A To Z: A Prairie Legacy: Celebrating 25 Years of A Prairie Alphabet
Twenty-five years ago, 26 pages changed the lives of two Saskatchewan women beyond their wildest dreams —and set a new precedent for Canadian children’s literature.
In 1975, Joanne Bannatyne met and married Ken Cugnet — a farmer from Weyburn, Saskatchewan. A city girl juxtaposed into a rural life, Joanne was unaccustomed to these new surroundings. Seeking out the answers would lead her down a road she could have never mapped out.
Although Joanne was living on the farm, her four sons entered her world ripe with questions about it all. Joanne sought high and low for information from libraries, rural publications and local farm producers. Finding few resources beyond Old McDonald Had a Farm and nostalgically outdated stories from pioneer past, Joanne decided she would have to take matters into her own hands. Frustrated with the lack of information and the inadequacy of education about agriculture practice and policy, Joanne thought, “If it was going to be, it was up to me.”
And so was born the idea to create a children’s book about life on the Prairies. Not only was the purpose to educate herself, but to share special stories about prairie life; little did she know they would reach around the world.
The book did not come without its challenges. Joanne remembers: “The original manuscript was created in 1982. It took 10 years to find the right publisher. I was turned down by every publisher in Canada and in their rejection letters, some mentioned there was no market for a book about the Prairies — for children.” The rejection only fueled her determination.
It was Tundra Books — a well-known publisher of fine children’s books — that finally saw the potential. “My prayers were answered,” reminisces Joanne. With a publisher in place came the task of bringing to life the story Joanne had written. The search for an illustrator began with one important stipulation — the artist had to be from the Prairies. Having seen Yvette Moore’s work on display at a gallery in Weyburn, Joanne and the publishers were attracted to involving Yvette in the project.
Yvette came on board without hesitation when Joanne approached her. Having grown up on a farm, Yvette knew firsthand what daily life on the Prairies was all about. “Right when Joanne shared her vision, I saw exactly in my mind what she was trying to say,” Yvette recollects. May Cutler, publisher with Tundra Books, agreed: “We are going with Moore.” Neither Joanne nor Yvette could have imagined what this collaborative relationship would hold in store.
With no experience in how to get a book published, both mothers of four children were in for their share of surprises, challenges and triumphs. But Joanne and Yvette remained steadfast in their goal and vision of the book and did not waiver in their objective. With the writing of 26 alliterative sentences complete — all alphabetically appropriate — came the daunting task of 26 original paintings to set the scene for the words.
Every detail had to be exact. As Joanne puts it, “A purple tractor would not do — it had to be John Deere green.” Yvette is no stranger to meticulous detail with her work, and together, the two perfectly illustrated their vision to tell the stories of what life is really like on the Prairies.
With six paintings complete, slides of Yvette’s work were sent to the editor and publisher, who expressed concern about “not enough life in the paintings.” Crushed, Yvette did not know what to do. Joanne’s advice was simple: “Keep painting and do not send them anymore pictures until you are done!” And that is exactly what they did.
Following the completion of all 26 paintings, the publishers were delighted. “It took the full set of images to portray the concept of the book, which is a celebration of prairie life — the life we live and love,” remarks Joanne. At last, A Prairie Alphabet was ready, and in August 1992, it went to press. That moment was the culmination of a long journey. Joanne looks back: “It took me 10 years to hold that book in my hand. I guess you could say I’m a lesson in persistence.”
At that time, the publisher was set to print 3,500 copies — a decent output for a first-time author and artist. Yet, that would not suffice for the duo. To be considered a bestseller in Canada, 5,000 books need to be sold. Joanne and Yvette had their sights set even higher — personally putting their money where their mouths were and ordering 2,000 copies to promote and sell themselves.
What followed was an arduous series of book launches, promotional showcases, radio and television exposure, newspaper articles and public appearances to get the word out about this new book about life on the Prairies. The book was noticed far and wide. By September 1992, Tundra Books had run out of copies. In November, they printed 10,000 more and ran out of those. December saw 20,000 more copies printed with the book selling out by Christmas. As Tundra Books evolved within larger publishing houses, Joanne and Yvette lost track of the number, but the last official count was more than 500,000 books sold.
The success was unprecedented for a children’s book. A Prairie Alphabet accumulated awards and accolades throughout the years, including the prestigious Mr. Christie’s Book Award for Best Illustration. The coveted text by Joanne and the award-winning illustrations by Yvette have captivated audiences who grew up on the Prairies, as well as those who have experienced them for the very first time through the book.
It has been an amazing journey for this writer-artist duo from Saskatchewan — and the accolades, awards, accomplishments and designations are too numerous to mention. The pinnacle of recognition for their contributions to the community came when they each received the great honour and distinction of the Saskatchewan Order of Merit.
Twenty-five years later, Joanne and Yvette maintain a treasured and undying friendship — and the journey to create a truly Canadian classic has been one that neither one would change. In the end, both women agree the book has been a real gift in their lives: “We are grateful.”
Copies of the book are available at the Yvette Moore Art Gallery in Moose Jaw.
By Sarah Moore Saskatchewan Order of Merit photos courtesy of The Government of Saskatchewan