Munsch’s monsters: getting to know the real Robert Munsch
Now that Canada’s most famous children’s author has confessed to being a booze- and coke-addicted obsessive-compulsive with bipolar disorder and suicidal tendencies, what else is there to say?
Last August, Robert Munsch arrived at a Hamilton elementary school in a floppy white sun hat and sunglasses, which made him look like a cross between a nine-year-old camper and Hunter S. Thompson. He wore a blue cowboy shirt and white jeans with felt pen stains on them, and his 65-year-old face was boyish and unlined. In the gymnasium, beneath the posters promoting honesty and respect, a hundred-odd children sat expectantly on the variegated linoleum. Children are unforgiving audiences. They fidget and twitch and get up and wander like people in a retirement home. Raised on Disney, Teletoon and Xbox, they are accustomed to the cynical, fleeting magic of Hollywood. But Munsch held their attention.
Performing is central to Munsch’s life. His tours are booked through Jones Entertainment Group, which represents rock acts, including Alice Cooper, and comics like Howie Mandel. Munsch is the author of 54 children’s books, including the best-selling Love You Forever and The Paper Bag Princess. He sometimes performs in front of 2,000 children. The performances are essential not just to the marketing of his books, but the creation of them. In some ways, it’s where he creates himself, the version that is happiest, at least. Munsch acts his books out, the text committed to memory. He works more like a stand-up comic than a writer, trying out new material on live audiences. In the Hamilton gym, as in all his shows, he brought up kids from the audience and had them sit on a chair and then plugged their names into existing stories, using repetition and movement and exaggerated sounds to engage the kids, who started to join in. “Is there anyone here who used to pee their pants?” he asked. A surprising majority of hands shot up. Munsch rambled through I Have to Go! “I have to go pee!” he shouted, his face contorted, a pop-eyed mask that he held for three beats.
He picked out a boy named Isis who was wearing a LeBron James basketball jersey (the Cleveland version) and decided to make up a story about him. “One day, Isis wakes up and yells, ‘I can’t find my shirt!’ ” There were crises about Isis’s favourite shirt, then the story petered out. “Sometimes I make up stories and they’re good,” he later told me, “and sometimes they aren’t as good.” After an hour of storytelling, Munsch checked the time and told one more story and took a few questions (Is Munsch your real name?—yes. Where do you get your ideas?—from you kids). Half the children lined up to get something signed, then they screamed in unison, “Thank you, Mr. Munsch!” and presented him with a YMCA coffee cup.
This happy, animated public version of Munsch isn’t easily reconciled with his offstage self. For much of his recent life, he has been an alcoholic and a drug addict and plagued with thoughts of suicide. In May, he confessed most of this on a current affairs program on Global TV, surprising his many fans, and surprising himself. He hadn’t planned on this public disclosure; it simply came out. His days contain extremes: the wild enthusiasm and upper-case emphasis of his children’s books and performances set against the darkness and difficulties of his private life. The stage is a refuge; it is offstage where the monsters lie.
After the Hamilton performance, I drove around with Munsch in his Honda Accord Hybrid, looking for a Tim Hortons. He’s on a diet, down to 170 pounds from 195, aiming for 160. He exercises (walking his Yorkshire terrier and poodle) and allows himself only a bran muffin for lunch. Sitting in the glare of Tim Hortons with his ascetic lunch, he succinctly described his dilemma. “I do these shows and people like them,” he said quietly, “but afterwards, it’s just me.”
Munsch’s archetypal suburban home is on the edge of Guelph on a cul-de-sac beautifully shaded by old-growth trees. He has a lovely wife, Ann Beeler, and three adopted children, Julie, Andrew and Tyya, who are all grown and moved out on their own (two in Toronto and one in Guelph). He’s lived in the calm of this neighbourhood for 20 years. We sat on his L-shaped couch, and Munsch gradually slid down onto the blue wall-to-wall-carpet, sprawling like a teenager.
There were signs of Munsch’s troubles from an early age. He grew up in Pittsburgh, one of nine children in a Catholic family. His father was a successful lawyer. “My parents knew something was wrong with me, but I got lost in the pack of kids,” he said. “I didn’t have friends in high school, stayed home.” When he was 18, he decided to become a priest. The priests taught him how to be sociable, and his parents were outwardly supportive of his choice. “Much later, I discovered that they thought it was crazy, but they thought that I was crazy, too, so maybe it would work out.” But Munsch’s faith wavered, and after seven years, he left the seminary.
