It’s Sept. 10, and Kathleen Russell has just wrapped up a virtual reading of her debut children’s book, Walter the Whistler Bear, with a few dozen close friends and family.
A fun tale inspired by the real-life story of a yearling bear that accidentally hitched a ride in a garbage truck passing through town only to awake on the busy streets of North Vancouver, it was a story that captured the imagination of Russell’s then-teenaged son, Alasdair, who died at the age of 19 four years ago.
But there was more to celebrate on this day than just the release of her first book. Sept. 10 is Alasdair’s birthday, and he would’ve been 24.
“I thought it went really well and it was really nice, then my friend Poppy was like, ‘Gosh, did you notice everyone was in tears?’” says Russell of the reading.
For the long-time Whistler second homeowner, the book was a way of bringing the multi-talented Alasdair back to life. An accomplished rower and climber who was just two weeks away from attempting his dream of becoming the youngest person to complete the fastest ascent of Mount Everest at the time of his death, Alasdair was also a promising model who had appeared in a Gap ad alongside Naomi Campbell. Along with his recreational pursuits, Alasdair was an avid artist, especially in his early teens, and loved to draw detailed caricatures and cartoons. In fact, it was Alasdair’s drawings that formed the inspiration for illustrator Lucy Watson as she was crafting the book’s playful aesthetic.
“He really liked detailed, amusing drawings,” Russell remembers. “When I was thinking about doing the book, I knew my friend Lucy was a really good artist but I wasn’t aware that she’d be able to be so funny. The first drawing she showed me, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness. This is incredible.’ She is so talented as an artist but she also really captured Alasdair’s sense of fun and humour and detail.”
Alasdair was a major influence on not just the visual aspects of the book, but the story itself. Enamoured by an article he read at 14 about the wayward bear, Alasdair was relieved to learn the bruin was eventually returned safely to the Whistler area, but couldn’t help but wonder what adventures he got into on his foray to the big city.
“My son thought what a fun idea that was and what wonderful adventures and mischief a bear cub could get into in Vancouver,” Russell says. “We were just talking about this silly premise of how a bear cub would get through revolving doors, and how a bear cub would make friends and then the other one was, wouldn’t it be funny if a bear cub went into, like, FAO Schwarz and went on the piano? Those were our initial premises.”
From there, Russell worked with Watson to flesh out the story. While wandering through Stanley Park, Walter meets a friendly young boy and his teddy, and together, the trio set off on a fun-filled day of exploration.
Both Walter and his human companion are imbued with hints of Alasdair, another way Russell and her family could pay remembrance to him.
“Alasdair was a very funny, cheeky guy and I think the book really captures that. Walter and the boy are in some ways very similar to what Alasdair would’ve been like at this point,” she says.
Russell was also quick to point out the collective effort of her family in bringing the book to life.
“During the pandemic, it’s been a lovely thing to work on as a whole family because my daughter [Lindsay] has patiently listened to me talk about this book for two years and my oldest son Cameron and my brother have read it over and over, proofreading it,” she says. “This has been a real family effort on my part and I know Lucy as well. This has not been two or three people writing this book; it’s been a whole army of people.”
Published by FriesenPress, Walter the Whistler Bear is on order at both Armchair Books and the Upper Village Market. It’s also available online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Learn more at walterthewhistlerbear.com.