Jean Little is recognized throughout Canada and the United States for her candid and unsentimental portrayals of adolescent life. Once a teacher of handicapped children, Little herself is only partially sighted, and she uses much of her real-life experience as the basis for her books.
Her characters often deal with physical disabilities, including cerebral palsy or blindness, or confront psychological difficulties involving fear or grief. However, none of her characters find magical cures for their problems. Instead they learn to cope with and survive the challenges they face, and thus they are led to greater self-understanding. "Ultimately," explained Meguido Zola in Language Arts, "that is the real thrust of Jean Little's novels—recognizing and mastering the enemy within rather than tilting at the one without." For her writings, Little has won numerous awards, including a Canadian Children's Book Award, a Governor General's Literary Award, and a Vicky Metcalf Award.
Little was born in 1932, in Formosa, now known as Taiwan. Soon afterward, doctors detected scars over both her corneas, the "windows" that cover the eyes. Though she could see—she responded to light as an infant—her eyesight was significantly impaired, and she was diagnosed as legally blind. Her pupils were also off-center, so she had trouble focusing on one object for more than a brief moment. Later, schoolchildren would taunt her by calling her "cross-eyed."
Fortunately, Little's family was very supportive. Her parents read to her frequently, and as she gained limited vision, they taught her to read on her own. "Reading became my greatest joy," she wrote in her autobiography Little by Little: A Writer's Education. By 1939, Little's family had moved to Toronto, Canada. There, she first attended a class for students with vision problems. By fourth grade, however, she transferred into a regular class and no longer received specialized treatment—large-print books, for example, or oversized lettering on the chalkboard. As a result, she struggled with many everyday tasks. "If I wanted to read what was written on the board," she recalled in Little by Little, "I would have to stand up so that my face was only inches away from the writing. Then I would have to walk back and forth, following the words not only with my eyes but with my entire body."
As Little progressed through school, she discovered that she enjoyed writing. Noticing her obvious talent, her father encouraged her and often edited her work. "From the first, my Dad was my greatest critic and supporter," she once told SATA. "He plagued me to rewrite." When Little was fifteen, her father collected and printed her first booklet of poems, It's a Wonderful World. A few years later, when the magazine Saturday Night published two of her verses, her father proudly read them aloud. "I listened," she remembered in Little by Little, "and [when] his voice broke, I knew why I wanted to be a writer."
Deciding to pursue a degree in English, Little entered Victoria College's English language and literature program. Just before classes began, though, her father suffered a severe heart attack. Throughout the following weeks and months his health improved just slightly, yet his enthusiasm for his daughter's schoolwork never diminished. "When I got to college [my father] did research on every essay topic I had," she once recalled in SATA, "and insisted on tearing apart everything I wrote. He drove me crazy. Not until he died did I come to appreciate his unflagging zeal on my behalf."
Following her freshman year, Little completed her first novel, Let Me Be Gentle, about a large family with a mentally retarded six-year-old girl. "When I carefully typed 'The End,'" she wrote in Little by Little, "I gazed at that stack of typed pages with intense satisfaction. . . . I was convinced that the entire world would be as fond of my characters as I was. After all, I had written a practically perfect book." Nevertheless, her manuscript was soon returned by publisher Jack McClelland, who pointed out its choppiness and lack of focus. Little was hardly discouraged, though—McClelland also told her she had talent.
In 1955, Little graduated with her bachelor's degree in English, and although she primarily wanted to write, she applied for a position teaching handicapped children. With her experience—she had spent three summers working with children with motor handicaps—and additional training, she was hired. For the next six years she worked with handicapped children in camps, at special schools, and in their homes. She also taught at the Institute of Special Education in Salt Lake City, Utah, and at Florida University. These years helped inspire her to write for children. "Remembering how I had never found a cross-eyed heroine in a book," she remarked in Little by Little, "I decided to search for books about children with motor handicaps. I did not for one moment intend to limit my students to reading about crippled kids. I knew that . . . they actually became [fictional animal characters] Bambi, Piglet and Wilbur. I did not think they needed a book to help them adjust. I did believe, however, that crippled children had a right to find themselves represented in fiction."