He earned a history degree from the Jesuit college Fordham, and later a masters in education from Tufts and a masters in anthropology from Boston University. He met Beeler in 1972 when they were both working in a daycare outside Boston. They were married the following year. The America of the ’70s that Munsch remembers is the dystopic, gutted-inner-city, Vietnam-addled version, when the nation was fractious and visibly decaying. In Boston, he thwarted a car theft, and men with knives, seeking revenge, waited outside the daycare for him. He had to slip out through a back window. Later, in a random mugging, he was attacked from behind by another man and collapsed on the sidewalk. He needed plastic surgery on his face and suffered memory loss. After the robbery, he wandered the streets armed with a knife, looking for his attacker. He looked for a year, a danger to everyone. In Jamaica Plain, the neighbourhood where they lived, there were gangs and corrupt cops. It was like living in a war zone, he said. He and his wife moved to Canada in 1975, and they both took jobs in the Family Studies Laboratory Preschool at the University of Guelph.
At the daycares where he had worked, he told the kids stories. They began asking for ones he’d already told, and he would retell them, honing his performance skills. At Guelph, after a colleague suggested he write his stories down, Munsch produced 10 in one day and sent them out to 10 publishers. “I didn’t think that what I did was special,” he told me. “I thought anyone could do it.” He got a response from a publisher who was interested in The Mud Puddle, which became his first published work, a modest success. The Paper Bag Princess, which came out in 1980, was his third book. It reversed a fairy tale conceit; a princess rescues a prince from a dragon, but her clothes are burned and she has to wear a paper bag. Instead of being grateful, the prince suggests she get cleaned up. It ends with the memorable line “You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.” It was a hit, eventually selling four million copies.
Munsch wrote Love You Forever as a memorial for his two stillborn children. It went on to sell more than 18 million copies
Throughout his early career, he had been drinking. “A glass of red wine made me feel less depressed,” he said. “I drank every day. There were occasional binges. Eventually, I began to drink hard liquor, then I’d have a glass of scotch in the morning just to feel OK. That’s when I realized I had to do something.” He didn’t generally drink while he worked, or before readings. “If I did drink before a reading, it didn’t go well,” he said. “There is a manic energy there—it’s situational.” Performing was already a form of escape. It took him out of himself, and that stage persona was outgoing, dramatic and immensely popular.
In 1986, Munsch published Love You Forever, a memorial for two stillborn babies he and Beeler had in 1979 and 1980. It was, Beeler said, a profoundly difficult time. Like Margaret Wise Brown’s classic, Goodnight Moon, Love You Forever captured an essential rhythm, one that binds the parent and the child being read to. Annick Press passed on the book, arguing that it wasn’t a children’s book; it was more for adults. It was picked up by Firefly Books and sold 70,000 copies the year it was published, then 200,000 the following year. The third year, it sold a million. The book went on to sell more than 18 million copies in total, becoming one of the best-selling picture books of all time. Munsch’s royalties from the book were as much as $800,000 a year. Most of the money went into the bank, and they kept a modest suburban lifestyle. His biggest extravagance was to donate $250,000 to Lakefield College School, after his daughter Julie had gone there, for a scholarship fund.
The year Love You Forever was published, he joined AA. “I knew I was an alcoholic and where it was leading,” he said. At first, he was wary of the simplistic one-day-at-a-time philosophy of AA, but the meetings were effective. Though he stopped drinking, he was still plagued by depression. In 1990, he went to a psychiatrist at the urging of his wife. “Ann said I was talking about killing myself too much. I was no longer able to trust my thoughts. You think, ‘Today would be a good day to kill myself.’ Or, ‘Today would not be a good day to kill myself.’ I told the psychiatrist, ‘I feel good and bad. When I feel good, I’m flying. When I feel bad, I’m suicidal.’ ” The psychiatrist told Munsch he was both bipolar and obsessive-compulsive. Munsch’s grandfather had killed himself, and Munsch suspects that he was bipolar, as well, though he was undiagnosed and untreated.
He was drunk at a party when he was offered cocaine. “I knew right away that I would be doing more,” he says
For Munsch, the diagnosis was a relief, and he was initially given lithium, then switched to Prozac. His older sister Margaret Cronin, who lives in New Jersey, said, “When he talks about his depression, I’m surprised. He seemed to be a happy child. One of the neighbours called him Smiley because he always had a smile.” Like his addictions, his depression was usually well disguised.
His stretch of sobriety lasted until 2004, when he was in Saskatoon for a show and visited the family of a girl he’d taught in nursery school in Guelph, long since grown up. He was offered a glass of homemade wine and took it. “I thought, well, they made this, so I’d better try it.”
