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Alumni Interviews: One story, many audiences

Photo of Jennifer Lanthier

Jennifer Lanthier has worked as a journalist, news editor, communications director and children’s book author.

Jennifer Lanthier (BA 1985, Political Science, History) has worked as a journalist, news editor, communications director and children’s book author. She is most noted for her ability to create a good story and her passionate defence of free expression. Lanthier’s books include The Legend of the Lost Jewels, The Mystery of the Martello Tower, The Stamp Collector and, most recently, Hurry Up, Henry.

On one level, your new book, Hurry Up, Henry, is about a boy who likes to take his time, and so he sees things that others often miss. What was the main inspiration for your book?

I wrote this one a few years ago, after walking my youngest child to his first day at a new school. It was clear that, although we were walking together, we were each walking a very different path — and his experience that morning was almost nothing like mine.

My quiet, thoughtful son moves at his own pace and he sees the world very differently from me. I had taken the day off work so for once I was not rushed. I was curious and a little wistful, wondering just what he was seeing and thinking.

It was a long walk through a busy Toronto neighbourhood. Kids were pouring out of apartment towers, skipping down sidewalks, cutting through the park. Lots of languages were swirling around us. You could feel the first-day-of-school excitement, the nerves — and even, for some kids, the dread. And I found myself thinking about how much I love this city, and how much my son loves it. And how different our cities are. And I looked at all those kids, some hurrying alone, some dawdling, others chatting—and I wished somehow I could see all our cities.

Hurry Up, Henry is a children’s book, given the perspective and inspiration. However, it does not appeal only to kids, but it resonates with parents and older kids as well. What lessons does the book have for each of these audiences, and how have readers responded so far?

Photo of the cover of Hurry Up Henry, Cartoon image of Henry sitting on the arm of a clockI’ve seen a number of girls pick up the book, start reading — and then smile at a sibling and say “Hey, this book is about YOU!”

Some kids even put down the book for a moment to talk about how their brother or sister is just like Henry, always dreaming, dawdling, lost in a world of imagination, making everyone late.

But by the time these readers reach the end of the book that smile is often a bit more inward-looking and thoughtful. They’re wondering whether they really do need to rush so much, what they might be missing — and whether they should tease that dreamy sibling after all.

Most parents seem to be rueful right from the start. They recognize themselves in Henry’s parents and they wish they didn’t — nobody wants to hector or scold someone else, least of all their child. We love our kids! But today, work-life balance seems more like a punchline to an old joke than an achievable — or even legitimate — goal.

It’s an illustrated book. Can you tell us about your choice in depicting a mixed race family? Why was that important to you?

To a great extent, characters show up and they are who they are and you mess with that at your peril.

I’m fortunate to live in one of the most diverse urban regions in the world — Henry’s world is my world — and the book reflects that reality. That’s not something I could compromise on because also, as the child and the grandchild of librarians, I firmly believe that it’s so important to be able to see yourself in a book.

The default setting for much of literature, including children’s literature and perhaps particularly picture books, is still a white, cisgender, disability-free, and prosperous world. Children’s literature is becoming a more diverse and inclusive place but we still have a long way to go.

Speaking of diversity and inclusion, another book you’ve written is The Stamp Collector, and its proceeds support the work of PEN Canada. How do you use your books to educate people about free expression?

Photo of the cover of the Stamp CollectorThe Stamp Collector was inspired by the real-life experiences of writers in prison and in peril around the world. For a picture book it’s very dark but I’ve been very fortunate that it has resonated with audiences of all ages — it has taken me into schools and libraries across Canada and in the United States. And I get to talk with kids, librarians and teachers about the importance of sharing our stories and of letting others share theirs.

I reassure kids that they live in one of the best countries on the planet for freedom of expression. But I am honest about the dangers in other countries, and the real-life torture of writers like Raif Badawi, sentenced to 1,000 lashes, to be doled out 50 at a time, for a blog post. His wife and children, are living safely in this country now. But he has 950 lashes to go.

Effective communication is certainly key in teaching others about a world beyond their immediate horizon. You currently work at the University of Toronto as a director of communications. Have you been inspired in your writing by any of the researchers at U of T ?

I can’t think of a researcher I’m not inspired by. But I’m fascinated by cities and we have so many of the world’s foremost experts on urban issues here at U of T. I really admire the work of Ron Buliung at U of T Mississauga, for example. His research shows that far more kids are being driven to school now than ever before, and that’s bad for everyone. It’s bad for our environment, bad for our health (all that traffic, all those particulates in the air) and it’s bad for kids’ health (sitting in a car versus walking? No contest!).

But his research also examines how walking to school helps kids with mapping, with developing their own geographic skills, learning to navigate routes and even assess risk. (How do I deal with that barking dog? That big kid hefting a snowball?).

I like to think Professor Buliung would approve of Henry’s walk to school!

I’m also really interested in the work of Jennifer Stellar, who is researching the health impact of positive emotions. She’s exploring the way that awe — the kind of awe we feel in nature, for example — can actually lower cortisol levels. I think Henry would agree.

How do you balance the creative life as a children’s book author with your professional life as a director of communications at U of T?

I haven’t actually written any fiction in a very long time. My current job, which I love, has a way of taking over my life but I’m working on that elusive work-life balance that Henry seems to have mastered.

Who is your favourite children’s book author, and why?

 It’s impossible to name one. I love the classics — L.M. Montgomery, W.O. Mitchell, Ezra Jack Keats, Leo Lionni. But we have incredibly brilliant children’s authors publishing today, and a staggering number of them are U of T alumni, like Cary Fagan and Debbie Ohi, Teresa Toten and Kyo Maclear, Eric Walters and Ken Oppel. They are rock stars in the world of children’s literature.

You graduated from U of T with a BA in Political Science and History. Did your undergraduate studies prepare you to write your own books, and if so how?

I think an undergrad degree prepares you for so many things: being a more thoughtful and engaged citizen, for example. But yes, also writing. I loved my time at U of T but I wish there had been as many international experiences available for students then as there are now.

Writing is all about finding yourself in the other and the other in yourself, so I’ve been determined to help my kids, who also love to write, experience life outside Canada. My daughter, who’ll graduate from Trinity next spring, was able to do a third-year study abroad in London, England. And my middle child, who’s in his first year at University College now, is already plotting research abroad and study abroad opportunities. I’m grateful that U of T makes this a priority for students today.

What is coming up next for you?

I have a very different book coming out next spring with Clockwise Press, and it’s in more of a Calvin and Hobbes vein. It’s about what it’s like to have a falling out with someone you love very much, to be hurt and very, very angry. It’s called By the Time You Read This.