Books

The Backstory

Bestselling children’s author Robert Munsch faces a crisis

by
Illustration by Graham Roumieu

• 2,808 words

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

In mid-May, a small group of people sat tucked in the back of a Toronto pub, looking expectantly at the storyteller seated at the table. But Robert Munsch, one of the bestselling Canadian children’s authors of all time, is nothing at all like the wild, colourful man familiar to generations of kids. With his glass of milk and plate of cheese and cold cuts, he comes across as soft spoken and contemplative. He’s not a writer, he’s always careful to explain. He’s a storyteller, which requires wacky facial expressions and exaggerated gestures. But today, with this group of friends, old and new, he’s just “Bob.” Today he stutters more than usual, possibly because he’s still recovering from the stroke he had two years ago, possibly because he’s nervous about a revelation that will be made tonight in a television interview. Often, he loses his place mid-sentence. Sometimes he loses his train of thought entirely.

In the middle of lunch, his secret slips out. His daughter Julie had told me about the interview—“an important exposé,” she called it. I wanted to know what it would be about. “I was addicted to alcohol and cocaine,” Munsch says, then looks down with a forced smile. Everyone is quiet for a few moments. Someone tries to change the subject. Later he says, somewhat sadly, “There’s a way to kill the conversation.”

He hadn’t meant to tell the reporter, but it slipped out. Now, after a lifetime of gaining the trust and love of parents and kids everywhere, he feared the news could destroy him. More than anything, he feared losing the ability to help kids feel okay about themselves; he needed that to feel okay about himself. A man who had built his reputation on books that teach kids to accept themselves, no matter how flawed they may feel, was about to learn what that kind of honesty might mean for him.

His cellphone rings, and he pulls it out of his shoulder bag and answers it. It’s Julie, calling about tonight’s show, and clearly they’re both upset. “Julie, it’s not you,” he says softly. “Julie, I’m not going to do anything until it airs.” He stops to listen. “We’ll see how they play it,” he says finally, before hanging up.

Amonth earlier, in the basement of his suburban home in Guelph, Ontario, Munsch sat at his desk in the space that doubles as his office. On the walls hang brightly drawn pictures sent to him by children from all over the world. This is where he writes his books, but today the story is his own.

It begins in 1945, in Pittsburgh. He was the fourth of nine children born to Thomas John Munsch Jr., a lawyer, and Margaret McKeon, a housewife. The family lived on McDonald Avenue, in a huge barn house where all the neighbourhood kids would play, chaos stirring in every corner. He was an ordinary little kid, he says, “content with being a little kid.” But soon depression took over, though at the time he didn’t know what it was. He remembers standing in the bathroom one day in fifth grade, staring in the mirror at his ten-year-old self, and chanting the words “I’m not happy” over and over. He was tired of grown-ups telling him how happy children are supposed to be. He remembers walking home from school, climbing the hill to his front door. “I just can’t take another step,” he would think to himself. “It’s just too hard.”

His brothers and sisters say they remember him as a normal, active little boy. “None of us walked around saying, ‘Hey, Bob looks depressed,’” says his brother Nathan. Six years younger than Bob, he says of Bob’s childhood that he “respects his interpretation,” but that the rest of the family really didn’t know he was as unhappy as he now says he was. “On one level,” Nathan says, “I’ve at times been distressed because I feel like he inadvertently ends up portraying the family environment as oppressive.”

Nathan says he’s often surprised at his siblings’ and Bob’s contrasting interpretations of events, possibly owing to depression, which Nathan believes runs in the Munsch family. He thinks their father may have suffered from the illness but was never diagnosed or treated. “It just seemed that somebody at his age who had accomplished as much as he did, he should have enjoyed himself more,” says Nathan. “Whether that was clinical depression, I don’t know.” In past interviews, Munsch has said that his grandfather committed suicide.

Munsch met his wife, Ann, while working at a daycare in Boston in 1971—“I liked that she liked walks,” he says—and their first date was a stroll around Walden Pond. “Afterwards, she confessed to me, ‘I thought you’d be a neat fling.’” He chuckles at this. “A neat fling,” he repeats. “A year later, we got married.” Quietly, he adds, “It’s a fairly regular story.”

