Writer Jean Little, renowned for representing kids of all abilities, dead at 88

GUELPH, Ont. — Canadian writer Jean Little, who changed the way kids of all abilities are represented in children's literature, has died. She was 88.

Her sister Pat de Vries, who shared a home with Little in Guelph, Ont., for 27 years, said she died in her sleep early Monday morning while staying in a hospice.

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"(It was) all very peaceful," de Vries said Tuesday. "She just slipped away."

Born in Taiwan in 1932 to Canadian medical missionaries, Little was legally blind from birth.

After earning an English degree at University of Toronto, she taught children with special needs until 1962.

That same year, she published her first book, "Mine for Keeps," which won the Little Brown Children's Book Award for Little's earnest depiction of a young girl living with cerebral palsy.

Little went on to pen more than 50 books, including novels, poetry, short fiction and an autobiography. She was particularly beloved by younger readers for works such as "Mama's Going to Buy You a Mockingbird," "Listen for the Singing," "Dancing Through the Snow" and "Wishes."

"She didn't have a mission," said de Vries. "She had been a kid and it was very real to her, and she had something to say about it."

Little often put characters with disabilities in the foreground, and touched on themes relating to the immigrant experience in Canada, sometimes drawing details from her own life.

One of her most popular books, "From Anna," centres on a girl with visual impairments who moves from Germany to Canada on the dawn of the Nazis' rise to power.

"She remembered ... all sorts of feelings and thoughts from when she was young," said de Vries.

"I think she saw things in pictures even though she couldn't see, so she painted the pictures inside her head."

Little's writing won her numerous accolades, including the Ruth Schwartz Award, the Governor General's Award and the Vicky Metcalf Award. She was also a member of the Order of Canada and a recipient of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal.

She worked to foster creation of art aimed at young people as a founding member of the Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators and Performers.

But for of all Little's accomplishments, de Vries believes her sister's commitment to "kindness" will endure most with readers who were raised on her stories.

She said her sister was working on a memoir about the time they spent living together with de Vries' two grandchildren. Little had intended to title of the book to be "Sing Your Way Home" after a traditional tune she liked, said de Vries.

"Sing your way home at the close of the day. Sing your way home, drive the shadows away," de Vries sung over the phone.

"Smile every mile, for wherever you roam; it will lighten your load, it will brighten your road, if you sing your way home."

Little didn't shy away from the sad parts of life, de Vries said, and she thinks that emotional honesty is what drew children to her work.

"Dying is part of living, and you better accept that," said de Vries. "So what you remember is to sing your way home."

— By Adina Bresge in Toronto

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April, 7, 2020.

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