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Body Politicker turned kids’ author gets nod from GG

Hugh Brewster on activism and children's history

“It was an extraordinary, heady time,” reminisces Hugh Brewster, “although I played only a modest part.”

Brewster is a Toronto-based children’s author, recently nominated for a Governor Generals Award for Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. But as he treads down memory lane he is recalling the earlier days in his career when children’s literature was far from his mind, and his energy invested instead in activism.

Brewster was one of the founding writers for The Body Politic, a publication that fought to bring gay and lesbian rights into Canadian consciousness and the law system. The Body Politic (BP) — the predecessor to Xtra, Capital Xtra and Xtra West — was launched in 1971. It was a collective based in Toronto with a membership of writers and artists — all activists for acceptance and social change for gay rights.

Brewster, who came out when he was studying English at Guelph University, maintained his interest in activism when he moved to Toronto.

“I had been involved with the founding of the UGHA, the first gay group at the University of Guelph in 1970. On coming to Toronto after graduation in the fall of 1971, I met Jearld Moldenhauer at a UTHA (University of Toronto Homophile Association) meeting where he was brandishing the first issue of The Body Politic. Jearld was a fearless activist and the catalyst for The Body Politic and much of the gay movement in Toronto. I joined the collective of The Body Politic for the second issue and wrote stories for the next year and a half.”

Brewster’s memories of his time with the collective are colourful ones. He wrote about the ‘gay ghetto,’ ‘gay culture’ and the ‘new homosexual.’ Referring to some old photographs, he is genuinely amused at the shot of himself wielding a baseball bat.

“I was recently given this shot by a volunteer at the [Canadian Lesbian and] Gay Archives who asked me to identify some of the people in the photographs. I was at first stymied as it seemed an unlikely pose — I was never good at sports. Then I remembered the first gay picnic on Toronto Island in 1972 when The Body Politic collective was challenged to a baseball game by a group of lesbians — who found our ineptness hilarious!”

Like many, Brewster contributed to BP for only a short while before moving on to other ventures. But his voice was one in a chorus advocating for equal rights and acceptance, and thus part of a vital and exciting sexual revolution.

Brewster is now the author of nine children’s history books; Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose was his eighth, published in September.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is the story behind the well-known John Singer Sargent painting, that depicts two girls standing amidst flowers as they light lanterns in the twilight. Brewster’s story is narrated by Kate Millet, a young girl who is painfully disappointed when she is not included in the painting. Based on numerous letters and recollections from the period, the story describes the many difficulties experienced by John Singer Sargent through the long artistic process, Kate’s reconciliation with him and how she is immortalized on canvas after all.

The gentle blend of history and art in a children’s story is enchanting. But the inevitable question is: how does an activist such as Brewster transition from being a sexual pioneer to writing children’s books, and such a sweetly domestic one at that?

That, says Brewster, is more by circumstance than design. Brewster left The Body Politic to work in publishing. He was hired by Scholastic and then later by Madison Press Books. There he supervised the creation of children’s history books first from New York and later back home in Toronto. But it was a serendipitous near-disaster that led Brewster to writing again.

During the creating of Anastasia’s Album, a story of the Tsar’s youngest daughter, Brewster’s writer was unable to do the text, so he wrote the story himself out of sheer necessity. That was his first book, published in 1996. It won both the Silver Birch and Red Cedar Awards and Brewster has hardly looked back since.

Writing history for children may be a far cry from the early writings in The Body Politic, but for Brewster its no less meaningful. The Governor General’s nomination for Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is particularly touching.

“It was an unexpected thrill. It’s an award everybody has heard of and thus has a lot of prestige. So it has encouraged me to think of myself as a writer rather than a publisher who happens to also write.”