I’m not a playwright.
I finished writing a play this week. A play? Yeah, I know. I’m not a playwright, or didn’t used to be.
I’m not sure if completing a draft of a play makes me a playwright or not. Of course, it took me years to accept that I was a real author, too. It’s that old insecurity complex that plagues authors, young and old, experienced and inexperienced alike.
I took a playwriting/screenwriting course last spring. On my first day, I told the group:
Writing fiction terrifies me.
I’ve always loved reading it, admiring it, and promoting it, but do I view myself as a fiction writer? No. But in this hands-on workshop we had to write a play. Well, at least the beginnings of a play. After meeting once a week, for six weeks, we either read a portion of our play aloud or, better, had friends come and act out a ten-minute segment. I opted for the latter. I invited some actor friends and their son to come and act out a couple scenes. The play I was working on was suitable for families. It featured three siblings, a mother, a father, and an uncle. It was amazing to see the story come to life on stage. I know that sounds clichéed, but it really was a worthwhile part of the process. It helped me see and hear which parts worked and which parts didn’t. After I knew which lines to rewrite, shorten, or expand upon. It made me think more about the logistics. Does it makes sense to have a set change after just one scene? Which props will have to be mimed? The stones. And which ones can be real? The doll.
Then, a year later, I had some time. I opened up the file and read it over. I looked at my notes, scribbled down some more and did some more research. Then, I pushed myself to devise a plot — something very new to me. The hardest part — which I see more clearly now — was getting started and making a commitment to focus on it and try to finish it. Once I’d done that, however, the process wasn’t as terribly scary as I thought it would be. It was a challenge to work out the plot, but I decided I should get more lines down on paper, and see where that took the story. And so, I wrote another page or so. Then I looked at what I’d written and asked, “Now how can I get from A to B?” It was never obvious. Sometimes I took a break and mulled over the conundrum while doing other things. Then, I wrote some more. I knew it still wasn’t quite right; I had more loose ends to tie up. I continued writing and thinking, and writing some more. In the end, I finished it. Setting a personal goal and exercising determination helped me create characters, build a setting, and unravel the plot. Much of the process was a lot of fun. I felt productive while writing and pleased with the way it was developing. I proved to myself that I could do it. And I discovered that I enjoy writing dialogue; I like making up scenes.
It was fun.
This week is Canadian Children’s Book Week. Last year, during this special week, I had a lot going on in the community. You can read about it in a previous blog posting here. It’s lovely to have a week that honours the wonderful home-grown talent we have. I hope you’ll read some wonderful Canadian children’s books, stop by your library and see the book displays. Check out the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s website: here.
Writing is hard. Writing a book, poem, graphic novel, or play, which is accepted, published, reviewed, shared, and read, is deeply rewarding. I think what this quiet, writing-focused week has shown me as a children’s author is that it is important to continue to challenge oneself artistically in order to develop as a writer. Who knows where this path will lead?
The notion of continually challenging oneself reminds me of The Little Engine That Could: “I think I can, I think I can. I think I can.”
If you are passionate about being a writer and are willing to work hard, you can succeed.
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With Family Literacy Day falling on January 27th this year, families across Canada have been celebrating with much hoopla. Elementary schools make a weekly event of this special day, promoting reading and books, and often hosting in-school contests, including dressing up like a favourite book character — fun! Curl up with a book for 15 or 20 minutes a day. You know you won’t regret it. I’d like to remind readers to check out the 49th Shelf’s Read Local: The 100 Mile Book Diet. By supporting authors in your own community, you will make writers smile, and smile, and smile.
The Canadian Children’s Book Centre is a great place to visit (virtually or in person) to learn more about books for children and young adults. I also love promoting the Ontario Library Association Forest of Reading Program every year. Some schools and libraries have Forest of Reading groups and purchase sets of books. The books listed are always of very high calabre, so it’s also handy for making a shopping list. The Toronto Public Library has created its own list of the One Hundred Best Canadian Books for Children. Which books do you recognize? Which other titles would you add? I think I’ve read 25 of the 100, so I have some catching up to do.
And now — drum roll — the inspiration for today’s blog is a composition written by an eloquent elementary student. Her piece, below, expresses beautifully the joys that reading brings to our lives. Thank you to Isobel for inspiring us all to turn to delicious, delectable books much more often.
Why I Love to Read
This is why I love to read. I love to read because if you feel sad, mad, or annoyed, when you start to read a good book, you forget all your feelings. It’s like looking through a window. In books like Lemony Snicket, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings, you fall through that window, and you can see orcs, wizards, hobbits and dwarves, and elves yelling in battle all around you. It is a feeling you do not get from watching a movie.