As Little explained to Zola in Language Arts, the few books of the late 1950s and early 1960s that did portray handicapped children presented inaccurate views of them. Full of self-pity, the children were usually shown brooding over their limitations while dreaming of becoming more like their "normal" friends. And typically, by each story's end, they would undergo miraculous recoveries. "How my [students] laughed at all this silliness," Little told Zola. "And yet how cheated they felt. And so my first book—was for them."
Mine for Keeps revolves around Sally Copeland, a young girl with cerebral palsy, a disability frequently resulting from a lack of oxygen during birth. In the novel, Sally returns home after years of seclusion in a residential treatment center, learning to adjust to classes at a regular school. Her family and friends, too, must adapt to her special needs. Mine for Keeps "was different from Let Me Be Gentle," Little recalled in Little by Little, "because I had intended the first for my family and friends and only afterwards wondered if it were publishable. This one I had written purposely for strangers to read. I had worked much harder and longer on it." Not knowing exactly how to proceed after her manuscript was finished, Little took the advice of a librarian and submitted the story to the Little, Brown Canadian Children's Book Award committee. And in May of 1961—in a letter signed by the same Jack McClelland who had rejected Let Me Be Gentle years earlier—she found out her book had won.
Little dedicated Mine for Keeps to her father, and since its publication in 1962 she has gone on to write more books for children. Among these are Look through My Window and Kate, a pair of stories that center on both Emily, a withdrawn, only child, and Kate, a young girl of both Jewish and Protestant descent. In Look through My Window, Emily deals with her family's sudden move to the country and with the prolonged visit of her four boisterous cousins. She also begins to recognize the value of her newfound friendship with Kate. In Kate, the title character struggles to understand not only her religion but also herself and her family's roots. She learns, too, to treasure her friendship with Emily. "Kate is a beautiful tribute to the power of love," concluded John W. Conner in English Journal.
Little addresses the subject of blindness in From Anna and Listen for the Singing, the latter a winner of the Governor General's Literary Award for Children's Literature in 1977. In the first story, Anna, a shy and awkward young girl, moves with her family from Germany to Canada just before the start of World War II. The move is painful for her since she not only dreads living in a strange land, she also fears her new teachers—who will undoubtedly criticize her inability to read. However, when Anna is found to have impaired vision, she is placed in a special class, and there she begins to overcome her insecurities. Listen for the Singing, which opens the day England declared war on Germany, follows Anna as she begins her first year in a public high school. Because of her nationality, she faces hostility and prejudice, yet she also finds friends who are willing to defend her. In addition, she comes to accept her disability and is then able to help her brother survive the shock of a tragic accident. "This is a story of courage . . . in one of its more unspectacular guises," declared Susan Jackel in World of Children's Books: "the courage of a young person who anticipates almost certain humiliation and nonetheless wins through to a number of small victories."
In 1985, Little won the Canadian Children's Book of the Year Award for Mama's Going to Buy You a Mockingbird. As the narrative unfolds, twelve-year-old Jeremy learns that his father, Adrian, is dying of cancer. To ease Jeremy's sorrow, Adrian introduces him to Tess, a strong, compassionate young girl who has withstood several tragedies of her own. Through Tess, Jeremy discovers the strength to survive his father's death, while also finding the courage to comfort his grieving mother and sister. "The story has depth and insight," noted a reviewer for Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "and it ends on a convincingly positive note."
In His Banner over Me, Little writes a fictionalized biography of her mother, Flora Millicent "Gorrie" Gauld. She was born in Taiwan to missionary parents, just as her daughter would be, grew up with relatives in Canada, and became one of the nation's first women doctors and a missionary herself. The book details hardships and tragedies, including Gorrie's brother's death in World War I, as well as the joys found in a close, loving family. In this book, Little displays her "unfailing ability to create vivid scenes that make history come alive and vivid characterizations that make every individual exuberantly real," commented a reviewer for Quill & Quire.
Another historical novel by Little is The Belonging Place, set in the mid-nineteenth century. It is the tale of a young Scottish girl, Elspet, who goes to live with an aunt and uncle after her mother's death and eventually immigrates to Canada with them. "The underlying theme of this story is belonging: Elspet's need to belong to her new family, and the family's struggle to belong in the new land," noted Janet McNaughton in Books in Canada. McNaughton added that Little "creates a vivid picture of life" in the era, and "presents the problems of disease and childhood mortality in a way that young readers will find realistic and acceptable." Little's other historical fiction includes Orphan at My Door: The Home Child Diary of Victoria Cope and Brothers Far from Home: The World War I Diary of Eliza Bates, both part of the "Dear Canada" series.