When he got back home, he started drinking again, moderately at first, having a single glass of wine in the evening. He became interested in wine, a budding oenophile, but even his moderate consumption was problematic. “I would get preoccupied by alcohol. I’d decide to have one drink a week, but I’d think about it all week. So that’s a problem.” And there were occasional binges, too, when he was out of town doing shows. “I would get blotto,” he told me.
Drinking impaired his judgment sufficiently to lead him to drugs in 2005, at the age of 59. “I didn’t like my life,” he said. “I didn’t have any friends. My career was eating my life. I was profoundly unhappy, and drugs were a vacation from that.” His first drugs were prescription painkillers that he got over the Internet, opioids like Percocet and OxyContin. Within months, he graduated into cocaine use the way a university student might. “I was drunk in Toronto, and someone offered me cocaine at a party,” he said. “I knew right away that I would be doing more, and I knew this was a bad thing.”
Cocaine introduced a new hurdle: finding it. “I never had a dealer,” he said. “I’d drive to Toronto, to Sherbourne Street or Parliament, chat people up. I’d buy it and come back and use it in Guelph by myself.” The fear of being arrested or robbed or assaulted or recognized only occurred when he was driving home. “Afterwards, I would wonder, how wacko can I get?” He occasionally stayed and did coke with the people he met, all of them younger and poorer and attuned to the street, some of whom suspected he was a cop. As a neophyte buyer, he once gave money to a man who said “Wait a minute. I’ll be right back” and disappeared. Another time, the police arrived at an apartment just as he was leaving.
“I knew I was out of control,” he said. “I joined Narcotics Anonymous and expected it to be like AA—I’d just stop using. But it took four years with coke. I’d think, it’s not too bad. I can control it. But it was bullshit. I had to rebuild my life and learn not to trust my brain.”
Soon after joining NA, he told Beeler about his addiction. She had known something was wrong but didn’t know what it was. He waited until Christmas dinner to tell his kids. “Poor timing,” he admits.
From an addiction perspective, he is one of the lucky ones. “The normal person who comes to NA has lost everything—wife, job, house, he’s on the street,” he said. “I’m what is called a high bottom—I still have a wife and a home.” He looks at his cellphone. “I’m, let me see, here it is, 235 days now. That’s my clean date.”
In what could be mistaken for an Opus Dei–style conspiracy, Munsch, Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers) and Ernie Coombs (Mr. Dressup) all originally came north from Pittsburgh. Coombs and Rogers drove to Toronto together in 1962 to work as children’s performers. (Coincidentally, Rogers, like Munsch, had first turned to religion, and served as a Presbyterian minister.) Coombs stayed in Canada and created Mr. Dressup. (“Ernie never took himself too seriously,” Munsch said affectionately. “He just liked to entertain kids. A nice guy.”) Rogers went back to Pittsburgh and refined his cardigan persona, and their eponymous shows ran for 29 and 33 years respectively. Both Coombs and Rogers were restrained performers, while Munsch is their madcap opposite. The influence of this troika is epic. Only the great Seuss can rival them.
Munsch does most of his writing in his basement office. He has 150 unpublished stories on his computer, and he tells them during performances to see if they’ll fly, adding new bits, occasionally splicing stories together. Twenty years ago, he told a boy in northern Ontario a story about seeing a moose. Munsch later tailored the story to different audiences (in Toronto, it became a raccoon; in Texas, an armadillo; in Inuvik, it was a caribou that they shot and ate), and it will finally be released this spring as Moose.
Many of his stories are based in reality. Sometimes they’re the result of personal experience (he sat on a plane beside a little girl named Temina, who had 12 dolls in her backpack, and he immediately wrote a story called Too Much Stuff, which was released last fall). The last 10 or so books have come from kids who write to him with ideas. He receives up to 70,000 letters annually and for the past 25 years has employed an administrative assistant, Sharon Bruder, to deal with them. She takes care of royalty statements and taxes and correspondence, working four days a week across the room from Munsch. She knew of his AA participation but had no idea about his drug use. “I’ve never even seen him take a drink,” she said. “Not once in 25 years.” The day after his public admission last May, they received 800 e-mails, almost all of them supportive. She helped craft a letter that was sent out to everyone who had written.
Munsch’s books are usually illustrated by Michael Martchenko, whose style matches the chaos of Munsch’s stories, though he didn’t do Love You Forever (Firefly chose the extremely lucky Sheila McGraw, who now lives in Texas, sustained by those royalties), and he passed on Good Families Don’t, a book about farting. “I don’t do farts,” Martchenko told me. He came to children’s illustration through the advertising business. In the late 1970s, he was working as creative director for an agency called TDF, and during a show of the company’s work, he put up a whimsical illustration he had done of a pigeon directing other pigeons for a landing in a park. Munsch and Rick Wilks, the publisher of Annick Press, saw it and hired him to illustrate The Paper Bag Princess. They went on to do dozens of books together. Munsch often gives Martchenko photographs of the real boy or girl on which the story is based, and of the parents, siblings and doghouses, and his drawings are based on the photographs. “The early books were more cartoony,” he said. “They became a bit more realistic, more painterly over the years.”
