Two girls – Beatrice and Evangeline Freedman – came into my life when they were three and six years old, respectively. They came with my wife, Miranda, and this became my first experience building a full-time, father-like relationship with children that I did not help bring into this world.
I remember thinking and worrying: What can I do to maximize the positive impact that I have on these young girls’ lives? In some ways, I found it more of a challenge to develop a close relationship with Beatrice in those early years, because she was very attached to her mother.
One thing I knew how to do – because I love to make up stories, and because I’d had some practice with my three slightly older children – was to tell bedtime stories. So I did what I knew best, and began telling Beatrice bedtime stories featuring a girl versus a crocodile. The fictional girl, of course, was named Beatrice, who lived alone in a well-stocked treehouse in a massive forest. Her nemesis was a 700-pound, 69-tooth, fast-talking crocodile named Harry. Each night, Harry would use clever language and emotional appeals to lure Beatrice as close as possible, and each night, when Beatrice decided that he might finally be trustworthy, Croc Harry would pounce. Beatrice would get trapped in the most precarious situations – sometimes in his jaws, and at other times swallowed whole and all the way down the hatch – but she would always outfox Harry. At the last moment, just before getting ripped apart in his jaws or incinerated by his high-powered stomach acid, Beatrice would escape to live another day.
My own Beatrice revelled in these stories, which became such fun – such a nightly feature in our household – that sometimes her older siblings would gather to listen, too. I believe these stories helped us bond, because I tried to imbue the fictional Beatrice with the personality and quirks of my new daughter.
As the fictional Beatrice developed a tenuous relationship with her predator, I tried to make her both naively trusting and wisely critical. I tried to show her hungry to form a solid new friendship, but quick to anger when she was betrayed or tricked. Croc Harry, on the other hand, seemed to be hiding a vague and ominous past. He was quick with words and in possession of a daunting vocabulary, but would he or would he not eat Beatrice for breakfast?
Eventually, as I ran out of stories or perhaps Beatrice began to outgrow them, she made me promise that I would turn them into a book, and dedicate the book to her. Already, there was a certain competition among the siblings in the family. My eldest daughter, Geneviève Aminata, saw her middle name give rise to the protagonist of my novel The Book of Negroes. My daughter Caroline, son Andrew and daughter Evangeline all either had books of mine dedicated to them, or were featured in the opening pages of one.
Beatrice wanted to stake her own claim, so she reminded me more than a few times over the years that I owed her a book, and that her name should be on the cover. I got busy with other writing projects and did not turn to Beatrice and Croc Harry until the summer of 2019, when I was struggling with another novel. Finally, I decided to stop banging my head against the wall. I set the other novel temporarily aside and opted to dive into writing Beatrice and Croc Harry.
I found traction instantaneously. Writing a story about a girl’s tempestuous relationship with a crocodile became riotously entertaining. I had more fun on the page than I have ever had before. Because it was a fantasy that I had initially imagined for children, featuring a bright but abandoned girl in a forest with talking crocodiles, rabbits and lemurs, I was able to channel the very most playful part of my persona as bedtime storytelling Dad. I was also able to channel the African-American vernacular that I had picked up from my father and paternal grandparents, and to recreate a voice I missed so very much – that of my own father Daniel G. Hill – and the bedtime stories that he used to tell me.
Beatrice and Croc Harry became much more than a story about whether a crocodile would make a meal out of his friend Beatrice. It became an exploration of friendship and trust. It became a meditation on the possibility of turning a predator into an ally. It became a story of two creatures – girl and crocodile – each lost in a magical forest, without any memory of life before they met.
It gave me a chance to explore the idea that a perpetrator of evil and someone who had been wronged might be able to meet in a place of healing and respect. And it allowed me to populate the story with concocted words (such as hypocroco-literosis, the phenomenon by which fewer and fewer crocodiles are reading books these days, and gouzelum, a mysterious organ – which is located adjacent to the hippoflump but only in people with teeming souls) and to revel in the play of language. It brought to mind the joy I felt as a child when my mother, Donna Hill, read nonsense poetry to me such as Disobedience by A.A. Milne. (“James James / Morrison Morrison / Weatherby George Dupree / Took great / Care of his mother, / Though he was only three …”)
I found it tricky to write a light, comic touch about painful issues, but felt excited about using that approach to write an allegory about the aftershocks of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Like the millions who were ripped from the continent and shipped in bondage across the seas, Beatrice awakens in a new land with absolutely no memory or awareness of her past. She doesn’t know if she has parents, siblings, a country, or a culture. She doesn’t know what year it is. She doesn’t know her last name. As she has been completely abandoned in a massive forest with no other humans; she doesn’t even realize that she is Black. That awareness will only begin to dawn on her as she approaches human civilization and begins to develop an awareness of human evil. So the readers gets to accompany Beatrice as she comes to discover the world and herself in it.
Is it a novel for children? Certainly. But in my heart, it is equally a novel for adults. Best of all, it would be a novel that children and adults might read simultaneously, or together. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time adults and children find themselves reading the same books.
I read and loved all of the Harry Potter books to keep up with my own children. As an adult, I have read and loved Anne of Green Gables, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Charlotte’s Web and The Little Prince, to name just a few. At the age of 14, I dove into James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and others who are considered writers “for adults.” Perhaps one of my greatest pleasures as a father was when my daughter Geneviève, 11 at the time, handed Of Mice and Men back to me and said, “Dad, that Steinbeck guy can really write.”
The new novel is for my daughter Beatrice, who finally has a book dedicated to her. And it is for all readers, young and not so young, who might love playful language and a story of girl versus crocodile.
In their daily experiences, many children live with evil. Some have to worry about bombs dropping on their homes. Some of them see their own parents die. Some see the world attempting to crush their own identities. There is no reason to hide children from these issues, or to avoid them in literature for children, but I did find that humour, absurdity and the revelry of language helped me to let many shafts of light into the story. Children fear danger in the world. Many are personally aware of the threats they face. They look to literature to walk through the darkness, and they need hope to keep walking.
Lawrence Hill is the author of the forthcoming Beatrice and Croc Harry, and 10 other books including the novels The Book of Negroes and The Illegal, and the non-fiction book Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada. A professor of creative writing at the University of Guelph, Hill is a winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, and both CBC Radio’s Canada Reads and Radio-Canada’s Combat des livres.
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