The Next Chapter

'The stories will be the last thing to go': Robert Munsch on his legacy as one of Canada's great storytellers

Robert Munsch, 76, sat down for a rare interview with Shelagh Rogers to talk about his four-decade career in children's writing.

The iconic storyteller reflects on his career as he reveals he has dementia

Robert Munsch laughs during an interview with The Canadian Press in Toronto on Jan. 23, 2014. The famed children's author has revealed he is living with dementia. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

A princess outsmarts a dragon, breaks up with her bum of a prince and skips off, barefoot and dirty, to make her own happy ending. A mother rocks her baby to sleep every night and sweetly sings, "I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always." A boy yells "Clang clang, rattle-bing-bang!" every night at the top of his lungs to protest bedtime.

All of these classic tales — and nearly 100 others that line children's bookshelves around the world — come from the brilliant mind of Robert Munsch.

Since publishing his first story over 40 years ago, the Guelph, Ont., writer has sold more than 80 million copies of his books in North America alone. His stories have been translated into 20 languages, including Anishinaabemowin, Arabic and Swedish. His publisher, Scholastic Canada, writes that he receives about 10,000 fan letters a year.

An author like Munsch, a mainstay on bestseller lists since the 1970s, doesn't need to do press. But this year, as his latest books I Can Fix It! and Think Big! come out, he reached out to The Next Chapter for an interview. He's decided to share some difficult news that he hasn't talked about publicly before.

"I have ongoing dementia," said Munsch, 76, in his interview with Shelagh Rogers.

"I can't drive, I can't ride a bicycle, I can't write. So it's been really whittling away on who I thought I was. I kind of thought I would like to do this interview as a last hurrah."

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Munsch, centre, tells his stories to Toronto schoolchildren on Jan. 27, 2010. His book Just One Goal has been translated for children of Nunavut. (ABC CANADA Literacy Foundation/Canadian Press)

Munsch said the diagnosis came as a "relief," since he could sense that something was wrong. 

"Now, if I were God in charge of the world, I would make it illegal," he said.

"I worry about what I'll be in a year. Will I be a turnip in a bed in a year?"

Munsch was famous for dropping into schools and reading stories to classes. But those visits have had to stop. The stories remain within him.

"My stories, strangely enough, are all there. The stories will be the last thing to go, I think."

Storytelling roots

Munsch grew up in a household of stories. The fourth of nine children in a Pittsburgh family, Munsch describes himself as a "noisy" kid who didn't do well in school and often got into trouble.

"My father used to tell stories. His own stories," said Munsch

"He didn't know that he was showing me my future career. He wanted me to be a lawyer."

Children's storyteller Robert Munsch, left, and illustrator Michael Martchenko working together in Scholastic Canada's offices. (Submitted by Scholastic Canada)

Munsch studied to be a Jesuit priest, but after spending time in an orphanage, he realized how much he loved working with children. He left the priesthood, met and married his wife Ann Beeler and started working with her in daycare centres.

There are no princes. Change the story.

It was in Coos Bay, Ore., in 1973 that Munsch developed the early versions of The Paper Bag Princess. He'd make up stories and tell them to the kids at nap time.

"The [kids] kept asking for dragon stories, so I had a whole bunch of dragon stories. But they were all about the prince saving the princess," said Munsch.

"Ann came to me once and said, 'Look, here we are in Coos Bay. There's a recession. Half the women in that daycare centre have no husbands. There are no princes. Change the story.'"

In the book, published seven years later, Princess Elizabeth outwits the dragon to save her betrothed Prince Ronald. When Ronald complains about her sooty appearance and paper bag dress, Elizabeth famously responds, "You look like a real prince, but you are a bum." She dances off into the sunset alone and "they don't get married after all."

The Paper Bag Princessillustrated by Munsch's longtime collaborator Michael Martchenko, has sold seven million copies worldwide.

Publisher Rick Wilks called it a "game changer" for children's literature because it showed there was a market for books "that were going to take stand."

An excerpt from The Paper Bag Princess, written by Munsch and illustrated by Martchenko. (Annick Press)

How to think like a kid

Many of Munsch's books were more down-to-earth than the The Paper Bag PrincessThey tell stories of kids with amazing ponytails (Stephanie's Ponytail), kids whose older brothers ruin their favourite stuff (I Can Fix It!) and kids who really, really have to pee (I Have to Go!).

"A kid at school once said [to me], 'Mr. Munsch, You're a kid,'" said Munsch.

"My stories have no adult morals. They're not to improve children. They're just for kids to like."

My stories have no adult morals. They're not to improve children. They're just for kids to like.

Munsch estimates that about a third of his stories are inspired by kids who write to him and the rest come from meeting kids and telling stories in person. He always names his characters after the kids who inspire the stories.

The character Gah-Ning from Where is Gah-Ning?, published in 1994, is based on a kindergartner from Hearst, Ont.

"She sent me a picture … of a girl with a balloon and birds and the girl's hair is flailing around. I decided she wanted to … go to Kapuskasing," said Munsch.

Munsch wrote Gah-Ning back to thank her for the photo and didn't expect to hear back. But their correspondence continued for two years and Munsch decided to make a visit.

"She was a kid living with her sister in the basement of a Chinese restaurant, and she would write to anybody who would answer," said Munsch.

"She and her sister gave me a wild tour of the town, which ended with her grandmother's grave. And I made a book about that."

Munsch continues to correspond with Gah-Ning to this day. She's now in her 30s.

"The last letter she wrote to me was three days ago," said Munsch.

"I can't write anymore. I can send letters if I print the words. So mine are short, hers are long."

WATCH | Robert Munsch gets illustrated: 

Robert Munsch on The Paper Bag Princess and the threads that tie his stories together

2 years ago
Duration 2:14
Robert Munsch opens up about how he writes timeless stories for kids and their parents to enjoy.

The moral of the story

Munsch was rejected nine times when he first started sending his stories to publishers. He was finally picked up by Annick Press, a small children's publishing company in Toronto at the time. His first book Mud Puddle came out in 1979.

The book was based on a very muddy spring in Guelph, Ont., where Munsch was working at a preschool. Like all of his stories, Mud Puddle is meant to be read out loud with as much audience participation as possible.

"That's the way the stories worked. When I told them Mud Puddle, if the kids didn't join in and make noise, something was wrong," said Munsch.

"I've learned that I can't make up a good story by myself. I need that audience of kids."

If there's one thing Munsch hopes his readers take away, it's this very simple message:

"Ordinary people fight a lot and still get along together. Adults and kids fight a lot and still get along together," he said.

"Kids, love your parents and parents, love your kids. It's a complicated world and try to make the best of it."

Robert Munsch is inducted into the Canada Walk of Fame in 2009. (David Lee/Submitted by Scholastic Canada)

Written by Jane van Koeverden. Produced by Lisa Mathews.

Additional credits:

Robert Munsch performs Love You Forever. Words composed by Robert Munsch. Book published by Firefly Books. CD distributed by Naxos Records. © AudioFile, Portland, Maine, 2004.

Robert Munsch performs Mud Puddle on Murmel Murmel Murmel. Words composed by Robert Munsch. Book published by Annick Press. ©Bob Munsch Enterprises Inc., 2006.

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