monique polak

Monique Polak's Books

Mar
21

Hello from Michelangelo International Elementary School!

Today's blog entry comes to you from Michelangelo International Elementary School in Rivière-des-Prairies! So I bet you're wondering about today's pic! What exactly am I doing with those three kids? Well... I was explaining that writers need to do RESEARCH, so I told them how, for my YA novel, Straight Punch, I took boxing lessons for three years! I was showing them my moves when a few of the kids started to demonstrate in their seats. Note, for instance, Amanda, who's to the right of the me in the photo -- she takes kickboxing. Anyway, we decided to pose together for this pic.

I worked first with Ms. Elisa's Grade Six class, then with Miss Ida's Grade Fives. Both groups were great audiences. The librarian at MIES is also the librarian at East Hill, where I was on Monday and Wednesday this week, and she's another Miss Ida. So in honour of Miss Ida the librarian, I started the day by asking the Grade Sixes to each make a list of words that start with the letter I. Diego's list included the word icon, which I thought was a very cool word for someone his age. Giada's favourite word on her list was ice cream, which she added, is also her favourite dessert. I told the students they could even include words from other languages, so Diego's list included the word Inglaterra, which is Spanish for England. The point of the exercise was to remind us that words can be fun.

A funny moment happened when I was discussing something serious: the concept of what is known as "enthusiastic consent." I explained that if a young person, or a person of any age for that matter, wishes to have physical contact with another person, they must ask for "enthusiastic consent." (This came up because I was telling the students about a book I've been reading where a male character does not ask for consent before he kisses a girl he hardly knows -- and that part of the book upset me.) Anyway, Diego asked, "Does that apply if you want to beat someone up?" Which led me to tell the students that I think WHAT IF? is one of the most important questions to ask if you are a writer. WHAT IF a Grade Six student, perhaps named Diego, asked another kid if he was enthusiastic about getting beaten up? Might that lead to an honest conversation about whatever is bugging Diego and the other kid? Hey, you know what? That could be a book!

When I was working with Miss Ida's (the other Miss Ida!!) Grade Fives, I was talking about reading again (writers need to read A LOT). I said, "When I read..." and then a boy named Cristian finished my sentence for me. "You get ideas! Cristian added. Exactly, Cristian. (And see, I spelled your name right, Cristian-without-an-h!)

Later this term, the class will be reading Karen Levine's book Hannah's Suitcase, so it was a good opportunity for me to talk about my own connection to the Holocaust and how my YA novel, What World Is Left, is based on my mum's childhood experiences in Theresienstadt, the same Nazi concentration camp where Levine sets her story.

Many students had family stories that were related to the Second World War. Paolo's grandfather escaped the Nazis in Italy because he had blond hair and blue eyes. Miss Ida (the teacher, not the librarian) told us how, after her father's death a few years ago, she found that he had written his memoirs, in which he told the story of how, as a young boy living in Italy during the Second World War, he fled to the mountains to escape the Nazis, and how they fired at him.

Some days -- and today was one of those days -- it feels to me like STORIES ARE EVERYWHERE. That thought makes me happy happy happy. Now it's our job to "catch" those stories, then write them down, and then share them with our readers.

Thanks to Miss Elisa and the two Miss Idas; thanks to the kids at Michelangelo for being wonderful. I'll be back again at Michelangelo on Monday morning. Until then, let's all go catch some stories!

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Mar
20

Second Morning at East Hill Elementary

Hello hello, blog readers! I've been working with writers all day -- I started the day at East Hill School in Rivière-des-Prairies, then went right to Marianopolis College to work with my "regular" classes.

It's been extra-fun working with Grades Five and Six students this week since, in my Writing for Children class at Marianopolis, we're working on middle-grade novels, so the East Hill students are exactly our target population.

Today, at East HIll, I worked with Miss Veronica and Miss Diane's classes. Miss Veronica took today's pic which makes me happy because there is nothing a writer likes to see more than young people WRITING! Thanks, Miss Veronica, for taking the pic -- and also for being such an enthusiastic member of the audience today!

I thought I'd use today's blog entry to share a few highlights from my morning at East Hill. Here goes!

A Grade Six student (Miss Veronica's class was a Grade Six group; Miss Diane's were Grade Fives) named Emma told me she wants to be a chef. When I explained that writers need to be readers, Emma understood the similarity between writing and cooking -- you need to try out other people's recipes! Just like writers need to read other writers' stories!

Amanda, another Grade Six student, came up with a wonderful neologism (a neologism is an invented word) to describe her first day of school when she was five years old: "I was nercited." Nercited, Amanda explained to me, is a mixture of nervous and excited. I love that word, Amanda! In fact, I vote for it to be in the dictionary!

When I asked the students to come up with a book blurb for the book they most want to read, Alessia wrote this: "I'm at a wedding with my sisters and brothers. It's actually a wedding on a different planet." Very cool, Alessia! And a student named William came up with this blurb: "When a kid and his family are living in Italy, they're super poor. They move to New York, but while they're aboard the boat from Italy, a strange guy comes up and leaves the kid with no more family because the guy murders the rest of the family. Later, the kid grows up and goes for revenge." Wouldn't you want to read that book?

And a student named Nicolas made me laugh when I asked if there was an 'h' in his name. "There's no 'h,'" he told me, "otherwise, it would be nich-olas." (If you didn't laugh maybe it's because it's one of those you-had-to-be-there jokes!)

Miss Diane's Grade Fives were just as lively and interested as the Grade Sixes I worked with today. For her book blurb, a student named Sarah wrote about an imaginary character named Ella who "went though a tough time. Her grandfather was dying and she was extremely close to him. She felt like she was all alone." I asked Sarah whether she had ever experienced the death of someone she loved, and she told me that she had. Though I'm sorry Sarah has had to go through that experience, I also told her that that difficult time has given her important material to work with -- and to turn into an important story that other kids will need to read.

And just to end this blog entry on a lighter note, a student named Jack asked me a question I've never been asked before! He wanted to know, "When you publish a book, do you get a free copy or do you have to buy it?" The answer is I get TEN free copies! (I usually give them to my friends and family.)

If it sounds like I had fun at East Hill, it's because I did. Many thanks to the teachers, to librarian Miss Ida for the invitation, and to the kids for being smart and fun. I'll be back at Easthill on March 27. Hoping to see some young writers at recess to hear -- and perhaps even read -- what they've been writing this week!

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Mar
18

Fun Start to the Week at East Hill Elementary School

I kicked off the week with a fun visit this morning to East Hill Elementary School in Rivières-des-Prairies. Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be doing two more visits to East Hill, as well as three visits to another school in the area. Rivières-des-Prairies is about a fifty-minute drive from where I live in Montreal and it's a part of the Montreal Island I had never visited. The houses in the area look nice -- and I can tell you for sure that the kids are super!

In today's pic, that's Diamante and Ariane at the front, demonstrating perfect student body language. Note the perfectly poised pencils -- and of course, the smiling faces! I like to use body language as an example when I talk about how authors search for interesting details. Also, if you know me, you'll know I have an OBSESSION with body language!

I worked first with Madame Johanne's Grade Six class, and then with Miss Luciana's Grade Fives. Because I had nearly two hours with each group, there was plenty of time for writing exercises. I asked the Grade Sixes to write a short blurb describing the book they would most want to read. Diamante wrote about "a girl named Max Einstein, who's obsessed with Albert Einstein." It's a good thing that Diamante is an Einstein fan herself -- that will give her a head-start when she starts writing her book. I LOVE LOVE the idea, Diamante! (Also, I might steal your name for an upcoming book. I'd never heard it before -- and I like it a lot!) A student named Dante (another great name) wrote about "Martin [who] just wanted to cook." I learned later that Dante is hooked on cooking shows. Dante, that's another super book idea. GET TO WORK, GUYS!

When I asked the students what the "first cousin" of writing is, a student named Noah got the correct answer: Reading. As Noah explained to the class, "If you wanna write, you need to read." Exactly, Noah! He also told me, "I like to read -- sometimes."

We also discussed how trouble helps "fuel" a story -- in other words, without trouble, a story cannot move forward. So I told the class, "If you've ever felt lonely, or overwhelmed, or sad or betrayed... congratulations!" Then I asked them, "Why I did just say 'Congratulations!'?" A student named Luca knew the answer. He said, "it's because now you've got a story." Right on, Luca!

I worked with the Grade Fives after recess. In the imagine-the-book-you-want-to-read exercise, Liana came up with an intriguing premise: "a world where the girls did the work and the guys did the cleaning." I bet a lot of people would read that book, Liana! Sara had another great book idea: "the story of a princess who's a thief." I asked Sara what kind of stuff her imaginary princess steals, but Sara didn't know the answer yet. See how writing takes thinking!

Both groups had a lot of questions for me. Daniel wanted to know, "Do you have to spend your whole day writing the book?" I told him the answer is yes -- and no. The thing is, I explained, I "write" my books even when I am doing something else, such as driving to school, or taking a walk, or even making tea. On the other hand, if I can get in two or three hours of actual writing-writing at my desk, that's what I consider an excellent writing day.

Jessica told me she loves to write: "I write books with my friends, but I always get distracted." I suggested that distraction may not be such a bad thing -- as long as she remembers to jot down her ideas when they come to her. I told the students that I have an "ideas" file on my computer, and every now and then, I go back to it and see which idea is clamouring the loudest, asking to be turned into a story.

I'll be back at East Hill on Wednesday this week. Thanks to the teachers for sharing your students, thanks to librarian Miss Ida for the invite (and the cough drops, and the tea, and the blueberries -- shhhh! don't tell, there's a strict no-eating and no-drinking rule in the library), and thanks especially to the kids for getting my week off to such a lively, happy start!

 

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Mar
13

Simply Hilarious Goes to the Atwater Library

Actor Fanny La Croix (she's the kid behind me in today's pic!) were at Atwater Library this morning working with a group of terrific seniors on a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Simply Hilarious. I'm in charge of helping participants craft funny stories; Fanny's helping our storytellers work on their delivery. This was our second of two sessions at the library -- we've already worked with other seniors at a residence called Place Kensington, as well as at Cote St. Luc's Eleanor London Libary.

Our top storytellers will be participating in an exciting event at this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. And here's a tip: Simply Hilarious is going to be an event you don't want to miss!

Today, Fanny and I heard and worked on stories about two sisters who ran nude across their front lawn on Montreal's West Island; a blind date that nearly went wrong; how a bottle of Scotch helped a woman deal with a terrible injury; and also how a woman in her 80s fell for a guy who got in touch with her after nearly sixty years. I must say we all laughed a lot -- and got a little choked up too.

One participant, Carolynn, told us that, "I grew up in a sad house" and that it was difficult for her to remember happy moments from her childhood. I told Carolynn, who later told me that she is writing her memoirs, that I think Growing Up In a Sad House would make a great book title. What do you think?

Robert, who's not in today's pic since he's the one who took it, told me he learned from our workshops that, "We all have stories to tell."

Fanny told a participant named Katherine that she had a "great body" and that she reminded Fanny of Katharine Hepburn. By "great body," Fanny explained, she didn't only mean that Katherine was in excellent shape, but that she incorporated physicality in her storytelling. On the way out today, Katherine told me that, "I'm channeling my inner Katharine Hepburn!"

Fanny will be back at the library to help participants do a "dress rehearsal" for the Blue Met show. Check this space for more details about the event. Thanks to Blue Met for making this program possible, and thanks to all the workshop participants for sharing your stories. On my walk home today, I thought how my head was full of stories. And so was my heart! See you at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival!

 

 

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Feb
21

Worth the Drive to Longueuil

Here's an admission: I'm a bit of a nervous driver on the best of days. Today I had to drive over the Champlain Bridge and my friends who've been driving to Montreal's South Shore this week had warned me that the morning glare was making the drive difficult. But guess what? The glare wasn't a problem. And even if it had been, it would have been worth it since the students at Ecole Monseigneur-A.-M.-Parent were so much fun to work with!

I started the day with Miss Dias's Grade 10 students, and after lunch, I worked with Miss Dias's other Grade 10 class, as well as with Miss Molle's Grade 11 students. Ecole Monseigneur-A.-M.-Parent is a French school, and I was impressed by how fluent the students were in English. Afterall, if they could keep up with speedy me, their English must be good!

When I told the first group that I've been writing three pages a day in a journal for nearly 30 years (I only skipped one day because I had the flu), a student named Jonathan called out, "That's 36,000 and something pages!" I laughed because in all those nearly 30 years, I have never stopped to make the calculation. So Jonathan's comment showed me something about him: that he's into numbers! (Hey, Jonathan, I just did the math on my computer and it's actually 32,850, but hey, you were close enough!) If I were writing about a character like Jonathan, I'd definitely make him a numbers-kind-of-guy. It's the kind of detail that would help bring a character to life -- and make the character, like the real-life Jonathan, unforgettable!

I told both groups of students that I really believe they need to write A LOT if they want their writing to improve. I also told them something my grandfather, who was an artist, once told me: "To succeed you need this much talent [he spread his arms about four inches apart] and this much hard work [here, he spread this arms as far apart as they would go]."

After I finished my first talk, a student named Tammy-Lee stayed behind to chat with me. I had already observed her excellent braids -- and I asked her how she gets them to look so cool. Tammy-Lee told me, "I use elastics, and then I pull on the hair." I learned that it takes Tammy-Lee about 30 minutes to make those braids. Today, she got up at 5:50 so she'd have time for braiding. Why am I telling you all this? Because details are interesting, and because maybe I'll use a student like Tammy-Lee in one of my stories, and make her an excellent hair braider. Tammy-Lee said she learned from my talk that, "I need to persist in what I do." Yay, Tammy-Lee!

In the second group, a student named Callixte stole my heart. That's because he didn't seem all that interested when I first got started, but when I explained that the ability to write well can be a passport to a better life, I noticed Callixte liven up. Later, Callixte told me he hopes to become an engineer. Engineers definitely need to be good writers -- and thinkers. (If you ask me, wrkiting is a kind of thinking!)

When I first started doing author visits 15 years ago, I never talked about money or the business side of writing. But that has changed. I told the students today that when I was growing up, adults used to tell me, "It's nice that you have writing for a hobby." Now I think to myself: writing is not my hobby, it's one of the things I do to earn my living -- and I'm fiercely proud of every penny I have made as a result of working hard on my writing. As I reminded the students today, if they have a little bit of talent, and are willing to put in the hard work -- writing can also become a way for them to earn their livings.

A student named Jahzeev seemed super interested in the idea of doing creative work to support himself. Jahzeev told me afterwards that his dream is to design cars and eventually own a car company. Go for it, Jahzeev!

When I asked the students what they think I write about in my journal every morning, Anne-Sophie had an answer I loved: "Everything and nothing!" Exactly, Anne-Sophie! Anne-Sophie also wanted to know, "Do you ever write down your dreams?" Yes yes yes! Hey, Anne-Sophie, you're nearly ready to take over and do the writing workshop for me.

Thanks to librarian Michèle Benard for finding a way to bring me to Ecole Monseigneur-A.-M.-Parent today, and to Miss Dias for the invitation. Thanks again to Miss Dias and to Miss Molle for sharing your lovely, lively students with me. And thanks to Miss Molle for being the one to laugh hardest at my stories! And thanks especially to the students for being who you are. Now... get to work on your stories!

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Feb
05

Meet Nahid Kazemi

See how interested and focused the students in my Writing for Children class at Marianopolis College look? That's because yesterday, they had a chance to meet author and illustrator Nahid Kazemi. We had read her lovely picture book, I'm Glad That You're Happy (Groundwood), in class last week.

Nahid, who was born in Iran, moved to Montreal four years ago. Though she had a successful career as an illustrator in Iran, she had to start all over again when she came here. "I started here from zero," she told the class. I think her message -- that it is possible to start from zero and work hard to achieve your dreams -- touched many students in the class. Two young women, both Persian, followed us out of the classroom so they could have a little more time with Nahid.

I thought I'd use today's blog to share some of the lessons Nahid taught us yesterday. "The first draft should be bad. The worst!" (Nahid actually said that in my office before class, when we were chatting with one of my former students, Olivia, a talented young writer who wanted to know how to get started on a book.) Nahid's advice was just to start, not to worry too much, and to accept that the first draft would be "bad, The worst!"

Here's more brilliant advice from Nahid: "A necessity for all of us is observation." (Hey guys, if you're in my class, does that sound familiar?!). "Another thing," Nahid added, "is discipline. We need it more than anything!" YES YES YES! Nahid explained that she is a morning person; she devotes every single weekday morning to her job.

Nahid also shared a short video presentation of her latest book, Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon (Enchanted Lion), written by JonArno Lawson. This picture book has very few words, but through the JonArno's poetic language and Nahid's images, it tells a powerful story about change and identity. Check it out!!

Nahid also told us, "We shouldn't be afraid of bad work. I try to watch the idea from different angles and ask, 'What if?'" (That "What if?" queston should also sound familiar to my students!)

So thanks to Nahid for the wonderful visit, for giving all of us lots to think about. And thanks to my students for being smart and sensitive and the perfect audience.

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Jan
27

The Universe is Made of Stories

First of all, sorry for the blurry pic.

Second of all, you'll want to know who those blurry faces belong to! Those are some of the participants from this afternoon's storytelling workshop at the Eleanor London Library in Cote St. Luc. I was there for an exciting Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Simply Hilarious. Actor Fanny La Croix and I are working with three groups of seniors, helping them write and perform stories for an upcoming festival event.

The title of today's blog entry is "The Universe is Made of Stories." I heard someone say that on the radio last week (only I have to admit I didn't catch who it was who said it)... but the person said most people think the universe is made of atoms, but it's really made of stories. I like stories more than atoms myself!!

Today's participants came up with a lot of funny stories. Sylvia told one about crawling into bed with her six-year-old grandson. Estelle's was about being suspected of smoking marijuana. Marlin's was about her father, whom she described as "the most eccentric person in the world." Laura's was about an awkward moment on stage in the Catskill Mountains. Leah's was about falling on the ice (a lof us in Montreal have been doing that lately). And Dinah's story helped us understand why her childhood nickname was Dynamite!

I don't want to give too much more away about the stories, since I'm hoping you'll be in the audience this May, when the stories will be told live!

Fanny wasn't with us today, but she'll run most of next week's workshop at the library, teaching participants performance strategies. I'll be in the room, working quietly (I know what you're thinking! Monique -- quiet? Yes, it's possible!).

Before I left today, I took a few moments to ask the participants what they got from the workshop. Estelle, who is part of the Montreal Storytellers' Guild, said she'd like to see an ongoing storytelling circle at the library. Marlin said, "You know what I liked? I liked everybody's stories!" Me too, Marlin!

