"Born Celtic, I turned western" -- Christie Harris

QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:

Children's literature in British Columbia languished for about half a century, from the time Martha Douglas Harris gathered Cree stories and Cowichan stories for History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians (1901) until a second Harris-Christie-became the first writer to successfully relate Aboriginal myths and stories to young readers for Raven's Cry (1966).

Born in New Jersey in 1907, Christie Harris was brought to Fernie, British Columbia, by her family of Irish immigrants in 1908, then onto the Shuswap area, then to the Fraser Valley. As Christie Irwin, she moved to Prince George to be in the vicinity of Thomas Arthur Harris, an RCMP constable she had known from a neighbouring farm in Surrey, leading to their marriage in 1932.

She wrote primarily for CBC and the Province's women's page until she adapted her radio work for her first book, Cariboo Trail (1957).

When her husband's work as an immigration officer temporarily took the family to Prince Rupert in 1958, she agreed to undertake a series of school broadcast scripts on Coastal Indian cultures. "I discovered that clearly the artistic genius of the North West Coast had been Charles Edenshaw, Haida Eagle Chief Edinsa,"; she wrote.

Harris' prolific output might be largely overlooked today were it not for Raven's Cry, an historical novel that traces the Edenshaw lineage, with illustrations by Bill Reid.

"Everyone except Bill [Reid] warned me that Edenshaw relatives would never tell their family stories to a white woman, a stranger,"; Harris recalled. "I was actually afraid to let them know I was coming. What if they said, 'Don't bother!'? My husband and I arrived in Masset and Edenshaw's daughter Florence Davidson was pointed out to me on the street. I rather anxiously introduced myself. And she said, 'We've been expecting you. We were going to have a reception for you tonight at my house, but there's been a small fire. So we're gathering at my son's house.'";

Hers was the first book that Bill Reid illustrated, lending Harris' work lasting credibility. Her other books are less distinguished. After Christie

Harris died in 2002, a B.C. Book Prize for best illustrated children's book was inaugurated in her honour in 2003.


FULL ENTRY:

In 1998, Christie Harris received the fourth Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia. Her career is important because she became the first writer to successfully relate Aboriginal myths and stories to young readers for commercial purposes. When her husband's work as an immigration officer temporarily took the family to Prince Rupert in 1958, she agreed to undertake a series of school broadcast scripts on Coastal Indian cultures. "I discovered that clearly the artistic genius of the North West Coast ahd been Charles Edenshaw, Haida Eagle Chief Edinsa," she wrote. Harris' ongoing fascination with Aboriginal mythology and art led to numerous books including Once Upon a Totem (New York: Atheneum, 1963), Once More Upon a Totem (New York: Atheneum, 1973), West with the White Chiefs (1965) and most notably Raven's Cry (New York: Atheneum, 1966), an historical novel which traces the Edenshaw lineage, with illustrations by Bill Reid. It was written after Harris conferred extensively with Edenshaw's daughter Florence Davidson. "Everyone except Bill warned me that the Edenshaw relatives would never tell their family stories to a white woman, a stranger," she claimed. Christie Harris received her second Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award in 1977 for Mouse Woman and the Vanished Princesses, one of her numerous retellings of folk material, and she also wrote a crime novel, Mystery at the Edge of Two Worlds (1978), about the theft of Native artefacts.

Christie Harris was born in Newark, New Jersey on November 21, 1907, one of five children in a family of Irish immigrants en route to Canada. The family arrived in British Columbia in early 1908, first to Fernie, then to the Shuswap area. When her father Ed Irwin fought in W.W. I, the family came to Vancouver, then operated a farm in Cloverdale. While living in the Fraser Valley, she sold her first newspaper reports to the New Westminster Columbian at age 12. After her father returned from the war, she frequently attended farmers' association meetings with him, then provided summaries for the local paper. "With part of her income," says her son Gerald Harris, "her delight was to go to a Cloverdale cafe and have tea with a ham sandwich of white bakery bread, machine sliced, much more elegant than homemade bread."

