Children's book 'Most Magnificent Thing' jumps to the screen with short film

TORONTO — There's something oddly prescient in the fact children's author Ashley Spires named her 2014 book "The Most Magnificent Thing."

That girl-focused hit was indeed magnificent, and has led to even more magnificent things of late: an award-winning short film based on "The Most Magnificent Thing," the launch of a YTV series about an adventurous cat named Binky, and the first book in a new series about a science-loving fairy.

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Then there are those plans for a "Magnificent" sequel, but that's not slated to appear until 2022 — Spires says she's simply too busy with other projects until then.

"It's so exciting and my head is spinning," Spires says of a whirlwind of activity that has her criss-crossing the country for various gigs.

Reached by phone at her home in Delta, B.C., south of Vancouver, Spires traces a winding career path that began with a childhood love of animation, and morphed into a love of books. She detoured into a string of day jobs before settling into a writing career, and now edges into an appreciation of the creative possibilities of film and television.

A 22-minute adaptation of "The Most Magnificent Thing" airs Friday on YTV. Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg and featuring the voice talents of child actress Lilly Bartlam, known only as Girl, and "The Newsroom" co-star Alison Pill as Mom, it follows the book's premise of a creative youngster stymied by efforts to build something great.

"This allows us to see the girl a little bit more, it definitely allows us to see the dog and his antics more," the 41-year-old says of the format. "And getting to meet Mom as well and getting to expand on the world of women who create and where the inspiration comes from."

The film has spent the better part of a year touring nearly 60 film festivals around the world, collecting 19 awards along the way. Spires says the original story was borne from the frustrations and self-doubt she battled while trying to pull together another book project in 2013.

"I did all the things the girl did — I tried to change it here and change it there and come at it from different angles and nothing was working and I fell apart and I cried and honestly wanted to quit," recalls Spires, who studied photography at Vancouver's Emily Carr University of Art and Design and then illustration at the Toronto-area Sheridan College.

"And then I realized that the feelings that I was experiencing were things that I had seen in many of the children that I go and speak to in schools when they're trying to do something just right and it doesn't turn out. The next day I got on the phone with my editor and pitched that idea to her in place of the other one I was trying to work on."

That "labour of love" has now sold more than half a million copies around the world, is in 19 languages and teachers are building curriculums around it, says Spires. "It blows my mind."

Her new book, "Fairy Science," centres on a fairy who doesn't believe in magic and similarly champions the value of welcoming more girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

The skeptical Esther prefers facts and evidence to wands and potions and when a tree in their forest starts wilting, she's dismayed by fairy attempts to revive it with talismans and spells.

"She's endlessly frustrated with the silliness of everyone around her," says Spires.

"It's a way to get little girls interested in science and also give them some value to their own voices."

Meanwhile, her Binky Adventure series of graphic novels debuted as a Treehouse series on Sept. 7, exactly 10 years after the first book launched. If it goes to a second season, Spires says she'll be writing some episodes, in addition to keeping a close eye as consultant.

This, too, is an intensely personal project — the human characters are based on her sister and nephew, and Binky on their cat. The dog is inspired by Spires' dog Gordon, a Pomeranian-Sheltie cross, while Gracie is based on Spires' late cat Gracie, who died a few years ago after fighting cancer for almost a year.

"In the books and the TV show she gets to live forever — a promise I made to her at the time of her passing," she says.

And yes, there are more cats (Spires has five), and more books — two of Spires' asthmatic cats inspired a comics series on her social media that will soon be turned into a graphic novel series, and she's begun work on a sequel to "The Most Magnificent Thing."

Like a lot of magnificent things, it took a while to determine the right approach.

"I just needed to find the right story," she says.

"I think I might have it."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2019.

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