My friend Myra, who is also a writer (in addition to being a lawyer) was there with her mom Dinah (AKA Dynamite). I'll finish today's blog entry with Myra's observation: "Everybody has a story. Sometimes, you have to excavate to find a story."

So here's to excavating for stories! Thanks to the library's Danielle Bélanger for helping to organize today's workshop. Thanks to Blue Met for making the program possible. And thanks especially to the storytellers. See you same time next Sunday!

 

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Jan
23

Working With More Bright Grade Sevens at St. Thomas High

That's me in today's pic with Miss Canci's second period Grade Seven class at St. Thomas HIgh School. I've got my arm around Justin, who turned out to be a prize pupil -- even though his initial body language (remember my obsession with body language?) suggested he might have preferred to be hanging out with his friend Tommy rather than meeting a writer for kids!!

During the short writing exercise I did with this class, the students wrote about a memory from when they were five years old. Justin turned out to be an excellent writer! He wrote about his fifth birthday. He was lying in his bed when his mom came in, "holding my favourite cake even though it's breakfast time." Great use of detail, Justin! You managed to capture the birthday mood, and also you show the reader than you have a fun mom.

After that session ended, a student named Kyle wanted to talk to me about having too many ideas. I told him I don't think too many ideas is a problem -- too few is a problem I wouldn't like to have! Kyle told me, "Sometimes ideas just fly through my head and I'm not fast enough to grab them." I just LOVED how that sounded, and I suggested to Kyle that he start writing a poem ASAP about flying ideas. You have a lovely, poetic way of expressing yourself, Kyle. Use it!!

I also worked with Miss Canci's third period Grade Sevens, and I finished the morning with Mr. Cloney's Grade Seven class. When I showed the students the journal I write in every day, a lively, enthusiastic student named Sofia told me she uses a diary for problem-solving. "I used to write in it every time I got into a fight with a friend," Sofia said. Great idea to use your journal to work through personal troubles,, Sofia... but here's another suggestion for you: make sure you also use your diary when you feel happy. That way, when you look back at it one day (everyone who keeps a diary eventually looks back at it), you won't think all you ever did was get into fights with friends!!!

I'll end today's blog entry with something funny. (I love funny stuff.) I was telling the students about how I did the research for my book Straight Punch by signing up for boxing lessons. So I asked them, "What do you think I brought with me every day to the gym?" (The correct answer was pen and paper by the way.) A student named Leo called out, "A protein shake!"

Thanks for the laugh, Leo. Use your sense of humour in your stories. Thanks to Miss Canci and Mr. Cloney for sharing your kids with me. Thanks to Mrs. Pye for the invite. And thanks to the kids for being a wonderful, fun and focused audience. Now get to work on your stories!!

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Jan
19

"I'm Going to Write More Stories" -- Sheila, who's 92

Actor Fanny La Croix (that's Fanny wearing the peach-coloured scarf in today's pic) and I spent the morning at Place Kensington, a Montreal seniors' residence. We were working with a group of lively, totally with-it seniors who will be taking part in this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. I'm not supposed to tell you too much about the Blue Met event -- but I can tell you it involves seniors and storytelling and it's going to be hilarious. I'm helping seniors find their stories and put them into words; Fanny is in charge of making their on-stage performances stellar.

Luckily for us, the seniors we've met so far are natural storytellers. (We'll be heading next to the Cote St. Luc Library, and lin March to the Atwater Library to continue our work.)

The gentleman in today's pic is named Sam. He's working on a wonderful story about his porcelain collection. The woman wearing the grey top is Sarah, and she's got an unforgettable story about a famous historic funeral which she attended as a child. When we were wrapping up today, Sarah told us, "As I've aged, I feel I have to define myself. Before you came, I was writing down different episodes, hoping to tell my children and grandchildren, and you have reinforced this process."

The woman wearing glasses is Eve -- Eve has some homework to do on her story! And the woman in blue closest to me is Sheila, who is 92 years old and in remarkably fine shape. I like Sheila's story so much I've been telling it to all my friends! I don't want to give away too much -- except to say it involves a cheeky budgie. Sheila's family lives in Toronto. I told Sheila she had better make sure they are here for the Blue Metropolis Festival in May. And you know what Sheila answered? "I'd better be here!"

Fanny did vocal exercises with the seniors (there were several more who attended, but who were not around when we found someone to snap today's pic), as well as an exercise called "dropping in" which encouraged participants to return to a memory and really feel it.

Sheila not only cracked me up with her story and her witty comment, she also made my day when she talked about the impact our work has had on her: "You triggered something in me. I'm going to write more stories."

So keep your eyes and ears open for more details about the upcoming Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. Our storytelling evening is going to be one event you won't want to miss. And something tells me you'll need to get your ticket early. This one's gonna be sold out!

 

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Jan
16

Second Day of Writing Workshops at St. Thomas High School

I'm just home from my second of three days of writing workshops at St. Thomas High School -- and I have a lot of fun stuff to tell you!

See the kids with me in today's pic? They're students from Mr. Rowland's Grade Seven English class. (I worked with three groups of students today -- Mr. Rowland's, Mr. Katz's and Mr. Thomas's.) The boy in the middle of the pic, wearing a grey shirt, is Harry. What I liked about Harry is that he's an original thinker. Here's the proof: I was telling the students how I sometimes steal pens. I don't mean from stores... but I have a bad habit of just kind of collecting them during the day. I do it because I'm always running out of ink -- which is a problem if you're a writer who loves jotting stuff down! Anyway, Harry raised his hand and asked, "Don't you like when your pen runs out? Doesn't it make you feel happy that you used a pen?"

Harry, I want to say THANKS. I will never again get grumpy when one of my pens runs out of ink. Instead, I'm going to think of what you told me -- and feel happy about it.

When I told the class that, in nearly 30 years, I only ONCE skipped writing in my journal, a student named Téa asked, "Why did you skip that day?" Oh, that made me happy! That's because it shows that Téa is SNOOPY or CURIOUS, which is an important trait in a writer. (The answer to the question is: I had the flu, and felt too woozy to even sit up in bed and hold a pen!)

There was time for a writing exercise with Mr. Katz's students -- so I had them write about a moment in their lives when they felt they changed. Madurta wrote something beautiful, which she gave me permission to share in today's blog. Thanks,Madurta! It's a powerful beginning to your story, and it shows us you are a courageous young woman. Here goes:

"The day I changed elementary schools from Greensdale which is now Kingsdale to Terry Fox because I got bullied. I'll tell you what happened. I was six years old and I was always alone. Some kids came and made fun of me and punched me. This happened for three years."

Madurta, I want to say that though you were working with difficult material today, you told your story in a compelling, moving way. I love the line "I'll tell you what happened." That line creates a kind of closeness with your reader. The details of the bullying you experienced are important to your story. It won't be easy for you to keep writing this piece, but I think you should. And I think you need to also write about your own resilience, how you overcame the experience and how it may continue to affect you to this day. You know what, Mardurta? Our world needs more stories about bullying -- and resilience!

I ended my day with Mr. Thomas's class. Because I was preparing for a quick getaway (I wanted to beat the school buses parked outside), I didn't write down students' names. But these kids were great. Often, students in the last class of the day are unfocused -- or rather they are focused on LEAVING, not learning... but not Mr. Thomas's class They were keen to learn about body language, and to hear the story of my monkey man charm.

I'll be back at St. Thomas next Wednesday. I'll bring my lunch and have it in one of the library's study rooms during junior lunch. Hey, if any of you want to come and chat about writing, or show me your work, that would be a great time to do it!

Many thanks to the teachers, to librarian Mrs. Pye for arranging the visit, to librarian Mrs. Thom for being there today, and to the kids for being wonderful. See you guys next week!

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Jan
14

Sweet Start to the Week at Evergreen Elementary

You don't have to be old to be smart! That's what I was thinking this morning during my visit to Evergreen Elementary School in St-Lazare.

If you know me, you know I'm obsessed with body language. (Teachers need to understand body language to manage our classes; writers can use body language to let readers learn more about our characters.) When I was working with the Grade Three's, I noticed a student named Tevin who was in perfect what I call "thinking position." (That's Tevin with me in the first pic. Notice how he is resting his chin in his hand. Admittedly, Tevin's glasses also make him look extra-smart!) You know what Tevin told me? "I'm always thinking!" Way to go, Tevin! Keep all that thinking up ...and here's a thought: maybe you should put some of your constant thinking into writing a book!

When I was discussing the importance of re-writing, a student named Rowan commented, "You have to try it once, and then do it over and over again until you like it." Precisely, Rowan, and nicely put! When we talked about how writers have to be readers (writing and reading go together like siblings or cousins), Nathan and Anais both told me they read every single night. Anais added, "I have a clamp light from Ikea." I thought that the clamp light from Ikea was a lovely detail -- and a good example of how the right details can help bring a story to life. Can't you just imagine a girl named Anais reading late at night, underneath the yellow light from her clamp light?!

I showed the students the ARC (which stands for Advance Reading Copy) of my spring non-fiction book, I Am A Feminist: Claiming the F-Word in Turbulent Times. Some of the kids knew what feminism was, but others were less sure. Which led a student named Lucien to ask one of my favourite questions of the day: "Is it true a man can rob a bank better than a woman?"

Of course, you'll want to know my answer! I told Lucien that I thought bank-robbing was a bad plan for anyone, no matter our gender. But, that being said, I told him that if a woman really had to rob a bank, well, I'm sure she'd be just as good at it as a man!!!

After recess, I worked with the Grade Four classes. I'd met most of these students when I visited Evergreen last year, so I did a quick review of my writing tips, and then moved on to new subjects. Because these students are just the right age for my Princess Angelica chapter book series, we talked a lot about how I got the idea for the first story, and about the upcoming books in the series. I explained that I found my inspiration for Princess Angelica, Part-Time Lion Trainer, which is coming out this spring, at the Ecomuseum, a place that many of these students have visited, because it's near their school. 

I also told the story of the monkey man charm I wear every single day. That charm has also inspired a book -- my first picture book! A student named Connor raised his hand to ask me an important question: "Are you going to keep the monkey man in your casket?" It took me a moment to realize that Connor wanted to know what my plans were for the monkey man charm after my death. Good question, Connor! I told him I'd rather give the charm to my daughter or to a museum. No sense in burying it!

A student named Hzaz asked me a question that made me super happy. He asked, "Is it normal when you go to bed, to have all these thoughts for a book?" I told Hzaz that I don't know if it's normal, but it's GREAT... and that HE IS DEFINITELY A WRITER. What you need to do, Hzaz, is write all those ideas down so you can use them in your books!

Later, when we were talking about grief, a student named Stuart told us about his guinea pig, Snowy. Snowy died on Mother's Day. Stuart asked, "Why did he have to die on a holiday?" It's a sad story, Stuart, but you should write about it. Try to capture not only how much you miss Snowy -- but also how much you loved him, and what made him a special guinea pig.

So I think you can figure out why my morning was sweet. Thanks to the teachers for sharing your kids with me, thanks to librarian Tina Hausen for arranging today's visit, and thanks to the kids... for stealing my heart.

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Jan
11

Grade Seven Yesterday -- Grade Three Today!

Today, photographer Pierre Charbonneau and I got to go back to Grade Three -- and it was FUN!

We were at Kingsdale Academy in Kirkland, working with Miss Arcamone's classes. It was our second visit. Pierre and I were at Kingsdale for the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation's Quebec Roots project. We are part of a team of writers and photographers working with students across the province, helping them to produce a chapter for this year's edition of Quebec Roots.

It's up to the students to choose a subject for their chapter. In the fall, these kids decided they wanted to write and take photos of the geese who visit their playground. The students have been writing stories and taking photos in preparation for today's visit.

Pierre began by explaining that we need MORE photos -- and that he'd like to see some photos of KIDS, and not just GEESE!!

I showed the students how I go about editing writing. We put their words on the screen, and I got right to work, tightening up the language, and making some sentences shorter and more clear.

Because we needed some more written material, I threw out a few topics for the students to work on in small groups. One topic was A GOOSE REPORT CARD. Though I give myself credit (good work, Mo!) for coming up with a fun topic, the real credit goes to the kids who did a wonderful job writing goose report cards. I have to admit I cracked up while I was putting it all down on the computer, and editing their material. I shouldn't be giving away too much -- but how about I just give you one of my favourite lines from the goose report card? (The line appears as a comment after the goose student's French grade. Oh, I forgot to tell you that the student named their goose student Stinky Honkalot!)

Ready?!

Here goes! (If you want to read more, you'll need to get yourself a copy of Quebec Roots when it comes out in the spring)...

"When it's time to hand in his devoirs, Stinky Honkalot flaps his wings and blows all the papers off his teacher's desk."

Did you chuckle too?

Before Pierre and I left today, I asked the kids to tell me what they learned about writing. Tristan said, "We need to use our imagination." Ava said, "I learned the word skein means a group of geese flying in the air." And Gacia, who was my personal computer assistant today (thanks so much, Gacia!), said, "I learned that you need to change some words to make your writing better."

Thanks, Ms. Arcamone, for being YOU (hey, I forgot to tell you that Ms. Arcamone is the beautiful dark-haired woman in today's pic); thanks to Pierre for being my partner at Kingsdale; and special big thanks to the kids for being fun, and hardworking and making me laugh! Maybe we'll see you guys at the book launch!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jan
10

Super Morning at St. Thomas High School!!

You may know that I teach CEGEP here in Montreal and that I do a lot of school visits -- mostly to high schools, where I work a lot with students in the higher grades. But my morning at St. Thomas High School reminded me that I have a special fondness for Grade Sevens. I can't quite tell you why. Maybe it's because Grade Seven was a pivotal year in my own life; it's when I decided I wanted to become a teacher and a writer. Twelve going on thirteen is also the age my mum was when she entered Theresienstadt, the Nazi concentration camp where she spent nearly three years. So, this morning, when I looked out at the three Grade Seven classes I was working with, I thought a lot about my mum and her story (which inspired my historical novel What World Is Left).

It also helped that the teacher of the remarkable students I worked with is the remarkable Miss Scott. Miss Scott and I worked together on a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project when she was teaching at Riverdale High School. In fact, Miss Scott and her students at Riverdale helped me write my YA novel Hate Mail. (They came up with some of the best ideas in the book!)

So, how about I tell you some of the most interesting things that happened with Miss Scott's classes this morning?

I was talking about body language with the first group when I noticed a student named David twiddling his pen. When I pointed out the twiddling, I noticed that another student named Muhammad was smiling and leaning in towards David. Clearly, Muhammad was enjoying the fact that I was teasing David. And as it turned out, the two boys are friends. I also learned that David was twiddling because he was tired. So, being snoopy (an important trait in a writer!), I asked David what had kept him up so late last night. Guess what he told me? THAT HE WAS READING A BOOK -- THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS. Great news, David! Twiddle away!

In the same group, when I talked about What World Is Left, a student named Cynthia asked, "Did your mum feel better after telling you her story?" My mum didn't want to share her story; she'd kept her experience secret for more than 60 years. But as I told Cynthia, my mum definitely feel better after sharing the experience. For one thing, she'd been a bad sleeper most of her life, but after telling me about what had happened to her during the war, she began sleeping better. Finding out my mum's story also did a lot to improve our relationship. It's hard to feel upset with a person once you know what they have been through.

Today's pic was taken at the end of my workshop with Miss Scott's second group. You may notice that one student is holding a book -- The Diary of Anne Frank. The student is Danica, and she pulled that book out from her desk when I told her class that my mum knew Anne Frank. My arms got tingly (they tingle whenever something amazing or interesting happens) when Danica showed me the book.

During the second class, I also met a student named Pearla. It's a name I'd never heard before and I wrote it down for my list of possible names to use in upcomig books. Thanks, Pearla! (Actually thanks to your folks for coming up with the cool name!)

I had lunch in the library, where I met with a few students to chat one-on-one about writing. I was impressed by a student named Peder who is half-Norwegian and half-Inuit. What a cool mix! Peder told me he is working on a book inspired by George Orwell's 1984. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, Peder had what he described as, "a vivid nightmare of a 1984 world." I told Peder to write all the details down before he starts to forget them. Interestingly, the characters in Peder's dream were all gender neutral. Use that in your book too, Peder! Peder had been in the second class I taught, and when I asked him if he learned anything from my talk, he told me: "I learned I should read and write more. If I ever write anything, I want to revise it over and over. I want to learn people's stories. I want to know." Peder, you made my day when you told me, "I want to know."

You'd think I couldn't possibly have had three wonderful classes in a row... but I did. Miss Scott's last group was the liveliest of them all -- in fact, I had to ask them to STOP asking questions (so sorry, you guys, but we only had 45 minutes together... why don't you go ahead and ask me some questions here in the comments section?!!). My favourite moment during this class was when a student named Evan asked  me, "Do you find it easier to write when it's based on something you actually feel?" Okay, Evan, you may only be in Grade Seven, but that is a super sophisticated question. And you know what else? I think your question touches the very heart of writing fiction. Good fiction doesn't have to be based on true events -- but it definitely has to be based on TRUE FEELINGS.

I'll be back for two more writing workshops at St. Thomas. I'll do my best to stick around for lunch. That's because I'd like to see what writing might emerge from this morning's workshops.

Thanks to my friend, librarian Mrs. Pye for the invite; thanks to Miss Scott for sharing your students (and from bringing my lunch in the library); and thanks to the kids for being wonderful, inquisitive and bright Grade Sevens!

 

 

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Jan
09

Reporting in from Quebec City

Hello hello... or perhaps I should say bonjour bonjour! I'm at the train station in Quebec City, about to head home after a fun, busy day doing writing workshops with students at Ecole Sécondaire de la Seigneurie in Beauport. I worked with three groups of secondary III students. English is a second language for these students -- but they're very good at speaking and writing it.

All of the students are reading my historical novel, What World Is Left, so besides sharing my usual writing tips, I told the students the story behind the book... and why it was such an important project for me personally. I also told them my favourite story -- it's about the monkey man charm I wear on my necklace.

Here are just a few of the highlights of today's visit --

With the first group (their teacher is my friend Mr. Lord), I talked a little about bilingualism. I told the students a line I read recently which really touched me: "Every time you hear an accent, it's a sign of courage." NIce, don't you think? I know that I have often felt embarrassed about my English accent when I speak French, but I DON'T LET THAT STOP ME!!

Mr. Lord had asked me NOT to speak French with his classes, but once in a while, I snuck in a French word. When I was discussing the importance of revising our work, I used the word "brouillon" which means "rough draft" in French. I told the students that I much prefer the sound of the word "brouillon" to :"rough draft." Brouillon sounds rougher, don't you think?! (I know my first drafts are VERY rough.)

