Open Book News

At the Desk: Jan Thornhill

Jan Thornhill

For each book that sits on our shelves or rests in our hands, a writer has spent countless hours researching, organizing, writing and rewriting. In today's At The Desk feature, children's author and illustrator Jan Thornhill tells us about the workspaces that get her creative juices flowing — and they wouldn't be complete without the skunk skull, the grouse wings, the shelf fungi and the selection of winter squash.

Surrounded by these curiosities near the town of Havelock, Ontario, Jan had ample inspiration for her new illustrated children's book, The Wildlife 123 (Owlkids Books). This delightful counting book follows on the heels of The Wildlife ABC, which was a finalist for a Governor General's Literary Award.

You can ask Jan about her quirky workshops if you're in Toronto this month: She'll be visiting the Toronto Public Library (Downsview Branch) on Saturday, November 3 and the Toronto Public Library (Parkdale Branch) on Saturday, November 10. Visit the Open Book: Toronto Events pages for details.


At the Desk, by Jan Thornhill

Other people are apparently capable of being creative while doing things like driving or walking in the woods. I don?t know how they do it. For me, driving is either too fraught with danger or filled with my own singing to lend itself to actual thought, and walking in the woods is, well, too filled with the woods. Me, I need to be in front of a computer to work.

I have two computers, and two workspaces. The first space, in what was once a dining room, is home to an eight-year-old Mac. This is my only connection to the internet and, hence, to the outside world. It?s where I do research, emailing, fungi cataloguing, social media, visuals and notes. My second space has an actual door, hence privacy. This is where I write sentences, and where I can read those sentences aloud without feeling like an idiot. In both spaces, I am a mess magnet, which is okay since I work best in squalor, surrounded by important stuff.

Workspace #1:

  • desk — a drawing table that I was never comfortable drawing at, covered with a hand-woven Guatemalan shawl
  • office chair — rescued from someone?s garbage the very same day my husband, unbeknownst to me, snapped the back of my old chair
  • extra cushion on chair — because, as a writer and illustrator, I?ve spent so much time sitting that I now require double cushiness
  • on wall — one of my mother?s diptychs, painted when she was 87
  • in candy dish on monitor — a flocked beaver and a photo of me and my husband, Fred, perched on the rim of an active volcano
  • to right, on top of computer — scrap paper and desiccated grouse wings
  • right-side table — a tangle of various cables, disks, papers, external drive, files and mushroom books
  • beneath monitor — digital camera; teacup holding business cards so I can readily find phone numbers I ought to know by heart; pens and pencils; a reminder to buy Cold FX in anticipation of school visits
  • left of monitor — These Burning Streets, a chapbook by the brilliant young poet Kelly Rose Pflug-Back; dried shelf fungi; bagged, dehydrated mushrooms awaiting cataloguing; piles of to-dos, to-files, to-contacts, to-look-ups; map of Barcelona?s Metro (because I?m going there with my mum!); a box of kleenex, because kleenex dust makes my nose run; a mug of coffee that follows me everywhere

Workspace #2 (which only looks this tidy once every two years):

  • window — to stare out of, blankly, whenever the right word isn?t instantly coming to mind
  • on windowsill — a bottle of cologne that had always been in my dad?s medicine cabinet; found feathers in a marmalade jar; a Valentine?s Day heart Fred carved for me
  • behind laptop — a skunk skull that still smells of skunk; a moth cocoon that needs to go outside for the winter; and a chick that cheeps when its belly is poked
  • to right — an elaborate macro-photography set up, covered to keep out dust; heritage tomato seeds drying in coffee filters
  • to left — a jar of beetles pickled in alcohol; a pickle jar of dried chaga (Inonotus obliquus) to be brewed into tea; flaming-eyeball decals for my car; books and magazines; filing to be done; kleenex (see Workspace #1); and a napkin coaster for my coffee mug
  • on wall — a friend?s painting called, ?Man Handling Chicken;? a screen print of a St. Francis of Assisi screen door I made in art school; knickknacks; and more homemade Valentine hearts
  • to left on floor — stock pots and canning pots; chaga still attached to birch bark; and a selection of winter squashes (below this room is the root cellar, so the floor is cold enough for squash storage ? I wear lots of sweaters)

In both of these locations work can start before dawn, but it never, ever goes past 6:00 at night.

Jan Thornhill is an internationally acclaimed author and illustrator, whose books have won numerous awards and have been widely translated. Two of these books, The Wildlife ABC and Over in the Meadow, have recently been chosen by the Literacy Network for their national ?Welcome to Kindergarten? program. Her most recent book is Who Wants Pizza?: The Kids? Guide to the History, Science & Culture of Food. Jan lives with her husband, artist Fred Gottschalk, near Havelock, Ontario. She spends her spare time in the woods obsessively collecting and cataloguing wild mushrooms and slime moulds.

For more information about Jan?s books please visit To see how Jan creates her digital illustrations, visit

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Free Download of Open Book?s mobile app available in Apple?s app store