When I was in (maybe) first grade, children’s book writer Robert Munsch came to my school and performed The Mud Puddle.
In the story, Jule Ann puts on clean clothes—pants, shirt, socks, shoes—and goes outside on a sunny day, only to be jumped by a seemingly sentient mud puddle. She returns to her house, sopping and dirty. Her mother washes her until she’s squeaky clean. She puts on new clothing. But the mud puddle is waiting for her.
Munsch performed it without consulting a script, using a huge paper doll and paper clothes, to illustrate the story to a crowd of elementary school kids. He was exuberant and rubber faced. By the middle of his performance—I remember so clearly the giddiness, the joy—all of us were rolling around on the library floor, helpless with laughter.
It is maybe one of my favorite memories.
Munsch is probably best known for books such as The Paperbag Princess, the story of an unglamorous royal who, using her wits and determination, saves herself in more than one way, and Love You Forever, a divisive—usually deemed either heartbreaking or obsessive—story that follows a mother and her boy until the son is a grown man and the mother is frail and old.
Munsch is not as well-known in the United States as he is in Canada. Nevertheless, Love You Forever is one of the bestselling picture books in North America of all time.
When he came to our school, he probably would have been early in his career as a children’s writer. The Mud Puddle was his first book. He performed a couple of other stories—we were a delighted audience. I don’t remember what they were.
There is a lot I don’t remember clearly or accurately. That troubles me, because this column is about, among other things, the impact of my childhood recollections. I say I was maybe in first grade when I saw Munsch perform. I say it is one of my favorite memories. But the truth is that my recall of it is piecemeal. I didn’t know it was Robert Munsch who read to us at the time. I had no idea who he was. I don’t remember being told that we’d get a special treat that morning or afternoon. If my parents asked how my day was, I probably forgot to tell them.
But even as I write this, I’m trying to put it back together, trying to figure out when I remembered—when I knew, when this story grew to greater personal significance. I pulled up pictures of my first elementary school, Betrun E. Glavin, on Google maps and learned from an architecture site that it still stands, that its “design avoids ornamentation beyond the beauty of its limestone facing.” That it was built “to express the learning philosophy of open spaces and individual progress without need for external distractions.”
I can remember the outside of the building with its tetherball poles and climbing structures—now replaced. The sunken library in the middle where Munsch read to us. I found a picture from 2014 of my third-grade teacher, Ms. Copp—she looks very much the same. She was interviewed on the closing of her parents’ garden center and convenience store, a store my friends and I biked to buy candy and Wacky Packs. I can’t find my first-grade teacher, though. Although now I realize that she was probably very young when she started teaching us.
There are later, more defined memories of my fifth-grade teacher, Monsieur Campbell, reading us The Paperbag Princess in French. (By then I was at a different school.) There is one picture where Princess Elizabeth flatters the dragon—and M. Campbell pointed out how the dragon was checking his nails, preening. By then I think that Robert Munsch was a household name in Canada, but I don’t think I made the connection that he was the person who’d come to perform for us long ago.
I suspect that it wasn’t until Munsch began to appear regularly on a children’s television program that I figured out the truth. By then, I knew his name, and even though I was supposed to be a cynical teen, I made time to watch it. He wasn’t even the headliner. The host was a clown named Piccadilly Circus. I can’t recall her whole schtick, but I think there was some mime involved. I don’t remember the name of the show. I’ve tried Googling variations of “CTV,” “children’s program,” “Piccadilly Circus,” and “Munsch” to see if I can find clips on YouTube.
This morning, I wiled away an hour on Musipedia trying to place the theme—a fairly well-known classical piece for piano. I can play back the tune on the keyboard, but the title remains elusive.
Chasing down every thread leads to another thought, another flash of recollection, another small part of my life. These fragments seem like loose ends. But as I gather the memories of this one person—one storyteller—together, I see how all these bits appear at so many stages of my youth, how they are woven into all aspects of my childhood. How astounding that one person’s stories permeate the texture of so much that I do and don’t remember.
A more recent memory: last year, my daughter brought home a copy of Moira’s Birthday. The book, first published in 1987, was in her class’s library. She thought it was very funny, and she asked me to read it out loud to her—she knew that it was a book that should be read out loud.
“For my birthday, I would like to invite Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5, Grade 6, and Kindergarten,” Moira tells her mother.
When her mother balks at the number of children involved, Moira goes to her father. “For my birthday, I would like to invite Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5, Grade 6, and Kindergarten.”
Her father tells her she can have six children over. But when the day of the party comes around, who shows up? Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5, Grade 6, aaaaand Kindergarten. The joy in the book—in most of Munsch’s books—is in establishing the rhythm of storytelling and humor, then changing it up. It’s in the repetition of elements (Grade 1, Grade 2, etc. etc.), followed by absurd variation.
Afterward, we had a good time looking up people reading Munsch’s other stories on YouTube. My daughter still sometimes brings that book home.
My husband tells me that I read Moira’s Birthday differently. That become more animated. I yell. I exaggerate. I tell him that when I read them, I guess I’m performing them the way they’re supposed to sound—I’m reading them like Robert Munsch.
But it’s funny, because I think I still sound very much like me.