Special Delivery

Owl’s Karen Sullivan-Cooke keeps another generation interested in the art of letter-writing.

Winter, 2014–2015 / No. 34
Photo by Tom Hicken
Tom Hicken

Making a personal connection with readers is the norm for magazines in the social media age, but Owl, Chickadee, and Chirp have encouraged a two-way dialogue with their audiences for decades.

Since 1976, countless Canadian kids have flipped through this trio of magazines, collectively aimed at the three-to-thirteen set, along the way learning to construct U.F.O.s out of pie plates and yogourt containers, and volcanoes out of vinegar and baking soda. They’ve also submitted thousands of jokes, questions, and drawings for which they receive, in return, a handwritten, personalized postcard—a practice the magazines have continued through the birth of E-mail and the impending end of home postal delivery.

Karen Sullivan-Cooke joined Owl and Chickadee’s reader-response department in 1983, eventually becoming its sole postcard writer, and continues writing and mailing notes to kids today. Her cards acknowledge children’s submissions without the disappointment of a form-letter-type rejection slip an adult reader might receive from a magazine such as this one. Decorated with cartoons of kids or outlines of characters to be coloured in, the postcards are thank-yous for jokes about chickens crossing roads, drawings of sailboats, and questions about jealousy among friends or difficulty with pets. (And since submissions are kept on file for a while, future publication is always a possibility.)

Sullivan-Cooke’s is a postcard-only position. Editors choose material for publication, leaving her responsible for replying to all letter mail, and varying her replies to avoid repetition—replying to contest entries and electronic submissions isn’t in the job description. She responds to scribbles by saying, “Thank you for such a colourful, cheery drawing,” keeping things vague when coming across a picture of an apple, in case it’s actually a tomato.

Sullivan-Cooke’s work has dwindled since the advent of E-mail. At her postcard-writing height, she would send more than a hundred notes per month. Now she’s lucky if she writes half that. “Parents write in to say the postcards are a nice touch in today’s age, where letter-writing is a dying art,” she says. “Kids don’t receive mail anymore, aside from the magazine.”

I sent work to Owl and Chickadee as a child, and still have nine postcard replies dated between 1984 and 1989, plus a silver certificate of congratulations offering a “hurrah” for my first publication—a drawing of a girl in a raincoat holding an umbrella that appeared in the April, 1985, issue of Chickadee. Sullivan-Cooke wrote two of the postcards. Seeing them all these years later surprises her, not because of the primary colours and retro design, but because of the postcard’s content. “Jeez, I didn’t write very much back then!” she says. “I could have said some more things here. That’s when I was just starting out.”

Sullivan-Cooke calls herself a “children’s correspondent,” but I call her “the postcard lady,” a title she warms up to. “I enjoy it so much. I’ll probably be doing this until I die,” she tells me. “But I’ll keep you in mind to pass on the job to, so you can be the next postcard lady.”

Shari Kasman is the creator of a fact book and two photo books about Toronto’s Galleria mall. She’s also the author of a short story collection, Everything Life Has to Offer. Last updated spring, 2022.