Brian Doyle (writer)
Brian Doyle (born 12 August 1935) is a Canadian writer whose children's books have been adapted into both movies and plays. Many of his stories are drawn from his experiences growing up in Ottawa and vicinity. For his contribution as a children's writer, he was awarded the prestigious NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature in 2005 and was one of five finalists in 1998 and again in 2008 for the biennial, international Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest recognition available to creators of children's books.
Among Canada's most distinguished authors of middle-grade and young-adult novels, Brian Doyle is acclaimed as an exceptional storyteller as well as a talented writer whose works reflect both insight and sensitivity in depicting the moral dilemmas of young people. Doyle's books take place in both historical and contemporary periods and his sense of humour is considered one of his most appealing features. His writings evoke a strong sense of location, reflecting urban Ottawa and the Ottawa Valley. Angel Square and Easy Avenue are set in Ottawa in the 1940s and 50's; Spud Sweetgrass represents Ottawa in the early 1990s. Uncle Ronald and Covered Bridgedraw on Brian Doyle's childhood memories of the Ottawa Valley.
Writing in Books for Young People, Eva Martin called Doyle "one of the most daring and experimental writers of young-adult novels. He deals with the most sensitive of issues—race, violence, anti-social activity of all sorts—with a tongue-in-cheek humor that never denigrates the human spirit." Writing in Magpies, Agnes Nieuwenhuizen concluded, "Perhaps Doyle's most extraordinary feat is that there is never a sense of design or message or moralising. What shines through his work is a breath of vision and tolerance and a quirky exuberance and curiosity even in the face of adversity and resistance." Many of Doyle's most popular early novels are collected in the 1999 anthology The Low Life.
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Born 1935 in Ottawa, Ontario, Doyle grew up in two "homes": his family's home in the ethnically-diverse section of Ottawa where he spent the school year and a log cabin on the Gatineau River near Low, Quebec, about forty miles north of town, where he spent his summers. Doyle's memories of his parents, siblings, and neighbors as well as the landscape and atmosphere he encountered as a child greatly influenced his writing, as did his experiences raising his own three children.
Doyle grew up in a home with a rich story-telling tradition but his home life was difficult. His father was cruel when he drank and his mother, who cared for Doyle's mentally disabled older sister, Pamela, as well as for the rest of the family, was often overwhelmed. When he was in the eighth grade, Pamela, who had Down's syndrome, died; Doyle's memories of Pamela and the toll her care-taking took on his mother, has led him to include several characters with disabilities in his books.
In high school at Ottawa's Glebe Collegiate Institute, Doyle began submitting short stories to magazines, some of which came back with personal rejection letters. However, writing only occupied a small part of his teen years. Doyle played football, won medals in gymnastics, and published poetry in the yearbook; he also fought, stole, and skipped school. After graduating from Glebe Collegiate, Doyle attended Carleton University in Ottawa, where he majored in journalism and met Jackie Aronson, the woman he would later marry. Just before graduation, he won a prize for an essay he wrote on the Gatineau River Valley; right after graduation, he became a reporter for the Toronto Telegram. He soon left journalism to teach high school in Ottawa; he also completed the course work for a master's degree in literature at University of Ottawa, but left before writing his thesis.
While working as a teacher, Doyle continued his writing, working as a columnist for a local newspaper and publishing a short story in the literary magazine Fiddlehead. After he and his wife adopted two children, Megan and Ryan, and became involved in local theater, his writing took a new turn when he began writing well-received plays for his students. Doyle also became somewhat of a celebrity when one of his articles on the poor quality of teacher training was quoted in the Toronto Globe and Mail. Offered a position at his alma mater, Glebe Collegiate, Doyle became head of that school's English department and continued to write well-received student plays, including ten musicals and a satirical parody of Shakespeare's Hamlet before retiring from teaching in 1991.
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Doyle published his first book for young readers, Hey, Dad!, in 1978. A story for middle graders that he wrote for his daughter Megan, Hey, Dad! uses the journey motif—both literal and symbolic—to represent the growing maturity of its young protagonist.