The couple moved to Guelph a few years later, after Munsch accepted a job at the lab school in the University of Guelph’s family studies program. It was there that his storytelling talents began to impress his colleagues. His supervisors encouraged him to try his hand at writing, which he eventually did. His first story, Mud Puddle, was published by Annick Press in 1979.

Around that time, the Munsches decided to have their own children. The couple had, after all, devoted their lives to children, so when Ann became pregnant they were ecstatic. They drew pictures for each other of what the baby would look like, and passed notes like teenagers. The baby, a boy, would be named Sam, they agreed. “Until that time, I had this funny feeling you could just sashay your way around and get what you wanted,” Munsch tells me. “Then I discovered that we couldn’t.” Sam, and the year after, a girl named Gilly, were both stillborn.

The couple was devastated. Munsch, bipolar and unaware of it, did not know how to cope. He had begun drinking years before, which helped numb the depression. He would start, then stop, then relapse. His sleep apnea hadn’t yet been diagnosed, so he wasn’t sleeping either.

“I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always. As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.” The words came to him soon after Sam died. They comforted him, and he quietly began singing them to himself. It was a way to keep the babies alive, at least in his own head.

Sitting in front of an audience in Guelph five years later, he slowly started to make up a story. It wasn’t perfect yet, but the chorus was “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always. As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.” It didn’t go over well, but he decided at that moment to write a book about it, and that the book would be the babies’ tombstone. He went backstage and began to cry. The story, Love You Forever, went on to sell 22 million copies in North America alone.

Though mortality may seem like an unusual subject for a children’s book, that very attribute—an honest discussion of real life with children—has become Munsch’s trademark. For example, the main character in Giant, or Waiting for the Thursday Boat is a giant named McKeon who is angry at God and threatens to pound him into applesauce. The book was banned in numerous schools after parents and teachers complained about the giant’s anger, and because in the book God is depicted as a little black girl. Another of his books, From Far Away, is based on the real story of Saoussan Askar, who was born in Beirut. It follows Saoussan as she moves to Canada, and feels ashamed at not knowing how to apologize in English to her teacher after peeing in the woman’s lap. Munsch kids are happy, sad, angry kids. They’re kids in wheelchairs, kids with bossy parents, and kids from all cultures and religions. After his own unhappy childhood, Munsch says he just wants to make kids feel like they’re okay, that life isn’t perfect and everybody has flaws.

It’s not just a one-way benefit. The act of performing, he says, is therapeutic. He likes touring, especially to far-off corners of the country, where he often stays with families of children who have written to him. Even in his off time, he’ll make surprise appearances at schools to hold impromptu storytelling sessions. It’s a way to get out of himself, and like a drug to him.

The interview shows Munsch sitting in his basement, speaking about the drugs and alcohol. He had meant only to speak about mental illness and about his books, but somehow he found himself talking about the cocaine and Narcotics Anonymous.

“I started drinking again and doing cocaine four years ago,” he told me that morning. He was off script again, so the pauses were longer, and the stuttering crept back into his speech. “That ended badly.” He had been an alcoholic previously, he said, before the kids, before joining Alcoholics Anonymous. He’d had relapses before but was sober almost fifteen years. Four years ago, someone offered him some homemade wine.

“I thought I could handle one glass.” But he couldn’t.

He only occasionally used cocaine, buying it in nearby cities like Hamilton and Toronto so his family and friends in Guelph wouldn’t find out. Each time, he said it would be the last. But a few weeks later, there he would be again. So he went back to AA, and joined Narcotics Anonymous. Pretty soon, he was hosting NA meetings in Guelph every morning. He told me he’s sober but not cured.

The scariest thing, he said, was telling his family. He had hidden it well: he wasn’t blowing all his money or staying high for days at a time. His wife understood his addiction, but telling his kids (now aged thirty-five, twenty-nine, and twenty-five) was hard, especially since he did it over Christmas dinner. Their first reaction was shock, which later turned into concern.

