Paulette Bourgeois - Author
In 1983, Toronto journalist Paulette Bourgeois decided to write a children's book. All she needed was an idea. That idea came one night as she was watching an episode of the television series M*A*S*H. The character of Hawkeye Pierce refused to enter a cave because he was claustrophobic. “I'm so scared that if I were a turtle, I'd be afraid of my own shell,” he said. Thus was born Franklin in the Dark, a tale of a little green turtle who's afraid of small dark places, including his own shell. The name of the turtle came, Bourgeois thought, out of the blue. “Now I realize that Hawkeye's full name is Franklin Benjamin Pierce!”
The story was rejected by six publishers before Kids Can Press expressed interest. After Bourgeois rewrote the story several times, it was sent to illustrator Brenda Clark. For that first story, there was no collaboration between author and illustrator; in fact, the two didn't meet until after the book was published. “When I first saw the illustrations, I was overwhelmed by Brenda's talent,” says Bourgeois. “I think the reason the books have done so well is because Brenda has made the characters so empathetic.” Franklin in the Dark sold an astounding 10 000 copies when it appeared in 1986.
Despite the success of her first effort, Bourgeois was surprised when Kids Can Press asked her to write a second Franklin story. “Franklin in the Dark was one story about one thing,” she said. “I never intended to write a series.” However, she found another situation true to the life of a five year old and Hurry Up, Franklin was published in 1989. Bourgeois and Clark have since created more than two dozen Franklin stories that appear in 31 countries and 17 languages, including Hebrew, Greek and Turkish. There are now more than 20 million Franklin books in print around the world, a television series, and a host of Franklin merchandise.
Bourgeois' journey from journalist to children's book writer followed a somewhat meandering path. Born in Winnipeg, Bourgeois was eight when her family began a series of moves. “Many people think moving is a terrible experience,” she says. “I liked it. You learn to adapt to new situations and always have a sense that you are, for a while, an outsider looking in. Writers are observers, and I wonder if moving a lot when I was younger honed my observational skills.”
Bourgeois earned a B.Sc. at the University of Western Ontario and became a psychiatric occupational therapist. After working in her field for two years, she decided it wasn't for her. “I realized I genuinely enjoyed writing reports more than I did the therapeutic situations,” she says. To explore the writing process further, Bourgeois enrolled in the journalism program at Ottawa's Carlton University. She launched her career working for the Ottawa Citizen and then as an on-air reporter for CBC-TV. Bourgeois then moved to Washington, D.C., where she began freelancing for Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Reader's Digest and Maclean's. “The decision to freelance was made for me,” she explains. “I couldn't get a full-time job because I couldn't get a green card.”
By 1983, Bourgeois was back in Toronto and expecting her first child. “I didn't want to run around the country doing interviews, working long hours and trying to take care of a baby,” she says. So she decided to write a children's book. “I see writing as a job, so I approached this goal pragmatically. I went to the library and started at 'A' in the picture-book section and read through to 'Z.' At the end, I knew what I liked and what I thought was good. All I needed was the idea.” Enter Hawkeye Pierce.
Where do you live now?
When did you start writing?
I started writing as a kid.
Where do you get your ideas?
I get my ideas from remembering what it was like being a kid. Sometimes, parents tell me stories about their children and kids write letters telling me about their lives.
Do you have a favorite book?
There are too many beautiful books to pick one. I prefer big, thick books of fiction.
Do you have any pets?
One old dog, Dixie Lee Ragtime, a black, hairy cocker spaniel with sad eyes.
What's your favorite food?
Anything Indian or Vietnamese.
What are your hobbies?
Quilting, skiing and bike riding.
What was your schooling/training?
I went to university and studied Occupational Therapy and then Journalism.
How did you become involved with children's books?
I started to write books when my daughter was born.
Do you have any advice for young creators?
I think young creators should read lots of different kinds of books. They should keep their ears tuned for great conversations and try to remember scenes and actions.
What's your favorite movie?
It changes every season. Right now, I love Being John Malkovich.
What's your favorite thing about creating children's books?
I like coming up with the idea for the story and then seeing it take shape.
How do you research or create your stories?
I talk with my children, other moms and read books about parenting and child development.
What's your greatest childhood memory?
I have many wonderful memories of being a kid. I loved making “houses” under my grandparent's enormous dining room table.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a nurse.
What's the weirdest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I once made peanut-buster parfaits at a Dairy Queen and I worked at a handwriting analysis booth at the Ex (Canadian National Exhibition).
Do you have any special secrets/insights about any of your books or characters?
The working title for Franklin in the Dark was The Turtle They Called Chicken.