With Up to Low, Doyle produced his first young-adult novel. Set in Quebec's Gatineau Hills and based on the author's boyhood experiences at his family's cabin, Up to Low takes place during the early 1950s and features teenage narrator Young Tommy, a boy who has recently lost his mother. Tommy travels to the town of Low with his father and his father's alcoholic friend Frank. On the way, the group stops at many taverns, where the men tell Tommy about Mean Hughie, the meanest man in Gatineau, who has vanished into the wilderness to die of cancer. When the companions reach Low, a town filled with comic residents, Tommy is awestruck by the beauty of Mean Hughie's eighteen-year-old daughter Baby Bridget, a girl with striking green eyes whose arm was cut off accidentally by a binding machine. Bridget and Tommy embark on a journey to find Mean Hughie, and the strength of their growing love for each other provides spiritual healing for both teens. Writing in Quill and Quire, Joan McGrath noted that Up to Low "is something special among books for young adults," while Mary Ainslie Smith in Books in Canada praised the book as "Doyle's best novel yet."
In Angel Square, Doyle again features Tommy as narrator, but this time the setting is the multi-cultural Lower Town area of urban Ottawa. On his way home from school, Tommy crosses Angel Square, a place where fights between French Canadian, Irish Catholic, and Jewish kids take place daily. When anti-Semitism results in the critical injury of the father of Tommy's best friend, Sammy Rosenberg, Tommy fights back and finds the culprit by working with a network of his Jewish, Irish, and French-Canadian friends. As Nieuwenhuizen noted, the children "get together to deal with an adult situation." Writing in Quill and Quire, Paul Kropp called Angel Square "a real triumph of young adult writing," while a reviewer for the Children's Book News concluded: "Through Tommy's eyes we see the absurdity of racism and the hope that at least one child will understand our differences. This is Brian Doyle's best and guarantees an enjoyable yet sobering read for all." Explaining to Something About The Author(SATA)- an easy-to-use source for librarians, students and other researchers-that Angel Square is "very close to what my youth was," Doyle added that the novel "was hard to relax with, because it touched on some pain." In this book he includes a portrait of his retarded sister Pamela, who shares her name with the character in the novel. "There's a little bit of her in each book," he admitted.
In Uncle Ronald, Doyle features a character first introduced in Up to Low: "Crazy Mickey," Tommy's hundred-year-old great-grandfather. Now one hundred and twelve, Mickey narrates the events of the winter he was twelve years old. The son of a drunken and abusive father, Mickey is smuggled by his mother onto a train that takes the boy from Ottawa into the Gatineau Hills, where he is to stay with his Uncle Ronald and his middle-aged aunts, the O'Malley girls. Mickey's relatives prove to be warm and welcoming, and he bonds with his uncle's horse, Second-Chance Lance.
Easy Avenue, a novel for young adults, introduces narrator Hubbo O'Driscoll, an impoverished orphan who is left in the care of a very old, very kind distant relative known only as Mrs. Driscoll. Hubbo becomes involved with Fleurette Featherstone Fitchell, a fellow resident of the Uplands Emergency Shelter and the daughter of a Lowertown prostitute. When he enters Glebe Collegiate Institute—the high school Doyle attended and where he later taught—Hubbo becomes caught between the people from the shelter and the elite Glebe students. When he gets a job as the companion to a wealthy elderly woman and begins to receive money from a mysterious benefactor, Hubbo fabricates an identity that is acceptable to the snobbish members of an exclusive club he wishes to join, but eventually recognizes where his true loyalties are. Easy Avenue was praised as "a delightful mix of comedy, irony, and sentiment" by a Maclean's contributor, while in Canadian Children's Literature, Lionel Adey dubbed the novel a "sometimes grim, sometimes amusing, but never unwholesome tale."
Set in 1950 and inspired by the author's memories of his first real job, Covered Bridge is the second of Doyle's stories about Hubbo. Having moved to a farm in the small Quebec community of Mushrat Creek, Hubbo becomes the part-time caretaker of a wooden covered bridge that has become a memorial to the tragic romance of two lovers, Ophelia and Oscar. Ophelia, who suffered from a brain tumor, jumped from the bridge to her death; her suicide caused the local priest to ban her from being buried in consecrated ground. When the bridge is slated for demolition in the name of progress, Hubbo works to preserve it, and in the process helps to correct the moral injustice done Ophelia, whose ghost he has seen. Nieuwenhuizen called Covered Bridge a "hauntingly beautiful tribute to conserving and respecting old things."