After graduation from Normal School, she taught school in Surrey at age 17; then she began writing stories for her pupils, at age 20, during a stint as a primary school teacher in Vancouver. The children's section of The Vancouver Daily Province purchased these stories and made her a regular contributor. Christie Irwin moved to Prince George to be in the vicinity of Thomas Arthur Harris, an RCMP constable she had known as a young man from a neighbouring farm in Surrey. They were married in 1932. Newly married at 24, Christie Harris had three babies within four years while living in White Rock; then she had two more children while living in the Lower Fraser Valley. Her five are named Michael, Moira, Sheilagh, Brian and Gerald. "When people ask why I use my family so often as life models and technical advisors," she wrote in 1977, "I always say it's because they won't sue or charge Mother. The truth is that they've always been more than willing to keep me straight, so they won't be embarrassed by what I turn out."

In her early years of marriage, Harris wrote primarily for the Province's women's page and also sent radio scripts to the CBC. With 24 hours notice, the CBC in Vancouver once commissioned her to provide a juvenile musical fantasy for the Coronation Day of King George VI -- she subsequently collaborated with composer Harry Biener for a one-hour program. Harris and Biener wrote seven collaborative works, projects which Harris now recalls fondly. For 20 years she was a prolific contributor to the CBC, providing hundreds of school broadcasts, an adventure serial, adult plays and humourous sketches "about the woman with five children, an old house, a neat husband and an ungovernable urge to write." In the 1950s she was also women's editor for the Abbotsford-Sumas-Matsqui local weekly paper (1952-58) and adapted her radio adventure serial for her first book, Cariboo Trail (1957). Harris won a Canada Council Children's Literature Prize for The Trouble with Princesses (1980), a 1973 Vicky Metcalf Award from the Canadian Authors Association recognizing her body of work, and an International Book of the Year Award for Secret in the Stlalakum Wild (1972).

Christie Harris died on January 5, 2002. A B.C. Book Prize for illustrated children's book has been named in her honour.

[There are approximately 400 B.C. authors of children's books included on the abcbookworld reference site. With his series of 23 books for reluctant readers, Eric Wilson has been touted as Canada's bestselling author for juveniles. Julie Lawson has published 26 books over a 20-year period. Most extraordinary are John Wilson's 23 titles since 1995, many of which are well-researched historical works. Other notables include Sue Ann Alderson, Ann Blades, Alan Bradley, Norma Charles, Sarah Ellis, Dennis Foon, Nan Gregory, James Heneghan, Constance Horne, Polly Horvath, Shelly Hrdlitschka, Nancy Hundal, Carrie Mac, Ainslie Manson, Barbara Nickel, Cynthia Nugent, Sylvia Olsen, Kit Pearson, Mary Razzell, Don Sawyer, Andrea Spalding, Nikki Tate, Meg Tilly, Diane Tullson, Maggie de Vries, Anne Walsh, Betty Waterton, Irene N. Watts, Joan Weir, Paul Yee. To name only a few.] at 2010.

BOOKS:

Cariboo Trail (1957)
Once Upon a Totem (New York: Atheneum, 1963). Woodcuts by John Frazer Mills.
You Have to Draw the Line Somewhere (1964)
West with the White Chiefs (1965)
Raven's Cry (New York: Atheneum, 1966)
Confessions of a Toe-Hanger (1967)
Forbidden Frontier (1968)
Let X Be Excitement (1969)
Figleafing Through History: The Dynamics of Dress (1971, with Moira Johnston)
Secret in the Stlalakum Wild (McClelland & Stewart, 1972)
Mule Lib (1972, with Tom Harris)
Once More Upon a Totem (New York: Atheneum, 1973)
Sky Man on the Totem Pole (McClelland & Stewart, 1975)
Mouse Woman and the Vanished Princesses (McClelland & Stewart, 1976)
Mouse Woman and the Mischief Makers (McClelland & Stewart, 1977)
Mystery at the Edge of Two Worlds (New York: Atheneum, 1978)
Mouse Woman and the Muddle-heads (McCelleland & Stewart, 1979)
The Trouble with Princesses (1980)
The Trouble with Adventurers (1982)
Something Weird Is Going On (Orca, 1994)

[BCBW 2010]