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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Bunch Of Munsch

I grew up in a small town. I still live in a small town. Some are perfectly okay with small-town living, and find a way to live a rewarding and meaningful life in a small town.

As for me...I'm not going to sugarcoat things. Living in a small town wasn't exactly the most pleasant experience for me. Even now, with the town slightly bigger than it was a child, I'm still not one hundred per cent in love with small town life. I think mostly because of the fact that it seems that in smaller towns, everyone knows your business, and if they don't, they try to get the information that they want through the various gossips who seem to be there for everything.

Then again, I have a blog, and I use it to open up my world, so maybe I shouldn't really complain too much. At least on here, I have control over what I wish to say, so that could be the difference.

Still, the idea of growing up in a small town does have its perks as well as its flaws.  

Allow me to share with you one of those perks.  

There's a building located at the end of our downtown core in town. Our town's arts center. At that building, there were concerts, stand-up comics, operas, even doubled as a movie theater during the period in which our town was left without one between 2001 and 2006.

That arts center happens to be the place where some of my fondest childhood memories took place.

When a stage company put on a performance of 'Charlotte's Web' (which I talked about one week ago today), I was there, and I loved it. A year later, we went to see a performance of the classic novel 'Winnie The Pooh'. We also had a couple of instances where during our French class, we went to the arts center to see a performance by a children's entertainer where the whole performance was done in French. So, not only did we get to see concerts, but we ended up seeing them in two different languages!

I even ended up on the stage of the arts center...though to be fair, I was with the elementary school concert band at a music festival as part of a school entry. I still made it to the stage.

So, why would I bring up our little town arts center in this blog entry?

Simple. The subject of this blog entry is someone who I actually saw at our arts center way back in early 1990. I was just barely nine years old at the time, and yet I remember it as if it were yesterday. I even got to meet the person who I got to see at our arts first brush with celebrity, if you will.

The person in question is a beloved children's author who is hugely popular in Canada and the United States. He came to the arts center to tell stories that he had written to a large crowd of children and their parents (as well as making up impromptu stories on the fly).  He was an author who was well-liked by everyone I went to school with, and his books were almost always hard to find in our school library since they kept getting checked out as fast as they were returned.

An author who not only delighted us with stories, but also stayed behind to meet with every single child who took the time to come and see him on stage.

I was one of those lucky kids who managed to meet him.  Although it was over twenty years ago, it was definitely one of the highlights of my whole life thus far. He was polite, friendly, and even called me by name. You could tell that he was really interested in getting to know every single one of his fans, and I'll never forget that day as long as I live. 

That author is Robert Munsch.

Robert Munsch is an author whom I wanted to do a blog entry on for a long time. I don't know why I even waited until 2012 to do it. The man is a creative genius as far as I'm concerned.  Robert Munsch has been one of the main influences in my choice to try and pursue a career in writing myself (though admittedly he has had far more success in the craft than I have had).

Of course, Robert Munsch has been writing stories longer than I've been alive. There's plenty of time, right?

Robert Munsch is widely considered to be one of the most well-known and successful children's authors of all time, and millions of children have probably read at least one of his books. There was even a television series that aired on CTV called 'Bunch of Munsch' (which is where the title of this entry came from). You can see the intro below this paragraph.

While Robert Munsch was at his creative peak with his books, he was also battling a few personal problems in his own life...but we'll get to that a little later.

First the basics, and as it turns out, his official website provides us with a lot of information. Born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he was one of nine children. It seemed as though Munsch had a rather typical upbringing, and had some decent relations with his siblings. Sure, one of them kicked Robert in the mouth one day after he got his braces removed, but such was life for someone with nine siblings.  It does however make me feel happy that I only had two, I have to say.

One thing that really shocked me though was just how much my life sort of paralleled with Robert Munsch's. Robert Munsch had stated that he almost flunked first grade. In my case, I too was almost held back in first grade. Though to be fair, in Robert's case, he openly admits to not being a great academic success. In my case, it was because my first grade teacher openly made my life a living hell on earth.

