The Theology of Robert Munsch
Reverend Brian J. Kiely, Unitarian Church of
Edmonton, May 9, 2004
Robert Munsch never intended for any of this to happen. He never
wanted or expected to become a storyteller. And while he always loved
to write, he never planned to become an author, much less Canada’s
best selling author with over 30 million copies sold worldwide.
In fact, an appreciation of Robert Munsch is a study of unanticipated
success. His life also reminds us of how our UU Principles sometimes
call us to pay respectful attention to those who fall outside of
society’s standards and norms. Munsch’s success is a
testament to our affirmation of the worth and dignity of every person.
This is a far cry from society’s focused celebration on the
best and brightest, people driven to exceptional effort by their
will to succeed. And his story is a cautionary tale for those who
would marginalize and ostracize some children simply because they
don’t fit into societal norms.
To hear him tell his life story is to learn about someone who was
never expected to make much of a mark on the world.
Musch was born into a middle class lawyer’s family in Pittsburgh
in 1945. He was the fourth of nine children. He writes, “I
was in the middle; a very bad position as it meant I was attacked
by both the younger coalition and the older coalition. I did badly
in elementary school – daydreamed all the time, never learned
how to spell, graduated from eighth grade counting on my fingers
to do simple addition.” Elsewhere he concludes, “I wasn’t
just unhappy. I was globally unhappy. I remember when I was about
10 standing in front of the mirror and telling myself, ‘I want
to remember I’m not happy. Grown-ups all want to tell me I’m
happy because I’m a kid. But I want to remember I’M NOT
He would learn much later that he was what was then called manic-depressive. “I’d
be manic for one day a year…It started very early; I just didn’t
have the ability to enjoy things.”
Meanwhile his siblings were following the more acceptable paths
of achievement. Two older sibs were national merit scholars. His
younger brother Tommy was “doing quadratic equations at three.” But
Munsch was “dumb Bobby” around his house, often being
promoted to the next grade simply because the school didn’t
want him to be in the same class as his younger and ‘smarter’ brother.
By his teens he says he was, “pathologically isolated…Not
one friend. I didn’t date, didn’t go out. I stayed at
home and listened to classical music and read science fiction.”
Were he a teen today, security services would probably be keeping
an eye on him wondering if he was a candidate for domestic terrorism.
But through it all, Munsch wrote poetry. “Funny poems, silly
poems, all sorts of poems. Nobody thought that was important.”
He now thinks that at 18 he should have dropped out and done the
hippie thing, “But instead I did the good Catholic thing. The
Catholic way to run away is to become a priest.”
He joined the Jesuits studying with them for seven years in Boston.
In researching this sermon called “The Theology of Munsch”,
I googled words like, ‘philosophy’. Well, Robert doesn’t
like to analyze his stories much, but I did get a hit on the word ‘philosophy’ – several
in fact, all pointing to the same quote noted on websites around
the world: “While I was studying with the Jesuits, I worked
part-time at an orphanage to escape from deadly classes in philosophy.” (I
Jesuit training did help Munsch. “They like their members
to be functional.” So he learned to play squash, give speeches
and submit to group therapy that he found hard, but beneficial. In
short they taught Robert to become a more social creature.
Munsch left the Jesuits in 1970 having discovered that he no longer
could believe all the things he was expected to espouse. What next? “I
knew I liked working with kids…I decided to work in daycare
until I figured out what I wanted to do. What I figured out was that
I wanted to work in daycare.” He worked in a center in a Boston
While changing a soiled diaper he met Ann, the woman who would become
his wife. Reporter Jean Sonmor sums up the meeting this way, “Both
were committed to saving the world. Both had dropped out of the middle
class and both loved children.”
It was while at daycare that Munsch began telling stories – making
them up on the spot. “I discovered that I could get the kids
to shut up during naptime by telling them stories. For 10 years I
did this without thinking I had any special skill. After all, while
I made the best stories in the daycare center, most of the other
teachers made better Play-Doh… I had no sense of self-worth
about what I was doing.”
The daycare eventually lost its funding. Bob and Ann traveled looking
for work. They ended up at the University of Guelph working in a
lab preschool. Now, professors began to hear Munsch tell his now
considerable list of tales. The wife of Munsch’s boss happened
to be a Children’s Librarian. Together the Boss and his Wife
urged Munsch to publish. He listened. The Boss gave him two months
Robert enjoyed 59 days of holidays and then on the last day wrote
down 10 of his tales. He sent them off to 10 publishers. Only tiny
Annick Press in Vancouver responded saying ‘yes’ to Mud
Puddle published in 1979. Fame came slowly to Munsch through appearances
at children’s festivals and annual publications of new books.
