As a child growing up in Calgary, Esi Edugyan felt she could go anywhere.
In summer, she would leave her home after breakfast and ride around with other neighbourhood children on her bicycle.
“You could run into your home for lunch or you could run into somebody else’s home for lunch. You always felt there was someone’s parent on the margins, but it felt like a kid-centric world,” said the acclaimed Victoria writer, best known for her Giller Prize winning novels Half-Blood Blues and Washington Black.
“I don’t see this as being the case these days. People are much more cautious, myself included. It’s been a really big deal even now to allow my children certain freedoms that I would have naturally had at a younger age.”
Edugyan, who is in her mid-40s, is celebrating that sense of childhood freedom in her first children’s book, Garden of Lost Socks, released today by HarperCollins Canada.
The children are in charge when Akosua, a nosy, friendless child meets Max, a budding journalist, and helps him find his favourite sock. Each has their role in the adventure.
The idea for the book, recommended for ages four to seven, came to Edugyan when her son was six.
“He’d always been looking for a book that hit the sweet spot between the sense of community and also a sense of childhood agency,” said Edugyan, who is married to fellow writer Steven Price. “He was looking for the thrust of a story that had a kind of mystery at its heart to be solved, but also a book in which he could see something of himself was very important as well. These were the elements I wanted to play with.”
Edugyan remembers looking at picture books as a child. It felt powerful, and in some cases, transgressive to see children roaming about on their own, coming together to play games and breaking apart, she said.
The children’s search for the sock takes them through a neighbourhood that bears some resemblance to Fernwood.
In the book, illustrated by Montreal artist Amélie Dubois, trees with knitted scarves look like Fernwood’s painted telephone poles.
“I used to live in Fairfield and I have a very good friend who lived in Fernwood,” said Edugyan. “I used to walk over and I feel like I spent a lot of time, especially in the square. They have the lovely community garden project, which makes its way into the book. And of course, they have that beautiful tree in Fernwood where people have hung their wishes or their hopes. You never know when it’s going to be filled or barren. I love that neighbourhood and was trying to evoke that.”
Writing the book also coincided with the family’s acquisition of its first pet, a tiny kitten that was carried around and dressed up by her son and daughter. The cat also enjoys going for walks on his little leash, Edugyan said with a smile.
“That was very much in my thinking when I was doing the book as well.”
Edugyan has remained busy in the world of adult fiction as well. She is co-producer of a TV series adapted from Washington Black, which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and other prestigious awards.
This is Us star Sterling K. Brown is the star and executive producer of the show, which is expected to stream on Hulu and Disney +.
In August 2022, Edugyan flew to Mexico for the final week of shooting and saw the reconstruction of a massive sailing ship.
She walked around the deck and spent the day with screenwriter Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, meeting writers and actors, including Tom Ellis, the star of Lucifer. Brown had left the day she arrived, which was disappointing, she said.
“It was so wonderful to see the physical manifestation of everything that I’d imagined. It was pitch perfect.”
Edugyan has seen a rough cut of one of the episodes and said she is very happy with what she has seen so far, but expects some surprises.
The series went into post-production because the special effects were quite extensive. It is being held up by the Hollywood writers’ strike, so she was unable to predict when it will be released.
Edugyan said she plans to write at least one more children’s book, for slightly older readers, something between a picture book and one geared for more advanced readers, such as a Harry Potter-style book.
“I want to write something that has a strong thrust and a story that would appeal to my son, who is now eight, and also to my daughter, too. She’s 12,” she said.
But Edugyan’s first priority is finishing two novels she began last year. She said it’s been hard for her to write because she is chair of the Man Booker Prize and has read 163 books in the past eight months.
“It was a journey,” she said. “It meant I wasn’t doing a great deal of writing. I was just reading. I started in December and finished last month. That was the main thing on my plate this year.”
In September, Edugyan will fly to England to announce the Booker short list. The ceremony is in November.