New youth book book blends fact, fiction and friendship

Kit Pearson's A Day of Signs and Wonders explores one day in the childhood of Emily Carr and Kitty O'Reilly

Author Kit Pearson and Piper

Imagine one day in childhood so significant, it could shape the course of a person’s future.

Oak Bay author Kit Pearson imagined just such a day in her latest title, A Day of Signs and Wonders, published by Harper Collins earlier this year.

“I’ve always been interested in Emily Carr, in her art and in her writing,” Pearson says.

In the story, set in 1881, nine-year-old Emily Carr is having a miserable time staying with strict Mrs. Crane while her mother is ill. Next door, Kitty O’Reilly, 13, is grieving the tragic loss of her sister.

The two girls meet by chance and Kitty, who has been left at home with the servants, invites Emily to spend the day with her.

“Neither one knows that this special day, which ends with a comet, will change their lives forever,” writes Oak Bay’s Pearson, recently returned from a session with a Grade 3/4 class who had been studying Carr.

“They love the idea of how rebellious she is,” Pearson says.

“She was so progressive and she was such a spirited woman.”

A Day of Signs and Wonders was inspired by the autobiographical story Mrs. Crane, written by the famous Victoria-born artist. Emily Carr and her sister Alice are sent to stay in a home which in real life was right next door to Point Ellice House, once owned by the O’Reilly family.

“When I realized this, I wondered if Emily and Kathleen (Kitty) met each other during Emily’s stay,” Pearson says.

“Whether or not they did, it was fun to create the friendship between these two very different girls.”

While Carr wrote extensively about her childhood, O’Reilly’s diaries and letters are more reserved, but are collected at the B.C. Archives.

Carr claimed the Mrs. Crane story was fiction, reportedly due to the less-than-favourable portrayal of the real-life Mrs. Drake.

“I feel free to borrow from her; she says it’s fiction, but it’s not really fiction.” Pearson says.

While based in fact, and built upon considerable research, Pearson’s story is fiction.

She plays with the idea that in meeting each other, the girls share one day that is truly special. “I decided this would be the day (Emily) would start painting,” she says.

By age nine Carr had been drawing already, and in the story, Kitty introduces her to painting. While in reality, “I have no idea what her first painting was like,” Pearson says, for the purposes of the story, Kitty tries to encourage a controlled and measured approach, but Emily has her own ideas.

The book is a departure in several ways for the Oak Bay author.

It’s the first time Pearson has based a story on real people and for the first time, she uses two points of view, alternating chapters between the two girls to tell the story.

“I wanted them to have equal time,” she says of the larger-than-life Carr and the lesser-known O’Reilly. “Kitty is just as interesting and in fact has more issues in the book because of her grief.”

Did you know?

• Kit Pearson has been writing books for children and youth for 30 years. Among her many titles are The Guests of War, The Daring Game, The Sky is Falling, Whispers of War, The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth.

• You can learn more about both main characters in A Day of Signs and Wonders by visiting their childhood homes in Victoria – Emily Carr House and Point Ellice House.