Then came Love You Forever in 1986. Overnight it became Canada’s
best selling children’s book and held the title through 1987
and 88. Although the publisher Firefly (Annick had turned that one
title down thinking it would not sell) had no sales force in the
U.S. the word somehow spread. In 1996 the NY Times updated a long
overdue list of the best selling children’s books in America.
Much to their embarrassment they learned it was Love You Forever,
a title they had never heard of from a publisher that had no U.S.
distributor. It had sold 8 million copies. Interestingly the book
was never intended for publication – but I’ll come back
to that in a moment.
All of Munsch’s stories appear in his performances first.
He tells them into being. “Practice makes perfect” he
says, often working a story for ten years or more before publishing
it. “I play off audience reaction… Audiences of little
kids are very transparent. They’re not dumb and they won’t
sit there and be bored like an adult audience will.” Perhaps
when he sees little kids growing bored he remembers his own childhood.
He knows that little people can learn from stories, but only when
the stories are interesting enough, so he works to make them entertaining
using verbal pratfalls, big noises, repetitive words that are easily
learned and, of course, words like ‘underwear’.
What comes through here is not only Munsch’s love for children,
but his respect for them and their intelligence. The very act of
speaking his stories into being demonstrates an intuitive understanding
of interdependence. He can give the children entertainment and perhaps
the occasional easy lesson in living, but he needs them in return
as co-creators and editors of his stories. Munsch happily claims, “I
never learned to write.” He gives full credit to the children
he meets for their creativity and their critiques.
Often a particular child comes to him with the beginnings of a story.
When Munsch uses one of these ideas, he always uses the child’s
name for the starring character.
These days Munsch still loves to perform for children and can afford
to do it for free more often than not. He likes to call up Children’s
Librarians when he travels and ask if he can come tell stories.
As some will no doubt know, Robert Munsch has attended the Unitarian
Fellowship of Guelph “until the routine petered out when the
kids got restless”. Like many Unitarians today, he began elsewhere,
as a Catholic in his case. But he found himself questioning the teachings
of that church and, in time, its structure as well.
He rejected a faith that, for all of its many good points, is founded
partly on the sinfulness of human beings. Having been told for most
of his life that he was “dumb Bobby” he set out to find
a niche where he could be affirmed for who he was. He found it in
childcare and the love of children.
Bob and Ann tried to have a family of their own, but had two tragic
stillbirths. “The doctor took me aside and said, ‘There’s
a very good chance your wife is going to die if you keep trying to
have babies. Why don’t you do something else?…I was having
books come out when I was having babies die. I would have liked to
switch, if God wouldn’t mind moving the cards.”
In time Bob and Ann would adopt three children, but first there
was the grief to pass through. They sought therapy together. The
therapist suggested they try writing thorough the painful experience,
imagining a whole lifetime of parenting. The result was Love You
Forever. “It’s my monument to my kids,” he says, “People
like it because it integrates death into life.”
Though it has been criticized by some Freudian psychoanalysts and
a few feminists, the book struck an instant chord with parents. It
still sells over 1 million copies per year. I know why, too. When
Lily was born she was given three copies…to add to the two
I already owned.
Because it comes from the core of his own experience, Love You Forever
says a fair amount about Munsch. Yes, it’s sentimental, sappy
even. I have trouble telling it without crying, but what’s
wrong with genuine sentiment? It is a story that speaks of undying
love, of complete affirmation of one human by another no matter what
has gone on between them. It is a book about unconditional acceptance
given from parent to child. And then in the end, it shows that the
child has learned that lesson and is passing it on to the next generation… and
then back to his own mother.
It’s the kind of lesson that truly learned can save the world.
And in the end, we have to save ourselves in Munsch’s view.
In interview with Tom Harpur he noted that he had come a long way
from Catholic theology, “My brief answer is that I am an atheist.” He
stopped believing in God after his children died. He then adds with
a dart of anger, “I’m not saying there isn’t a
God, but there isn’t a God who cares about people. And who
wants a God who doesn’t give a shit?“
For Munsch, the way is through appreciative human interaction. He
looks for an open interchange of respectful affirmation from whomever
he meets, no matter what their age or background. He believes intensely
in the power of love and humour combined. These were the things that
broke down the isolation of his childhood and brought him into full
relation with the world. If it worked for him, chances are they will
work for others as well.
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