Munsch has taken creative democracy to its logical end. His stories come from children, and he uses their real names in the published version.
Munsch e-mails his unpublished stories to his editor, Diane Kerner, at Scholastic Canada, and they meet twice a year at the publisher’s King Street West offices and choose their favourites. “He is, I think, the most collaborative author we work with,” Kerner said. After they’ve made a selection, Munsch then refines them on the page. He calls the family that the story is based on to ensure they want to be in a book. (Only one family has ever refused; the parents were going through a divorce at the time.) Last year, a précis of three books appeared on the Scholastic Web site and kids voted on which one will be published in the fall of 2011. He thinks they’ll only try this system once. “I don’t want the books to get too democratic,” he said.
Munsch may be the last of the brilliantly selling children’s picture book authors. The commercial success of Love You Forever is unlikely to be surpassed, by Munsch or anyone else. Children move on to chapter books, like the Harry Potter series, earlier now. Picture books are expensive to produce, and because of the slower marketing techniques of kids’ lit—essentially going out and reading at schools and festivals—it can take a while for a new author to catch on. Both Paper Bag Princess and Love You Forever grew slowly, then caught fire in their third year. These days, chain stores have an institutional impatience. A book either finds an audience quickly or it dies. This works in Munsch’s favour; he’s already a fixture in the chain stores. Like Seuss, whole shelves are devoted to his oeuvre.
Two years ago, Munsch almost permanently lost his ability to tell stories. He was in Pittsburgh to attend an uncle’s funeral when he woke up and had trouble speaking. It is testimony to how quiet he is offstage that his siblings misunderstood his behaviour as grieving. (“He was always pretty quiet,” his sister Margaret said.) He flew home on his own, and when his daughter Tyya saw him, she said, “What’s wrong with Dad? We have to get him to a hospital right now.” An MRI revealed that he’d had a stroke, and he was prescribed Lipitor. His memory was affected, and he has since had a few transient ischemic attacks—essentially mini-strokes, where his left foot drags for 30 seconds, but then the clot dissolves and he’s fine.
His doctor said Munsch’s coke use may have contributed to the stroke, though he hadn’t used any for 80 days. A woman at his NA meeting told him, “I prayed for you, and God gave you this stroke to help you stop doing drugs.” Munsch, who describes himself as a 12-step atheist, said, “I don’t think it works that way.”
In the months following the stroke, he practised telling stories in front of the mirror, reciting his books to himself. “What I was doing was teaching myself the stories. At first, it didn’t go well. I couldn’t get the story in order. I would have blank periods.” He was also extremely tired, sleeping up to 20 hours a day.
A year after the stroke, Munsch went to a private school north of Guelph and asked the principal if he could try some stories out on the Grade 1 class, warning him that it might be a disaster. It wasn’t a total success; he wasn’t always able to find the thread of the narrative, but the children enjoyed the stories. He tried other schools, working up the confidence to tour again. Eighteen months after the stroke, he went on a 12-city tour. He occasionally blanked out onstage and lost track of the story and made up different endings. He used to do 100 performances a year, but he’s cut out many of the school visits and restricted himself to short fall and spring tours last year. He still tires easily, stutters occasionally, and sometimes stops in mid-sentence, searching for the second half of his thought.
Munsch had a stroke and almost lost the ability to tell stories. He asked to perform for a Grade 1 class and warned them it might be a disaster
Despite his experiences, Munsch has retained a kind of innocence, and seems a naïf. He remembers looking in the mirror as a 10-year-old and saying to his reflection, “I’m not happy.” His depression was isolating. “I don’t have a vision of being deliriously happy,” he said, “or of kids being deliriously happy.” He stopped to think for a moment, one of his regular pauses. “An unhappy childhood,” he said, “is not necessarily a bad thing for a children’s writer.”
The character with whom he most identifies is Brigid, from Purple, Green and Yellow, who colours her entire body with indelible markers until she looks like “mixed-up rainbows.” Only onstage is he animated and emotional; like Brigid, he is masked in wild colour.
I asked him if he planned to write anything longer—a children’s novel, or perhaps his own story. He said he’ll stick to picture books, to the manuscripts that sit in his computer and in his head.
“My brain,” he said, smiling, “does what it can.”