Another common thread Little displays in her work is the importance of a child's imagination. In some cases, it is a child coming up with an imaginative solution to a problem, such as Patsy Small in Revenge of the Small Small. When Patsy, the youngest member of her family, is fed up with her siblings' teasing, she comes up with an imaginative way to make them stop. Using her new art supplies, she builds a little town, complete with a cemetery and grave markers bearing the names of her mean sister and brothers. Her siblings quickly repent. "Patsy is a loveable and imaginative heroine who finds creative ways to deal with her insensitive siblings," wrote Quill & Quire contributor Joanne Findon. Little dedicated this book to her younger sister Pat who pretended to bury the Little family years before.
In another book about imagination, Emma's Magic Winter, Emma and Sally pretend that their winter boots are magic. Doing so helps each girl overcome her own shyness and helps Emma to read aloud in front of her class. "A magical selection in any season," deemed Dina Sherman, writing in School Library Journal. Horn Book contributor Martha V. Parravano declared that Emma's Magic Winter "is about believable contemporary kids, with not a whiff of babyishness about it." Emma returns in Emma's Yucky Brother, which tells the story of how Emma learns to appreciate her newly-adopted brother. Maura Bresnahan of School Library Journal commented that the "gentle tone" of Emma's Yucky Brother will help readers understand how emotionally difficult the process of adoption is for everyone involved. Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman called Emma's Yucky Brother "an excellent book to introduce new readers to the idea that a good story can show many sides."
In Bats about Baseball, written with Claire Mackay, Ryder must come up with creative ways to win his baseball-loving grandmother's attention. Once baseball season hits, Nana is glued to the television. Or so he thinks. One day when Ryder tries to start a conversation about his future career, he thinks Nana is not listening. Readers, however, realize that Nana is listening; she just responds in baseball lingo. When Ryder figures out Nana's way of communicating, he has much fun with Nana. Quill & Quire contributor Sarah Ellis called the work "an immensely deft and good-humoured book."
Little's young adult novel Willow and Twig is something of a departure from her other books. It is "more somber in mood and adult in tone," a reviewer noted in Publishers Weekly, and its subject matter—abandonment and abuse—is dark. Such elements "might have turned to melodrama in the hands of a less talented author," Gillian Engberg wrote in Booklist, but Little tells Willow and Twig's story "without sensationalism." Tenyear-old Willow spends her life taking care of her four-year-old brother, Twig, who lost much of his hearing after one of their mother's friends beat him severely. Their drug-addicted mother frequently abandons them, and during one such period, their caretaker, an older woman named Maisie, dies suddenly. Now all alone in a rough Vancouver neighborhood, Willow seeks help from the police. Afraid the authorities will put them in separate homes, Willow suddenly recalls their mother's mother, who lives in rural Ontario. When they arrive at Gram's house, they find a "normal" household, confusingly different from the life they are accustomed to. Willow goes to school for the first time; Twig gets a hearing aid and is registered at a school for the deaf. "Life is finally becoming good, except for the personal demons with which Willow must contend," wrote Kristin Butcher for Canadian Materials. The ending is "somewhat convenient . . ., but satisfying all the same," thought a Kirkus Reviews contributor, while School Library Journal's Maria B. Salvadore noted that "the pacing of this richly textured novel allows characters to develop plausibly, quiet mysteries to unravel logically, and problems to be addressed optimistically."
Birdie for Now is the story of an eleven-year-old boy, Dickon, whose mother calls him "Birdie." Due to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Birdie faces painful challenges, such as being made fun of by other children. After his parents divorce, Birdie and his mother move back to his mother's hometown. To Birdie's delight, their new house is adjacent to the humane society. His mother dislikes dogs because one bit her when she was a child, but Birdie is determined to train an abused Papillon dog, also named "Birdie." When the dog comes home to stay with Birdie for a weekend, his mother realizes the positive effect the process of training the dog has had on Birdie, as the boy has learned responsibility and self-control. "Little demonstrates a finesse in developing Dickon's character," John Dryden wrote in Resource Links, and Mary Thomas of Canadian Materials noted that Little, a dog-lover, "obviously understands the bonds that can form between dog and child." Thomas added, "The emphasis that this book puts on relationships and their development makes it an outstanding read."
