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Moira’s Birthday

Moira’s Birthday

Written by Robert Munsch.

Illustrated by Michael Martchenko.

Published by Annick Press, 1992.

Moira’s Birthday was made at the end of a long tour in the Northwest Territories.

I was staying with a family that lived in Hay River. At the end of a day of storytelling I came back and there was Moira having her sixth birthday party. She wanted me to make up a story and I did.

Actually I hate birthday parties. Birthday parties drive me nuts. I don’t like birthday parties at all but there I was making up a birthday story.

I remembered the party where my daughter Julie had invited lots more kids than we said she could have, so I pretended that Moira had invited the whole school to her party.

The minute I made it I said “Hey, that’s really good.”

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The SAME DAY in 1983 that I made up MOIRA’S BIRTHDAY, I also made up MAKEUP MESS and SMELLY SOX. It was my best day ever for stories. MOIRA’S BIRTHDAY became a book in 1987, MAKEUP MESS became a book in 2001 and SMELLY SOX became a book in 2004.

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The day I made up that story was a very good day because I made up two more stories. They are not books yet, but they are going to be books someday. One was about a kid who uses too much makeup and the other was about a kid who liked purple, green and yellow socks. That was after a whole year of not being able to make up good stories and then in one day I made up three of them. It was quite a day.)

The year after Moira’s Birthday came out the library in Hay River decided to have a big birthday party for Moira. They had 200 cakes (little ones) and 200 pizzas.

I could not attend, but I did tell the kids stories over the library telephone. So Moira really did get a 200 birthday cake birthday.

THE TRIP THAT LED TO MOIRA’S BIRTHDAY

1983 – The man on the other end of the phone said that of course I probably would not like to do an author’s tour of the Northwest Territories. He said it as a joke before he got on to the real business of the conversation, which was going to be an offer to tour Southern Alberta for Children’s Book Week. I was a new author who would jump at the publicity that a tour of Alberta would provide.

“Hold it! Hold it and stop!” say I. “I will do the Northwest Territories”.

Dead silence from the other end of the line.

I know what he is thinking – “Nuts! I had this guy figured for Southern Alberta. His publisher even asked to have him sent to Southern Alberta. We have even told the librarian in Lethbridge that he is coming!”

I give my “I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED TO GO THERE” speech. A quick recovery follows on the other end and he is soon congratulating me on a great choice.

And so I end up flying into Montreal, looking at the dirty city snow, and wondering if my clothes are warm enough.

The Nordair flight to Frobisher Bay (now Iqualuit and capital on Nunavut) seems regular enough. Two minutes out of Montreal we run out of roads and there is only snow, snow and lakes. I settle down and think what I am going to do, because they fund me as an author tour but what I do is storytelling. Lately I have been going through a dry period and I figure that a little intercultural sort of storytelling will get my mind going again. You see, I’m lazy. When I get a good story list I float with it. Easier to stay with what I know. Thus, the Northwest Territories. I figure that nothing will work up there and I will have to make up new stories. At least that is the plan.

Baffin Island comes into view. It looks like several thousand bulldozers have been working for thousands of years to make a mess. Actually, they tell me it was glaciers that did it, but the effect is the same. Off the plane and I meet the family I’m going to stay with. {Always stay with families. That way I never get to stop storytelling. I will tell stories all day and then tell bedtime stories at night. I will get totally burned out and maybe get a new story}

I get my first taste of the weather. I mean I just sort of walk out the door and stand there and see how cold it is – a harmless sort of southern Ontario approach to the weather. I have on no gloves and no hat and no insulated pants. I just stroll out to check out the weather. It is -40 with a 50 mile an hour wind, the sort of wind that blows people down the street. I stagger back inside with numb fingers and a face that feels like someone has scrubbed it with steel wool; but the most amazing thing was my legs. My jeans might as well not have been there. I mean even my legs were numb. BINGO! These kids will like stories about wind.

The next day I get my first audience. It is at the local library and only half Inuit. I quickly find that stories about family relations (like going to bed, wetting your pants, feeding your dad a playdoh cookie) are ok. Inuit families seem to run enough like southern families or else everybody is watching Sesame St. On the other hand, stories with trees, subways and two story houses do not go well. So far I am just fooling around with stories that I have already made up and finding elements have to change so the story will work in Baffin Island. (Did you know that if one end of Baffin Island was in New York, the other end would be in St. Louis?)

