"The kids think they’re having a good time, but they’re learning," the Montreal author says. "Which is what I’m trying to do in most of my books — trick them into learning stuff.”
If you’re looking for tales of writer’s-block woe, don’t look to Elise Gravel. She’s got the opposite.
“I have so many ideas, so many projects,” the Montreal writer-illustrator said in her Vieux-Rosemont home last week. “I’m ADHD, so I need to do everything as soon as I have the idea. If I wait too long, I get bored. But I have so many things lined up that I have to wait. It’s my greatest pain.”
It’s a problem all writers should have. Author of more than 30 books for young readers, the 42-year-old is a bona fide star in francophone Quebec. Her most successful title, the baby’s-first-words book Une patate à vélo (A Potato on a Bike), sells to a degree that she could live on its proceeds alone. In the rest of Canada, the U.S. and abroad, her profile is only just beginning to spread; in those places she is probably best known for the educational posters, downloadable free of charge on her website, that have found a growing embrace in schools and homes worldwide.
Gravel grew up in the east end of the island of Montreal, near Pointe-aux-Trembles. Her mother was a nurse, her father a CEGEP economics teacher.
“I don’t remember ever not having fun with drawings and words,” she recalled. “Every summer my parents would take us to (the Mont-Royal Ave. store) L’Échange before we went on vacation. They’d give us big cardboard boxes that we could fill with anything we wanted, including some pretty weird stuff that was not necessarily for kids. I was allowed to read whatever I wanted.”
Asked to name an early influence, Gravel cited the works of Roald Dahl and his longtime illustrator Quentin Blake.
“It was the sense that he was taking us kids seriously,” she said. “He thought his readers were intelligent. His books had bad grown-ups; the kids were the heroes. I really liked that.”
“I saw him try to do something different, and succeed,” she said. “So it certainly made me think it was possible, that people who make books aren’t magicians and gods.”
Trained in graphic design at Collège Ahuntsic, Gravel honed her style as an illustrator by drawing for invented clients. In 2003 one such exercise, Le Catalogue des Gaspilleurs, became her first book, and she was off to the races. A Governor General’s Award and numerous other prizes notwithstanding, she puts her success down to word of mouth among kids, and to educators and parents who find that all of her books provide teachable opportunities.
“French literature for kids is generally much cooler and edgier than English,” she said. “Anglo parents still have this idea that comics are not ‘good literature,’ not ‘real books.’ I’ve never encountered that in French.”
A cross-section of some of Gravel’s titles in English gives an idea of her range.
The Great Antonio is a biography of the late Montreal wrestler and strongman. “I thought it important that kids know who he was. He was such a legend. I was happy to be able to do it, because it gave him another life, and I’m sure he would have been pleased to see it.”
If Found Please Return to Elise Gravel, culled from her personal sketchbooks, can serve as a primer on creativity, while The Mushroom Fan Club is a kids’ field guide rooted in a personal passion. “We have a cottage, and I’m a mushroom forager. My kids like it, too. It’s like a treasure hunt. There’s something magical about mushrooms — they’re strange, hidden, sometimes a bit gross.”
Coming soon is the enticingly titled The Worst Book Ever (Drawn & Quarterly, 40 pages, $19.95), a hilarious meta-work deliberately rife with spelling mistakes, hokey plot devices, crass product placement, continuity gaffes and outdated gender roles. Two creatures of indeterminate species provide an exasperated built-in running commentary.
“I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done before,” Gravel said. “I checked and checked.”
Like much of Gravel’s work, The Worst Book Ever identifies and delightfully exploits something often forgotten about kids — in this case, that they love finding fault with things.
“I remember the thrill I used to get finding spelling mistakes in the Archie comics I read as a child,” Gravel said. “(The Worst Book Ever) looks stupid, but it teaches critical thinking. The kids think they’re having a good time, but they’re learning. Which is what I’m trying to do in most of my books — trick them into learning stuff.”
As for the typical audience she envisions while writing, she said: “It’s me. Me as a kid, and me right now. I’m immature and enjoy writing for the kid inside of me, who is still very much there. I’m often giggling while I write.”
A pair of other nearby readers — her two daughters, 11 and 13 — are a tougher audience.
“They’re … what’s the word … blasé? I publish so many books. They read them, but they’re not especially impressed. But their friends all know who I am. My youngest grew up with friends who, when they were fighting, would say, ‘Oh, you think you’re so cool just because you’re Elise Gravel’s daughter.’ ”
Gravel’s workplace requires only the shortest of commutes: it’s upstairs in the two-storey home where she lives with her husband and kids.
“I don’t think I would be disciplined enough to go to a studio or an office every day,” she said.
Working in such proximity to family, is maintaining her own space a challenge?
“Well, the floor in between helps,” she said with a chuckle.
Not surprisingly, Gravel gets a steady stream of invitations from schools, to the point where she has had to start simply saying no.
“School visits are demanding and stressful,” she said. “It’s a performance, and I prefer to spend that time and energy on my work and with my family. Recently I’ve started going back (to schools) occasionally, but only to draw with refugee kids, kids who don’t speak French yet. I just want to draw with them and not be a star — just draw for fun.”
A project that began several years ago as a one-off but soon took on a thriving life of its own is Gravel’s practice of creating free, often gender-focused posters on educational, social, historical and political themes.
“I had read an article somewhere saying that girls don’t think it’s OK to display anger — they feel guilty, because (they think) it’s supposed to be a male emotion. Well, I have two girls, and I’m angry sometimes and so are they, and I wanted them to know that that’s OK.”
The runaway popularity of “Girls Can Be …” led to a logical followup.
“I was trying to think of what would be a similar empowerment poster for boys, and at first all I could think of were things like ‘boys can cry,’ ‘boys can be scared’ … always a bit negative-sounding. But then I thought of positive things, like helpfulness. And that poster has been even more popular than the girls’ one. It’s a few years old and it’s still circulating around the world. Just last week it reached the Philippines. Often it’s women who send it to their boyfriends. It’s a message that not many of them had gotten as kids.
“When I hear or think of something that I think kids should know about — like the #MeToo movement, consent, refugees — I’ll make a poster for it. Frequently I’ll get requests: ‘Can you make one about autism?’ It’s more demanding than my books, because there can be a lot of research involved, but I’m happy to do it. I think of it as my volunteer work, my social work.”
The world being what it is, Gravel has found that the upside of her poster work — the sense of social mission, of helping make the world a better place — comes with an inevitable downside.
“The worst is always afterward, because I get attacked (online) a lot. For a week I know I’m going to be sad and scared. The refugee one was the worst. Remember, I’m not a team or a business — I’m alone getting all this abuse. It drains me. So I stay away a while.
“Then I make a new one.”