When not writing, Little keeps abreast of her audience by working with young people in the church, schools, and community. She also closely monitors the field of children's literature. "Children's books are chiefly what she reads," observed Zola in Language Arts. "She reads them because, for the most part, they are among the few books that still rejoice in life, still pulse with awe and wonder at its miracle, and still communicate a sense of growth and hope and love. It is in this spirit that she writes, to celebrate life."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Childhood in Poetry, Volume 4, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 4, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1982.
Little, Jean, Little by Little: A Writer's Education, Viking (Markham, Ontario, Canada, and New York, NY), 1987.
Little, Jean, Stars Come out Within, Viking (Markham, Ontario, Canada, and New York, NY), 1990.
The Republic of Childhood: A Critical Guide to Canadian Children's Literature in English, Oxford University Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1975.
St. James Guide to Children's Writers, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 17, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Booklist, May 15, 1992, Kay Weisman, review of Jess Was the Brave One, pp. 1687-1688; February 1, 1993, Ilene Cooper, review of Revenge of the Small Small, p. 989; June 1, 1995, Mary Harris Veeder, review of Bats about Baseball, p. 1786; November 15, 1995, Shelley Townsend-Hudson, review of His Banner over Me, p. 548; April 15, 1997, Kay Weisman, review of Gruntle Pig Takes Off, p. 1436; November 15, 1997, Lauren Peterson, review of The Belonging Place, p. 560; November 1, 1998, Carolyn Phelan, review of Emma's Magic Winter, p. 507; December 1, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of Emma's Yucky Brother, p. 726; November 1, 2002, Jean Franklin, review of Birdie for Now, p. 497; July, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of Willow and Twig, p. 1891, and Stephanie Zvirin, review of Emma's Strange Pet, p. 1899.
Book Report, March-April, 1996, Alma Marie Walls, review of His Banner over Me, p. 36.
Books for Young People, April, 1987; December, 1987; autumn-winter, 1991, p. 24.
Books in Canada, June, 1997, Janet McNaughton, review of The Belonging Place, pp. 33-34; February, 2000, review of I Know an Old Laddie, p. 35; September, 2001, review of Orphan at My Door, p. 35.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 1962; January, 1973; June, 1985, review of Mama's Going to Buy You a Mockingbird, p. 189; October, 1986; May, 1997, p. 328.
Canadian Author and Bookman, summer, 1989, Warren Cooper, interview with Little, pp. 2-4.
Canadian Children's Literature, numbers 5-6, 1976; number 12, 1978; number 79, 1995, Ruth Compton Brouwer, review of His Banner over Me, pp. 71-73; spring, 1999, review of The Belonging Place, p. 94; winter, 1999, review of Emma's Magic Winter, p. 63; spring, 2001, review of Willow and Twig, pp. 160-162, and review of What Will the Robin Do Then?: Winter Tales, p. 164; fall, 2002, Tabatha Southey, review of I Know an Old Laddie, pp. 91-92.
Canadian Literature, winter, 1990, Carole Gerson, review of Little by Little, pp. 124-126; autumn, 1992, Lynn Wytenbroek, review of Jess Was the Brave One, pp. 164-166.
Canadian Materials, January, 1986; July, 1988, "Her Special Vision: A Biography of Jean Little," p. 121, review of Little by Little, pp. 121-122; September, 1991, review of Once upon a Golden Apple, pp. 230-231; March, 1992, review of Jess Was the Brave One, p. 82; December 1, 2000, Kristin Butcher, review of Willow and Twig; May 24, 2002, Mary Thomas, review of Birdie for Now.
Childhood Education, spring, 1990, Phyllis G. Sidorsky, review of Hey World, Here I Am!, p. 174.
Children's Book News, spring, 1999, review of Bats about Baseball, p. 17.
Education Today, fall, 1999, Catherine Watson, "Jean Little," pp. 16-17, 20+.
English Journal, March, 1972, John W. Conner, review of Kate, pp. 434-435.
Globe and Mail, August 25, 2001, review of Orphan at My Door, p. D10.
Horn Book, September-October, 1988, Mary M. Burns, review of Little by Little, pp. 645-646; September-October, 1989, Carolyn K. Jenks, review of Hey World, Here I Am!, pp. 622-623; January-February, 1992, Mary M. Burns, review of Stars Come Out Within, p. 93; March, 1996, Mary M. Burns, review of His Banner over Me, p. 231; September-October, 1998, Martha V. Parravano, review of Emma's Magic Winter, p. 610.
