Children’s writer Janet Lunn remembered as “righteous and full of imagination

Ottawa's Janet Lunn was a children's author and a fierce advocate for writing in Canada. Photo: Scholastic

Ottawa author Janet Lunn, entertained and educated generations of children with her 18, mainly historical, fiction and non-fiction books. Lunn died this week at age 88 of congestive heart failure, surrounded by her own five children.

The American-born Lunn was a recipient of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario. Her books include The Hollow Tree, which won a Governor General’s Literary Award in 1998, and Shadow in Hawthorn Bay, which won a Canada Council Award (forerunner of the GG children’s award) in 1988. A statement released by Lunn’s family especially honoured the author for The Root Cellar and the illustrated history book, The Story of Canada.

But in a 2002 interview Lunn speculated that her epitaph will record her as the author of the exceedingly popular 1988 book, Amos’s Sweater, “a little picture book,” as she called it, about a sheep unhappy at constantly being shorn.

Among the honours for her body of work was the Matt Cohen Award; the jury called Lunn “a beautiful writer and a meticulous researcher” who played “a leading role in the flowering of literature and the arts in Canada, especially of Canadian children’s writing.”

Janet Lunn. Photo: Authea Weese

Lunn served in 1984-85 as the chair of The Writers Union of Canada and, in that role, advocated fiercely to reverse federal government cuts to the budget of the Canada Council for the Arts, according to a statement issued by the writers group.

Another past chair of the union, Christopher Moore, jointly authored The Story of Canada with Lunn.

“I thought of Janet Lunn as a model of what a Canadian writer should be,” said Moore. “She was righteous and full of imagination and empathy, and brave as a lion. 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.”

Janet Louise Swoboda was born in Dallas, Texas Dec. 28, 1928 to Margo Alexander and Herman Swoboda. She attended Queen’s University in Kingston, where she studied English and met fellow student Richard Lunn. They married in 1950 and moved to Toronto in 1955 where they raised their family. Janet became a Canadian citizen in 1963. In 1968, the Lunns moved to Hillier in Prince Edward County, her husband’s childhood home. Richard died of cancer in 1987 and Janet moved to Ottawa in 1999 where she lived the rest of her life.

Early in her career in Toronto, Janet worked as a children’s book reviewer and contributed stories for The Canadian Reader magazine published by Peter Martin Associates, where she was contracted her to write her first novel, Double Spell. From 1972 to 1975, she was Canada’s first children’s book editor for Clark, Irwin Publishers in Toronto and helped to form The Writer’s Union of Canada.

Lunn continued writing novels, picture books and short stories into her 80s. During her career she was a writer in residence for several universities and libraries and visited children in schools and libraries across Canada. She always said her first love and real vocation was her family, which includes nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

“I write books for children and young teenagers,” Lunn’s website quotes her as saying. “It’s work I love. It’s work I can’t stop myself from doing and I’ve been doing it for a long time. Quite a few of my books are historical novels. I get asked by kids all the time if I write about long-ago times because I remember them. I’ll admit I’m old — but I’m not that old! I write about people who lived 100, sometimes 200, years before I was born because I long to go back into the past and know some of those people. So I do it by dreaming my way into their stories and writing about them.”

Lunn said she wrote stories for many years, sent them to magazines and was rejected. “The day I finally had a story accepted, I was so excited and so sure I was going to be rich, I bought a whole set of encyclopedias. I didn’t publish my first book until I was 40. I never did get rich.”

Children’s books are not treated as serious literature – and that’s not surprising, Lunn once said. “We have a culture where we’re not child-centred. 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 on the totem pole.”

Hug your children, Lunn would say. Indeed, Lunn’s books were like giant hugs for the many children who were her fans.

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