The second class was with a lovely substitute teacher named Laurie. With that group, I talked about how it has been possible for me to turn something I love (writing) into a career. Afterwards, a young man named Matthis told me, "It isn't always possible to follow your passion." Matthis went on to explain that he'd had to give up his dream of becoming a professional hockey player: "It's because I had three concussions and I work after school at Provigo." But I think I may have come up with a solution for Matthis. What about writing a book about a young hockey player who has had three concussions and works part-time at the local grocery store? You know, Matthis, there is a big market for sports stories for teens... and I think you could turn your story into a book. I bet a lot of young people would be interested in reading it. And of course, I want to read it too!

Here's a little shout-out to a student named Tommy-Lee Tremblay. I just want to tell you that you've got the kind of name that belongs on a book cover. (Or else maybe I should have a Tommy-Lee Tremblay as a character in one of my books!)

Students in the last group (also Mr. Lord's students) had heard that I had discussed body language earlier in the day -- so I showed them some of my tricks for analyzing body language. I explained that writers use body language in our stories. It's one more way to bring characters to life. I told these students that I always hate my frist drafts. I asked them if they ever love anything they write when they first write it. A student named Louis said: "Sometimes I write one sentence and I think it's fantastic."

I told Louis that I think that means he MAY NOT be a writer... but you know what, Louis? Here I am on the train (I forgot to mention that I boarded a while ago and am now writing from my seat)... and I'm thinking maybe I was wrong. Maybe you're just lucky -- and talented. Good for you that you think some of your sentences are fantastic, even before you rewrite them. Now the trick is to work on your OTHER sentences -- the ones that may not be quite so fantastic -- and  turn them into something beautiful too.

Thanks to the students for being smart, lively, open and great listeners. Thanks to Mr. Lord for the invite. Catch the stories, talk to old people and find out their secrets, then take the stories you catch -- and share them with the rest of us!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jan
08

Back from the Circus... School, I Mean!!

I'm just home from an incredibly fun and stimulating visit to Montreal's Ecole Nationale de Cirque where I did two writing workshops for young people who have come to Montreal to train to become circus performers. My workshops took place in the school's library -- a place that is close to my heart. That's because it was in this very same library that I started researching my YA novel Learning the Ropes. It was also there that I met librarian Anna-Karyna Barlati, who really introduced me to all things circus!

What made today's visit unusual and special for me is that the young people I worked with already know a lot about some of the things I love to discuss, such as the need for discipline and hard work if we want to get better at what we do. We also talked about courage. It takes courage for authors to tackle difficult subjects, but as a student named Lily explained, working on a circus act also requires courage. Lily explained that she needs courage when she does ropes or tissu: "When I'm about to do my big drop and I'm face down, I think, 'Am I going to hit my head on the mat?'"

These students also understood when I explained how much re-writing I do. That's because they go over their moves again and again... and then some... before they get them right. And when I said that I often feel frustrated when I write, a student named Lola said she felt the same way when she was learning to do a hands-free cartwheel: "I did it once, but then I couldn't do it a second time." But Lola didn't give up -- another trait we writers share with circus performers!-- and now she can do the hands-free cartwheel anytime she wants to!

If you know me, you'll know I'm obsessed with body language. Well, there was a lot of nodding when I was sharing my writing tips today. Sometimes, I get the sense that one of the young people I am working with is meant to be a writer. I had that feeling about many of the students I met today. A student named Andrea, who does the Cyr wheel, confirmed my hunch about her when she told me, "I'm the kind of person who doesn't understand things until I write them down." Exactly, Andrea! That's what writing is all about!

In addition to teachers Diana Matean and Vaji Dorostkar, my librarian pal Anna-Karyna was also at today's workshops. I learned that Anna-Karyna teaches a course on Research Methods and the Artistic Process. So I'm going to end tonight's blog entry with something Anna-Karyna told my second group: "Hold those stories of who you are." How I love that line! That's what we all need to do -- hold the stories of who we are. Whether we use words or physical movement or music or paint to tell our stories, the main thing is holding onto them -- and when we're ready, sharing them with the world.

Thanks Diana and Anna-Karyna for making today's visit possible. Thanks especially to the students. My book Learning the Ropes is pretty good -- but think how amazing your books about circus life are going o be!!! Now get to work!!!

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Dec
13

Small Triumphs in Akulivik, Nunavik -- and a Lesson from an Artist

Hello again from Akulivk, Nunavik, where I am working with artist Thomas Kneubuhler at Tukisiniarvik School. We are here as part of the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation's Quebec Roots program, helping students use words and images to produce a chapter that will be published this spring in a real book!

I am calling today's blog entry "Small Triumphs in Akulivik and A Lesson from an Artist." I'll start with today's small triumph. English is a second or third language for most of the students at Tukisiniarvik School. Most have grown up speaking Inuktitut. And many of the students we've been working with this week are reluctant to put words on paper. (They are a lot happier when they are taking photographs with Thomas!) I think part of the issue is that their fear of making a mistake. I've been trying to tell them that making mistakes is an important part of the writing process. I make mistakes all the time. Which is why I spend most of my work days RE-WRITING!

So today's small triumph came when we dropped in to visit Abby's class, which is down the hall from Edna's class (we've been working with Edna's students for the Quebec Roots project). Because most of the kids at Tukisiniarvik were in the gym, preparing for the Christmas party, Thomas and I only had two students: Diane, who's 14, and her 12 year old brother Sakiriasi.

Thomas started the lesson by showing them some photos and talking about his work as a photographer. I took over for the second half. My small triumph was: I GOT THE KIDS TO DO SOME WRITING!! I asked them to remember being five years old. Diane wrote about playing with her best friend and her dog. Sakiriasi wrote about going hunting for caribou with his dad. Sakiriasi has been hunting since he was four! You'll find proof of today's small triumph in the first pic -- that's the two kids, with Abby and me -- all of us showing off our writing!

Perhaps you are wondering what the second photo is all about. That's a photo taken by one of Edna's students -- it's a shot of the arena here in Akulivik. The students have decided to focus their chapter on the arena, a popular destination in town. Thomas was showing Edna's students this pic yesterday... and now comes "A Lesson From an Artist"! Thomas observed the boarded up windows on the second floor of the arena. (You'll see them in the second photo.) And he asked the students, "What happened to those windows?" Then Thomas turned to me and said, "I bet there's a story there!"

It turns out that Thomas was right. It also turned out that one of the boys in the class admitted that he had broken one of the windows. And guess what? I got him to write a poem about it! We called the poem "Slingshot" since that's what he used to shatter the glass. I'm going to share a few lines from his poem here:

"On my third try, I shattered the window.

I felt good and bad.

Good because I had good aim.

Bad because I broke the window."

I don't know about you, but I love the simple straightforward language and the part about feeling good and bad. I often have mixed feelings about things. I also admire that the student was brave enough to write about something difficult. As I've been telling the kids in Akulivik, trouble in a story (or poem) is like gasoline in a Ski-Doo -- it gets things moving!

One of my YA novels, The Middle of Everywhere, is set in Nunavik. But another thing I've been telling the students here -- perhaps the most important thing I can share with them -- is that they're the real experts about life in the North. It's time for YOU to write YOUR stories about life in Akulivik. Use trouble to fuel your stories, and take a lesson from Diane and Sakiriasi and don't be afraid to make mistakes!

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Dec
11

Pulling Out Stitches When Sewing a Parka -- Akulivik, Nunavik

I'm reporting in today from Tukisiniarvik School in Akulivik, Nunavik. I'm here with artist Thomas Kneubuhler, working on this year's edition of Quebec Roots, a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project.

Teams of writers and photographers are travelling to six schools across the province of Quebec. We're helping students to use words and photos to capture the communities where they live.

We are working with Edna's senior students. Yesterday, we spent the morning discussing possible topics. Every chapter in the Quebec Roots book, has its own topic, and it's important for the Blue Met team that students come up with their own topics. (In other words, it's not up to us to tell the students what to write or take photographs about!) So far, it looks like Edna's students want to write about the arena, a popular hangout in town. What's interesting is that in Akulivik, the arena is more of a place for the local boys than for the girls. Not that the girls aren't athletic -- in fact, it turns out that many of the girls are into volleyball. And it also turns out that most of the girls love to sew.

The zamboni, the machine used to clean the ice at the arena, has been broken since October. But that hasn't stopped the boys from playing hockey. This morning, I got students to do a group poem called "Zanboni." I'm going to give you a sneak preview -- you'll have to wait until April, when the 2019 edition of Quebec Roots is published, to read the whole poem!

"Junior loves to clean the ice.

Not because it's good exercise,

Not because he likes to clean his house,

But because it means he gets to play hockey."

You know what I love about that stanza of our group poem? That I can hear the kids' voices! Can you hear them too?

Also, before I sign off for today, I want to tell you one more thing that happened this morning. Because we had some spare time, Thomas and I did mini photography and writing workshops with Jill's secondary students. We only had three students in our class -- but it was kind of amazing! Usually, I start with the writing (that's because students tend to be less interested in learning about writing, so I'm like the soup and salad and Thomas is the DESSERT), but we thought we'd change things up, so Thomas did his mini photo workshop first. Dessert before soup and salad!

You should have seen the students' faces during Thomas's workshop -- especially when he showed them photos students took when Thomas and I were here for Quebec Roots in 2009. The students recognized some of their friends.

When it was my turn to work with the students, I talked about the importance of rewriting. And because I know the girls love to sew, I found a way to compare writing to sewing. "DId you ever," I asked them, "have to pull out a stitch and start over?"

A student named Jessica said that that had happened to her many times. "How did it make you feel to have to pull out a stitch?" I asked. Jessica said, "I felt mad." Exactly! Rewriting is frustrating work -- like pulling out stitches when you are sewing a parka. But in the end, it's worth it -- because you get a good story, or a beautiful warm parka!

But you know how I know my mini writing workshop really was a success?! Because at the end, I asked the girls, "Do you want me to give you homework?" (I was only joking.) Then a student named Annie, said "YES!"

Annie, thanks for making my day. Tukisiniarvik School, thanks for the warm welcome. To Edna's students, I hope you learn a lot this week about writing and photography. We look forward to reading and seeing your work. Thanks to the KSB's Amber Douthwright for organizing our visit, thanks to Blue Met's Fréderick Gaudin Laurin for overseeing our work. Here's to words and images!

 

 

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Nov
28

Visit to Joliette High School

I'm just home from a fun visit to Joliette High School where I worked with Miss Beddia's Sec II classes. One of the things that made today's visit extra-fun is that Miss Beddia was once my student at Marianopolis College. There is a special pleasure in having taught someone who has become such a talented teacher.

I worked with two groups and I had to be super speedy with the first group (that's because bad weather here in Montreal made the trip to Joliette longer than I expected). But I'll give those kids credits because they managed to keep up with me!

I demonstrated how writers tend to be snoopy by asking a student named Sam why his thumb was wrapped in a bandage. You'll never guess what I found out! That Sam makes his own sushi. He was preparing sushi early this morning for his lunch when he cut his thumb (which explains the bandage). Later, when I was telling the students they should interview their grandparents in order to uncover their secrets, Sam told us a great story about his grandmother: "She accidentally lit a Costco on fire. Maybe it wasn't a Costco, but she said it looked like one." If I were you Sam, I'd bring a pen and paper over to your grandma's and get some more details. I think there's a book in there!

During the brief exercise I did with the first group, I asked students to write about a moment in their lives when they needed courage. Julianne wrote about coming to Quebec from Guatemala and attending a French school when she didn't speak a word of French: "I felt dumb (very dumb)." I love how Julianne included the words "very dumb" in brackets... you can really feel how unhappy and inadequate Julianne must have felt.

A student named William asked me, ""Why do you write books that won't be popular in ten years? Gaming is taking over." I told William that I hope to write books that will remain popjular long after ten years have gone by. And I told him that I have friends who write the scripts for video games... and maybe he should conisder a career in that field.

With the second group, I tried a different writing exercise. I asked the students to remember a fight they had been involved in, or else witnessed. Matis wrote about an ice fight, and recalled his "thoughts of future revenge." Matis, you should keep writing that story and tell us more about those vengeful thoughts. I'd like to know more about what went through your head during the ice fight. Alyssia wrote about a schoolyard fight. She remembered, "I could hear everyone cheering and taking a video." Ohh, I love the sounds of cheering, and I think it'd make a great scene in a story to have students filming a fight on their cellphones. Keep writing that story, Alyssia!

As I was telling the students today, memory is an important part of the writer's toolbox. Most students use their memory to prepare for tests. But I think memory can also be put to excellent use as a source of inspiration for stories. Add the magic "What if?" question that I talked about this morning, and you could be on your way to writing your first book!

Because I arrived late, the plan is for me to meet up again next week with some of Miss Beddia's students for a virtual writing lesson. Lucky me to have met all of you today -- and to have had Miss Beddia for a student. And lucky all of you to have Miss Beddia for your teacher. Now get to work on your stories!!

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Nov
24

Good Grief

In the old comic strip, Charlie Brown's catch phrase was "Good grief."

Good Grief is also the name of a workshop for kids that takes place twice a year here in Montreal. The workshop was developed by my friend, grief counselor Dawn Cruchet, and it's now run by Dawn's protégé, grief counselor Natalie Segal together with Jillian Lucht.

I met Dawn and Natalie when I was doing the research for my novel, Planet Grief, which just happens to be set at a grief retreat!

So, today was pretty special, because I was invited to pop by the Good Grief Workshop to speak with the 30 or so kids (and their parents) who were attending. And thanks to a generous gift from Dawn's friend, Dr. Eva Kuchar, every one of the youngsters who was there today left with a copy of Planet Grief (which I happily signed for each of them!).

I told the young participants that I became interested in the subject of grief when my own mum was dying two years ago. At the time, I was 56 and I knew I was lucky to have had a mother for so long (I'm lucky, too, that I still have my dad). I wondered a lot about what it would feel like to be a young person whose mom or dad dies. Like I told the participants today, even though they are young, they already have a lot more life experience that many adults. And I suggested that maybe they should consider turning their difficult experiences into stories (or poems, or paintings, or music... in other words, into something beautiful that they can share with others).

I also talked a little about the writing process and all the work that goes into a published book. When I explained about the importance of re-writing, a lovely young man named Brenden remarked, "I have a rock polisher and you have to polish a rock over and over till it gets shiny." Exactly, Brenden -- it's the same for stories.

Later, when I was telling the kids that I often get good ideas in the shower, Brenden made another interesting comment: "Some inventors get ideas when they are on the toilet!" I will keep that in mind, Brenden!

Ariel, who is 18, and goes to John Abbott College, told me she stopped writing stories two years, following her mom's death. "I continud writing poetry. I use poetry to express my feelings. Now I want to go back to writing as a passion -- not just as an outlet." Wow, Ariel, those are powerful, sensitive words! I'm delighted that you feel ready to go back to writing stories. And I hope that for you, writing will be both a passion and an outlet. Even though writing is often hard work, I'm hooked! Something tells me you're heading in that direction too!

Even for a writer like me, it's hard to find words to describe the spirit at Selwyn House School today, where the Good Grief Workshop took place. It's as if I could feel the kindness and support in the air, but also the pain these youngsters have been through. As I told them, I am 100 per cent convinced that as they grow up, they will go on to help other young people who are facing loss and grief in their lives.

I'm not sure if I believe in heaven or angels... but I do believe that love lives on, and that our loved ones live on in us. At the end of the afternoon, we released balloons on which we had written messages.... 'm not sure the balloons will make it all the way to heaven. But I do know that when I looked at the youngsters' faces today, I could see both of their parents in them. And I can tell you that their parents must be very proud to have raised such kind and openhearted kids.

So, if you're in Montreal this evening and you see a balloon blowing overhead, think of love and courage. Grief is definitely good.

Thanks to Natalie for today's invite. Thanks to Dawn for all you do. Thanks to Natalie and Jillian's team for being fabulous. And thanks most of all to the kids, you are AMAZING. Thanks for your inspiration. xo from Monique

 

 

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Nov
23

"Tell Me A Story! Youth Literature and the Holocaust"

"Tell Me A Story: Youth Literature and the Holocaust" is the name of a traveling exhibit that will be making its way across  Canada. It's now in Montreal, on display at the Cote des Neiges Library.

I was there this morning for the inaugual event. Grade four students from the nearby Ecole Les Petits Chanteurs de Mont-Royal came to see the exhibit and do a little writing workshop with me.

The exbibit tells the story of five youngsters whose lives were affected by the Holocaust. All five youngsters' stories were used in works of literature including Karen Levine's Hannah's Suitcase and Anne Renaud's Fania's Heart. My novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's experience during the Holocaust, is also part of the exhbit.

It was very moving to see the gorgeous display, put togteher by the Montreal Holocaust Museum under the careful direction of Isabelle Goudou. Because I was busy with the writing workshops, I'll need to return ASAP to have a closer look at all of the display panels and the video presentation.

Alice Herscovitch, director of the Montreal Holocaust Museum, welcomed the young visitors. I loved what Alice told them: "The idea of this exhibit is not to frighten you, but to inspire you to have courage. Everybody has to change the world a little bit."

Alice's remark gave me an idea for the writing exercise I did with the students. (Don't worry, I gave them writing tips first -- I always give writing tips!!). Afterwards though, I asked the students to write about a time in their lives when they needed to summon courage. The students gave me permission to quote from their work. They attend a French school, so the workshop was in French, and they wrote in French too -- but for those of you whose French isn't strong, I'll provide translation services!

Clément wrote: "Moi, j'ai marché tout de suite apès une mini-tornade." Which means that Clément went for a walk following a mini-tornado.

Natan remembered, "Je faisais un concert de violon en solo, et je me sentais très nerveux." Natan was doing a violin solo and he felt very nervous.

Ernest wrote, "Je jouais avec mes amis, Une dame est venue nous crier dessus et elle nous a dit, 'qu'est-ce-que vous faites dans mon jardin?" Which means that Ernest and his friends were playing when a woman started shouting at them, "What are you doing in my garden?"

I told the students how many of my stories begin with truth (either I do research, the way I did with my mum's story, or I use my memory, the way I had the students do this morning.) But then I add an important ingredient: IMAGINATION. What if, for example. the angry woman in Ernest's story had phoned the police, and what if the boys ran away, and what if the police caught up with them and hauled them down to the police station? See! We just started to develop a story.

The most important part of today's visit was of course the exhibit. But hopefully, I gave the students something to think about too. And also, I can't resist telling you that there was a CTV reporter covering the event. HIs name is Julian McKenzie! Amd guess what? Julian was my Journalism student at Marianopolis College six years ago? If I sound proud, it's because I am.

If you're in Montreal, go see the exhibit!! And if you're elsewhere, I hope it'll make a stop near you.