Instructor, January, 1981, Allan Yeager, review of Stand in the Wind, p. 113.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1993, p. 150; March 1, 2003, review of Willow and Twig, pp. 390-391.
Language Arts, January, 1981, Meguido Zola, "Profile: Jean Little," pp. 86-92.
Maclean's, December 5, 1988, Pamela Young, review of Mama's Going to Buy You a Mockingbird, p. N5; November 22, 1999, review of I Know an Old Laddie, p. 98.
Publishers Weekly, May 31, 1985, review of Mama's Going to Buy You a Mockingbird, p. 58; July 25, 1986, review of Lost and Found, p. 188; April 24, 1987, review of Different Dragons, p. 71; May 13, 1988, review of Little by Little, p. 276; April 6, 1992, review of Jess Was the Brave One, p. 63; March 8, 1993, review of Revenge of the Small Small, p. 76; May 15, 1995, review of Bats about Baseball, p. 71; January 20, 1997, review of Gruntle Piggle Takes Off, p. 401; April 7, 2003, review of Willow and Twig, p. 67.
Quill & Quire, November, 1990, review of Stars Come Out Within, p. 13; February, 1991, review of Once Upon a Golden Apple, p. 22; October, 1992, Joanne Findon, review of Revenge of the Small Small, p. 31; March, 1995, Sarah Ellis, review of Bats about Baseball, p. 78; April, 1995, review of His Banner over Me, p. 41; December, 1995; September, 1996, p. 72; May, 1997, Teresa Toten, review of The Belonging Place, p. 40; November, 1998, Sarah Ellis, review of Emma's Magic Winter, p. 45; February, 1999, review of What Will the Robin Do Then?, p. 47; September, 1999, review of I Know an Old Laddie, p. 69; January, 2000, review of Willow and Twig, p. 47.
Resource Links, April, 1997, Kit Pearson, "Hey World, Here's Kate!," p. 150; June, 1997, review of Gruntle Pig Takes Off, pp. 207-208; August, 1997, review of Belonging Place, pp. 266-267; April, 1999, review of Emma's Magic Winter, pp. 4-5, and review of What Will the Robin Do Then?, p. 11; December, 1999, review of I Know an Old Laddie, p. 8; April, 2000, review of Willow and Twig, p. 10; October, 2001, Victoria Pennell, review of Orphan at My Door, p. 15; February, 2002, Ann Abel, review of The Jean Little Collection, p. 12; June, 2002, John Dryden, review of Birdie for Now, p. 13.
School Library Journal, October, 1985, Marjorie Lewis, review of Mama's Going to Buy You a Mockingbird, p. 174; October, 1986, Marion B. Hanes, review of Lost and Found, p. 163; June-July, 1987, Julie Cummins, review of Different Dragons, p. 98; June-July, 1988, Catherine van Sonnenberg, review of Little by Little, p. 112; July, 1989, Annette Curtis Klause, review of Hey World, Here I Am!, p. 91; August, 1991, Anna Biagioni Hart, review of Once Upon a Golden Apple, p. 151; January, 1992, Phyllis G. Sidorsky, review of Stars Come Out Within, p. 129; July, 1992, Carolyn Noah, review of Jess Was the Brave One, p. 60; August, 1995, Karen James, review of Bats About Baseball, p. 125; December, 1995, Tana Elias, review of His Banner over Me, p. 120; June, 1997, Lisa Marie Gangemi, review of Gruntle Pig Takes Off, pp. 96-97; November, 1997, Melissa Hudak, review of The Belonging Place, p. 120; October, 1998, Dina Sherman, review of Emma's Magic Winter, p. 106; January, 2001, Maura Bresnahan, review of Emma's Yucky Brother, p. 103; December, 2002, Sharon R. Pearce, review of Birdie for Now, p. 101; August, 2003, Maria B. Salvadore, review of Willow and Twig, pp. 161-162.
Toronto Star (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), June 28, 1997, Kathy Muldoon, "Another Little Jewel," p. M15.
World of Children's Books, spring, 1978, Susan Jackel, review of Listen for the Singing, pp. 81-83.
Mind's Eye: Jean Little (video), 1996.*