The next day I go to the school and there choose a girl named Allashua to make up a story about. (I was lucky to get an Inuit sounding name. It is impolite to call an Inuit by their name so kids generally give their English name when asked.) I try out a wind story on Allashua. They love it. They should love it. Half of the Inuit kids have raw frostbite sores on their cheeks. They are highly knowledgeable of wind and cold. I later try this story out down south. It will go in rural areas where the kids know what a real wind is. It is a dud in Toronto.

I flew out of Frobisher on a jet, landed at Hall Inlet in a blizzard. At least I would have called it a blizzard. All sorts of people from Hall Inlet were out in the dark to see the plane land. Lots of then didn’t even have their hoods on. I got out and stood in the blowing snow and looked at a three year old girl who looked at me. When the wind blew harder I couldn’t see her, neither of us said a thing. I got on a DC-3 and flew out to Spence Bay. The stewardess in the DC-3 was wearing down booties and an ankle length parka. I was wearing just a coat. I almost died on the trip. By the time we landed the top of the plane was hot and the floor was still -40. In front of me in the plane was a tied down snowmobile. The passengers were in the cargo section or the cargo was in the passenger section or else such distinctions were not valid for a DC-3. A northern type sat beside me and took great delight showing me the remains of crashed DC-3’s. He knew the history of each disaster and was happy to tell me about them. Even old crashes were still bright and shiny.

Spence was an almost totally Inuit community. It was dark when I got there. I stayed with Ernie and several of his relatives whose interrelations I could not figure out. I had some great lines there trying to make conversation.

“Tell me Ernie, who founded Spence Bay?”

“You mean who started the town?” said Ernie.

“Yes.”

“I did.” said Ernie.

Silence on my part. I mean how do you talk to the guy who founded The town?

Then there was the following:

“The government built this house”, said Ernie. “The windows don’t open and it gets really hot no matter what I do. If you get too hot pull that towel out of the wall. I put a hole in the wall with a chain saw. Pull out the towel and the place will cool down fast”.

“Right”, said I. I am really good at scintillating comebacks.

Well the next day I told stories at the local (unheated) town hall. The mayor introduced me in Inuktitut and I started telling stories. This is clearly a different audience. Lots of the adults have the black lined faces of Inuit who spend lots of time out on the tundra. They call it out ON the land, as in “I’m going out ON the land”. Since there are no trees except arctic willow which, is not quite as tall as moss. I really did feel like I was ON THE LAND, because there is nothing between me and the land.

This audience has a really different feel to it. I feared for the success of the event so I start with MUD PUDDLE, a story that had never failed. It was a dud. When I was done a kid put up his hand and asked, “What’s a mud puddle?”

One of the local teachers then spent 5 minutes trying to explain the idea of a mud puddle. First he had to start with the idea of soil, as Spence Bay had no soil. I knew I had made it. Here was an audience that was not going to like any of my stories. I had to make up new ones.

I was in an absolute panic.

This was the reason for the trip.

So I started telling new stories:

1. The little boy who took his fathers gun and shot a caribou. 2. The two kids who climbed the radio tower and had to jump into the hoods of their mother’s parkas to get down. 3. The kid who stole the water truck and filled it with coca-cola. 4. Another kid who stole the water truck and ran it into a house. (It turned out that this kid really had stolen the water truck!) 5. And finally the MUD PUDDLE again only this time it was a snowdrift that jumps on the kid.

It turns out that none of these stories work at all down south. Their local content was too high. Actually, I knew these stories would not work down south, but it didn’t matter. I had switched to story creation mode! I was off and running.

Oh yes, I forgot to tell about the audience. When it was my turn to tell stories they got up and jammed me against the wall. I told stories to them as do sardines tell stories in a can. In fact we all started to list off to one side, which was okay since there was no room to fall over. I figure this is igloo social relations.

I then signed books. The school librarian had ordered a big shipment of books from a bookstore in Yellowknife. Kids hung all over me as I signed books. Other kids made like the three year old a Hall beach and looked and looked and looked. Just standing and looking at somebody turns out to be a sort of Inuit sport.

