She never forgot what it was like to be a child: uncertain, powerless, dreamy, vulnerable. Out of the evergreen memories of her childhood, Jean Little constructed a body of literary work – some 60 books – that entertained, touched and comforted children with disabilities and those without. Young disabled characters figured in many of her stories, which were translated into French, German, Danish, Dutch, Japanese, Greek, Welsh and Norwegian.
Her books brought her an Order of Canada, four honorary degrees and every major Canadian literary prize for juvenile literature. An elementary school bears her name in Guelph, Ont., where she lived.
Born with scarred corneas that made seeing a constant struggle, the author overcame seemingly insuperable challenges to make her living as a writer. But first she became an avid reader from an early age. To make out the words, she was obliged to hold a book so close to her face that she had to wash the printer’s ink off her nose before she could go out. Reading the classics of juvenile literature educated her imagination and fortified her against schoolyard bullies who taunted her for being clumsy and cross-eyed.
Her younger sister, Patricia de Vries, former head nurse at Vancouver General Hospital, who lived with Ms. Little for the last 27 years of her life, recalled that when the two were children, Jean would pull her to the Guelph public library on a sled in winter, having borrowed the library cards of all her siblings so that she could take out more books than her own library card would allow: “She took out 10 books at a time and my job was to keep them dry on the sled on the way home.”
Ms. Little was a fast reader, able to finish a novel in an evening until her vision declined precipitously in middle age. Though she learned Braille, she found it too slow.
Ms. Little died on April 7 at the age of 88 in a Guelph hospice. Her niece Maggie de Vries said she had been suffering from heart disease and may have had a stroke.
Ms. Little was born in Taiwan on Jan. 2, 1932, the second of four children of John Llewellyn and Flora Millicent (née Gauld) Little, two doctors who had been sent out as medical missionaries by the United Church of Canada. Jean’s maternal grandparents were also missionaries. The brilliant Flora had started medical school in Toronto at the age of 16 and both mother and father were empathetic and literate. Versions of them appear as somewhat idealized parents in Ms. Little’s books; one of these (His Banner over Me, 1995) is the story of her mother’s life.
Ms. Little was 7 when the family returned to Toronto at the start of the Second World War. Her 1987 memoirs Little by Little is a vivid account of her early education. On the recommendation of an eye specialist, she was sent to the “sight-saving” class at Jesse Ketchum School, where she learned to read and print from a caring teacher, using a thick, dark pen and special chalk visible on green boards. But outside class, the name calling and humiliation by sighted children never stopped.
When her teacher saw the visually impaired children’s anger and frustration at their own limitations, their inability to untie a knot or deliver newspapers (they couldn’t see the house numbers), she obtained materials for each to weave a waste basket, which they managed to complete after some coaching. When Jean gave her green-painted waste basket to her mother for a Christmas gift, her family was impressed, and Jean’s confidence grew. The story of the basket made its way into Ms. Little’s most popular novel, From Anna, about a German immigrant child with low vision. The green basket, which Dr. Little kept all her life, is now in the collection of the Toronto Public Library, Lillian H. Smith Branch.
The Little family moved to Guelph, where young Jean went to a regular school and joined a church-sponsored youth group, Canadian Girls in Training; there she began at last to make friends. She learned touch typing and started writing poems and stories, with encouragement from her adored father. He was immensely proud when Saturday Night magazine printed two of the teenaged Jean’s poems.
Against all odds, she graduated with an honours BA from the University of Toronto in 1955, where she was a student of the celebrated literary scholar Northop Frye. In her memoirs, she described with some satisfaction how the registrar of Victoria College had tried to talk her out of enrolling in the degree program, because he did not believe she could possibly do all the reading Prof. Frye would assign. He was forced to eat his words.
After teacher training in Utah, she was hired to instruct disabled children. Mostly she read to her charges. She noticed that the conventional happy ending in books for such children called for protagonists to throw away their crutches, fully cured. “She thought that was false,” said Ms. de Vries, also a writer. “She knew you could live with a disability and still have a satisfactory life.”
Her first novel, Mine for Keeps, was published in 1962 and won the Little Brown Children’s Book Award, launching her writing career. It was followed by other juvenile books at approximately annual intervals. In later life she wrote witty picture books for very young children.
Her prizes included the Vicky Metcalf Award (1974), the Canada Council Children’s Book Award (1977), Ruth Schwartz Children’s Book Award (1985) and the Mr. Christie Book Award (2000).
Not everyone was charmed. Jewish parents objected to her misrepresentation of the history and meaning of the festival of Hanukkah in Jenny and the Hanukkah Queen (1995).
Her most formidable critic was Sheila Egoff, author of The Republic of Childhood: A Critical Guide to Children’s Literature in English, former librarian at Boys and Girls House in Toronto, who went on to teach at the University of British Columbia for 21 years. In her reviews, the acerbic Ms. Egoff described Mine for Keeps as the story of “the trials of a child crippled by cerebral palsy as she learns to adjust to normal school and after five years at a special school. A conventional attempt at ‘bibliotherapy.’” She called another book, When the Pie Was Opened, “a collection of highly sentimental and inept verse about growing up.”
"When she began writing, Jean was deeply hurt by Sheila Egoff’s patronizing remarks labelling her books sentimental,” recalled Mary Rubio, retired professor of English at Guelph University, editor of the journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery. Prof. Rubio became a good friend and often drove Ms. Little and her Seeing Eye dog to speaking engagements around Ontario. “However, Jean’s books were very popular with children and she lived to see herself regarded as one of the most-loved Canadian children’s writers of her era,” she added.
When Ms. Little was around 30, one of her eyes developed glaucoma and was removed surgically. Prof. Rubio witnessed her getting the children’s undivided attention on these school visits by asking if they’d like to see her glass eye, which she would casually pop out of its socket.
When she was in her mid-40s, the sudden loss of vision in her other eye plunged her into a depression and made it impossible for her to work at the typewriter since she could not read back what she had written. The book she was writing at the time, Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird (1984) took her seven agonizing years to complete. This difficult period is the subject of her second memoirs, Stars Come Out Within.
After she heard about a new talking computer, she tracked down its near-blind inventor David Kostyshyn, in Hamilton. She acquired this device and used it the rest of her life. She also got her first guide dog, a big protective Lab named Zephyr, who gave her greater independence. Guide dogs became part of her persona.
Ms. Little had a full life that included world travel with friends or relatives. Ms. de Vries said it was her Aunt Jean who introduced her to theatre, taking her to Stratford and the Shaw Festival where they usually sat in the front row.
Her life was to have an unexpected coda. At about the age when she received her first Canada Pension Plan cheque, Ms. Little became a mother, of sorts. With her sister, Pat, she took on the task of raising the children of Pat’s murdered daughter Sarah, one of the victims of Robert Pickton. Sarah had been a beautiful, troubled young woman who had spent 14 years living on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and her children, Ben and Jeanie, were affected in utero by her addictions.
Jean Little was predeceased by her brothers, Jamie and Hugh. She leaves her sister, Pat; Ben and Jeanie de Vries, now 23 and 29; and 10 nephews and nieces.