Books in shop windows are like ice cream beckoning to you to take a taste. Some people are reluctant to start new books and others jump right in. Books are like chocolate — some with cherries inside, and some with toads inside. Reading is a time to relax.
by Isobel, grade 4Read More »
In the lead up to the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival this coming weekend, I’ve been sorting through old files and unearthed some interesting bits of nostalgia. The featured image on the left shows an old clip from The Toronto Star. Pictured in the bottom right, listening to novelist Eric McCormack read from, I think, The Paradise Motel, are university students Sylvia Petrik (now Mollison), Ian Mollison, and me. This is 23 years ago at the very first Eden Mills Writers’ Festival. Yes, I can proudly say, “I was there!” And, yes, way back when, I was a huge fan of Canadian literature (still am) and loved going to readings (still do). Eric McCormack was also my favourite English professor at the University of Waterloo, too. I never tired of hearing his Scottish “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen” refrain at 8:30 a.m. classes where he taught us about Beowulf and Milton.
The picture below right is from another Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, sometime in the 1990s. I was goofing around with high-school friends after the afternoon’s festivities had wrapped up. We’d just seen Margaret Atwood up on that rustic and beautiful handmade stage about an hour before. My friends and I took turns playing the author at the podium. So, yeah, that’s me, in role, and being so much the author-wanna-be…long after the events had wrapped up.
So, it’s very sweet, poignant, and just darn amazing, that after all these years here I am on the list of children’s author presenters. I feel so honoured and so excited. This is really going to be a treat!
And, of course, Eden Mills was my home for several years. Lots of memories!Read More »
Eat locally. Read locally. I like it.
I have to say, I think this is the coolest thing. We’ve all been hearing about the importance of shopping locally and supporting local farmers for several years now. Then, the 100-Mile Diet evolves with families, chefs, and restauranteurs seeking fresh, local ingredients for their dinner tables. And now this new twist: the 100-Mile BOOK Diet. (If anyone knows why it is “miles” not “kilometres,” please let me know.) It’s curious because the 100-mile diet was started by two Canadians, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon.
At a past Young Kingston meeting (that’s my local children and young adult authors’ group) we were talking about the importance of the communities being supportive of local writers. As writers, we all agreed it is enriching to feel that your community is reading books by local authors, attending book launches, inviting authors (and paying them) to speak at public venues, and so on. Interacting with readers is so inspiring for writers. Seeing the joy on the face of a young reader warms my heart. Finding out from your local bookstore that your books are selling is even better. It shows that consumers are “voting with their wallets” and really, truly showing that they value what you do.
Unfortunately, things don’t always play out in this way. My kids bring home American and British bestsellers frequently. Those are the books they hear the most about from their friends, in the media, etc. Those are the books with the biggest buzz.
Let’s go back to the Young Kingston meeting, I mentioned. At one point I said something like, “It’s too bad people don’t see supporting local writers in the same way they do supporting local farmers.” I figured it was a similar issue. Different, yeah, but, when you think about it, not so different. Still, I felt a bit sheepish saying it. Perhaps I was feeling guilty about wanting to ride on the shirt-tails of another group’s band wagon. If you think about it, though, everyone likes to feel that they are valued by their local community. And writers, like farmers, aren’t always valued in a monetary sense, so being valued in the community is all the more important to writers’, and farmers’ well being.
Check out the Read Local: The 100-Mile Book Diet. There is a “Browse by Author” tab that makes searching for specific books and authors easy. There are reviews and quotes and lots of info. I placed four of my books where there is a geographic significance of some sort. Click the titles to go to the 100-Mile Book Map: Dazzling Women Designers, Amazing Women Athletes, Making Shadow Puppets, and The Wilderness Cookbook. Have fun browsing the books in your area.
Read More »
My last blog posting provided a CBC link to a program about the future of book publishing. Following from the panelists’ discussion, I’m sharing a piece I wrote a while ago:
The Scholastic Book Fair is at my children’s school. I shudder. Don’t get me wrong. I love books. I write children’s books. I’m all for promoting literacy and getting kids enthused about reading. In addition, as an editor, I adore Scholastic. They are my best client. Their deadlines are reasonable; they pay me in less than three weeks. So, what’s the problem?
My kids—who never watch TV and have been raised on a steady diet of quality children’s books, with an emphasis on the Canadian ones—invariably choose the schlockiest, most commercial, American-made title that makes my skin crawl. The paper is thin, the word count is low, and the covers filled with computer-generated artwork. My youngest daughter squeals with delight. She needs to have this one. She looooves it! I feel ill.
