Ninety-two-year-old artist publishes children's book

July 5, 2024 | News | Volume 28 Issue 9
Katie Doke Sawatzky |
Photo: Ruth Bergen Braun

When Rita Dahl was a child, the bottom third of the family’s kitchen door was her canvas. The top sections were for her older sisters to draw on.


“We were products of the Depression and we couldn’t buy a lot of paper, so our mother let us draw on the kitchen door,” she said. “We used chalk that the teacher had thrown out, the little stubs, and . . . drew pictures every day. Then we washed the door off and the next day we did it again.”


Growing up in Fiske, Saskatchewan, Dahl, 92, went on to study art in Emma Lake, and continued creating while raising four kids with her husband, Ralph, a doctor from Edmonton. She was a teacher for 10 years and was actively involved in church choirs and Sunday school. She saved colourful inserts and envelopes for collages, and over the years gave away most of her artwork.


When her husband of 66 years died in 2023, and Dahl was “in a bit of a slump,” her eldest daughter found a picture of a striped giraffe under her mother’s bed and told Dahl she should do something with it. Dahl returned to painting, and the story of Giselle the giraffe was born. 


“I know about discrimination, I know about non-acceptance, rejections, intolerance,” said Dahl. When teaching grades 1 and 2 she saw that “kids can be quite cruel.” She decided to write out of that experience. “Write about what you know,” Dahl told herself.


In the 28-page, self-published book Giselle Goes to School, Giselle doesn’t fit in because of her stripes. After trying to cover them up, she meets other giraffes with different colours and learns to celebrate difference.


“Mom has done all of the artwork, either with fingerpainting, watercolours, markers, crayons, collages, just everything,” said Diane Summers, Dahl’s daughter.


Dahl’s son, who studied English, wrote the text to accompany Dahl’s 14 illustrations. All of the book’s artwork is made out of recycled material, something Dahl attributes to living through the Depression. “We keep everything,” she said.


Some of the pages feature paper from a calendar mailed to her from a man in Korea, whom Dahl corresponded with in the ’50s and ’60s as part of her work with a women and missions group.


“[The calendar pages] are very beautiful, brilliant colours,” said Summers. “She didn’t want to throw them away.”


Dahl, who now lives in Calgary, had a book signing at First Mennonite Church in November 2023, where she sold 66 books. She’s also sold books to people at her living complex. Sales from the first 200 books raised $600 for Mennonite Central Committee and other charities. 


Dahl said it’s important that the arts are encouraged, because “people like me who are not skilled at many things thrive on the arts.” It also builds up confidence and “helps children to feel good about themselves,” she said. 


“She’s worked all her life with art and [has] never been recognized,” said Summers. She said it is a way to recognize her mom as well as other seniors or people with disabilities who have a passion that can be shared with others.


Dahl said one thing about using your imagination is that it spills into other parts of life. “I decorate my meals. My radishes become roses, and everything looks nice,” she said. “I think there’s a place for beauty.”


Giselle Goes to School can be ordered by contacting

Photo: Ruth Bergen Braun

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