Jan's Story
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Jan Thornhill wearing a skort and pop-top
Me in1963 wearing a "skort" - kind of
a mini-skirt with attached bloomers
How old are you, and where were you born?
I was born in 1955, in Sudbury, Ontario.

What kind of a childhood did you have?
A pretty good one. We always lived on the outskirts of small communities, so my friends and I hung out in fields and woods and got a lot of soakers in creeks. This was back in the days when parents wouldn't allow kids in the house unless it was minus eighty outside or there was a violent electrical storm, so we had a lot of unsupervised time. We traveled in packs. We built forts and looked for meteorites. We explored dangerous abandoned houses, the kinds that, these days, would be boarded up and wrapped in barbed wire. We rarely told our parents what we'd been up to since we knew it would only make them worry unnecessarily, and then they might restrict our movements. We all survived.
I was fascinated with the natural world and was an avid collector of things I found, as were my brother and sister. We brought home all kinds of things - skulls and fossils, bird feathers and nests, insects, snake skins, leaves. Eventually we labeled it all and made a museum in the basement, then tried to charge a 5¢ entry fee. My mother was the only one who paid. I'm still a collector and when I do school visits I bring what I call my "Museum-in-a-Bag" and pass around things like dinosaur bones, a beaver skull, mummified hummingbirds and a bat.
Our collecting wasn't confined to inanimate objects. Sometimes we brought home abandoned baby birds, thinking we could save them. This rarely worked, and my mother particularly resented the practice since she was the one who

Jan Thornhill on Mount Bromo in Indonesia
Me more recently on the rim of Mount Bromo,
an active volcano in Indonesia.
had to feed them every fifteen minutes while we were in school. Once, we brought home four baby skunks whose mother had been killed by a car. Baby skunks, it turns out, like to practice spraying their characteristic scent. It wasn't as strong as an adult's, but it still wasn't nice.
My family went for regular weekend walks in the country all through my childhood, and this spurred on my interest in the natural world, particularly since my father, a metallurgical engineer and inventor, is a walking encyclopedia of the sciences. He encouraged me to identify things, to learn their characteristics and their names. I blame him entirely for my current obsessions with fungi and slime molds and birds. My mother is an artist, and a brilliant one at that, and it was her influence that pushed me towards art. I'm quite convinced she stuck a crayon in my hand before a spoon. She also had a collection of art books that lived on the bottom shelves of the
many bookcases in our home. I wasn't stupid, I understood what they were: they were picture books, and picture books were for kids. So I was maybe five when I was first introduced to unclothed human anatomy, to the wonders of Hieronymus Bosch, to the skewed faces of Picasso, to the vegetable- and fish-headed people of Giuseppe Arcimboldi. Among other things, I think this was good for my sense of humor.

What about school?
When I was a kid I liked school, and then I turned into a teenager and I didn't like it anymore, but I got good marks anyway, because in our house that's what you had to do. Though my life's goal as a child was to grow up and be either a scientist or a queen, by the time I finished high school I thought it would be much more romantic to live in a cockroach-infested garret where I would survive on crusts of bread and absinthe and feel misunderstood while

Betty Boots, black lab and border collie cross
The brilliant Betty Boots
making unintelligible art, so I moved to Toronto and enrolled in art school (OCAD). I majored in printmaking and experimental film and video and graduated four years later with no obvious moneymaking skills.

Then what?
To pay the rent, I decided to become a magazine illustrator - a choice based not so much on my drawing ability as on the indisputable truth that I was too rude to be a waitress. So I plunked myself down in front of the TV with a bunch of art supplies and stayed there for the next 3 months until I had a portfolio of samples. Surprisingly, art directors gave me work, and I ended up doing magazine and newspaper illustration for the next 10 years.

Have you had any other jobs?
Freelancing is not always dependable, so, yes. I worked for a time making contact lenses, which I liked doing because I have an affinity for finicky work. I also sewed beads and sequins on Dolly Parton's dresses, which I enjoyed for the same reason. I've wasted lots of time on get-rich-quick schemes, all of which, like that early basement-museum one, failed to live up to my expectations. I've now worked alone for so long I believe myself to be unemployable, though I'm no longer as rude as I once was.

When did you start writing?
I started writing when I met my husband, Fred Gottschalk, an artist (see his work!) in 1981. He lived for a while in another city and sent me postcards made out of wood, so I started writing wacky little stories to send to him. Writing was fun! I just kept going from there and eventually began to have stories accepted by literary journals. These days, I spend about half my work hours on adult fiction. I've had a collection published (Drought & Other Stories) and am currently working on a novel.

When and why did you start making kids' books?
By the mid-eighties I was getting mighty tired of the dull subjects I was being asked to illustrate for magazines and newspapers (i.e. money, computers, unattractive businessmen) and wanted to draw animals again. Secondly - and this is kind of funny and just shows how little I knew about the kids' book business at the time - it was yet another get-rich-quick scheme. Thirdly, and probably most importantly, I had become involved in environmental issues, and wanted to do something useful. I came up with the concept of an alphabet book using North American wildlife, did four sample illustrations, wrote the accompanying rhyme and "Nature Notes," researched publishers, and then sat on the whole thing for two years. My husband finally forced me to send The Wildlife ABC out into the world in 1987. The first publisher I sent it to immediately accepted it, and it ended up being short-listed for Canada's prestigious Governor General's Award. Its companion volume, The Wildlife 123, came out the following year and it promptly won the UNICEF-Ezra Jack Keats International Award for Excellence in Children's Book Illustration.

Where do you live?
Fred and I escaped the city in 1988 and now live in the woods in central Ontario in a house we designed and built. We never did have kids, but we have a smart-as-a-whip dog, Betty Boots, and a bunch of goldfish that live in a rain barrel in the summer and in salad bowls in the living room in the winter.

What do you do in your spare time?
I scour the woods for slime molds and mushrooms and eat the safe, tasty ones. I also bird-watch, organic garden, travel, and create clutter.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid?
The Bad Child's Book of Beasts and Cautionary Tales, both by Hilaire Belloc - warped Victorian rhymes about animals, and tales of children who tell lies or feed their ponies too much or stray from their nurses' care while at the zoo and pay the price in spades. Also because it made so much sense.

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