Doyle's two books about John "Spud" Sweetgrass, a half-Irish, half-Ojibway teen who is nicknamed for his ability to cook the perfect French fry, are considered somewhat of a departure from his earlier works. Comic mysteries for young adults written in a staccato style, Spud Sweetgrass and Spud in Winter involve a young protagonist who is trying to come to terms with his father's death, with his boss's shady business dealings, and with a gang-style slaying he has witnessed.
In the first book, Spud and his friends Connie Pan and Dink the Thinker attempt to discover who is dumping grease from Spud's french-fry stand into the Ottawa River.
Doyle once explained that "There is a perception that young people are worried about menstruation, divorce, masturbation, hitchhiking—subjects that just carloads of kids' books are written about. These are not the concerns of young people at all as far as I'm concerned. They are the concerns of adults who have young people. Kids' concerns are classical concerns: Am I brave? Am I a hero? Am I honest? Do I love this person? Am I afraid? Am I admired? Am I weak? Am I strong? These are their concerns, and that's what I write about."
Awards and honors
- NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature, 2005, for body of work
- Book of the Year Award, Canadian Library Association (CLA), 1983, Up to Low, and 1989, Easy Avenue
- Mr. Christie's Book Award, Canadian Children's Book Centre/Communications Jeunesse, 1990, Covered Bridge
- Vicky Metcalf Award, Canadian Authors Association, 1991, body of work
- CLA Book of the Year Award, 1997, Uncle Ronald
- Mr. Christie's Book Award, 1997, Uncle Ronald
- Hans Christian Andersen Award, finalist 1998, body of work
- National Chapter Award, 2001, Mary Ann Alice
- Leishman Prize, 2001, Mary Ann Alice
- Mr. Christie's Book Award, silver seal 2001, Mary Ann Alice
- Hans Christian Andersen Award, finalist 2008, body of work
You Can Pick Me up at Peggy's Cove was made into a film directed by Don McBrearty and into a video released by Beacon Films, Inc., in 1982. Several of his books have been adapted into sound recordings, including Peggy's Cove, Angel Square and Easy Avenue. Meet the Author: Brian Doyle was released as a short film in 1987. Angel Square was made into a film directed by Ann Wheeler and released by the National Film Board of Canada in 1990.
Several of his novels were adapted for the stage by students at Glebe Collegiate and Featherston PS: Pure Spring, Boy O'Boy and Easy Avenue at Glebe and Up to Low at Featherson.
- Hey, Dad! (Groundwood, 1978)
- You Can Pick Me Up at Peggy's Cove (Groundwood, 1978)
- Up to Low (Groundwood, 1982)
- Angel Square (Groundwood, 1984)
- Easy Avenue (Groundwood, 1988)
- Covered Bridge (Groundwood, 1990)
- Spud Sweetgrass (Groundwood, 1992)
- Spud in Winter (Groundwood, 1995)
- Uncle Ronald (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1996) – "A Groundwood book." OCLC 166262634
- The Low Life: Five Great Tales from Up and Down the River (Groundwood, 1999)
- Mary Ann Alice (Groundwood, 2001)
- Boy O'Boy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2003)
- Pure Spring (Groundwood Books, 2007), OCLC 74028920
- "2005 NSK Neustadt Laureate Brian Doyle". Archived July 20, 2015 at the Wayback Machine
- "IBBY Announces Winners of 2008 Hans Christian Andersen Awards". International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). Press release 31 March 2008.
"Hans Christian Andersen Awards". IBBY. Retrieved 2013-07-22.
- "Candidates for the Hans Christian Andersen Awards 1956–2002". The Hans Christian Andersen Awards, 1956–2002. IBBY. Gyldendal. 2002. Pages 110–18. Hosted by Austrian Literature Online (literature.at). Retrieved 2013-07-19.[dead link]
- "Showtime for Children's Literature" (oufoundation.org). Archived August 23, 2014 at the Wayback Machine
- "Brian Doyle (1935) Biography". Brief Biographies. JRank.org. Retrieved 22 March 2010.
- Brian Doyle in The Canadian Encyclopedia[dead link]
- Biography at publisher Groundwood Books[dead link]
- Brian Doyle at Library of Congress Authorities, with 12 catalogue records