Lawrence Hill made up bedtime stories for his daughter. Now they are the basis of his first children’s book



With five children, Lawrence Hill, like many dads, read a lot of stories. He read the Harry Potter canon with them and, sitting on the edge of a crib, he even made up a few things.

Now the southern Ontario writer, appreciated for his adult books, including “The Book of Negroes” (and the TV miniseries that followed) and “The Illegal”, as well as works by non- fiction like “Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada,” wrote his first children’s book, based on the stories he told his daughter Beatrice, who is now 22, when she was young . We spoke to Hill via Zoom ahead of the posting of “Beatrice and Croc Harry”.

It’s quite a start for you to write for this young audience.

This book was something special to write. It allowed me to go to a place that I have never been able to go to writing typical adult literary fiction. It allowed me to be ridiculously above the tongue and the playfulness. It allowed me to enter an invented world and to get rid of much of the limits of literary fiction. It let me be just that dad, you know, on the edge of the bed, inventing all kinds of things, but hopefully doing a good job.

What made the right time to make a book out of it?

I was stuck with another book, and it was very frustrating. I’ve never had this experience before, of not having been able to get traction in a book. I got tired of banging my head against the wall and thought, “Come on, write something.” (And then I asked) this question that we all ask ourselves when we are a writer: “What can I write?” What bursts to come out? What can I lean on? And what was ready was this novel, so I wrote it because I guess I felt I could.

What has writing in this genre enabled you that other genres – fiction, non-fiction – haven’t?

It allowed me to try something that I think is really difficult, which is to write with a light touch about deeply painful issues. It’s dangerous, you can offend people, you can go too far, it’s easy to make a mistake, when you write about serious topics, trying to be funny, or at least light and with a light touch . Writing for children allowed me to try this. And trying to bring up my funny and silly things while writing about things that were really close to my heart.

Beatrice wakes up in a treehouse which on the one hand sounds like a lot of fun, but she doesn’t know her name, she doesn’t know anything about herself, which is very disconcerting.

This is really what happened to the African people who are transported across the ocean. Their descendants could not know anything practical, nothing immediate, nothing lived, about their languages, or their homeland or even where their people came from. It was such a complete break with his past, and the language, the family, the knowledge of geography, it was all gone. I felt that I wanted to come up with this idea, but in a completely different way, by dropping Beatrice in a forest where, without her having anything to do with it, she was practically excommunicated. She was sent back, without his consent, to a place where she knows nothing. And it allows me to allow him to start discovering his identity from scratch.

There is a power in telling a fable, with animals and other characters, that allows us to come up with truths that might be uncomfortable..

When I told these stories to Beatrice 15 years ago – she is 22 now – when she was five, six, seven (years old) it was about a girl who kept cheating on a crocodile , and I would tell another variation the next day. And so, I started to wonder what the story was about? I felt like I would write a story about reassembling a lost identity. It was another way to come up with something that I’ve been chasing for decades now, which is to explore and dramatize human identity.

There was also the giant, Brian, whose brain it enters. There is something in there about mutual understanding.

Beatrice begins to discover the far reaches of the human world and begin to perceive the extremity of the hatred in the world and how deeply rooted and ugly it is. Rather than just making him perceive an endless wall of hate, I wanted to give him the opportunity to try to make sense of it, to try and literally put himself in the head of a hate provider. What’s the sense of being completely two-dimensional about it? I wanted to give Beatrice at least one foot in order to understand the origins of hatred.

One of the things Beatrice finds in her treehouse is St. Lawrence’s Only The Best Words Real and Concocted Words dictionary. A little fun, but also say something about the power of language and create your own words?

Well, I grew up hearing a lot of made up words (from) my dad. Words like gouzelum and willielumplump. These are words that completely populated my own childhood. I just loved them because they were so rich and colorful. We didn’t watch much TV when I was growing up in Don Mills in the 60s, but one of my favorite things to do was watch my dad watch TV because he hurled such colorful slurs at tennis players or boxers.

Beatrice’s hair is mentioned a lot in this book. Why?

In 2001, I released a sort of essay / memory book called “Black Berry, Sweet Juice”, which deals with being black and white in Canada. I thought that a chapter (hair problems) could be considered too superficial or too little important. I talked about dark hair and realized how I wanted to deal with it as a teenager, but I also talked to other people, men and women, about how they deal with their hair. hair and how their identity was linked to hair issues. I think everyone can relate to the concept of hair problems, you don’t have to be black or female.

It seemed like a fun thing to put Beatrice through – it gave her something to do and something that focused on “How can I do something with my hair in this forest when I don’t have hair products.” ? It also allows him to begin to discover his identity. And as she starts working with her hair and having more success with it, I think she’s also starting to go into a state of racial awareness very imperceptibly.

How your family, and Beatrice in particular, reacted to the book?

I have five children. They all read the novel. They all made comments to me. So is my wife, Miranda, who is also a writer. Some of the kids read it several times during the creation, so it was really rich. Beatrice was the last to read it, I think because she was just afraid it would move her too much to read this book that she had heard other iterations of since she was young. But she finally read it, when it was still possible to correct it. And it was a good conversation we had.

What is your favorite word?

Gouzelum. I learned it from my father. As far as I know, it is a made up word. It refers to that organ in your body just a little north of the hippofluump. And this organ in your body really represents your soul. Not everyone is allowed to have a gouzelum. But if you’re a good person and doing good things, well, you might get (one). The gouzelum radiates goodness.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length.



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