6 Nov 2015

Jan Thornhill Wins 2015 Vicky Metcalf Award

By Claire Eamer
Jan Thornhill
Sci/Why's own Jan Thornhill is this year's winner of the prestigious Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People - and the rest of us at Sci/Why couldn't be prouder! The award is given for a body of work over many years, and Jan certainly has that. She has fourteen books to her credit (so far) - and for many of them, she was both writer and illustrator.

Here's what the award jury had to say about Jan and her work:
With clarity and grace, Jan Thornhill’s books use both art and text to draw children into a closer and more understanding relationship with the natural world. Over a period of almost 30 years she has shown a rare ability to present serious topics to children from a scientific perspective in which gaining knowledge is pleasurable, never didactic or dry. From concept books like The Wildlife ABC, to stories and folk tales dealing with subjects like migration or wild animals in urban environments, to non-fiction books for older children on complex and challenging subjects such as conservation or death, Thornhill enriches the young reader’s awareness of the physical world and our place in it. A passionate and deeply-informed interest in nature is always conveyed with her characteristic combination of humour, empathy, and common sense.

Jan with Kirsten Hanson, chair of the board of the Metcalf Foundation and one of Vicky Metcalf's grandchildren. (Laurence Acland photo)
Jan has kindly shared with us her acceptance speech, delivered at the Writers' Trust Awards banquet on November 3. Here it is:

Thank you so much! I am humbled and thrilled to receive this award— my sincerest gratitude to the Writer’s Trust and the Metcalf Foundation.

Of course, I’ve known about the Vicky Metcalf Award for a long time, but I never thought I had a chance of getting it. Not only because there are so many amazing children’s writers in Canada, but also because I write mostly non-fiction. For a long time, non-fiction, especially for kids, has been the odd man out awards-wise. So I’m so glad that someone – well, a jury of three someones – has decided that what I write is both important and literature…. Literature, despite the fact that, in one of my books, there are fewer than 50 words in the main text. The Wildlife 123 begins with the very hard-to-write line: “One panda,” and ends with the equally difficult “One thousand tadpoles.”

So I guess I am also being recognized as an illustrator. This shows a growing understanding that picture books are, indeed, literature; and that when they work, they are a perfect marriage between words and art. This has been made even clearer to me when other artists have illustrated my words, most recently the fabulous Ashley Barron who did the gorgeous artwork for Kyle Goes Alone, published by Owlkids this fall.

I am not the only writer/illustrator who has received this award in the past 50 years, but I do seem to be the first author who writes primarily non-fiction, almost always about science, nature, and the environment. And YAY! to that, I say. As a science writer, it’s particularly gratifying to be recognized after 10 years of living under an unbelievably heavy-handed anti-science regime – a government that did not understand the importance of long-term scientific studies, research libraries, and, most critically, the free dissemination of information and ideas—which is part of what literature is also about. I hope the new government gets it right, with both the sciences and the arts.

On a more personal note, my family and friends, and a few industry associates know that more than 10 years ago I had to give up illustrating because of a painful condition in my arm that was eventually diagnosed as cancer. I’m happy to report that I’ve been cancer-free for seven years since my treatment. But I’m just as thrilled to say that, though my dexterity is not what it once was, I’ve recently figured out a way to work around my handicap and I’ve almost completed my first self-illustrated book in more than 10 years. (It comes out with Groundwood next fall.)

Along with offering my thanks again to the Writers’ Trust and the Metcalf Foundation for granting me this award, I would also like to express my gratitude for the substantial sum of money that comes with it. I don’t know if everyone here knows this, but trying to create children’s books that make a difference doesn’t often pay very well. I, and others like me, do it because we believe that children deserve excellence in the books they are given to read. Receiving this recognition confirms I actually did make the right career choice 25 years ago.

I’d also like to thank the publishers and editors I’ve worked with over the years: Sheba Meland and Anne Shone, Jennifer Canham, Karen Boersma, Karen Li, and Sheila Barry, to name just a few. I’d also like to thank my pal, Laurence, who has been my computer and science mentor for years, and my mum, who’s sitting right there, my biggest fan from the first time she stuck a crayon in my hand when I was two, and who, along with my dad, surrounded me with books.

And of course, my wonderful husband, Fred, who, for more than thirty years, has put up with the squalor that surrounds me when I work. And who has stood beside me on volcanoes and in hospitals, and has made me laugh in both places.

Finally, I want to thank the astonishing biodiversity of this planet of ours that never fails to entertain me and provide me with inspiration."

If you'd like more Jan Thornhill (who wouldn't?), check out her fungus blog, Weird and Wonderful Wild Mushrooms, or just enter her name in the Sci/Why search engine (right) to find links to her many fine Sci/Why posts.


Paula Johanson said...

What wonderful news this is! Jan, we Sci/Why writers are all so proud of you. Kudos to the Vicky Metcalf Award jury for recognising you!

L. E. Carmichael said...

Congrats, Jan! Well deserved.

Marie Powell said...

Congratulations, Jan! And what an inspiring speech! Thanks for posting it.