 

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Nov
20

My Heart's in Dumas, Texas

It's been a busy day -- but like the title to today's blog entry says, I left my heart in Dumas, Texas.

That's because I started the day with two virtual visits to Grade Six classes at Dumas Intermediate School in northern Texas. I've been doing virtual visits to Dumas for several years, and they've always been wonderful... but today was extra-wonderful. I think it's because the students were so well-prepared and had such amazing smart and sensitive questions.

As usual, I started with some writing tips -- but the main reason I was asked to speak to the students was to talk about the Holocaust and my novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mother's childhood experience in a Nazi concentration camp. My mom died almost two years ago -- but when she was alive and well enough, she used to join me on my virtual visits to Dumas. In fact, as I told the students today, her favourite part was remarking on how handsome the boys were. My mom was a real character, who had as we all do, good and bad traits. One of her best traits was that she loved meeting new people -- and even well into her 80's, she continued to be a big flirt!!

As I explained to the students, my mom kept the story of her Holocaust experiences a secret for more than 60 years. I'm the one (snoopy and determined could be my middle names) who forced my mum to share her story. Though it was hard for her to do, I think she was glad to have unburdened herself, and I know she felt that it was important for the next generation to learn the truth about the Holocaust. As I told the students today, when we hear the number six million (the estimated number of Jews who perished during the Holocaust), we get overwhelmed by the huge number. But when we hear one person's story, we can take it in and be changed by it.

The students had so so many great questions. I don't have room to tell you all of them here, but I'll give you a few examples.

Abraham asked, "Were you sad when you learned your mom's story?" My answer is a bit complicated, but I tried to be as honest as possible. Of course, I was sad to know how much my mom had suffered, but you know what? Part of me -- the writer part -- was excited and even happy to be getting such amazing, important material that I hoped to be able to share with readers.

Kennedy wanted to know, "How did the Holocaust affect your mom as a person?" I told Kennedy that my mom could never stand in a line -- I think that that's because at Theresienstadt, my mom's concentration camp, the prisoners had to line up for everything. Also, my mom could not stop eating cherries when they were in season. Cherries were her favourite fruit, and I think that when she had them, she remembered the years of starvation during the war. But as I explained to Kennedy, the Holocaust also affected my mom in positive ways. She was the free-est  person I have ever known. She didn't give a hoot for what other people thought. I think surviving the Holocaust made my mom so free.

Linday wanted to know how it felt to publish my first book. That was easy for me to answer. It felt amazing!

Collin wanted to know, "What are your favourite stories to write about?" Ohh, I loved that question. I told Collin that my favourite stories are about people who find the courage to face big challenges. And people who are loving and who can still maintain a sense of humour during hard times.

I'll end with Alan's question. He asked me, "Did your dad ever tell you his story?" I explained to Alan that my dad, who is half-Jewish was not sent to a concentration camp. Instead, he was hidden on a farm in Holland. I told Alan that every time I ask my dad, who is now nearly 88, but in amazing shape, about his wartime experiences, he just makes jokes. I think that's his way of avoiding my questions. So, you know what, Alan? Your question reminds me not to give up on trying to learn my dad's story too.

My heart feels very full from this morning's visit to Dumas. Kids, you were such an attentive, kind and open-hearted audience. Thanks for those questions, which really showed me what smart, good people you are. You made me feel more hopeful about the future of our world. Thanks to Mrs. Craigmiles for the invite; thanks to Mrs. Artho for the technical support; and special thanks to your teachers for preparing you so well.

I really do feel like my heart is with you all in Dumas. Lucky me that I got to cross paths with all of you! Now, go and uncover some secrets -- and turn them into books of your own!!

 

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Nov
19

New Beginnings -- Quebec Roots Goes to Genesis Class at LPHS

Artist Thomas Kneubuhler and I spent the morning with MIss Jackson's Genesis class at Lindsay Place High School. We were there to launch this year's edition of Quebec Roots, a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation educational program that teams up pairs of writers and photograhers with students across the province of Quebec.

The Genesis students will be contributing a chapter to this year's edition of Quebec Roots. Thomas (that's him sitting next to me in today's pic) and I will be helping students use images and words to tell their stories.

One thing's for sure -- these students have plenty of stories. Genesis is a small alternative program, and for many of the students, Genesis represents a new beginning. One of our goals today was to come up with a topic for their chapter -- and they chose "Genesis: new beginnings." One student volunteered to research the biblical story of Genesis, and write something about that for the chapter; a group of students are going to interview John, the person who founded the Genesis program more than thirty years ago. Sounds interesting, don't you think?

I covered some writing pointers, and Thomas shared some photography tips. I always like when writing and photography intersect. Thomas warned the students to avoid taking blurry photographs. I couldn't help jumping in to explain that using precise, detailed language keeps a piece of writing from being vague and blurry. When Thomas told the students to avoid using the flash when possible -- I was tempted to jump in and say "Avoid adverbs when you write!" -- but I felt I couldn't over-do my jumping in!!

When I talked about the necessity of re-writing, I told the students that I hate my own first drafts. A student named Elektra called out, "I feel you." That could be a sign that you're a writer too, Elektra!

A student named Daniel told me, "I hate getting into detail." I tried my best to make Daniel change his mind. I tried to explain that details (not too many, not too few!) make our writing come alive. And you know what? I think my lesson might have sunk in because when I was circulating around the room, looking at what the students had written, I read something beautiful and moving and DETAILED by... you'll never guess! DANIEL!

He wrote: "I'm getting a highway tattoo to always remind myself to keep moving forward."

See what I meant about detail?

Looking forward to working with the Genesis students -- and to seeing their photographs and stories. Special thanks to Blue Met's Fréderick Gaudin-Laurin for accompanying us today; and to teacher Miss Jackson for being fabulous and sharing her students with us.

Here's to new beginnings for all of us!

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Nov
14

"Write about what keeps you up at night" -- Visit to Rosemere High

I'm just back from an incredible visit to Rosemere High School. I was there to work with a group of Sec. II students -- most of them have Miss Lawrence for English, but some were invited to take part because they happen to be keen writers.

Because the students were so motivated, I made an impromptu decision: to try a brand new challenging exercise. To be honest, I was a little worried the exercise might turn out to be a disaster, but IT WORKED!! Anyway, you might be wondering about the quote "Write about what keeps you up a night" which is part of the title of today's blog entry. It's a quote from David Small, an American author and illustrator, whose graphic novel Sitches is one of my all time favourites. Though I never met David Small, my life changed when I heard him interviewed, and he shared that piece of advice: "Write about what keeps you up at night." (In fact, the day after I saw that interview, I started working on the novel that became So Much It Hurts -- which is based on an incident that still occasionally interferes with my sleep.)

So I asked the students to write about what keeps them up at night. I explained that that exercise was just for them -- that they didn't have to show me what they wrote. But I told them, "Keep that piece of paper with you always. Put it in a safe spot. One day, when you're ready -- turn it into a story." I also suggested that they consider using other art forms such as drawing or collage or making music to transform what keeps them up at night into something beautiful and meaningful.

As usual, I shared all my writing tips, and had the students do two other exercises. When I was talking about how writers need to ask "What if?" to help them advance their plots, a student named Laura remarked, "That sounds like anxiety. When you have anxiety, your mind is constantly working and never shuts off." Interesting! I'd never thought of the "what if?" mindset that way before -- and I suggested to Laura that maybe she should write about a young person who can't shut off her mind. I'd definitely want to read that story!

When the students did an exercise based on a memory, Laurence remembered, "When I cut my hair really short like a boy's. My head felt light." I thought that that memory would make a great story -- and would allow Laurence to explore gender roles and expectations.

A student named Michael gave me permission to share his beautiful and honest memory from when he was ten. Get ready for something powerful!

"When I was ten, I had a five year cancer remission party on Feb. 5th, 2015. I felt everyone's happiness. I saw the relief in my family's eyes. I tasted a bit of fear and I smelled amazing food of course."

See what I meant about powerful? And MIchael's done such a great job of combining observation (his family's relief), honesty (his own fear) and humour (the amazing food "of course"). You know what I say to that? That even though Michael told me he wants to become a doctor, I think he should also be a writer (it's possible to do both, you know.)

Thanks to Miss Lawrence for the invite to Rosemere High (rest your voice, Miss Lawrence, so that you give that laryngitis the chance to completely go away); thanks to student teacher Mr. Simon for helping things go smoothly; and special thanks to the students. You inspired me -- though I believe it was supposed to be the other way around!!

 

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Nov
09

More Cool Seniors! (Visit to Vista)

I've been making the rounds of seniors' centres -- recruiting participants for a seniors' storytelling event that will be part of next spring's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. On Tuesday, I was at Place Kensington in Westmount. Today, I visited Vista, which is so close to my house that I considered jogging over!

FIrst, I talked a little about the project -- actress Fanny Lacroix and I will be helping seniors prepare their story material. I'll be working on the writing; Fanny's in charge of performance. When Vista's recreation director, Riana Levy, heard more about the project, she came up with a great suggeston: that we get the storytelling started!

It felt to me like we had some natural performers at the table!

Helen Levy, who's 92, told a funny, but also touching story about a woman who was shoplifting at Helen's grocery store on St. Laurent Boulevard. For the culprit, the store represented home. My favourite part was when Helen told us how the women reacted after she was caught: "She put our her hands like this--" Helen raised her wrists in front of her "-- Take me away! Arrest me! But after I get out of prison, I'm coming right back!"

Jim McCormick, who's 71, told a story about something that happened to him when he was a kid. It was a Saturday morning, and JIm was sleepy when he went to collect the Gazette on the doorstep. I don't want to tell you what happened next  -- only that Jim forgot where he put the newspaper. And that it turned up later in an extremely unexpected spot. (Okay, here's a clue, it was in the kitchen -- but not on the counter!!)

Sylvia Stern, who's 97, made us laugh with her account of being a teenager sneaking home one morning at five AM. "How am I going to explain this to my mother?" Sylvia remembered asking herself. Let's just say Sylvia's mom wasn't easy to fool!

And Lilita Kruze, who's 62, told us how her little sister took off one day when the family was visiting Washingotn. "You"re boring!" the little girl told her family members before she disappeared. Luckily, there was a happy ending to the story -- it involved a police station, and a policeman's cap.

So, it's looking as if Fanny and I will be returning to Vista. I'm already looking to more great stories!

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Nov
06

A New Kind of Classroom

Teachers aren't supposed to have favourites -- but let's be honest, it sometimes happens!

I'm just home from Place Kensington, a seniors' residence in Westmount. I was there on a mission for the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation. Actress Fanny Lacroix and I will be working with 60 seniors this winter, helping them to prepare for a Blue Metropolis Festival event called Literarily Hilarious.

Fanny couldn't join me this morning at Place Kensington, so I had the class all to myself!

We talked about storytelling and humour -- and I made them laugh with the story about how I pretended to be a princess when I went to summer camp back in 1971! (That experience led me to write the kids' book Princess Angelica, Camp Catastrophe). We also talked about how some funny stories have a tragic edge.

Anyway, I had more than a dozen participants and they were focused and funny and smart.

I didn't take notes until I was leaving -- that's when I started chatting with Sheila Zittrer, who's spry and smart and fit at the age of 92. (That's Sheila with me in today's pic.) Sheila told me a wonderful story and she said I must pass it on to young people, so I told her I'd tell it to my students, and also to you, my blog readers. Here goes -- and a word of warning, the story isn't funny, it's dead-serious and it's about writing --

"The greatest upset of my life," Sheila told me, "was something that happened when I was nine or ten. I was an imaginative child. I wrote secretly in my bedroom. I had written 100 pages. It was a nonsense little story. I came out of my room one day and I was so proud. I said, 'Mom, you know what? I wrote a book!' And she laughed at me. I cried bitterly and I tore up everything. I never wrote again. I lost all confidence. The important lesson that I want young people to know is to keep trying. Don't let people discourage you!"

Sheila added that her mom was young and inexperienced -- so she would have had no idea of the impact of her laughter on her daughter's life...

Quite the story, no?

And you know what? Sheila may be 92 -- but she's about to start writing again! Thanks to Blue Metropolis's new project! It may be rainy and grey in Montreal today, but thanks to Sheila and the other seniors I met this morning, it's all blue skies and sunshine in my head. Special thanks to Place Kensington's Doreen Friedman for rounding up such a cool crowd!

 

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Oct
28

The Bilingual Mind

"The Bilingual Mind" is the name of a writing workshop I did yesterday at the beautiful Morrin Centre in Quebec City. The activity was part of Théatre La Bordée's Enjeux en Scène program. Since the subject was bilingualism (inspired by Larry Tremblay's play The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi which starts its run on Tuesday at La Bordée), not only did I present in two languages, but the 21 participants did writing exercises in our country's two official languages -- and even in some extra languages! BONUS! One participant wrote in Spanish; another taught us some Farsi words; and Martin told us why he got hooked on sign language!

The goal of the workshop was to jumpstart participants' writing projects, and to get us all to reflect on what it means to have a bilingual mind. The participants were of all ages and backgrounds. Among them were scientists, several translators, two journalists, a painter, a poet, and a group of students from Cégep Garneau (they admitted they were there for a class assignment, but I want to tell their teacher Tracy Burns that they were super fun and super smart -- that's a few of them in today's first pic). 

Because I'm interested in "mining" memory, I asked everyone to write about two memories -- a time when they first learned something (it didn't have to be another language), and a time when learning a new language was difficult or frustrating, or made them feel small.

A few years ago, I met a researcher who was in Quebec from France -- and she told me something I have never forgotten -- that a sign of true bilingualism is when, in your brain, you actually think in two languages. Maybe that's why I was so moved by something a woman named Madeleine (she's the painter) wrote: "Chez mes parents/ Our house must have always smelled like dog." I love the easy movement from French to English and I love how Madeleine "takes us there" with the sense of smell. I also love the simple beauty of the language Madeleine uses.

Most of the books written in more than one language are teaching manuals. I have a hunch that the time is right for Canadian literature that is truly bilingual. I'm not sure what shape that kind of literature will take, but something tells me it's coming.

At the end of the workshop, we produced a group poem, which I'm going to share here. Ready?!

I wish I spoke German

So I could speak to Germans.

Speaking new languages

Nous fait rencontrer le monde.

Learning French has improved my English.

I never expected that to happen,

But it did.

It was a happy surprise.

Did you know the word "finger"

Comes from the Farsi word "panjeh"

Which comes from the Farsi word "panj" which means five?

Hey, "panj" sounds a lot like "phalange"

Which means finger bones in French!

Music is a universal language.

When I play the piano,

I feel like I am communicating mes émotions.

Then there's sign language

Which is personal and organic.

We use our bodies --

Every twitch, every hesitation ... means something.

Sometimes language is a barrier.

Sometimes language is a gateway.

C'est à nous de choisir.

So? Pretty beautiful, don't you think? I'll be back in Quebec City on November 12 for an event called "Cohabitation linguistique. It takes place at Théatre La Bordée. I'll be on a panel with Kevin McCoy, Lauren Hartley and YA author Catherine Dorion. Many thanks to Rosie Belley, La Bordée's special projects coordinator; and La Bordée's artistic director Michel Nadeau, for inviting me to take part in these events and for welcoming me and my bilingual group to the Morrin Centre yesterday. Thanks, of course, to the Morrin Centre. And thanks to everyone who took part in yesterday's workshop. I know YOU were supposed to learn and have fun, but I know for sure that I learned and had fun!! Looking forward to seeing some of you again on November 12. In the mean time, let's make language a gateway!!!

 

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Oct
25

Special Visit to Vanier College's "Youth Culture" Students

The problem with today's pic is that you really can't tell how much fun we had!! (I only remembered to get a pic at the end of my session when most of the students had left.)

I'm home from my second visit this week to Vanier College where I worked with Sophie Jacmin's Humanities "Youth Culture" classes. (That's Sophie to my right, and next to her is Vanier Humanities teacher Lili Petrovic, who also came to hear my talk. Sophie and Lili are both authors themselves, so we have a lot in common.)

I worked with two groups of students -- all intelligent and sensitive and good listeners with good questions! I shared my usual writing tips, but the focus was on youth culture -- what kinds of things teens in my day and today are dealing with, and strategies we can use to help each other.

This morning, a student named Deb asked a question that I've never been asked before: "How do you grab teens' attention?" I told Deb that the most important thing is to be HONEST. I also explained that I try to write about the kinds of subjects I wondered about when I was growing up -- such as mental illness, loss, sex, love and finding our place in the world.

When I showed the students the journal that I write in EVERY DAY, I told them that being a writer takes as much discipline and practice as being an athlete, and that I work hard to keep my writing muscles limber. I caught a student named Mauricio nodding when I used the sports metaphor. It turns out Mauricio is on the Vanier basketball team, where he is a pointguard. When I talked about the joys, but also the frustrations of being a writer, Mauricio said he could relate. This is what he told me: "Sometimes I'm good in the game and I scream out of joy. I scream and it's acceptable. Other times, I have a bad practice, or it's after a bad loss, and I feel powerless." Me too!! And the trick, Mauricio, and all of you blog readers out there, is to keep on keeping on, whether it's when you miss the net, or when your sentences just aren't coming out right!

As usual, several students stole my heart. One was a young man on Monday morning who responded when I talked about what it feels like to love someone who has not always treated us right. I never learned the young man's name, but I had the strong feeling that he's got stories inside of him -- start writing, Sir!

Today, a young man named Kidus was sitting at the front of the classroom. (I can't help it -- I have a soft spot for students who sit up front since that's where I always sat!!). Kidus told me that he loves to write, but that he rarely feels satisfied with his work: "When I re-read, I feel like nobody's gonna read it and I give up." Give up, Kidus? Not anymore! Not now that you've met Monique!! The trick with writing, the trick with anything important and meaningful, is to keep trying even when it's difficult -- especially when it's difficult. And you know what? Even with 24 published books, I still find writing difficult. In fact, I think that's why I can't stop doing it!!

Special thanks to the students for being so open and kind; to Sophie for inviting me to speak and sharing your students with me; to Lili for joining the class; and to Writers in the Cegeps for making my visits possible. Here's to stories and courage and kindness!

 

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Oct
22

Why You Should Read Unity Club!

One of the fun things about being an author is hanging out with other authors -- and reading their books!

Karen Spafford-Fitz may live in Edmonton, but we've still had several chances to hang out over the years (mostly when one of her daughters was attending McGill University here in Montreal). Anyway, the two of us hit it off, and have stayed in touch. So though I didn't get to see Karen this weekend, I did get to read her latest YA title Unity Club (Orca Book Publishers).

