Jean Little: A Beloved Children's Author Whose Novels Taught Acceptance and Encouraged an Interest in Canadian History
Jean Little was a children’s author who inspired in her young readers an interest in history, an appreciation of differences, and stressed the importance of kindness. She published more than 50 books, as well as two memoirs. Little was born in 1932 in Taiwan, where her parents were medical missionaries. She had three siblings. In 1939, the Little family relocated to Guelph. Little was born with scarred corneas that resulted in a visual impairment that worsened as she aged and eventually left her completely blind. As a dog lover, she had a special connection with her guide dogs she had over the course of her life and many of her books feature canine companions.
After Little graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Toronto, she returned to Guelph to teach children with disabilities. In her books, Little normalized the experiences of people living with physical and developmental disabilities. She rejected depictions of suffering children in search of a miraculous recoveries. Instead, she portrayed children with disabilities as ordinary people who experienced universal emotions and were relatable to all. For example, in her first novel Mine for Keeps (1962), Little's main character was a young person with cerebral palsy, and in From Anna (1972), she tackled visual impairment.
Over her career, Little received numerous awards. In 1974, she received the Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People, which recognized her entire body of work at that time. In 2012, she received the Matt Cohen Award: In Celebration of a Writing Life, which honoured her longevity and dedication to her craft. She was also a recipient of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 and named to the Order of Canada in 1993. Little was nominated on numerous occasions for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, one of the most esteemed international prizes for children’s fiction.
In 2001, Little's first book for the Dear Canada series, titled Orphan at my Door, was awarded the CLA Book of the Year for Children. Little wrote a total of five books for the Dear Canada series, which she helped to launch. These novels take the form of fictional diaries written by young girls, by way of explaining important periods in Canadian history to a young audience. Two of these books, Orphan at My Door and Exiles from the War, take place in Guelph in 1897 and 1940 respectively – the former even used her childhood home (which still stands at 264 Woolwich street) as its main setting.
Jean Little died in April 2020, at the age of 88. Her final publication, a picture book called Maya and the Monarch, will be released posthumously in 2021. Jean Little Public School, located in the south end of Guelph, is named in Little's honour, an acknowledgement from her own community of her immense contribution to children‘s literature and for destigmatizing disabilities for youths all over the world.
Little is pictured here in 2016 before giving the Margaret Laurence Lecture in Toronto. Little is wearing a colourful shirt and smiling.
The cover of Little's first contribution to the Dear Canada series, Orphan at My Door. There is a photograph of a girl in a green dress in the middle and a black and white photo of many children behind here.