As we collectively grieve the death of faculty member Gail Carney, we continue our series of personal stories and anecdotes to share glimpses into the impact she made on her colleagues and friends.
It’s children’s book season. The Caldecott and Newbery awards have just been announced, so it’s the time of year that Gail Carney and I are usually discussing the books – and their art and authors – that garnered the industry’s prestigious awards from the American Library Association.
This year, I beamed with joy when one of the books we’d picked for the Neufeld Institute’s list of recommended children’s books won both the Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor: Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña. I wished I could Skype Gail right away to squeal about it, but her death from metastatic breast cancer came four weeks earlier. The two of us had read the book together at a coffee shop last March – on our lunch “break,” after we’d been working all morning next door at Vancouver Kidsbooks to review dozens and dozens of other books.
Hardly work, though, I spent the year looking forward to my book-review day with Gail, which had come to be a cherished annual tradition for us both. Looking at children’s books is already a treat of time. Reviewing them with Gail – an artist with an encyclopedic mind, combined with an unmatched brazen at expressing her true thoughts… well, that was a hoot.
We’d poke around the bookstore gathering up books and then plopping ourselves into chairs to look at them together. The whole time, bookstore employees would drop off fresh suggestions and their favourites to pore through, too. Within a matter of minutes, our pile was quite a leaning tower of books!
In the name of efficiency, Gail and I would take turns grabbing the top book from the pile to start our simultaneous review process. But efficiency was soon trumped by the fun in looking at the books a second time together and discussing them at length.
Together, our review process was akin to the picture-book storytelling process: where words cannot tell the complete story without the crucial elements added by the pictures. Gail’s keen artist’s eye would notice details in the illustrations that my perspective, prone to getting swept up by the words, had missed. Reading A Fine Dessert, by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall, Gail found particular delight in details like the blackberry stains on the aprons of mother and daughter, along with the brilliance of illustrating the different mixers in each generation’s vignette. I wouldn’t have appreciated these lovely details had it not been for Gail.
I think we derived just as much pleasure talking about the books we liked as those we considered duds. “Kids can’t relate to art like this. It’s too abstract. They want to see themselves,” she’d say.
“Gah! Another mindfulness book. Ridiculous!” Gail would laugh and then further editorialize. “Children are not developmentally capable of meditating to calm themselves down. Stupid. It’s just so stupid!”
She was ranting to the choir, of course. I’d been her student and mentee at the Neufeld Institute for two years, friend for longer. We’d talked about the same trend in picture books the year before. And the year before that. Still, I nodded and listened – and laughed. There was always something to learn from Gail.
“Here’s our reject pile,” Gail would announce to the booksellers, waving the first of several baskets off for re-shelving. She didn’t apologize or pussy-foot around why she didn’t like these books. When asked, Gail loved the chance to tell the booksellers exactly why the books weren’t a fit. “Too many children taking care of their parents. That’s too alarming.”
Then she’d point to the pile we wanted with pride, gushing about those. Last year she raved so much about In My Heart by Jo Witek and Christine Roussey, the booksellers must have thought she’d been planted by the publisher to help boost book sales!
In addition to leaving the bookstore with a long list of books to share at the annual conference, neither of us ever walked out of that bookstore without a big pile of books to buy for ourselves and the children in our lives. (Expensive play it was!)
Gail so often surprised me, this short woman with her metallic turquoise cane and later, shiny silver walker. Cognitively, I knew Gail was suffering from cancer – and yet she was ever bold, strong, elegant, frank, and playful. It was hard to reconcile these things and believe she wouldn’t always be sitting with me at that bookstore table.
And yet, I know she will always be at that bookstore table. Like the title of her favourite book, Gail remains in my heart, in the heart of the Institute, in the hearts of the countless people she touched. Like the cover of this same book, with its layers of concentric, heart-shaped die-cuts, the many facets of Gail will continue to offer gifts to us.
Editor’s Notes: Gail founded the Children’s Literature & Neufeld’s Approach collection on our virtual campus, a review-library of hundreds of recommended children’s and young-adult books, updated each year and available to conference attendees and anyone with a campus membership.
A scholarship fund has been established in Gail’s memory. For more tributes to Gail, links to some of her art and her writings, and information about the Gail Eleanor Carney Scholarship Fund, please visit our Gail Remembered page.