‘My music is words’

Summer Feet

In her new book, Sheree Fitch shares the delight of a child rediscovering the joys of summer. As the province emerges from its pandemic lockdown, Summer Feet (Nimbus Publishing) is also uncannily resonant for Nova Scotians. “The book is very joyful,” Fitch says. “I couldn’t believe it when it came and I looked at the first page after all that went on this spring. I didn’t have any of this in mind—how could I? The story feels so liberating now.”

A multiple-award-winning children’s author, Fitch is best known for the buoyant cheer of her stories, but like most Nova Scotians, she’s found this year tough. “I feel like I’m doing the very best I can under the circumstances,” she says. “I was OK with the pandemic, worried but OK personally. But then I had to make the sad decision not to open my little bookshop for the summer and that was OK. But I was very affected by Portapique … It’s a lot of stuff.”

The story behind Summer Feet is also bittersweet, beginning three summers ago at Mabel Murple’s, the seasonal bookstore Fitch owns in River John, N.S. “We were just beginning our first summer,” she recalls. “We were painting and covered with paint ourselves. This man and his daughter just wanted to walk around and look over this purple house.”

Fitch explained that the store didn’t open for two weeks, but they weren’t going to be in the area then, so she let them look around. She cautioned the five-year-old to put on shoes. “She looked at me and her dad and he at her and back at me,” Fitch recalls. “I could see this silent invisible message. Very nicely he said ‘yesterday we put on our summer feet. It will be fine.’”

Sheree Fitch. Photo: Keith Minchin

The notion of “summer feet” stuck with Fitch. “I got infected with the joy of the idea,” she explains. “And I don’t know who they were. I’m hoping somehow they appear here again someday.”

She tucked the idea away and her son, Dustin, died unexpectedly in 2018. “I wrote a book in the depths of that grief called You Won’t Always Be This Sad,” she says. “And I thought, ‘I’m so sad, I don’t know if I can do these joyful stories again … I have to try to see if I can find that well of joy.’ I returned to that Summer Feet idea and I had a few notes. And I stared at the empty page for a week. One day I just went off and running and the story poured out. It came at a time for me when I needed to feel joy again.”

Summer Feet’s illustrations by Carolyn Fisher complement the story’s gleeful radiance. “This was very much Whitney Moran, the editor at Nimbus,” Fitch says. “She’s very thoughtful and has vision, knows how to find those artists, and that collaboration between the art and the words.”

She recalls how Fisher, living in Alberta, sent her a photo of her winter boots as she worked. “I wrote it to get out of a well of sadness, she did it in the middle of winter,” Fitch says. “That’s kind of funny.”

The Nova Scotia shootings in April also offer a poignant counterpoint to summer’s joy. To process the tragedy, Fitch wrote “Because we Love, we Cry,” eloquently encapsulating the mood of a reeling province. “That poem came through me, not from me,” Fitch says. “I feel like it came from my grandmother’s heart and my mother’s heart. All I was thinking was what are we going to tell the children? It’s one thing for us, but another thing for children.”

Writing the poem was a spiritual experience for Fitch. “I don’t think it’s a poem, I think it’s a prayer,” she says. “I’m not particularly Anglican any more but I still have a lot of faith and I think of joy as a way to praise. If you look at the hymn books, there’s praises, thanksgiving, laments. Such beautiful poetry in the Bible. I think a lot of poets would tell you there’s prayer in poetry.”

In sorrow and delight, Fitch has a unique ability to emotionally connect with readers. “The one thing you can’t do is dumb things down for kids,” she says. “With juicy exuberant language, kids will know what you mean from the context even if they don’t know the word… It’s the word music, how it sounds to the ear. Most of the time kids are being read books. My music is words.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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