I must not forget the clapping. There wasn’t any. The Inuit version of clapping is a sort of “AHHHH” sound, very light, going from high to low; sort of like whispering. It descends in frequency from start to finish. When one Inuit did it I could hardly hear it. With 100 or so the effect is very pronounced. I did not know what it meant when they started doing it. For my own peace of mind I decided to assume that it meant that they liked my stories.

On to Cambridge Bay. The plane flew in heavy snow and never went very high. We just flew along and all the sudden we landed. Cambridge Bay had mixed audiences and I told lots of stories. Only one new one grew about Alice who swings so high that she takes off and flies away into the sky. I still tell it sometimes. It has still not turned into a really good story as of 2001, but I like the idea.

I was stuck for 3 days in Cambridge Bay. A blizzard closed the airport and blew down the communications dish. I could not even call out to see what was happening with the rest of my book tour.

Then south to Hay River.

This was south to sunshine.

I had been living with a week of sunsets.

When I changed planes in Yellowknife, I noticed that the people getting off the plane were taking off their parkas. I walked to the door and got the sun right in my face. I took off my parka too. After all it was only -10. Much too warm to pass up a little sunshine. Actually, I got a rush; a fantastic feeling of well being all based on SUNSHINE.

I changed to the plane to Hay River and flew across the absolutely frozen Slave Lake. I dropped right into a library full of kids. I did a normal safe storytelling and everybody liked it. I knew I was getting tired and burnt out and I was not trying very hard.

Then I went to the family I was staying with and walked into Moira’s birthday party. I was not happy about this. I never do birthday party storytellings. I get asked all the time and I just don’t do it. Then Moira came up to me and asked very nicely if I could tell a birthday story for her party. Sometimes when a kid asks me to make up a story I get this strange feeling that something is going to happen. I got that feeling when Moira asked.

Now this feeling is usually misleading. Often I look out at a group of kids and get this firm conviction that I can tell a new story about a particular kid. Usually it’s not true, but I do always try a new story when I get the feeling.

So I started telling this story about Moira who invites grades one to six to her party and does not tell her parents. Halfway through I knew it was a winner. In fact, it was so good that it jumped up to be one of the stories I always tell. It turned into a book after about 100 tellings ans was published in 1987.

(One of my favorite events is when I write a kid and say, “Remember that story I told about you? It’s going to be a book. Please send me your picture if you want to be in the book. Moira sent the picture and now she is in the book).

The effect of the constant retelling is to get the words right. For example, when I first told the birthday story I said that Moira invited, “First grade, second grade, etc”. Later that switched to, “Grade one, grade two, etc.”. The second version is much better because I can draw out the “gr” in grade when I tell it. That sort of revision is a result of audience reaction.

One good story is worth the whole trip. I had been waiting for a year for a really good story to zip by. It was a good day because later I did it again.

This time it was in the Dene Reserve across the river (no bridge – in the winter you drive across the ice – in the summer you drive 40 miles to get to the town you can see right across the river.) So there I was telling stories to about 10 Dene kids. One named Tina had on brightly colored sox. I told a story about the kid who never changes her sox. It was a very good one too. It’s in a file now waiting to become a book. Tina is in a file called “Story Kids”. I write her once or twice a year. She doesn’t know that I write so I can find her if I need her picture for a book.

Two in one day, a record! I flew off to Yellowknife feeling very pleased.

Then it happened again!

This time it was at the cultural centre in Yellowknife. 200 kids of all ages, lots of them older than I usually tell to. Trying to keep everyone happy I told a story about a teenage girl. She was about 12 and I figured she liked to use makeup so I told a story about makeup. I knew it was good the moment I told it. Actually, I was in shock. Good stories come so rarely and here were three in two days. (Makeup finally became a book in 2001)

Then off to Inuvik. A very strange plane ride, because we were flying up into the Arctic night. The sun was up in Yellowknife as we took off. It set behind the plane as we went north. At Norman Wells it rose again only to set as we took off and flew north. At Inuvik it rose at 11:45.

I would like to say I made up a lot of good stories at Inuvik, but I didn’t. I tried but they were all bad. That happens sometimes; but it was okay. The trip was a success. I had searched out Moira. Trip done – story gathered – all go home – THE END

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Moira’s Birthday

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