Skip to content

Different language, same imagination

Montreal children’s authors and illustrators struggle to transcend linguistic barriers

Like so many of Montreal’s creative spheres, local children’s publishing has a soft spot for its hometown, and authors and illustrators are constantly striving to do justice to the bilingual, multicultural landscape in their works.

Children’s books are their own brand of literary rebels: they follow their own artistic and business rules. Unlike their adult counterparts, the intended audience is not the one making purchases, so in order to be successful a book must appeal to a parent’s sensibilities as well as their child’s interest. Louis Pilon, an illustrator who has started his own publishing house, says he markets primarily to parents, though he’s aware of the influence of the child. Fittingly, his company FTH Creations is family-run. His 20-year- old daughter Camille, who illustrates a series of Princess coloring books, elaborated: “I think it’s 80 per cent parents, 20 per cent kids. The colors have to be flashy and things like that so the child points it out to his parent.”

Outside Quebec, kids’ entertainment is generally centered aroundDisney and Nickelodeon. But there’s more room for creativity in the francophone mainstream.

Unlike adult lit, children’s books are shamelessly pedagogical. Anne Renaud, who has published through Montreal-based Lobster Press, writes books and non-fiction titles that are about Canadian history. “It is important for me to find a topic which there are no children’s books about,” she said. “For example, there were no books about the Tulip Festival, and I thought this was important for children to learn.” Her 2004 release, A Bloom of Friendship: The Story of the Canadian Tulip Festival, which was shortlisted for several awards, is a tribute to the Canadian soldiers who died liberating Holland in World War II.

“I know that these books are used in schools,” Renaud said. “I remember sitting through very boring history classes as a kid, so if I can make our history more entertaining to kids I can get something out of it.”

FTH Creations takes an interactive approach to juvenile literacy, publishing mostly activity books. Louis Pilon started illustrating story books after working for a toy company and has been able to blend the two experiences in his new effort. His publications are all trilingual, featuring Spanish on every page as well as the expected French and English. Trilingualism not only expands the books’ market, but encourages cultural exchange. “It’s all the same imagination,” Pilon explained.

Despite provincial success, Pilon is working hard to expand to the rest of Canada and has faced the difficulties of the U.S. market. Mixed reviews in the States have mostly focused on the language, requesting English only. “It doesn’t take away anything from anybody,” insisted the artist.

But ultimately, few people get rich off children’s books. “I have two part time jobs; that is essentially what pays the rent,” said Renaud.

Opportunities for Anglophone authors can be limited in Quebec as well. Though local publications are clearly aware of the multilingual environment, the children’s literature community is fractured along linguistic lines. Lobster Press is the only noticeable English-language publisher for juveniles in the area. There is an association for Quebec writers of juvenile literature, though it is predominantly, if not exclusively, francophone. It’s also easier for an illustrator than an author to find a job, as their work can transcend linguistic barriers. Quebec-bred artist Rogé – an example of Quebec illustrators’ rejection of the corporate realm, as evidenced in his lush acrylics – is Francophone, but has been able to illustrate titles for Lobster.

Children’s literature in Montreal is certainly a brand of its own. Pilon attributes this trait to a special Quebec creative process. “We’ve been exposed to more things,” he insisted, “so we can output things that are more complete. We have multicultural aspects and I think that shows.”