Another comparison between us? Well, Robert stated that he had always felt like the 'weird' kid. I often felt like I was the weird and misunderstood kid no matter what class (or school) I was in.

On top of all that, Robert Munsch had said that when he was in high school, he didn't exactly get along with most people there. He was more content reading books. And you really don't want me to get into how much I despised going to high school, mostly because I had a very low opinion of quite a few of my high school classmates.

But the way I handled it differs from the way that Robert Munsch initially handled it. In my case, I threw myself into the world of writing, figuring that if I couldn't live the life I wanted to live at the time, I could write myself a better one, so to speak. Initially, Robert Munsch wanted to become a Jesuit priest!

So, how did Munsch end up switching his career path from the priesthood to the writer's studio?

It all began when he did some volunteer work at an orphanage while he was studying to become a priest. After just a short time working at the orphanage, he had a sort of epiphany that he was somehow supposed to find a way to find a career where he made children happy, as he adored children. So, he got a job working in daycare, and during this time took some additional classes in child studies at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. At that school, he had gotten a job placement at a preschool classroom where he made up a story for the circle time period about a boy who would rather sing all day and all night instead of going to bed.

That story later became the basis for one of Munsch's earliest books, 'Mortimer'.

It soon became clear that Robert Munsch had some sort of talent in entertaining children through his stories, and over the course of a decade, he had gotten married, moved to Canada, and continued to come up with more and more hilarious tales which children enjoyed.

And Munsch's stories seemed to get a lot of attention from his colleagues that he worked with, one of which happened to be the wife of his boss who happened to be the librarian of a children's library. She insisted that Munsch record his stories and send them off to get them published. He didn't listen at first, but after constant prodding (plus a forced sabbatical by his boss at the time), he submitted ten stories, suitable for publishing purposes. Nine were rejected.

The tenth one was a story called 'Mud Puddle', which would eventually become Munsch's first published work. It sold roughly three thousand copies during its first year. By the tenth year it was on the market, it had its best sales yet.

I guess in one way, this is another connection that I share with Robert Munsch. We're both kind of stubborn and we tend to tune people out whenever they give advice. In Robert's case, it worked out to his favour that he took a chance on the advice. Maybe I should look at him by example in reference to my own life. What do you think?

At any rate, Robert Munsch has written a total of fifty-four books in his writing career so far, and is wildly popular in his own right. And, this is despite a 2010 admission that for years, he battled OCD and manic-depression, and Robert has openly admitted that he has endured a battle with drugs and alcohol as a sort of coping mechanism to deal with it. Of course, watching him on stage twenty-two years ago, you'd never know it. He was in a great mood, he was happy, he treated the kids in the audience like gold...there was no sign that anything was even wrong with him.

If anything, Robert Munsch being so candid and honest about the struggles that he had to go through in his own life only makes him MORE of a role model to look up to. It shows that anybody can have struggles in life...even a famous children's author like Robert Munsch. For him to rise above those struggles and take his life back, even if it did take years, is nothing short of inspirational. I just hope that by him coming forward with what he had to go through, it will help others who might be suffering in silence seek out treatment to help themselves.

Besides, all of the work he has done promoting his name and his brand far outweighs any dark aspects to his past. 

Did you know that he would often get letters from children all over the world asking him to visit their schools to read them stories? And more often than not, he would respond by going to these schools for an unannounced visit? To see the delight on all of the kids faces when they saw that their letters not only got answered, but their wishes granted on top of that? That had to have been an awesome sight to behold!

Robert Munsch would also travel around the country of Canada to do tours (one reason why he came to my little arts center in my small town), and while he was on tour, he would forego the hotel rooms to stay with a family that lived in the town he was currently in. He loved interacting with families in their homes because not only did it save him some money, but he actually got a lot of inspiration from the people who lived in the homes. 'Moira's Birthday', for instance, was written after he stayed with a family in the Northwest Territories.

