Martine Leavitt was reading Calvin and Hobbes one rainy day when the thought occurred to her that nowadays Calvin might be diagnosed with having schizophrenia.
This simple thought inspired Calvin—a book that explores the complex and often misunderstood world of mental illness—and earned Leavitt the Governor General’s Literary Award in the category of literature for young people. The award is one of the most prestigious literary awards that exists in Canada, and was presented to Leavitt on Nov. 30 in Ottawa, the capital of Canada.
“It’s pretty life-changing,” Leavitt said. “When I found out that Calvin won, I think I had a little weep. I ate something celebratory and walked around in a daze for a bit. I counted my blessings and thanked my Heavenly Father.”
The presentation of the award included a $25,000 prize, a tour of the Parliament Building, an introduction to the House of Commons, an interview with BBC Radio and an awards ceremony in Rideau Hall with the Governor General, Queen Elizabeth’s representative in Canada.
Leavitt has won several other awards for her young adult fiction books addressing poverty, abuse and addiction. Writing a book on mental illness was another daunting project that required extensive research and self-reflection.
“I got lost in the research for some time,” Leavitt said. “I read a lot of books by people who suffered from mental illnesses, specifically schizophrenia. I also have a dear friend who has schizophrenia who was willing to talk to me.”
Her research helped her to write the story of Calvin, a boy who was born on the last day Calvin and Hobbes was published. Seventeen years later, he has a schizophrenic episode in class in which he starts to hear voices in the form of a tiger named Hobbes. Calvin starts a trek across frozen Lake Erie in the middle of winter, convinced that comic-strip writer Bill Watterson is the key to his recovery.
Leavitt’s hope for Calvin was to portray mental illness in a more hopeful way, opening the way for candid discussion.
“That’s what I love, that we’re talking about it now,” Leavitt said. “We’ve overcome the stigma in so many ways, but it still exists.”
Writing the book actually helped Leavitt confront her own challenges with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
“At first I didn’t tell people that I have SAD because I was embarrassed by it,” Leavitt said. “Writing this book actually helped me. I’m not embarrassed at all by it anymore. I’m actually kind of proud of myself for surviving it.”
Leavitt’s time at BYU is brief, but she plans to continue writing books and teaching creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
“I’m only here one semester as visiting faculty, but what a wonderful experience it has been for me in every way,” said Leavitt. “My students, I love them. They are smart and gifted, and the faculty is warm, kind and brilliant.”