In a weak moment, I’ve indulged my kids in one or two of these mass-produced, overly commercialized pamphlets. They proudly carry them home, flashing the cover to curious classmates and toting one of Scholastic’s inspirational animal posters to plaster on their bedroom walls. At home, they devour the $6.99 books in less than 10 minutes. The books hang out on my coffee table for a couple weeks (where they appear to be mocking me), before I shelve them and they’ll languish, forgotten.
Similarly, in the book club catalogue, only a handful of the books feature Canadian authors and illustrators—and, when they do, they are mostly biggies like Robert Munsch and Paulette Bourgeois. Nestled among the Wii sets and the Official Pokémon Guide, I see a book by Hugh Brewster, another by Jean Little, and one by Marsha Skrypuch. Now we’re getting somewhere!
I’ve learned, when leafing through the catalogue, to gravitate to the nonfiction books and the Canadian-based series. “This one’s about wolves,” I say. “How about this book about Canada’s rocks and minerals?” My suggestions sound feeble and are ignored. Up against the excitement of peers who’ve discovered Rainbow Magic cut-out dolls and a Justin Bieber quiz book, my quiet coaching is stone-walled.
Flipping the catalogue over, so my daughter can fill in her selection, I spot the FSC and Ancient Forest Friendly logos. Well, that’s some concession, I sigh, thinking about the volume of these catalogues printed, shipped, and distributed to schools across Canada—I mean, North America, and beyond.
My kids and I visit the library most weeks, trucking home backpacks full of children’s books: large-format picture books, rich with guache prints; stacks of nonfiction covering the latest science-class topic; thick fantasy novels that my oldest daughter devours in three or four days, reading up to three hours some days. Books arrive at Christmas, Easter, birthdays, and for no occasion at all. My kids are lucky. We have a literary home environment. But we may be in the minority. For a lot of children, the school-based book clubs may be their only access to books in their home. In fact, when my husband was a child, his home library was made up of book club books exclusively.
Looking at today’s schools, however, we are faced with a conundrum. The money families spend at the Book Fair earns teachers free books for their classrooms. The more money parents spend, the more free (Scholastic-published) books the school stands to get. In cash-strapped Canadian classrooms, it’s a pretty sweet deal.
Parent councils work tirelessly to generate extra money for schools. Students sell magazine subscriptions to earn money for school fundraising projects. But fundraising money rarely goes to expanding and improving school library collections. The trend these days is to purchase technological tools for the classroom. Across the country many teachers’ wish lists include Smart Boards, data projectors, ERIC information systems, flat screen TVs, and wall mounts for these sleek screens. This is the modern classroom. How long it will be until these technologies, which amount to thousands of dollars in expenditures, are obsolete and taking up space in landfills? Don’t go there.
All right, so we don’t want schools to remain in the dark ages. Teachers want up-to-date tools. But what about quality Canadian books in classrooms and school libraries?
Most of the books I see in Canadian schools are American and British and many are old favourites from my generation. There’s Little House on the Prairie, Charlotte’s Web, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Has anyone read anything new since the seventies?
During my trip to Labrador a couple years ago, for the Labrador Creative Arts Festival, I was surprised — indeed, shocked — to learn that Happy Valley-Goose Bay does not have a bookstore. Not one! So apart from ordering books from online sources, good ol’ Scholastic is the number-one choice. Still it’s a tad off-putting when teachers ask, “Can I order your book through Scholastic?” Sigh. To date, through chance and circumstance, I haven’t published any trade books with Scholastic, though a French translation of Making Shadow Puppets appeared in the catalogue several years ago. The authors whose books appear in the Book Fair catalogues get wonderful exposure. But what does the author earn when the book sells for $2.99? Let’s swallow that sugar-coated pill in the name of Literacy and put up with it. After all, any books that get kids reading have merit. Book series are effective at hooking young readers and building literacy skills. I applaud them for that.
In a tumultuous publishing climate, where creators, illustrators, and publishers all struggle to eke out a living and stay afloat, it feels wrong to point fingers. We’re all in this together, folks! I like to believe, like everyone, that selling a certain amount of schlock helps publishers afford to get out the gems and promote quality children’s books. But finding a way to get more quality Canadian books into our schools, and exposing more kids to great books by Canadian authors, is essential for our publishing culture to survive.
There must be a way to work together on this.
(Canadian!) Historical Books for Children
To order Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson, click here.
Here is a Teacher’s Guide for Charlie Wilcox by Sharon McKay.
To find out more about the Our Canadian Girl series by Penguin, click here.
To learn more about the Dear Canada series by Scholastic, click here.
To order The Pioneer Alphabet by Mary Alice Downie, click here.