He'd even take it one step further when Scholastic Book Clubs issued a contest for schools to enter where the winner would have Munsch visit their classroom. The teachers had assumed that he'd drop by the school for an hour and tell them stories. Instead, he told the teacher to pick two random names out of a hat, and those two lucky students would have Robert Munsch as a houseguest for at least one day. Who knows how many stories Robert was inspired to write as a result of this?

Even some of Munsch's stories had some awesome themes to them. Granted, some of them were silly fun, as in the case with 'Thomas' Snowsuit', where at some point every character in the book ends up in their underwear. Still, there were some stories that had fantastic morals and life lessons.

Take his 1980 book 'The Paper Bag Princess', one of my all-time favourites. You have Princess Elizabeth, a beautiful, yet spoiled, princess with a lavish wardrobe, more shoes than Imelda Marcos, and hair that Fabio would be jealous of. She was engaged to be married to the practically perfect Prince Ronald. Along came a fire-breathing dragon to spoil their plans. Not only does he kidnap Prince Ronald, but he burns down Elizabeth's castle, turning all her possessions into ashes, and covering our pretty princess with disgusting black soot. By the end of the carnage, all Elizabeth can find to wear is a brown paper bag. Still, when your truest love is in danger, one can't afford to be choosy, so she set off with the paper bag dress to rescue her love.

And after tricking the very dragon that destroyed her home and possessions, and purposely draining his energy so that he'd be too tired to retaliate, Elizabeth rescues Ronald...only to find that her prince is really a frog. He actually has the audacity to make fun of her paper bag dress, despite knowing that she had gone through heck to try and save him. Oh, I'd be pissed. And, Elizabeth promptly kicked him to the curb and went on her merry way...a free woman.

Another story that I touched upon earlier was 'Moira's Birthday', in which a little girl named Moira wanted a birthday party. And she wanted to invite all the kids in grade one, grade two, grade three, grade four, grade five, grade six, annnnnnnnnnnnnnd kindergarten. Moira's parents said no. Somehow, all the grades incluuuuuuuuuuuding kindergarten showed up anyway, and the whole party was a giant disaster from the get-go. There were too many pizzas, too many birthday cakes, too many presents, and too many KIDS!

Moral of the story? Nothing in excess is EVER good.

And then there's Robert Munsch's most famous work. It was a book that was released in 1986 that was more serious in tone than all the others, yet is ranked number four on the top selling children's books of all time. It was the book that helped make Munsch a household name in the United States, and it was a book that Maria Shriver told Oprah Winfrey that made her cry every time she read it.

That book was 'Love You Forever', a touching story about a mother who had a son. As the son grew up and caused more mischief, she never stopped loving him. And each night, whether he was four, or fourteen, or twenty-four, she would pick him up, cradle him, and sing...

“I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, as long as I'm living, my baby you'll be.”

The story was a heartwarming one, as we saw that a mother's love for her son never really does die. The older a child gets, the more she loves him/her. It was a very sad moment when towards the end of the book, the mother is so elderly and frail that she can't get through the her son instead picks her up and sings...

'I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, as long as I'm living, my MOMMY you'll be.”

Have you dabbed your eyes yet?

The point is that, yes, Robert Munsch was mostly a silly story guy...but he also showed that he could write serious stuff as well. In the case of 'Love You Forever', Munsch openly admits on his own website that the story was inspired by a personal tragedy, as it was written after Munsch and his wife had two children that were stillborn in 1979 and 1980. Who knew that such a tragedy could turn into a heartwarming and beautiful story? Of course, this could be one of the ways Munsch hid his pain transforming it into words and stories.

Kind of like I'm kind of doing with this blogging project.

Either way, Robert Munsch's work continues to live on. He had a mild health scare in 2008 when he suffered a stroke which impacted his speech, but he has recovered enough to go back to performing in schools. And in September 2009, he was given a star on Canada's Walk Of Fame...ten years after he was made a member of the Order of Canada.

Not bad for a man whose first book was about a mud puddle, huh?

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