It was a wonderful, uplifting and though-provoking read. One of the things I liked best about Unity Club was the narrator, Brett. As I mentioned to Karen in an email, I found it refreshing to meet a narrator who's basically a good kid. So many YA narrators these days (my own included!) are difficult, tough kids. Brett is one of those people who tries to do the right thing, even if that's sometimes hard.

When I asked Karen about her choice of narrator, she told me something super interesting -- that Brett's existence is due at least in part to American politics! Karen started writing Unity Club the day after the 2016 American presidential election. Here's how Karen explained it to me: "At that time, I felt a definite need to create a president who I hoped many people could better respect and relate to. I decided that my president would be a young female with a strong social conscience and strong convictions. I also decided that she would be open to re-evaluating her opinions as new information arose."

I told you that was super interesting, didn't I?!

The Unity Club that provides the title for Karen's book is a school club where kids do positive outreach work in their community. For example, they knit scarves and blankets for those in need. When I was reading the book, I couldn't help wondering how Karen knew so much about knitting. So I asked her about that too -- and guess what? It turns out Karen is a knitter, and that she sometimes donates socks and scarves she's knitted. Karen says that, "I always hope my hand-knit scarves and socks feel like warm hugs."

I love how real life finds its way into fiction!

I also asked Karen about her writing process. She explained that before she starts a project, she "interviews" her characters. This sounds like a trick I'd like to start using too. Here's how Karen said it works: "I get to know my protagonist by putting them through a sort of mock 'personal interview.' ... What is my protagonist’s most notable characteristic? What does that character want above all else? What is standing in their way? What is at stake if the protagonist is does notget what they want?"

I think those are amazing questions. In fact, I think they're worth putting on the whiteboard in my classroom. If you're working on your own stories, why don't you try interviewing your characterts too?

Even if Brett is a good kid, like all of us, she has her own struggles. Brett has a complicated relationship with her mom, who has moved to another city. Brett also has to deal with a fellow student who wanted to be president of the Unity Club too. And then there's Jude, the boy who lives at the nearby group home. Is he hiding something from Brett?

Long ago, a neigbour on the street where I grew up tried to teach me how to knit, but I never really caught on. In the end, it was the way Karen knitted this story together that touched me most.

Brett knits a scarf using a cable pattern. Towards the end of the book, Brett reflects on the pattern, "how it symbolizes a rope or a lifeline that brings people back home to safety." I love that line. For me, that's what reading a good book feels like too. A rope or a lifeline that brings us back home.

Hey, thanks Karen, for another great read! I'm already looking forward to your next book! XO Mo

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Sep
14

Another Amazing Day at Centennial Academy

One of the challenges of being a writer is finding the words to express feelings that are deep and important. That's how I feel as I start today's blog entry.

I'm just home from my second of two visits to Centennial Academy. I worked with the Grades Nine, Ten and Eleven classes, and though I had to shush a few students, I think even those students came around... and ended up learning a thing or two from a certain curly-haired writer.

I know I learned from the students I worked with. I'll start with what I learned about what it's like to be a student who doesn't enjoy reading. One of the grade tens, Nicholas asked me, "What happens if you totally hate reading?" Then he added, "I have a feeling a lot of people agree to this." Wow, that was a big moment for me. You see, I'm so into reading (and writing), that I can hardly imagine what it feels like not to love those things. So I told Nicholas that he needs to find the RIGHT BOOK for him, and that if he can't find it, TO WRITE IT!!! (I told the students how I once interviewed Sophie Kinsella, author of the wildly successful Shopaholic series, and she told me she came up with the idea for those books because, "I wrote what I wanted to read."

Another student in the same class, Kiara, asked, "What if you don't like to read because you don't understand what you're reading?" I had an answer for Kiara too. I told her she needs to read with a dictonary nearby, and that she need to tell herself she can do it! I also explained that since last year, I've been reading four books every month IN FRENCH for an ICI-Rad Can show called, Plus on est de fous, plus on lit! When I started, I wasn't sure I could do it. But I'm doing it, and my French has improved a lot. Kiara, you can do it too!

Other cool moments from today's visit:

I was talking about the five senses, and a Grade Eleven student named Jake pointed out that we have more than five senses. For exampe, he mentioned our sense of BALANCE, and the way we are able to perceive HEAT. Super interesting, Jake! WRITE ABOUT IT!

Another Grade Eleven student named Dario might want to become a reporter. He told me, "I can make people feel comfortable talking to me." You're right, Dario, that skill will come in handy when you do interviews.

When I explained that my favourite question is WHAT IF? a Grade Nine student named Zachary told me, "I make cartoons for fun and I ask, 'What if?'" COOL!!

And during a writing exercise, a Grade Nine student named Nina, wrote about a childhood dream in which, "I was trapped in a room with a gorilla." For the second part of the exercise, I asked students to write a new ending to their dream. This is what Nina came up with: "I would say to the gorilla, 'I'm not tasty. Please don't eat me. Let's be friends.'" I WANT TO READ MORE OF THAT STORY, NINA!

My heart and head feel full after today's visit. The Centennial students gave me a lot to think about, and a lot of good feelings. Thanks to Miss Byron for the invite. And don't forget -- find the book you need to read, or else go ahead and write it! Love from Monique

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Sep
07

First and Super Happy School Visit of the Year: Centennial Academy

I'm just home from my first school visit of the new school year. And did I ever have a wonderful time!! (I hope the students did too.) I was at Centennial Academy, working with three groups of students from Grades Seven and Eight, and I even did one presentation in French. I have to say the students at Centennial are delightful -- energetic, bright and funny. In today's pic, you'll meet Massimo, who stood up when I came in, and announced, "My name is Massimo and I read your book Finding Elmo in one day, the day before school started!" (So now you understand why Massimo gets to be in the pic!!)

Another funny moment: before a writing exercise, I asked the students to close their eyes so they could return to a memory from their pasts. When it was time to start writing, a student named Alamo asked me, "Do we write with our eyes closed?" OOPS! I had forgotten to tell the students to open their eyes. Nice catch, Alamo!

When I was working with Miss Bryon's Grades Sevens, I had the students make a list of words that start with the letter M. Dario came up with MALICIOUS. And Nathan came up with MORSE CODE. I have to say I was pretty wow-ed by those M words. Nice work, guys!

I talked about the things that matter most to me as a writer: doing research, paying attention to details, and REWRITING. A student named Kai from the French group asked, "Comment je peux écrire si je suis dyslexique?" I told Kai there are many great writers who are believed to be dsylexic, including one of my favourites -- James Joyce. I also suggested to Kai that he write a story about a young writer coping with dyslexia. Joyce was unusually playful with words, and some critics connect that to his dyslexia. So, as I told the students, often a perceived handicap brings its own special, surprising gifts.

In my last group, I met a student named Ava who told me, "I've been writing stories and getting stuck a lot." Luckily, I had some tips to help Ava get un-stuck. The first one is just accepting that getting stuck is part of being a writer. I told Ava that if I met a student who told me writing always comes easily and everything she writes is fabulous, I would know right away that person was NOT a writer. WRITERS GET STUCK! It's an occupational hazard! I also compared writing to running. When I run and I get a stitch in my side, there is only one thing to do: KEEP RUNNING. The same goes for writing. Ava, keep writing, and you'll get unstuck!!

I'll be back at Centennial next Friday to work with the senior students. Something tells me I'll have plenty to blog about! Thanks thanks to my friends at Centennial, especially Miss Byron, for inviting me to work with your students. Here's to stories and having fun and working hard -- and making writers happy!!

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Aug
21

Something to Blog About!

I'm back to full-time teaching after a glorious summer of full-time writing. Yesterday was the third day of classes at Marianopolis College -- and I thought I'd use today's blog entry to share a moment that felt especially meaningful (it gave me goosebumps -- if you know me, you'll know I get goosebumps when something important and beautiful happens... it's a handy trait if you're a writer).

You may be wondering what a photograph of Maurice Sendak's tiny picture book, Pierre, is doing at the top of this blog entry. Well, I'm about to explain that to you. On the first day of all my classes this semester, I decided to read Pierre to the students. If you don't know the book, you should read it ASAP (no matter your age). And if you know the book, you'll know that the moral of the story is: CARE. I told my students that, if they care about learning, they'll learn more and have more fun at school. I even suggested they try CARING in the classes they find most boring (hopefully, not mine!!).

Well, this is what happened yesterday -- in my Introduction to College English class, I asked the students to reflect on the kinds of activities and attitudes that help us learn. Someone remembered that last week, we had talked about REPETITION (for example, when students go over their notes after class it helps them remember what they learned). Someone else mentioned CURIOSITY, which we had also discussed the previous week. And then a student named Justin (I'm pretty sure it was Justin), said, "CARE!"

Ohhhh that made me so happy -- and gave me goosebumps. Though it is my 32nd year in the classroom, I had one of those eureka moments: it's the combination of CURIOSITY and CARING that makes magic happen. By magic, I mean LEARNING, but also GROWING.

We discussed this a little more in yesterday's class. If CURIOSITY involves the intellect, I asked the students, where does CARING come from?

And of course, they knew the answer: the heart or the emotions.

So magic happens when we put those two forces -- the brain and the heart -- together.

I'd never thought of learning (and living) this way before. So you see, even an old teacher can learn new tricks. Thanks to Justin, and the rest of his class, for this lovely lesson.

I told the students they're privileged to be able to attend school, and especially a great school like ours... but I also told them I'm privileged to be their teacher.

Here's to a great schoolyear for all of us!

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May
28

Reporting Back From Canada's First YA Festival!

YA festivals are a big thing in the United States -- they're events for kids (and adults too), where YA authors take part in panel discussions. Here in Canada, it's more common for kids' authors to give writing workshops when they visit schools or work with young people. So, because I mostly present in Canada, I'm used to the workshop format.

Yesterday was our country's first YA Festival -- and lucky me, I got to take part. The event was held at Montreal's Jewish Public Library, and it was the brainchild of New York-based middlegrade and YA author Sarah Mlynowski. She's in one of today's pics -- look for the woman with dark wavy hair. I have a soft spot for Sarah, not just because she's a wonderful author, but also because she was my student at Marianopolis College! To be honest, I can't take any credit for Sarah's success -- she was already a fabulous writer when she enrolled in my class. And you know what else? She was my daughter's babysitter!! (I also need to introduce you to the woman who's with Sarah and I in the pic -- that's Aimee Friedman. Not only is she a well-known author, she's children's books editor at Scholastic USA -- and she just happens to be Sarah's editor!!)

So, Sarah was chatting with Talya Pardo, children's librarian at the JPL -- and the two of them joined forces and made the festival happen. Nineteen YA writers from Canada, the U.S., and Mexico participated.

Nic Stone, author of Dear Martin, was the keynote speaker. (That's her with me in the first pic.) I learned loads of stuff from the other authors, but I thought I'd use today's post to tell you about Nic's writing tips. She believes that authors need to use their work "as weapons against injustice." She also told us that she loves acronyms -- and that her favourite animal is the rhino. So here come her tips -- RHINOS!

R stands for Reason. As Nic told us, "You gotta have a reason" for telling your story. H stands for Humility. I stands for Investigative Savvy. Or as Nic put it, "You have to do real real real good research." N stands for Nuance. Nuance, Nic said, comes during the revision stage. O stands for Optimism. Even when you're dealing with difficult, depressing material, writers need to stay hopeful. As Nic told us, "You as the writer have to have something you are clinging to that gives you some kind of hope. That will translate to the page." S stands for Self-care. Writing can be painful work. NIc joked that she sometimes resorts to cat videos as a way of taking a break from the hard work of writing.

Many many thanks to all the people who made the MTL YA! Fest happen. I've got lots more to tell you... but hey... I've got a re-write to work on. And I'll be thinking of Nic's advice -- the rewrite is the time to focus on Nuance. Here's to YA writers and readers, festival organizers, and RHINOS!!

 

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Apr
30

Return Visit to Rosemere High School

Hello hello blog readers!

I'm just home from a happy morning at Rosemere High School. I've been there many times over the years, so it's one of those schools where I feel right at home. Today, I worked with Ms. Lawrence's Enriched Grade 8's (that's Ms. Lawrence next to me in today's pic). Some of them were a wee bit sleepy when I started (hello Jade!), but I witnessed them wake up before my eyes (hello again, Jade!). Also, since I had nearly three hours with the students, there was time for some writing exercises, and I'm excited that they've given me permission to share some of their excellent work in today's blog post.

Early on, I did an exercise where we PLAYED with words (that's because writing is a lot of work, but we need to play at it too). I asked the students to make lists of words that begin with the letter J. Emma came up with the word judicious. She admitted that she had forgotten its meaning, but that she had recently looked it up for a vocabulary exercise based on Lois Lowry's novel, The Giver. Emma's admission made me happy because it reminded me of my favorite kids' books ever, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Close to the beginning of the book, Alice uses the words latitude and longitude. She says she does not know what the words mean, but that they are "nice grand words to say." See? Words can be fun to say and also write with!

Things got even more interesting when I had the students write about the book they most want to read, and when I asked them to write about a memory of being ten years old. That's when I got to read some excellent stuff. Here come some excerpts!

Here's how Geneviève began the book she most wants to read: "I was taken from the world and I will never see it again." Intriguing and powerful, no?

Martino said he wishes he could read about, "A young troubled boy who finds peace in the one thing he loves: hockey." Martino, write that book! I bet there are other kids besides you who would enjoy reading it!

Tristan wrote about his memory of leaving Paris to move to Montreal: "I want to stay here with my friends." The language in that sentence is simple, but haunting. Tristan, I say add the WHAT IF? question to your story. What could your narrator do to change his fate?

Tessa also came up with a super opening line: "I would look forward to a fight." Doesn't that make you want to read more? It turned out Tessa was writing about play-fights with her brother. Her opening is a great hook to catch the reader's attention!

Aidan couldn't come up with a memory, so he wrote, "Maybe I'm just boring." What I liked about that piece was Aidan's VOICE. Also, he sits at the back of the classroom, so he's in the perfect position to be an OBSERVER, which is a good thing in a writer!!

I'll end today's blog entry with a line from Alexia's piece: "I hadn't even known I was crying until the salty tears dripped off my cheeks." Oh, I do like that -- the fact that the narrator's tears catch her by surprise... feels so beautiful and true.

So... I was invited to Rosemere High School to inspire the students. But you know what happened? They inspired me! Thanks to Ms. Lawrence for the invite. Thanks to the kids for doing such good work. You're the last class I'll visit this school year. I hope to carry your inspiration with me all summer! As for you guys, keep READING and WRITING!

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Apr
24

Kicking Off This Year's Blue Met Kids' Festival at Ecole St-Germain

If you're wondering what I'm doing OUTSIDE in today's pic -- let me explain. To kick off the Blue Metropolis Children's Literary Festival this year, I was invited to do a school visit at Ecole St-Germain in Outremont, where I worked with Miss Marie-Sophie and Miss Caroline's grade five classes. And because the hour went by so quickly, I agreed to meet up with the kids in the schoolyard during recess. To be honest, I was a little worried that I wouldn't have any customers, but there were lots of kids!!

In the pic, I am showing the students my monkey man necklace -- if you know me, I'll have told you that story too! (It's coming out in book form next year!) But I was really at Ecole St-Germain to discuss my  latest book, Princess Angelica, Camp Catastrophe. I told the students how the book was inspired by something that really happened to me when I was in summer camp -- at exactly their age!

The students had super comments and questions. When I showed them the book I write in every morning, a student named Luca asked me, "Your thing? Is it a diary?" I liked how Luca put this question. I explained that in English (most of these kids' first language is French), the term "your thing" can mean the thing you really love. So, yes, Luca, that book is definitely my thing since I love writing (even if it's hard work).

When I explained that I write three pages in that book every single morning, a student named Clarence remarked, "I don't have enough ideas to fill three pages." I told Clarence, YES, YOU DO! And I suggested some approaches she could take to writing -- she could OBSERVE, explore her FEELINGS, and REFLECT. I also pointed out to Clarence that she doesn't need to write three whole pages. The important thing is to make writing a habit -- so she could write say a quarter of a page three days a week. (The exact formula is up to her.)

A student named Henri made me laugh when I mentioned the word TROUBLE -- because he said, "Trouble! Oh ya!" I told Henri my personal view -- that it is better to stay OUT OF TROUBLE, but if trouble ever happens to you TURN IT INTO A STORY.

And here's my favourite French word of the day. I know, I know, I wasn't supposed to be speaking in French -- or taking notes about French words, but well, I couldn't resist. I was explaining about the importance of writing MANY DRAFTS, and a student named Daniel commented, "Oh you mean BROUILLON." I knew that word, which is French for rough draft, but I hadn't thought of it in a long time. And don't you think the word BROUILLON sounds much nicer than plain old ROUGH DRAFT?

Thanks to the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation for sending me to Ecole St-Germain today; thanks to the teachers for sharing your students with me; and un grand merci aux élèves for being wonderful!

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Mar
26

Writers Writing -- Day 2 at Royal Vale School

I'm just home from a happy start to my week with two of Miss Bennett's English classes at Royal Vale School. You know what makes a writer (especially one who is also a teacher) happy? SEEING KIDS WRITE!! (Which explains the pic I took for today's blog post.)

Because this was my second of two visits with the students, today I focused on writing exercises (though if you know me, you won't be surprised that I also told a couple of stories!!).

For the exercises, I tried to give the students a mix of play and work -- since for me, writing is always a mix of those two elements. Mostly though, it's hard work -- but I find I need to add some play as I go along. I showed the students how writing even a simple list of words can be playful and remind us of the pleasure words can bring.

The big exercise, which I did with both groups, involved reconnecting with a memory from when the students were ten years old. As I explained to the classes, I don't think memories are as random as most people think. I believe that our memories are stories asking to be told!

I asked the students' permission to share a little of what some of them came up with. A student named Christopher remembered "the lunch line outside." What I liked about that is the unusual setting. I've read lots of stories about kids in classrooms, or even in the schoolyard, but never one about kids in a lunchline! I also noticed that a student named Rachel is good at description and creating atmosphere. She wrote: "I love the dark, but not the loneliness of the night." Nice!!

I also reminded the students to try and find out older people's best stories (and their secrets)! When I told this to the second group, I heard a student named Adriana say to herself, "I know my grandmother's." After class, I asked Adriana about her grandmother's story -- Adriana explained that when her grandmother was growing up in Italy, she knew a family that pretended to be poor in order to sell more of their products at the local market. Adriana, you should turn that into a story! You could try telling it from your grandmother's point of view!

Can you tell that Miss Bennett's classes inspired me? Because they did -- and that's a good thing since this author/teacher has the rest of the day to work on her own writing. Thanks to the students at Royal Vale for doing such a great job on today's writing exercises, thanks to Miss Bennett for hosting me, and thanks to the NDG Community Council, especially Sharon Sweeney, for making the visits possible. Let's all make this a great writing (and reading!!) week!!

