Tag Archives: literacy

Coming Up for Air

Huge apologies! I last wrote about having so much neat stuff on the go, and, well — hush-hush — and all that. Then I did a long disappearing act and didn’t blog for months. Sorry. Really.

I landed a one-year, full-time contract at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in October. It’s very exciting and I’m working with great people. Everyone there is incredibly smart and cool and there are chalkboards EVERYWHERE! I really do mean everywhere. In fact, only the washrooms don’t have chalkboards.

So, yeah, the rumours are true; I have a bunch of books coming out. (It feels so great to say that!) Exploring Caves was published in December with Nelson Cengage Learning in Australia. It’s part of a literacy series and meant for students in grade 5. This is a book I wrote last winter, so it’s really fun to see it now. I was delighted to pass on copies to my nephews and hope they like it. Also with Cengage, and available to schools soon, is The Power of Wind, which I wrote last spring. My third title with the same publishing house — written six months ago — is called Exploding Volcanoes. And these last two should be coming out imminently. I’m told these titles are being advertised in their catalogue so it’s OK to blab about them. (See Hush-Hush blog.) The neat thing about these literacy program books — from my view — is that my contracts are royalty-based. That means the more books schools buy, the better it is for me. Most contracts for educational books are flat-fee arrangements, so this seems extra sweet. I will cross my fingers that schools check them out. As always, it is heartwarming to imagine kids curled up in their favourite reading chair, learning about these neat topics. And, even more important, becoming better readers!

It was a lot of fun writing these books. I learned a whole lot and I tried my hand at a short fictional piece in The Power of Wind. It’s from the point of view of a boy whose family experiences Hurricane Juan. This hurricane hit Halifax in 2003 when I lived there and so I experienced it first-hand. In fact, lots of details in the fictionalized account were real things that happened, including the water dripping through the windows in my house. Scary stuff.

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Happy Literacy Week

Happy Literacy Week

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.

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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 4
read-to-your-bunny-large

The cover from the book Read to Your Bunny is one of my favourites.

art by Mari

Art by Mari

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Can Con vs. Pokémon

Can Con vs. Pokémon
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.

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