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Writer Mandi Kujawa lives in Banff, Alberta, and is a singer and storyteller. She was the librarian at Banff Elementary School, and is an oral storyteller advocating for suicide awareness amongst our youth.
A Slug Story is a middle grade graphic novel, illustrated by Claude St. Aubin and Lovern Kindzierski. This heartfelt book is a unique, semi-autobiographical mother-daughter collaboration that offers insight into the experience a family goes through with a lengthy and uncertain hospital stay for a child. The story is centered around Marcus, an enthusiastic young boy who when ridiculed at school, begins to feel that his best efforts are second-rate—that he is more of a slug than a caterpillar, never destined to transform into a butterfly. His confidence already low, Marcus suffers a serious brain injury. While in the hospital, and with the help of fellow patient Emily, Marcus learns to embrace the reality of who he is. As of last night, A Slug Story is the winner of the 2021 Doug Wright Egghead Award for Best Kids’ Book.
This Mother’s Day, we connected with Mandi to discuss the experience of co-writing the book with her daughter, Hana.
What was collaborating with your daughter on this story like?
Easy. Not that we didn’t have to struggle sometimes to arrive at consensus, but she is wise, insightful, and demanding (in a good way).
Did the autobiographical nature of A Slug Story make the co-writing experience emotionally challenging?
Yes, but it was a wonderful way to try to step back from the intensity of the emotions to try to craft the experience into something that might be helpful to others. Like with Hana packing her Polaroid camera and instructing me to take photos of her brain surgery experience. It was strangely helpful for both of us to view that difficult time through an artful lens. (One nerve wracking time Hana climbed up on her wobbly hospital bed to take a photo of the two-inch probes that had been inside her skull. As a protective mother it was hard to watch her wobble, but I was so grateful that her enthusiasm for the project had her up and interested in taking a good shot. At such a difficult time, it would have been easy for her to just lie in bed. I knew her passion was doing her good.)
In the book, Marcus loves slugs and grows to identify with them, even though his classmates prefer flashy butterflies and cute ladybugs. Were slugs something you or your daughter were interested in before writing this book, or how did the focus on them in the story come about?
We didn’t have much connection with slugs until one of Hana’s friends told us he had “a brilliant idea for a kid’s book about a slug that stays a slug”. I knew immediately and viscerally what he meant by that! So many children’s books give kids the message that if they try hard enough, and have the perfect attitude, they will be exceptional, world class artists, musicians, actors, singers, or athletes. What a terrible burden that is. Most of us are average!!! So how do we make meaning, find joy, and participate in artistic, musical, or athletic endeavours?
I related to the slug metaphor because I’m not a musician like Joni Mitchell, I’m not an author like Naomi Novak—but I love music and I love words, and I’m so grateful that I can enjoy them with my own abilities.
What was it like working with the graphic novel team, and seeing your personal story illustrated on the page?
I don’t know how to express how honoured I feel to have Claude, Lovern, and Taylor take the ideas from our heads and represent them using their decades of training, skill, experience, and artistry. I’m amazed by what they do.
Did writing about your and Hana’s hospital experience change how you felt about it?
Yes, it helped me to notice every single gesture of friendliness on the part of the hospital staff members, and our own beloved friends and family members. When going through such difficult times, a smile, a kind word, or a bit of humour can change an entire day. When times are that hard, kindness is miraculous.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to get from reading your book?
That kindness is a magic power that every single one of us has, and can notice in others. Every single one of us can be magical because of that.
Who do you most hope reads this book?
Anyone who gets their hands on it. And in the ways that books have mysteriously arrived and helped me at different times in my life, I hope it will be of comfort, assistance, inspiration and pleasure for those readers who really need it.
Have you considered collaborating with Hana again on another story?
Oh yes! She is insightful, exacting, and funny. We laugh a lot.
What would your ideal Mother’s Day spent with Hana look like?
My ideal Mother’s Day this year will be for me to have a video call with Hana who is currently in Halifax pursuing her masters degree from NSCAD. (I’m so very grateful for the accommodations the university is making for her impaired memory, and for making allowances when she has seizures!) I’ll show her what plants are coming up in the garden, she’ll show me what new artwork she’s working on, and we’ll chat about our days. Simple, but wonderful.