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Mar
16

First of Two Visits to Royal Vale School -- I'd Call it a Success!

I was happy to get an invite to do two writing workshops this winter at Royal Vale School. Not only because my daughter is a Royal Vale graduate, but also because the school is around the corner from where I live -- BONUS!

I was there this morning, working with Miss Bennett's two Grade 10 English classes. I must say the time passed super-quickly. I just hope the students had as much fun with me as I did with them.

Today, I focused mostly on writing tips and a mini-writing exercise. When I'm back in two weeks, I'll finish up the tips, tell a story (or two... I'm kind of addicted to telling stories!!), and then we'll focus on a longer writing exercise.

In case you are wondering about today's pic... that's me and a student named PATRICK. Perfect name, of course, for St. Patrick's Day tomorrow. And Patrick was even wearing his green Dallas Stars T-shirt -- not to mention the Irish clover sticker on his forehead. And you know what else? Patrick happens to be IRISH. I think someone needs to write a St. Patrick's Day story about Patrick. Hey, Patrick, you should probably be the one to do it! Don't forget to add TROUBLE, the not-so-secret ingredient that makes stories tasty!

A student named Kayla stayed after class to tell me she has wanted to be a writer since Grade 3. I asked whether she learned anything new from me, and she said," I knew I had to do research, but I didn't know how deep I had to go." (This came, I think, because I told the students that in order to write my novel Straight Punch, I took boxing lessons for three years. I even demonstrated a straight punch!)

In the second  group, I tried a writing exercise I have done with my own students. I asked the class to close their eyes and imagine the book they wish they could read. (This exercise was inspired by author Sophie Kinsella, who told me she came up with the Shopaholic series because those were the books she wished she could find at a bookstore.) A student named Adriana gave me permission to share the blurb she would find on the book she most wanted to read. She even came up with a great book title: Not So Ivy League. Here's Adriana's blurb: "Ever had the feeling everyone was out to get you? Well that's exactly Lily's problem. She may have gotten into her dream school, but something just isn't right." CREEPY, NO? PLUS, DOESN'T IT MAKE YOU WANT TO READ ADRIANA'S BOOK?!! ADRIANA, GO FOR IT!!!

I'm off now to teach my own students at Marianopolis. Thanks to Miss Bennett's classes for getting my day off to a lovely start, thanks to Miss Bennett for your enthusiasm and for sharing your students with me, and thanks to the NDG Community Council, especially Sharon Sweeney, for making today's visit happen.

 

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Mar
12

Happy Afternoon at Evergreen School

I'm just home from a happy afternoon with nearly 100 Grades Three and Four students at Evergreen School in Ste-Lazare.  I usually work with older students, and I teach full-time at Marianopolis College, but you know what? I treated the Evergreen students the same way I treat my college students -- and it worked out fine!

I'll start with a couple of funny moments. I was telling the students that when I was a kid growing up in the 1960s, we didn't have computers. So a student named Roan asked a question that cracked me up: "Did you have erasers back then?" Yes, Roan, we did! And a student named Lucas told me, "I've never been this close to an author before." Also, when I asked the students what the first cousin of writing is, a student named Paige came up with the answer I was looking for: Reading. So when I learned that her name was PAIGE, well I thought that was just perfect (it's true there's an i in Paige, but still, close enough!!)

When I told the students that writers need to use the emotions they've experienced to bring their stories to life, I gave examples of some emotions: loneliness, sadness and feeling discouraged. A bunch of students raised their hands to add some more emotions -- and they had great ideas that I plan to use from now on when I do this part of my talk. Zoe suggested writing about ANGER. Good one, Zoe! Ethan suggested FRUSTRATED. Also excellent, Ethan. And Jonathan came up with DISGUSTED. Way to go, Jonathan!

Even though we were a huge group, the kids were focused and we even managed to do two writing exercises -- hey, that's more than I do with my own classes during one school period. I asked the students to imagine being someone different. Lucca came up with a really creative idea: "My name is Snarkolepsy. I am an alien soldier from the fourth quarter of Mars." Lucca, I want to read that story! I also told Lucca that the word narcolepsy (hinted at in his character's name) refers to a condition in which a person is constantly falling asleep. Lucca thought that perhaps he could add this fact to his character's story.

I also want to tell you about how my afternoon at Evergreen ended in a very special way. A student named Joseph told me that he had something inspirational to say, so I asked him to come to the front of the gym. He told his fellow students, "You is what makes you perfect. No one can stop you from achieving your goals." So, how about I end today's blog entry with Joseph's wonderful words?

Thanks to the teachers Madame Champoux, Madame Charland, Miss Jenkins and Miss Bowen, and to the aides Miss Shelley, Miss Serena and MIss Marie-Louise for sharing your kids with me; thanks to librarian Miss Tina for the invite and for getting things organized. But mostly, thank you to the kids. You were amazing!!

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Feb
17

Putting Down Roots: Blue Met Project Reaches Out to New Montrealers

A busy woman like me should NOT be taking on new projects. But there have been a few over the last few weeks I could not resist. Like the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation's My Roots. Last Saturday and again today, poet Marie Clark, photographer Pierre Charbonneau and I joined forces to work with a group of newly-arrived Montrealers. Our "students" will be contributing a chapter to a book that will be published by Blue Metropolis.

We've been doing our workshops at the St. James United Church, which also happens to be home to a remarkable organization, Montreal City Mission, whose goal it is to support refugees. (Special shout-out here to MCM community organizer Anwar Alhjooj for finding us such wonderful participants.)

Marie did haiku with the French-speaking participants. I worked on creative non-fiction pieces with those who preferred to work in English. I shared a few of my usual tips, but mostly I just let the people in my group write -- and they did amazing work (I'm going to share some excerpts soon). I did try two writing prompts. You know the expression "hello and good-bye"? Well I changed it up to "good-bye and hello" since all of my writers had to say good-bye to their homelands before they said hello to Montreal.

I had participants of all ages -- which also made the experience extra-special. In today's pic, you can see Aishea and her baby. Another person I want you to meet is Judy Alzubi (she's in the pic too). A Grade Nine student at Westmount High School, Judy, who is 14, turned out to be a natural translator. Judy came to Montreal from Jordan last February. She listened carefully, respectfully, and with incredible sensitivity as some of the paticipants, including Aishea, shared their stories in Arabic. Judy, you have a rare talent, one that I think is unusual in someone your age. USE IT! Also, I was a little surprised when you told me, "I have no stories." Of course you do! You're just too close to your own life to see the stories.

Okay, as promised, I'm going to share a few short excerpts from the work my group produced.

Jasim, who comes from Syria, wrote about what it felt like for him when his son was imprisoned and tortured. This is how he ended his poem: "Now, when I hold my son in my arms,/ That’s the only time I can forget."

Juan, who is from Colombia, wrote about the nightmares he still occasionally suffers from: "before I open my eyes, I reach for the other side of the bed. There, I feel the beautiful skin of my wife; that delights all my senses. My wife, my daughter, and this beautiful country that has welcomed me, all make me feel at home. I came here to start again."

Aishea wrote about the joy of having her daughter: "When she smiles, she changes my world to happiness. Although I am sad that I have not seen my other children for three years now, I hope my baby’s father will soon be beside us so he can see our daughter smile. For now, I am living here in Canada alone with my baby. It is the first time I have had to be independent. I didn’t know that I could be so strong."

I hope the writers I worked with learned a little bit from me. I know that I feel changed by having been in their company. I thank you all for  sharing your stories and working so hard on your writing. I am certain the readers of your book will feel just as moved and inspired as I do today. Shukraan! Shukraan, which means thank-you, also to Montreal City Mission, to my friends at Blue Met, especially project coordinator Andréa Perry.

 

 

 

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Feb
12

The Moniques are Back!

The Moniques are back in action! This morning, I was teamed up again with my pal, photographer and fellow Monique – Monique Dykstra. We’re working together on this year’s edition of an exciting Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Quebec Roots: Strengthening Communities, the Place I Want to Be.

We were at Lasalle Community Comprehensive High School to work with Mr. Coderre’s Phoenix class. These are Grade 11 students in an alternative program. As a student explained to us, “We don’t run by the bell.” Monique and I also observed that the students enter the school through the back door. (We figured this out when a student named Miguel turned up late – and everyone knew it was him because of his distinctive triple knock!)

It usually requires considerable discussion and debate before a group settles on a topic. But the topic came easily to the Phoenix students. They’re going to write about the subject of ALTERNATIVES. I love this topic. What do you think?

When I told the students to pay attention to older people’s stories, I said that perhaps some of the students find old people boring. A student named Himat shook his head. “My grandparents taught me everything,” he explained. Himat’s grandmother is dead, but his grandfather is alive and he and Himat are close. So I asked Himat whether he knows of any major “alternatives” (such as moments of major decisions) in his grandfather’s life. Here’s what Himat told me: “My grandfather took an alternative road. His family job was farming. But he and another one of his brothers went to the army. My grandfather was in the army for 23 years.” Himat, I think you need to do some more RESEARCH, find out what it felt like for your grandfather to make that choice and how it affected the rest of his life – for good as well as bad.

I started the day with a mini writing workshop. We always save Monique Dykstra’s “lesson” for last since, I hate to admit this, but the kids always seem to find it MORE FUN.

But I did manage to do a little extra writing work with a student named Nathaniel. He wrote about a decision he regretted – not visiting his grandmother (he called her mami) on the day she died. Nathaniel wrote a beautiful, moving piece, and I asked his permission to share two lines here. In the poem Nathaniel wrote, he described how his dad found mami’s body a week after her death: “She was lying on the bathroom floor/ Her belly as bloated as if she was six months pregnant.”

Those aren’t easy lines to read. And they couldn’t have been easy lines for Nathaniel to write. Yet, those words will remain with me, as I think they will with you, dear blog reader. That’s the power of words, Nathaniel. May you, as you told me you hoped to do, continue to make your mami proud with your creativity and goodness.

Watch this blog for more news about how the students are using words and photographs to explore the topic of alternatives. Thanks to the Phoneix kids for being wonderful, to Mr. Coderre for being wonderful too, and to Blue Met for making this project possible.

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Feb
10

YOUR STORY: Happy Day in Ottawa with MASC

My day in Ottawa started with a skate on the Rideau Canal. Okay, I took two little spills (it's been a few years since my last skate and the surface was a wee bit bumpy), but I got right up, and ... watched the sun rise. I didn't think my day could get much better than that. But it did.

That's because I was presenting at YOUR STORY: Write it, Draw it, Tell It. A MASC Teen Authors & Illustrators Festival program, it took place at Cionfederation Education Centre. I got to rub shoulders with some terrific writers and illustrators -- Alan Cumyn, Max Turner, Melanie Florence, Caroline Pignat, and Brian McLachlan -- but even better, I spent most of my day working with 14 amazing young writers (that's them with me in the pic).

Usually, when I do a day-long writing workshop, I spend half the day on writing tips and telling stories. But you know what? I swear I could feel that what these kids really (excuse the adverb, I decided I needed it in this sentence) wanted to do was WRITE. So I hurried through my tips (make writing a habit; read read read; take notes all the time; add trouble to your story; rewrite, rewrite, rewrite), and focused on writing activities. And my hunch was right because when I took a peek at what the kids were producing, I was seriously (another adverb, also required) impressed.

The students were from Grades 8 to 12. I teach college here in Montreal, and the MASC kids were as strong, and perhaps even stronger than many of the students I teach. Also, to be honest, not all of my students are keen on writing. The students who signed up for the MASC festival know that they want to make writing a big part of their lives. Every single one has talent, but I told them something my grandfather (who was a successful painter) once told me: "Talent is only a small part of success. What you need more than talent is the ability to work hard."

I thought I'd share some of my favourite lines (and subjects) that the students came up with.

Here goes --

When I asked the students to write about a memory (if you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that I think memories are stories asking to be told), a student named Wolfe recalled wandering away from his friends when they were at the soccer pitch. That's when he met another kid who was also by himself. Listen to Wolfe's dialogue: "'You alone too?' he asked. "'Ya. How did you end up alone?'" Simple, direct, this snippet of dialogue takes us right into Wolfe's memory -- and makes us want to know more about the boys and their conversation.

Later, when I asked the students to write about a moment of change in their lives, Kieran started her piece with the line, "Silence is the sound that I fear most." I LOVE IT. Also, it would make a great book title. Even typing in that line now I get goosebumps -- which for me is a sign that I am reading or hearing something beautiful. A student named Anna wrote about getting lost in an old age home. Oh, Anna, that's such a good topic for a story. You're gonna write it, aren't you? Ksenia wrote about torturing her fifth grade math teacher -- another amazing topic for a story.

My only complaint about the day was that IT WENT TOO QUICKLY. As I told Wendy Hartley, MASC's English program director, these students didn't really (another adverb alert!) need me, they already have a ton of talent. But maybe I gave them a bit of extra inspiration and some tips they will be able to use as they continue to develop as writers.

Many thanks to all my friends at MASC -- special shout-outs to Bonnie and Maurie for ferrying me from and to the train station, to Faith Seltzer for brigning me to MASC in the first place, to the authors and illustrators for your great presentations (watch this blog for more on that). But most of all, thanks to the students. WRITE ON!

 

 

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Jan
28

Writing Workshop to Mark International Day for the Commemoration of Victims of the Holocaust

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you will know that usually, I come right home from doing a workshop and write a blog entry. But after today's workshop -- offered at the Montreal Holocaust Museum to mark International Day for the Commemoration of the Victims of the Holocaust -- I needed to take some time to process all my thoughts and feelings.

The six grown-ups in in the second row in today's pic are all survivors of the Holocaust. Today, they agreed to be interviewed by the teenagers you see with them in the pic. My job was pretty easy -- I spent about 20 minutes prepping the young reporters, sharing my own tips for interviewing people about difficult subjects. I told the kids to watch their subject's body language, I told them to get quotes, to look for stories that were sad or funny or moving. But most of all, I asked them to get their subjects to tell them something they had never shared before. Not an easy task considering that some of the survivors have shared their stories with hundreds, even thousands of other students.

The kids were A-MAZING!! As survivor Leon Celemencki told me, "Their questions were different from all the others I've been asked." Survivor Leslie Vertes was also impressed with the kids who interviewed him: "They want to know the truth. They don't ask easy questions."

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, the more than 30 kids who turned up this afternoon came ON A WEEKEND to learn about interviewing and writing. They were from all over Montreal and some were even from the Laurentians. Several attend Marie de France High School, and were accompanied by their History teacher Anne Marguet.

True to the real experience of being a reporter, the kids were under deadline pressure. They had a little under an hour to conduct their interviews (they worked in groups of 5 or 6), then 20 minutes to produce a paragraph in which they shared the most interesting or moving information they had learned, and then they took another 20 minutes to read and listen to each other's paragrphs.

I don't have room to share all the stories here (hopefully the Montreal Holocaust Museum will collate the paragraphs and post them on-line for the public), but I'll tell you a little about what some of the Marie de France students learned about survivor Fishel Goldig. The interview was conducted in French, and the students' paragraph was written in French, so I'm translating here: "Because they knew the SS was coming, Fishel was hiding in a shed in the Ukraine with his mother, his aunt and his cousin. Fishel and his mother hid under a mattress; his aunt and cousin hid underneath two wash basins. The SS murdered Fishel's aunt and cousin. He heard the sounds of their rifles, as well as the moaning and groaning of his aunt and cousin as they lay dying. Then the SS men lifted the corner of the mattress, but because of the way Fishel and his mother were lying on the diagonal, the SS did not find them. Even after the SS left, Fishel and his mothr didn't dare move despite the agony of their relatives a few feet away."

Amazing, no? Heartbreaking, no?

At the end of our afternoon together, Fishel said he wanted to say a few more words to the kids. He told them. "We the survivors have an obligation to tell our stories. You people have an obligation too. You have to make sure we don't have another Holocaust."

On my way out of the museum, I spoke with Emma Wong, a Grade 7 student at Durocher School. This is how Emma summed up the afternoon: "Even though it happend so long ago, the information they passed on we will have to pass on to the next generation."

Special thanks to all my friends at the Holocaust Museum: Alice Herscovitch, Sarah Fogg, Audrey Licop and Eszter Andor. Thanks to my friend, lawyer and writer Myra Shuster who helped the students with their interviews. Thanks to the students for being sensitive and brilliant, and not being afraid to ask difficult questions. And to the Holocaust survivors -- what can I say? Thanks is not enough. I so respect and admire, and am inspired by your courage. God bless all of you!

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Jan
26

"My cat is so fat, it's the size of two houses" -- Back at Kingsdale Academy

My heart feels very full after a second day of writing workshops at Kingsdale Academy. I'm accustomed to working with teenagers, so it was a special treat to work with Grades Three and Four classes last Friday and again today at Kingsdale. It was also a treat to work with Miss Arcamone, a wonderful, warm and skilled teacher. And today, even school principal Miss Glave came to sit in for part of a workshop. How cool is that? And what a great example for the students!

I love working with teenagers, who are grappling with so much and trying to figure themselves out. But the wonderful thing about working with younger students is that, in an odd way, they are more confident, more free when they put pen to paper.

Let me give you some examples. The title of today's blog entry is "My cat is so fat he's the size of two houses." That line was written by Zoe, and it cracked me up. So original and playful -- and can't you just imagine the illustration? I see a cat with two houses in his belly!

Today's pic comes from something a student named Bianca wrote in preparation for my visit today. When I met the kids last week, I asked them to interview someone elderly (such as a grandparent) and find out what the hardest thing was that that person ever went through. Bianca learned that by the time her grandfather was 15, both his parents were dead. Luckily, he was able to move in with his older sister. We talked about how, in stories (as in life), sad and heartwarming things can happen at the same time (such as the loss of both of the boy's parents, but also the supportive love of his big sister). Beautiful work, Bianca -- and I love your drawings too!

Another one of my favourite lines of the day came from a student named Trevon who began his story with the words, "Once when I was not born." BOOK TITLE ALERT! DON'T YOU LOVE IT?

A student named Rylan interviewed his grandmother who grew up in Trinidad. When she was five years old, she was ill, but no one believed her. So she had to go to work planting rice in the wetlands. Rylan even found out that there were snakes in the wetlands. What beautiful details, Rylan! Though I've never visited Trinidad, you took me there with your story.

Next week, I go back to teaching full-time at Marianopolis College after an eight-month sabbatical. But you know what? The school visits I've done the last few weeks have reminded me what a privilege it is to work with bright students, and enthusiastic teachers and librarians. To the kids at Kingsdale, you guys are amazing. Keep reading, keep writing. I have no doubt that some of you will become professional writers!