After the interview aired, the feedback was almost instantaneous. On Twitter, the response was divided: “I wish I could send The Paper Bag Princess to fight your demons for you,” one girl wrote. Others were less forgiving. “So Robert Munsch was a coke head… I’m looking forward to his new kids book: Why Daddy’s Nose Bleeds.” Still others are saddened by the news. One wrote, “I think my childhood is destroyed. Robert Munsch alcoholic/drug addict?? ” The following Monday, the newspapers all carried the story, and his publishers and the producers of his upcoming tour all voiced support. Munsch posted a note to parents on his website, where he explained his struggle with mental illness. At the end of the note, he wrote, “I hope that others will also understand. I hope that everyone will talk to their kids honestly, listen to them, and help them do their best with their own challenges.”

A month and a half later, in June, Munsch was keeping a low profile—“mainly taking it easy,” he said. For the most part, the feedback was positive. He received about 1,000 letters and emails, and only a few were critical. During his tour early last spring, several people came up to him after shows, quietly telling him, “I’m a friend of Bill” (code for “I’m a member of Narcotics Anonymous, too”). “All parents,” he joked. “No three-year-old crackheads.”

He was glad he came clean. Part of him wanted to share his story all along. “NA was a big part of my life, and I kept having to not mention it when I dealt with people,” he said. For a man who has made his living by teaching kids about honesty, it didn’t feel right not to live his own life in the way he wrote about. “It made me talk about my own life the same way I talked about things in books, not sugar-coating them.”

As for whether he thought the disclosures would affect his career, he was slow to respond. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Maybe I’ll change my mind in six months.” The months will be significant for Munsch, who will not only publish a new book, Too Much Stuff!, about a girl who sneaks dolls onto an airplane (it was temporarily shelved last winter after the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day), but will also celebrate an important milestone: his thirtieth book with his long-time publisher, Scholastic Canada. The company will mark the occasion by releasing its third anthology of Munsch stories, and by experimenting with a contest to let children vote for which story they’d like to see published as his next book.

In an event hall in Toronto, hours before the interview was broadcast, Munsch is in familiar territory. “I need a girl who can pretend to be a princess,” he says, scanning the room. “You,” he says, pointing at one little girl. She stands up, but so does a little boy in an orange shirt, about three years old, who wanders up along with her. The boy plops himself down in the chair next to where Munsch is standing, and the audience laughs as Munsch looks at the boy, scratches his head, and says, “Um… okay.”

“Now,” he says, “I need a boy who can be the prince.” He settles on a boy with dark hair and a blue shirt. But the story, The Paper Bag Princess, one of his first and most loved, isn’t complete without a dragon. The villains in Munsch stories are rarely the kids—more often the grown-ups. Luckily, there’s at least one parent in the room, a large man with a beard, who’s willing to play along. “Okay, you dragon, you go over to the cage,” Munsch says to the man. The kids laugh, and Munsch smiles, a little forced, like a kid posing for his class picture.

So the story begins. Today’s version is abbreviated, and he skips right ahead to Princess Elizabeth confronting the dragon who has captured her fiancé, Prince Ronald.

“Is it true that you are the smartest and fiercest dragon in the whole world? ” Munsch whispers to the little girl to ask.

“Yes,” answers the dragon.

“Is it true that you can burn up ten forests with your fiery breath? ” the little girl asks.

“Oh, yes,” the dragon replies. The bearded man demonstrates his fiercest dragon breath—“RAWRRRRR!”—causing a few little heads in the audience to bob up.

“Fantastic,” the little girl says. “Dragon, is it true that you can fly around the world in just ten seconds? ”

“Why, yes,” the bearded man replies, before he runs around the room, flapping his arms up and down. The kids hoot at this, as Munsch screws up his face, laughing along with them. By the time Princess Elizabeth has defeated the dragon and decided she doesn’t, in fact, want to marry the handsome but shallow Prince Ronald—“a bum”—the kids are rolling on the floor.

Munsch surveys the crowd, pleased. “And that’s the end of that story,” he says quietly.

This appeared in the November 2010 issue.

Graham Roumieu (roumieu.com) is a National Magazine Award winner and a regular contributor to The Walrus. He draws for The Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.