What happens when two of the province’s beloved writers sit down to chat about their latest work?
When it’s Bernice Morgan and Robert Chafe, they excitedly pore over the pages of one another’s books, and, while revealing some insecurity of their own, praise the other.
“Robert has the advantage on me because he can hold a stage anywhere,” says Morgan, of reading in front of an audience.
“You’re Bernice Morgan, stop it!” laughs Chafe.
“I’m a nervous reader,” admits Morgan.
“I am, too,” says Chafe.
And so, an hour is spent in the coziness of Morgan’s downtown home – its walls lit with colour from local artists’ works – as the pair trade compliments about their latest books.
In a cluster of coincidences – the kind that could only happen in Newfoundland – both authors are simultaneously publishing their first children’s books, both books are about Christmas, and both stories were originally performed as monologues at choral concerts commissioned by artistic director Kellie Walsh.
‘Seasons Before the War’
“For years I’ve been thinking about my childhood,” says Morgan.
“It was after (Walsh) suggested it – and I’m very thankful to her for that – that I actually sat down to write.”
That was about five years ago.
What resulted was a story that Morgan read at the Shallaway Youth Choir’s Christmas concert.
Interspersed between songs, Morgan told the audience about four seasons during a year of her childhood in St. John’s just before the Second World War broke out.
Now, “Seasons Before the War” is a hardcover children’s book.
Morgan says the story is really about trying to recapture her childhood and preserve a part of the past.
“I’m in my 80s – that’s history, really,” she says. “It’s something that’s completely out of the purview of children today.”
For that reason, Morgan envisions her first children’s book as one meant to be shared between generations – a grandparent or parent reading it to a child.
The illustrations by award-winning painter and children’s book illustrator Brita Granström capture the nostalgia of Morgan’s story – images of a Singer sewing machine, hard candies stogged in glass jars displayed in a store window, and a horse-drawn cart passing Jackman & Greene grocery.
“Look at the old cash register,” says Chafe as he touches a page.
Morgan smiles, saying she’s “very, very pleased” with the illustrations.
‘Shiny and New’
Meanwhile, Morgan holds Chafe’s children’s book, “Shiny and New” in her hands. She comments on how illustrator Grant Boland’s work is quite different from his usual high realism style.
Meant for a reader about age seven through 12, Boland bounced ideas for the illustrations off his 10-year-old son.
In “Shiny and New”, Chafe tells the story of a young girl’s struggle to come to terms with newness and change in her small town during the Christmas season, but through a surprising discovery, learns the true spirit of the holidays.
“It never occurred to me that I was writing a book,” says Chafe.
“It didn’t occur to me, either,” adds Morgan.
Chafe recounts that Walsh first approached him with the idea to commission a special piece for the Lady Cove Women’s Choir that would be unique to them, rather than reading Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” or Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” as is often done.
“Her only criteria for me were that she wanted something that would be …,” he interrupts himself with laughter, “…what were the words she used? ‘Something classic, and iconic, and that we can use year after year – like a classic Christmas story.’ I was like, oh great, no pressure.”
Morgan laughs as Chafe puts on a nervous expression, sucking air through his teeth.
“I guess it was 2015 or 2016, and there was a lot of … conversations surrounding immigration, and refugees, and accommodation, and this whole ridiculous argument of Christmas versus Happy Holidays,” he explains.
What resulted is an instant modern-day classic Christmas story of learning about how much people truly have in common despite their differences.
Preserving and evolving culture
Chafe says he was signing a contract with his publisher for something else when he mentioned this monologue he had written for the choir, and whether the publisher would like to take a look.
In that way, both Morgan and Chafe’s commissioned pieces found new life as children’s stories.
Speaking about their work, the pair reflected that all of their writing – even their first-ever children’s books – tends to touch on a recurring theme.
“The books I’ve written, they’re all about saving the past,” says Morgan.
“They’re all about putting the past into people’s minds as something that was real.”
“Isn’t that interesting?” says Chafe.
“I think mine are all about the experience of this person that you think you know is not what you know, and the assumptions that we have about people and their lives are often deeply clouded by our own lens on them.”
The two authors’ latest books may share an unusual number of similarities, but there are just as many differences.
While Morgan’s is a tale of long ago, Chafe’s holds a mirror to today’s world.
Reading both back-to-back – zooming through the decades in the span of two children’s stories – it becomes clear that some parts of the human experience are constant amidst change.
Both speak to the timeless importance of unity, generosity and empathy.
Walsh says both stories relate to the philosophy behind her choirs.
“Music is a conduit … for not only preserving our culture, but also a conduit for evolving culture.”
Morgan’s “Seasons Before the War” is available in stores now.
The launch for Chafe’s “Shiny and New” will be held at Chapters on Kenmount Road on Nov. 15. He will also read the story at Shallaway’s Christmas concerts Dec. 1-2 at Gower Street United Church.