 

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Jan
22

Sweet Last Day at St. Thomas High School

I'm just home from the last of my four days of writing workshops at St. Thomas High School. In today's pic, two students are demonstrating ideal body language (one of my favourite subjects) for when an author pays a visit. Meet Daniel and Cordelia (don't you LOVE the name? Cordelia was the best sister in Shakespeare's King Lear.). Notice how both students' pens are in position so they can take notes? Also, do you notice all the stuff that Cordelia wrote down? Evidently, she learned A LOT!!

Stories, stories everywhere.

When Cordelia was packing up her books, she told me we had met last year at the Los Angeles Airport! It suddenly came back to me that I'd had a lovely conversation with her, her mum and her sister. Though I must not have learned her name, because I'd definitely have remembered meeting someone named CORDELIA!

Today, I worked with four groups of Grade Nine classes. I started with Mr. Katz and Ms. Puliotti's groups. Just as I was starting, there was an announcement over the  PA system: "Bus 82 is arriving late." Well, my brain went right into WHAT IF? mode. (I'm always telling students that asking WHAT IF? is a great way to move a story forward.) What if there was an outbreak of a terrible virus on Bus 82? What if all the infected students were about to enter the library where I was doing my workshop? (I must admit this WHAT IF? scenario may have been inspired by the fact that I am coming down with a cold.) Anyway, a few minutes later, some new students turned up. Now was my opportunity to demonstrate another important part of being a writer: DOING RESEARCH. I asked a student named Alex whether he'd been on Bus 82. He had! Then I got him to tell us the story of what had happened: "The first bus broke down. Then the second bus broke down. We had to wait in the parking lot at Walmart." Interesting, no? Don't you think you could all that for a jumping off point for a novel? Add a little trouble -- and see what happens!

Oh, it was another day for trying out a new writing exercise. Unfortunately, I can't take credit for this one! Credit goes to Mr. Katz, who suggested it to me before the workshop: "Why don't you ask the kids to write about their memory of their first day at high school?" We got great results! Thanks, Mr. Katz. I promise to credit you whenever I use your exercise in the future!

A student named Max wrote about something edible: "the taste of the first cafeteria cookie -- sweet and good." Anjolie remembered how a teacher got upset with her for talking out of turn. "He said, 'Take your shoe and sock off and stick it in your mouth!"

I spent the next periods with Ms. O'Neill's classes. A student named Hassan asked, "Do you ever run out of ideas in general?" I told him NEVER. I am a talented ideas-getter. It's the writing that's difficult!

I talked to Ms. O'Neill's students about SECRETS and how they should try to uncover the secrets in their own families. One student (I'm keeping him anonymous on purpose) stayed behind to tell me the following family secret: "When my dad was 25, he learned that he had a step-sister in Europe." That's quite the secret! WRITE ABOUT IT, SIR!

I ended the day with Mr. Cloney's class. We did Mr. Katz's exercise (see, Mr. Katz, you're credited!). I asked a couple of students for permission to share what they wrote. Victoria remembered feeling "embarrassed because all the kids had phones and I didn't." Excellent start of a story, Victoria! This is how Kyleigh started her paragraph: "I was 20 minutes late because my step-dad brought me to school on his motorbike." Whoo! You've got several interesting stories happening there, Kyleigh. And I definitely want to keep reading!

I'll end today's blog entry by telling you a little about something else a student wrote -- the student and I decided to keep his name confidential too. He wrote down three words: "angry and sad." Then, he explained, "It's a story I can't write about." Here's what  have to say to that: YES YOU CAN, YES YOU SHOULD, YES YOU'RE READY OR YOU WOULDN'T HAVE WRITTEN THAT. CHANGE WHATVER HAPPENED UP SO THAT IT'S LESS ABOUT YOU. MAKE IT ABOUT A DIFFERENT KID. USE THE DIFFICULT THINGS YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED TO INSPIRE YOUR WRITING. THAT'S WHAT ALL OF US WRITERS DO!

How's that for a lively end to my four blogs about visiting St. Thomas? Special thanks to librarian Mrs. Pye for organizing the visit; to librarian Miss Suzanne (Suzanne Halton-Thom) who runs the library on Mondays, for hosting me today and last Monday and for giving me your top-of-the-line Bell Canada ballpoint. Thanks to the teachers; thanks to the kids who came to hang out with me at lunch to show me their work; thanks to my friend, Baie D'Urfe city counselor Wanda Lowensteyn, for whisking me out for a break; thanks to all the kids I worked with for being wonderful. I already miss you guys!

 

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Jan
19

College-Style Class for Grades 3 & 4 Students at Kingsdale Academy

Sometimes, people who don't know much about writing for kids will say something to me such as, "I guess you have to dumb your stories down." Oh, does that every annoy me! What those people don't get is that kids are super smart (sometimes I think they're quite a lot smarter than adults, especially ones who make that sort of remark!!). Here's one thing I know for sure: if a writer dumbed a book down, a kid would hate the book.

Same goes for teaching. Though I have been teaching college for more than 30 years (I know, I know, you'd never have guessed it!! haha!!), and most of the writing workshops I do are at high schools, I was really looking forward to my day today -- I've been asked to do two days of writing workshops for Grades Three and Four students at Kingsdale Academy in Kirkland. And I certainly didn't "dumb down" my lessons. In fact, I treated the eight and nine-year-olds the same way (or pretty close to the same way) I treat my college students. And I think it's safe to say my strategy worked.

See how I'm grinning in today's pic? That's because a student named Geoffrey was showing me his books. Geoffrey began writing books at the age of eight. He's now nine and as you can see, it's been a big year for him! Also, Geoffrey made a clever remark when I was talking about how first drafts are always rough, and need a ton of rewriting. "It's like an artist making a sketch," Geoffrey said. Pretty deep for a nine-year-old, wouldn't you say?

I showed the students my journal and explained that for nearly 30 years, I've been writing three pages a day in a book like the one I had with me. I told them that they need to write regularly too, that writing has to become a habit. I suggested they might try writing just TWO words a day -- one word to describe how their yesterday was, another word to describe how they hope their today will be. They came up with some great answers. Lucas ( a student in the afternoon group) said his yesterday was "tiring" and he hopes his today will be "peaceful." Nice, accurate vocabulary, Lucas!

I used my memory exercise with both the morning and afternoon groups -- I had them remember back to when they were five years old. Daniel remembered when his parents were making pizza: " I can feel my tummy rumbling.... there are green things on the pizza." Don't you love the word rumbling and the fact that there were "green things" on Daniel's pizza? I also loved Sartaj's story. He remembered "my friend's mean sister." I think that would make a great book title, Sartaj: My Friend's Mean Sister. I would definitely buy that book. Sartaj also remembered something that made me laugh (it's always good to make your reader laugh): "finding out bad words in Indian." Write that story up too, Sartaj!

I asked the afternoon group how many of them love to read. Imagine my delight when every single one of Mrs. Arcamone's students raised their hands! Wow! I have to say a word here about Mrs. Arcamone. She is a special teacher, who has a calming effect on her classes. In fact, after lunch, she gave them quiet meditative time, accompanied by music -- and you know what? It was good for me too!

I'll be back to work with Mrs. Arcamone's kids next Friday. In the mean time, I gave them a few choices of things they can work on before they see me again. My plan for next week is to roll up my sleeves and give the students some feedback on their writing.

Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you the most fun part (for me). I test-read my soon-to-be-released chapter book, Princess Angelica: Camp Catastrophe to both groups. They're exactly the right age for the book. And I'm pretty sure they liked it. I think that because several asked to borrow my copy. YAY! DID I SAY YAY? Also, Mrs. Arcamone told me a great story. She used to teach kindergarten and when she did, she told her students SHE WAS A PRINCESS (like the girl in my book!!). She told me that she used to tell her kindergarten kids, "I"m just pretending to be a teacher!"

So, here's to writers and storytellers of all ages. Here's to writing about difficult subjects, being courageous, and finding solace in turning our lived experiences into stories that can make readers laugh and cry. Thanks to librarain Mrs. Di Maulo for the invite, and to Mrs. Arcamone for sharing your delightful kids (and your story) with me. And to the kids, what can I say? You know how I'm smiling in today's pic? That's exactly what happens to my face when I think about our time together today!!!

 

 

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Jan
17

In Which I Invent a New Writing Exercise -- that Works!

What in the world, you may be asking yourself, are the students doing in today's pic? Making origami? Nope, though they are folding pieces of paper.

So, I was back today at St. Thomas High School for the third of four days of writing workshops. I took today's pic during first period, when I was working with Mr. Rowland's Grade Nine class. I had just told them something I once heard David Small, the author and illustrator of the brilliant graphic novel Stiches, say: ""Write about what keeps you up at night." That's when I came up with my brand new exercise. And it worked! I asked the students to fold up the bottom of their sheets of paper, and write one sentence about what keeps them up at night -- a worry, a fear, a bad memory. After they were done, I told them to tear off the strip of paper, then fold it up into a tiny piece ... and wait, there's still more to my exercise! I told them to hide those folded-up slivers somewhere special -- in their pencil cases, in their night tables ... and to keep them always. Then, I told them, when they are ready (there's no telling when that might be) they should turn whatever is written on those slivers into stories.

Next I worked with one of Mr. Katz's Grade Nine classes. I did a variation on the same exercise (this time I asked the student to write a sentence describing the hardest thing they have ever gone through). A student named Jonathan commented afterwards, "I really want to throw it out." I liked that strong emotion, Jonathan, and don't you throw out the piece of paper! By the way, even if you do, that experience is part of you. You might as well think of it as material to use in a story!

We did a longer exercise afterwards that involved a memory from when the students were ten years old. Melissa gave me permission to quote her moving, powerful opening line: "My mom is crying." See how the language is simple and direct... and how you want to keep reading to find out what's going on? Beautiful work, Melissa! Olivier made a list of thoughts. I asked his permission to quote the first and last ones. He started with the thought "Dad loss" -- Olivier explained that he was remembering what happened when his parents split up (a difficult memory, but another one that makes for important stories). And Olivier ended his list with the thought, "Hormones begin." I told Oliver that we need honest stories about what it's like to be a boy growing up -- and having to deal with hormones! Olivier, WRITE IT!

I ended the morning with a double-group: Ms. Yates's Grade Nines (if you read yesterday's blog entry, you may remember that they drove me a little crazy) together with another one of Mr. Katz's Grade Nines. And guess what? THE COMBINATION WORKED. And guess what else? I had asked the "challenging" group yesterday to see if they could interview their grandparents and find out the hardest things they had ever been through. To my delight, several of the students actually did it. So, while the students were working on a writing exercise, I read the stories about their grandparents -- and they were super. Sophia wrote about her grandfather growing up poor in Italy: "there wasn't much money for food or clothing." It turns out that Sophia is going to Italy this summer -- and that her grandfather might be coming. AMAZING!! Bring your notebook, Sophia. Get your granddad to tell you more. It'll be easier for him to remember his past when he is in Italy. Jessica wrote about how her grandfather "almost died in a shooting line" in Lebanon. And Ben wrote about how his grandfather, who worked for VIA in the 1980s, was at Central Station during an explosion: "He saw a woman whose jacket melted onto her." Those are all powerful stories -- keep working on them.

I must say that one of the highlights of my day was staying to have lunch in the library, where I was joined by five students who wanted to show me their writing and get some feedback. You guys were amazing. While I was working with the students, I have to admit I forgot that they were only in high school. I was especially pleased that Jonathan (the same Jonathan I mentioned before) decided to develop what he had done during a writing exercise yesterday into a real story. YAY!! Sean, a serious student whom I met last year, dropped by too. I learned from his writing that Sean has a warm sense of humour. My favourite line in his piece? "Being a hero is hard work." Nice!!

I'll be back at St. Thomas on Monday for my last day of workshops. And I'll be around for both lunch periods. So if you go to St. Thomas, and you're an aspiring writer, get to work this weekend and bring me something to read on Monday!

Many thanks to the kids today, to their teachers, and especially to my friend librarian Mrs. Pye for the invite -- and for making me (and all the kids at St. Thomas) feel so welcome at your library!

 

 

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Jan
16

In Which I Meet Clever Kids -- and a Senator

I do get to meet a lot of clever kids when I do school visits. But it isn't every day I get to meet a REAL LIVE SENATOR. I was at St. Thomas High School today for my second in a series of four days of writing workshops. Usually, I do my workshops in the library. Except today I got bumped by a senator. That's me in today's pic with Senator André Pratt, who was, for many years, the editor in chief of La Presse here in Montreal.

Senator Pratt was at the school to talk to about how the Canadian government works. I had a break during one of his sessions, so I stayed to hear him. But my favourite part of meeting him was when I asked him a question that I was wondering about during his talk: what kind of teenager did André Pratt used to be?

Well, you're gonna love his answer. (I wrote it down for you.) "I was not a good student. I was busy doing other things, such as reading a lot. In class, I asked many many questions. I still do that. That's why I became a journalist. Also, I used to be very funny."

Senator Pratt's answer should give hope to all the students out there who are not at the top of their class. Who knows? You could end up being a senator one day too! Also, did you notice that Senator Pratt said he READ A LOT. HINT! HINT! YOU SHOULD TRY READING A LOT TOO.

I worked with four classes again today. I started with Ms. Yates's Grade 8's. There were some interesting CHARACTERS in that room! (We authors LOVE interesting characters. Where do you think I get my inspiration?) A student named Matthieu was the class "commentator." When I remarked that a student named Jack is a good nodder, Matthieu said, "Our history teacher says Jack nods even when he doesn't get it!" And when I observed that a student named Angela seemed to be in a great mood, Matthieu said, "I've never seen her not happy." And it turns out, Matthieu has a story of his own. He's been suspended for skipping detentions. As Matthieu explained to me, "I don't go to detentions. It's against my religion." DON'T YOU THINK MATTHIEU DESERVES TO BE IN A BOOK?! (I do.)

Next up was Mr. Dagenais's Grade 8 group. These students were a little quiet at first, but then they livened up. I noticed that a student named Jason's right elbow was red, and that a student named Amy had a cough. I made these observations to show the class that writers need to observe stuff. (Especially writers like me, who have asthma since we're afraid to catch colds!). I wanted to learn more about what Jason did to his right elbow to make it red, but there wasn't time. There could be a story there! A student named Nathan stayed after class to ask me what my favourite book is -- why Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, of course!

Mr. Cloney's Grade 9's were zippy and had lots to say. When I asked the class whether they hate their first drafts (if you know me, you'll know that I'm all about despising the first draft... the work is in the REWRITE!!), a student named Kristin answered, "Not always." Then she added something that I thought was brilliant. She said, "Sometimes I have really good ideas and I like to stick to them." YES YES AND DID I ALREADY SAY YES?!!! That's it, exactly, Kristin! We start with an idea, hopefully a super good one, and we stick with it through the rewriting, refining process.

Now, what can I tell you about the last group of the day -- Ms. Yates's Grade 9's? Well, let's say they were what could be called A HANDFUL. I had to read them the riot act several times, and I had to separate two boys because they were paying more attention to each other than to MOI! But ... well... I still kind of liked them. I'll work with them again tomorrow morning. Stay tuned for tomorrow's blog entry to find out how that goes!! Oh, a lovely student named Costa stayed to chat and had this to say: "Some people need to beat their kids in this class." Ms. Yates overheard Costa's comment and you know what she said to me? "Write that down and use it in your blog!" CAN YOU TELL I HAD A FUN DAY?

 

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Jan
15

Busy (and Fun) Day at St. Thomas High School

Hello hello, blog readers! I'm just home from a busy (and fun) day at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. This is my I-don't-even-know-how-many-th year doing a series of writing workshops at St. Thomas. To be honest, I was kind of thinking they might be sick of me by now -- but  nope, I got invited back. Lucky me! But because I've already met some of the students I'll be working with this year I promised I'd focus more than usual on writing exercises. So today, I tested out a brand-new exercise. It's inspired by my upcoming chapter book, Princess Angelica: Camp Catastrophe. That book is based on something mischievous I did when I was ten -- I told the girls in my bunk at camp that I was a PRINCESS and THEY BELIEVED ME. So today, I asked the students to think back to when they were that age -- and to write about the imaginary person they would have liked to pretend to be.

I jotted down some of my favourite answers.

Katrina, who is one of Ms. Broniszewski's grade eight students, wrote: "My name is Matilda. I am a ten-year-old girl, and I have mind powers. I can move anything I want with my mind. I love reading, and have read every book in the library." Katrina, I think your answer is not only well-written (plus I like how you used a comma after girl and before and), but it also shows a lot of creativity!

I had Mr. Katz's grade nine class after lunch -- and though they were a little distracted at first, they turned out to be a bright, lively group. This is what Kirsten wrote about her imaginary self: "My name is Kirsten and I'm a troublemaker. I get into trouble, but I don't care." I like the energetic, willful tone of those sentences. The real Kirsten assured me that she is NOT a troublemaker at school (though occasionally one at home!).  Kirsten's classmate, Jonathan, also came up with a fascinating alter-ego: "My name is Jones Florent. At the age of fourteen, I incited a revolt in school." Well, Jonathan, I'd definitely want to keep reading your story. I also love the word INCITE. Nice vocabulary, Sir!

Because I'll be seeing some of the classes twice (I'm doing four days of workshops in all at St. Thomas), I had time for more warm-up exercises with some of the groups. When I was working with Mr. Rowland's grade nine class, we came up with a list of our favourite words that begin with the letter G. I think my favourite of the favourites was Alyssa's word: gobsmacked. That's quite the word, Alyssa. I also like guacamole -- both the word and the snack!!I

I tried to share as many of my writing tips as possible --how observation is important, that writers need to do research in order to write books, that it's normal to hate our first drafts.

I finished the day with another one of Ms. Broniszewski's grade eight classes. I had that class write about a childhood memory. I told them that memory is an important tool in a writer's toolbox. A student named Noah wrote about visiting a loved one in hospital: "The awful smell of medication fills my nostrils." Effective use of the sense of smell there, Noah!

I don't usually quote myself when I write my blog, but you know what? I told the last group a line that I quite liked. So I'm going to tell it to you, too. Here it comes: "I think a memory is a story that's asking to be told."

What do you think? Does it feel true to you too?

Okay, I'm off to READ ON THE COUCH. AHHHH, that's another part of my work (and pleasure) as a writer. I'll be back tomorrow and Wednesday at St. Thomas. And I'll be blogging about it.

Thanks to the kids for being wonderful, to Mrs. Pye for the invite, to Suzanne for welcoming me to the library today, and to the teachers for sharing your students with me!

 

 

 

 

 

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Jan
11

Belle Journée à l'Ecole Sécondaire de la Seigneurie... WHOOPS!

