous and full of imagination and empathy, and brave as a lion," he said in a statement to union members. "She became an inspiration and mentor to many other writers, for kids and for adults, as well as a leader in the union in its early years. She had to write; it was central to her existence."
Ms. Lunn believed that children read differently than adults. "Adults tend to read first with head, then with heart," she said in the 2002 Margaret Laurence lecture to the Writers' Trust of Canada. "Children read with every part of themselves at once." She liked author Graham Greene's observation that "no one ever reads again with that intensity with which he reads at the age of 10."
She bristled at the notion that "kidlit" was not serious or "real" writing. "We have a culture where we're not child-centred," she once observed. "We're not good about kids in our culture. No matter what field you're in, if you work for kids, you're at the bottom of the totem pole."
Ms. Lunn's son John, a New Hampshire-based flute maker who has also published for the children's market, agreed. "A lot of people think that writing for kids, or even being a pediatrician, is somehow inferior to working with adults, that one is lesser than the other. Writing for kids is just as difficult, and just as important as writing for adults."
Besides, Ms. Lunn loved young people. "I always wanted children," she said in her 2002 speech. "I married young and had all five children in a space of time that worried my mother, outraged my mother-in-law and sent my husband to the surgeon. I like kids." (She gave birth to five children in eight years.)
The bucolic settings in many of her novels were derived from her own childhood in New England. Janet Louise Swoboda was born the second of four children on Dec. 28, 1928, in Dallas, Tex., to the former Margo Alexander, a nurse, and Herman Swoboda, a mechanical engineer. Janet was 2 when they decamped to an 18th-century farmhouse near the village of Norwich on the Connecticut River in Vermont.
"We all fell under the spell of the Vermont countryside," she recalled. "It was a paradise of hills and woods and rushing water, of trailing arbutus blooming under the last snow in spring, of white winters and summers heavy with wild berries and the scent of roses."
Her parents had a hard time but made the best of it. While her mother dealt with farm animals, vegetable patches, wood stoves and freezing water pipes, her father sold cars and found small jobs that added up to an income.
Meantime, young Janet devoured books by Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett and Lucy Maud Montgomery. These were names of "unreal, mythical people, not ordinary people you could actually know or be." She was especially moved by Burnett's The Secret Garden, "so it's no surprise that the search for identity and self-acceptance runs through [Ms. Lunn's] fiction, as does the redemptive power of love and forgiveness," noted the 1995 compendium Children's Books and Their Creators.
On the eve of the Second World War, the family relocated again, and Ms. Lunn graduated from high school in New Jersey. She was offered a scholarship in English to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania but failed the chemistry portion of her entrance exam. She cried all afternoon the day that news came. A Canadian neighbour suggested Queen's University, in Kingston. To complete Grade 13, she attended the Notre Dame convent school in Ottawa, and began at Queen's the following year.
Her dreams of becoming a serious student of English or history – "or anything" – were "defeated" by a dashing ex-airman with a wicked sense of humour. She married Richard Lunn in 1950. He became a reporter for The Kingston Whig-Standard, and she offered to review the books she was reading to her own kids for the paper. No one was reviewing books for children at the time. She got the job, and dove into reviewing Maurice Sendak, E.B. and T.H. White, Rosemary Sutcliff, Philippa Pearce and Mary Norton. "I was hooked," she would recall.
The growing clan moved to Toronto in 1955, where Ms. Lunn began writing stories and sending them out to publications. As she put it, her first efforts were "pretty embarrassing," and were returned, until one day, a cheque for $25 arrived from the Family Herald in Montreal for a two-inch story at the bottom of their children's page. That same day, she bought a set of Encyclopedia Britannica and a new sewing machine.
With a young family, she wrote in snatched moments. "And always the stolen time came in frustratingly small scraps: an hour here while babies napped, 15 minutes there while they were with the kids next door, a blissful half day on a Saturday or Sunday when their father took them all off to the park and, later, whole working days while they were all in school and proper mothers were pushing vacuum cleaners through their houses or baking prize-winning pies."
She continued to work as a reviewer and contributed stories to The Canadian Reader, whose publisher contracted her to write her first novel. Double Spell, a story about twins and a creepy doll, which was set in Toronto, came out in 1968 to solid reviews.
Meanwhile, the family moved again, this time to Hillier, Ont. Her husband was from the area, and the two collaborated on The County, a history of Prince Edward County published for Canada's centennial.
In the mid-1970s, she was Canada's first children's book editor at the publishing house Clarke, Irwin and Co. But she got into a fight with her boss over the subject matter of a book and quit.
She wrote for younger readers, too, with the whimsical picture books The Twelve Dancing Princesses (1979), Amos's Sweater (1988) and Duck Cakes for Sale (1989). In 1997, she published The Hollow Tree, set in Vermont during the American Revolution. It was the third novel of a loosely connected trilogy (along with The Root Cellar and Shadow in Hawthorn Bay).
Her husband died in 1987. In 1999, Ms. Lunn moved to Ottawa, where she lived the rest of her life. She leaves five children, Eric, Jeff, Alec, Kate and John; 10 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.
Her many laurels included the Order of Ontario, in 1996, and the Order of Canada the following year, for raising "the status of children's literature in Canada, drawing her young readers into her stories, and encouraging them to read both fiction and historical works to learn about their roots and the pleasures of the written word."