“Anyone who knows me knows I’m a guerrilla conversationalist,” Linnie von Sky laughs, settling in with her latte at Yaletown’s Small Victory. “I just strike up conversations with anybody.” With big, curious eyes and an insatiably friendly attitude, von Sky sure does make for sparkling conversation. “I always seem to know a lot of people,” she says. It’s true—ask around her neighbourhood of Chinatown and seemingly everyone knows von Sky, not only for her charms but also for her successful children’s books, Our Canadian Love Story: An Immigration Tale; Pom Pom: A Flightless Bully Tale; and Sadly the Owl: An Untold Tale.
“I’ve always loved stories and always responded to children’s books,” the Berlin native says without a trace of an accent. Not trained as an author, von Sky came into writing later in life when, struck by tragedy, she found an outlet in words. “My best friend was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 and I started journaling for the first time in my life,” von Sky recalls. “I’d make up all these random little stories and read them to her bedside in the hospital. She always said, ‘You’re going to be a famous children’s book author,’ and that was so far from anything I intended. Then fast-forward four years, she had passed away and I was being treated for depression. My parents pulled me out of Berlin and into the belly of Edmonton.”
Von Sky’s father and mother had relocated to Edmonton from Berlin for work, and von Sky and her then-boyfriend (now husband) were faced with the cold culture shock upon making the move themselves. For comfort, von Sky looked to some scribbles she had doodled on an air sickness bag during her flight to Canada. They were to be the beginnings of her first book, Our Canadian Love Story.
It tells the tale of two rabbits; one from Mexico, one from France, but both cosmically, inexplicably drawn to the frigid lands of Canada. So they each board an Air Canada flight and end up meeting in the arrival terminal, and it is love at first sight. The story isn’t really too far off from the reality von Sky faced when she touched down in Canada. “We didn’t know anyone, we had never even been here before,” she says. “After eight months I wanted to go back to Europe, and [my boyfriend] had just learned English, so he wanted to stay. So, we drove across the Rockies and got married there three days later.” Love, passion, impulse, the outdoors: a great Canadian love story if there was ever one.
After settling in Vancouver, von Sky decided her little yarn needed to be properly illustrated, printed, and bound. But the printing price of $10,000 was a bit more than a pair of lovesick immigrant newlyweds could afford. “It seemed like an incredible amount of money,” von Sky says. So she turned to that great internet tool of crowdfunding, and managed to raise upwards of the required $10,000. But still more was needed. “It turns out it wasn’t nearly enough to print something in Canada,” she laughs. “No, you don’t make a hardcover, scratch-proof, beautiful, ethically sourced book [for $10,000]. So we threw in the only other cash that we had.”
Working with the illustrator Rebecca Wright, who was just 19 at the time, von Sky struck a mutually beneficial payment plan for herself and the artist. “She wanted to make money for tuition to go to Langara and later Emily Carr, so I was like, ‘Well, I have $6,000 saved up: that’s kind of tuition, right? Why don’t I pay to send you to go to school and we’ll work on the illustrations, and I’ll give you royalties if it ever comes to it,’” she explains. “So the idea is that, one day, she’ll be able to go to Urban Fare and a slice of toast is on us.”
Von Sky’s next book was about another subject close to her heart. Her father, a leading researcher on obesity, inspired her to start working for the Canadian Obesity Network when she first moved to Canada. There, von Sky met people and heard stories that moved her. “Bullying was always my biggest issue. And it happens—it happens all the time,” she says. In Pom Pom, a penguin who is bigger than most rips his shorts and becomes the subject of teasing and taunting. That is, until he meets a group of truly supportive friends. It’s a sweet, touching tale about the virtues of being gentle and kind.
That’s the crux of all of von Sky’s stories: lessons that resonate with not just the under-10 crowd, but adults as well. “My books are for anyone from [age] one—that’s how old my daughter is—to 99,” she says. The statement is perhaps most true with her latest book, Sadly the Owl. The book, illustrated by local artist Ashley O’Mara, tackles issues surrounding depression. “Children’s books are a vulnerable, beautiful thing that touches people in a much more immature way than you could ever imagine,” von Sky reflects.
In Sadly the Owl, a little cloud appears over Sadly’s head, causing him to feel blue and down for no apparent reason. When the cloud rains, his mom drops a little love note in his knapsack. Then it rains a little bit less. A hug, even less. Playing with friends, just a drizzle. Soon, that cloud goes away (although, importantly, maybe not forever). What makes things better? Getting out in the world. Listening to people. Knowing your neighbours. Finding friends wherever you are. And those are things that Linnie von Sky the Author does every day.
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