Now why would I call this blog entry, "Belle Journée à l'Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie --- WHOOPS!"? Well, I added the WHOOPS because I wasn't supposed to speak French today at this high school in Beauport, just outside of Quebec City. That's because I was there to work with Mr. Lord's three Enriched English As A Second Lanuage classes  -- and I was pretty good about following that instruction (most of the day!!).

The three groups I worked with could not have been more different. The first group was focused and studious. We actually got into an interesting talk about whether, if the students improve in one language (say English), it will help them with their French. A student named Cédrick stayed to continue this discussion after my workshop. He told me he loves writing stories -- in both French and English. I told him I think our province, and our country, is ready for a story told in BOTH officlal languages AT THE SAME TIME! Cédrick gave me a great example of how his brain works bilingually. He was writing a horror story about a corpse (in English), and when it came to the descripton, he thought of the French word "ensanglanté" -- so he used that to inspire the following description in English: "a bloodied corpse." I LOVE IT. And I don't think in all my years of working as a writer, I have ever used the word "bloodied" in that way. Cédrick, if you don't mind, I think I'm going to steal it!

The second group seemed a little sleepy, but you know what? When I started to talk about my historical novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp (and which all three classes are reading), they totally came alive! My mum died just over a year ago -- and this part of my day really made me miss her. Because in the old days, I'd have phoned her in Montreal to tell her that her story turned things around in the classroom. She'd have loved that!

The last group was ... well... amazing. Though it was the end of the school day, these kids had lots to say and they made many great points. Here are some examples. When I showed them the diary I write in every morning, a student named Nada tried to peek into it. I thought that was great because it shows that she is SNOOPY -- an essential trait for a writer. Then a student named Mia wanted to know exactly what I do in my diary. When I told her that i use it for "whatever," she wasn't satisfied. Mia asked: "Are you writing it as a story or a description?" That question -- so specific and probing -- really impressed me. (By the way, I explained to Mia that I don't usually write stories in my diary, but I sometimes describe people and places. Mostly, I really do write about "whatever.") Later, when I was telling the students how I HATE my first drafts, I asked them, "What do I do then? GIve yp?" I loved a student named Margaux's answer: "You work at it."

That's a nice end for today's blog post. That's what it's all about -- working at it, playing sometimes, and not giving up even when you feel like it.

I told all three groups today that it's because of my grandfather -- a Dutch artist who was forced to produce propaganda drawings for the Nazis -- that I am alive and that all my family is alive. Some days, I told them, I feel very privileged -- that I can laugh, and teach, and write, and have a delicious dinner and see beautiful things like a wintery afternoon in Old Quebec. Today, working with these kids made me feel that sense of privilege. Special thanks to their teacher, Mr. Lord, for inviting me back to the school. Thanks, too, to Miss Verity, the lovely English (from England!) monitor who is assisting Mr. Lord. And thanks to all of the students for making me feel so privileged. Now get to work on your own stories!!!

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Dec
21

Miracle Cure for the Stomach Flu: Visit to Laval Junior Academy

I don't want to give you the gorey details, but I came down with a bad case of the stomach flu earlier this week. When I got up this morning, I was still feeling a little woozy, and I contemplated cancelling today's visit to Laval Junior Academy where I was scheduled to do my last day of writing workshops with Miss Milena's and Miss Farrell's English classes. But in the end, I decided to make my way over. And guess what? Those kids fixed me!

Maybe I'll start with some of my favourite comments from the kids today. When he was finishing up a creative exercise, a student named Ryan told me, "I don't think I did it right." Which led me to tell him WHEN IT COMES TO CREATIVE WORK, YOU CAN'T DO IT WRONG. YOU JUST HAVE TO DO IT!  My other favourite line was when a student named Fred wanted to read my soon-to-be-released book Princess Angelica: Camp Catatrophe (I happened to have a copy hot off the press), and after about ten minutes of reading, Fred called out, "This is actually a good book!" (You didn't have to sound SO SURPRISED ABOUT IT, FRED!!) By the way, that is Fred IN RED in today's pic, and he's with Massimo -- and guess what? Today was Massimo's birthday!

Another cool thing about today: I invented a new writing exercise (and it worked!). I credit the flu for inspiring me. I asked the students to write about the hardest thing they have been through, assuring them that I would not read whatever they wrote. (In fact, I told them to fold up their writing afterwards and hide it some place, but NEVER TO THROW IT AWAY). The next step was for them to identify one or two strong FEELINGS associated with the memory, and then the final step was to write a fictionalized version -- changing up characters and events so the story could not be linked to them. Some of the feelings that the students recognized were: numbness, regret, sadness, anger, disappointment and trauma. You know what I say to all that? WOW -- and also USE IT in your writing. The events authors describe don't need to be true, but the FEELINGS HAVE TO BE REAL.

Another highlight of the day was when Miss Milea's Grade 7's reported that they actually did the "homework" I'd assigned them. I suggested that they interview a grandparent (or another elderly person) and ask the same question -- what was the hardest thing they'd ever been through. Several students had FABULOUS STORIES to share with me and their classmates. I think my favourite was Olivia's -- her grandmother told her that she was one of seven children growing up during wartime in Greece. Her family was so poor that Olivia's great-grandmother had to give her youngest child, a daughter, away to a neighbour who could afford to take better care of her. The older children all looked out for the little one in the schoolyard. DON'T YOU JUST LOVE THAT STORY?

There were even more wonderful things that happened today. It turns out that the Grade Seven students at Laval Junior have had to move lockers -- which led Kiera and Kasandra (who share a locker) to tell me that their old locker was HAUNTED. That definitely gave me goosebumps, which for me is a sign that there's a story there: THE CASE OF THE HAUNTED LOCKER. I like that for a book title, don't you?

Finally, my day ended with a sweet surprise: a lovely Happy 2018 card signed by the students. It's full of special messages. I thought I'd include one here: "Thank you so very much for helping all of us develop our writing, and for being so open with us about your life and your mother's as it helped me a lot." Know what? That card is the best holiday present you could give this author! Thanks to all of the kids for being awesome, and to your awesome teachers Miss Milea and Miss Farrell for hosting me. HERE'S TO WRITING AND STORIES AND OPENING OUR HEARTS. And thanks for curing my stomach flu!!

 

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Dec
18

Great Start to the Week -- Pointe-Claire Library Visit

My week got off to a happy start with this morning's visit to Pointe-Claire Library. I was there to work with students from John Rennie High School, which happens to be just across the street. The students were Mr. Elson's Grade Ninew -- and he told me they'd just finished a creative writing assignment -- and that he was impressed with their talent and hard work.

Though I had to do a bit of crowd control (hey, I'm a teacher too, so I have tricks for getting students to stay quiet and focused!), I think that overall, I managed to share a lot of information. In fact, in the 75 minutes I had with the students, I pretty much told them everything I've figured out in a lifetime of writing, such as it's all about the re-writing, that stories need trouble, and that if you know the "smell" of trouble, it will help you become a writer.

A few details from the visit:

A student named Nathan had the perfect body language for someone listening to a writer -- I snapped a pic, but in the end, I decided to use this one instead (it's from when a few students came to say good-bye to me). But in the pic I took or him, Nathan is: smiling, leaning in so he can look right at me, and also looking very smart (the glasses help, Nathan!).

A student who didn't want to tell me her name asked an excellent question: "When you use real people in your stories. do you ask their permisssion?" I think she was HORRIFIED when I answered, "No!" But then I explained that mostly, real people INSPIRE my characters -- I usually change them up so they are not identifiable. So you see, I'm not THAT EVIL!

I student named Elianne impressed me with her SNOOPINESS. (I had told the students that snoopiness is an important trait for writers.) I was explaining that when I was doing a writing exercise recently with students, one yount man got quite upset. Elianne asked: "What sort of exercise did you do?" I explained that it was an exercise having to do with memory -- and I actually ended the workshop today by getting the students to do a similar exercise. As I told them, memory is an important part of a writer's toolbox.

When I told the students that I run and that running helps my writing, a student named Gabriel commented: "You think when you run." Later, Gabriel told me that though he doesn't run, walking works to help him think. "When I need to think," he said, "I go for a walk by the water in Trois-Rivières, where I used to live."

Because there were so many students, there wasn't time for me to take a peek at all their writing. But I did get a chance to read what Nikko wrote during the memory exercise -- he remembered playing soccer at school when he was in Grade Four. My favourite line in his piece was: "the lunch ladies got mad because the kids jumped over the fence." Nikko, you should write about those lunch ladies -- and how the kids drove them crazy!

Mr. Elson happens to be married to Mary Frauley, my dear friend and office partner at Marianopolis College. So it was a special treat for me that Mary and their daughter Tess were in the audience too. Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you something SUPER INTERESTING that Mr. Elson told me -- and there's definitely a story behind it! He said, "One of my students told me, 'It's nice to go into that building [the library] because I'm banned from there!" I THINK WHOEVER THAT PERSON IS SHOULD TURN HIS EXPERIENCE INTO A STORY!!

So... thanks to Mr. Elson for bringing your students out to the library this morning; thanks to Mary and Tess for coming too; thanks to the students for being MOSTLY excellent and for doing a GREAT JOB during the writing exercise. And finally, thanks to teen services librarian Radha-Prema McAllister for the invite -- and the happy start to the week!

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Dec
16

Star Pupil Comes for Writing Workshop on a Snow Day in Quaqtag!

There was no school this morning at Isummavik School here in Quaqtaq, Nunavik. But because artist Thomas Kneubuhler and I were getting a little worried about our assignment – we’re here to help students contribute a chapter of words and photos to this year’s edition of Quebec Roots, a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project – we got Cameron, one of the kids’ teachers, to put out an all-points-bulletin. Cameron let the kids know we were here at the Landholding Hotel – and available for writing and photography workshops!

So I was pretty thrilled when a student named Ashley turned up! YAY ASHLEY! Together, we worked on a whole pile of GORGEOUS POEMS. Our theme for the chapter is boys and girls in Quaqtaq. One of Ashley’s poems is about picking blueberries in summer. In the poem, she explains that the boys only go berry picking if it’s a school activity.

When we finished our work together, I asked Ashley to tell me one thing she’d learned about writing today. Her answer? “I learned we have to go over it again and again.” YAY AGAIN FOR ASHLEY! I love that lesson. It’s basically at the heart of all good writing.

Before I let Ashley go home for lunch, I told her my main advice for her as a writer: “Trust your own voice.” We saw that together when she was working on her poem about relationships. Ashley gave me permission to quote some of the poem here:

“What I know about relationships I have mostly learned from watching my parents and grandparents. I’ve learned: don’t hurt the person you love, don’t leave them alone for long, and always try to make them happy. The people we love should do the same for us. If the person we love hurts us, or leaves us alone for long, or doesn’t try to make us happy, we should … I don’t know … maybe dump them!”

Can’t you hear Ashley’s voice just from reading her words? You know what my favourite part is? – besides the lessons – it’s when Ashley says, “I don’t know.” Because that’s Ashley’s voice.

Ahh, it’s been a lovely start to the day here in Quaqtaq. Thanks to Ashley, and to her mum for telling her she had to come to the Landholding Hotel to work with us!

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Dec
13

Happy Day at Isummasaqvik School in Quaqtaq

Hello again from Nunavik!

This week, artist Thomas Kneubuhler and I are in Quagtag, another village on the Ungava coast. We are here for a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Quebec Roots. Our assignment this week is to help students at Isummasaqvik School contribute a chapter to a book that will be published in 2018. We'll help them tell a story about their community using words and photographs.

We're working with Cameran's and Arul's classes. Our first task was to get the students to choose a topic for their chapter. So far our tentative title is "Girls and Boys in Quagtaq -- Then and Now." (I LOVE THE TOPIC.) The kids want to write about traditional Inuit gender roles -- how men have traditionally done the hunting, and women the sewing -- and how that has begun to change.

This morning, I helped the students write a poem about hunting and sewing. When we got to the sewing part, two boys, Thomas and Putulik, explained that they sew too. As Thomas told me, "We fix destruction." As you can imagine, that line made it into our poem!

This afternoon, we worked on a poem with the super-fantastic title "My Kamiks Are In the Freezer." Kamiks, in case you didn't know it, are Inuit boots. The main writer of the poem was a student named Natasha, who came up with the line that gave the poem its title. I had a lot of fun hearing about all the steps that go into making kamiks. Natasha would maybe have left out some of the steps, but her classmate Saijuula wouldn't let her! As Saijuula told me afterwards, "It's important to put in the details." Spoken like a true writer, Saijuula! What made working on the poem extra-fun is that Natasha has a great sense of humour. This is how she ended her poem: "This is the first and last time I make kamiks. It's too much work!"

It also helped that a student named Dallacy was wearing a pair of kamiks that her mum had made for her. In today's pic, you can see me laughing with the girls -- and holding up one of Dallacy's kamiks for you to see.

Tomorrow they're predicting a giant blizzard here in Quaqtaq. I don't know about the kids, but I'll be brokenhearted if school gets cancelled. I am so looking forward to getting more poems and stories out of these students -- and to seeing their photographs.

Three cheers for the kids we've been working with, three more for their teachers and for Amber Doughwright, the ped counselor from Kativik School Board who organized this trip... and three cheers for us. On my run this morning, I thought to myself, "Monique, right this moment, you are the luckiest woman in all of Quebec!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dec
11

Quebec Roots Goes to Ajagutak School in Tasiujaq, Nunavik

Good morning from Ajagutak School in Nunavik, Quebec!

I'm here with artist Thomas Kneubuhler for an exciting project called Quebec Roots, that is part of the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation's educational programming.

We are here to work with Angela's Cycle I students, and Alex's Cycle 2's. These students will be contributing a chapter to this year's edition of Quebec Roots -- a real live book!

Our job this morning was to help the students come up with a topic for their chapter. We spent about a half-hour brainstorming. The two most popular topics were after-school jobs and playing. It was Thomas's idea that we combine those topics into "Work and Play." Great idea, don't you think?

I got the students to do a little writing and right now, Thomas is teaching them some basic photography skills. In today's pic, you can see Thomas showing the kids a photo taken by one of Thomas's friends when he was in the Rockies. In the photo, there's sunshine in the foreground, but there are dark clouds overhead and in the background. As Thomas told the students, "Trouble is coming." Which I thought was great because I am always telling kids in my writing workshops that TROUBLE IS LIKE GASOLINE -- IT MOVES A STORY FORWARD.

I'm going to end this blog entry with the ending of one the poems two students, George and Jaiku, wrote about their part-time job at the youth centre:

"We like earning money

I bought a skidoo with my earnings.

But we also feel good about our work

The youth centre is a safe place for kids in Tasiujaq

It protects them from the wolves

And other stuff."

So, what do you think? When I read something beautiful, I get goosebumps. I got goosebumps when I just typed up that last stanza of the boys' poem.

Thomas and I will be here till tomorrow. Then it's off to Quaqtaq to work with more young writers and photographers! LUCKY US!!

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Dec
08

Surprise Writing (and Photography) Workshops in Kuujjuaq!

Today’s blog post comes to you from Kuujjuaq, in Nunavik, Quebec. I am here with my friend photographer Thomas Kneubuhler (he's behind me in today's pic) for a Blue Metropolis project called Quebec Roots, in which students from across Quebec work with teams of writers and photographers in order to contribute a chapter to a real-life book that will be published next year.

Only Thomas and I weren’t really supposed to be in Kuujuaq – except for a quick stopover at the airport. But because of flight delays, we ended up overnighting here – and then we decided we might as well do a combination writing and photography workshop this morning at Jaanimmarik School. (Thanks Amber Douthwright, a ped counsellor at Kativik School Board for getting all this organized in a jiffy!)

Though the teachers (Yussef, Guillaume, Kelsey and Sebastien) only learned at the last minute we’d be turning up in their classrooms, I think it’s fair to say that … well… the kids had fun and learned a thing or two (and we had a blast).

We started the morning with Yussef and Guillaume’s Sec. II classes. Though I had to wake them up a little, they turned out to be a lively, bright group. When I explained that I always hate my first drafts and asked them what they think I do after I finish a first draft, a student named Shannon answered, “Rewrite!” Exactly, Shannon! And a student named Julian helped me with my Inuktitut pronunciation: “Be loose; it’s better.” (Julian also had some beautiful photographs to show Thomas.)

I loved getting to hear Thomas’s presentation this morning. He showed the students one of his photos of a security guard, and explained that he took about 100 pics of the guard before he got it right. Which prompted me to call out, “See! That’s like rewriting!”

Thomas also told both groups of students that in artistic photography (as opposed say to fashion photography or sports photography), the artist has to come up with an idea. He told the kids, “The idea has to come from you. Something you personally are fascinated by or care about.” That’s definitely true for writing projects too!

We also worked with Kelsey and Sebastien’s Sec I students, plus a couple of Sec V’s (those are the kids in today's pic). I’m not supposed to have favourites, but a student named Makimma stole my heart when I asked the same question I’d asked the earlier group: “What do writers like me do when we finish our first draft and we hate it?” Makimma answered, “Re-try.” You know what, Makimma? I like re-try even more than rewrite! That’s because, as with so many things, including writing and photography, trying and trying again and then trying some more… well that’s really what makes it happen.

We’re off next to the village of Tasujiak, then on to Quaqtaq. Stay tuned for more blog entries – and adventures! Thanks to our friends in Kuujjuaq for being so much fun today!

 

 

 

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Dec
05

Day 3 at Laval Junior Academy

The sweet face in today's pic belongs to Kiara -- one of the students I worked with again today at Laval Junior Academy. It turns out that Kiara took the advice I gave her class last week to heart: to make writing a habit! See that notebook Kiara is holding up? It's her new journal -- and she's written six entries in it since last Friday. Yay, Kiara! You totally made my day. Nothing makes me happier than getting kids hooked on writing!

So, I jotted down all kinds of interesting notes for today's blog post. Now I have to SELECT my favourites. (I told the students how for writers, the SELECTION of DETAILS is an important part of the writing process.) So here come a few details from today's workshops.

When I was telling Miss Milea's Grade 7 class about different kinds of writing they could do in their journals (catharsis, observation, reflection and intution), I explained that intuitive writing can include making lists, writing about dreams, and drawing with words. A student named Megan said, "You mean 'rule-breaking writing.'" I LOVED THAT LINE. I am going to start using it myself, Megan!

To get the first group started, I asked them to write a mini-journal, explaining how they were feeling, why they were feeling that way, and what they want to do about it. I was impressed by what a student named Tina came up with: she wrote that she was feeling nervous about tomorrow's auditions for the school play. Then she added, "I always imagine the worst. Maybe I need to think about the best case instead." Great work, Tina! And it proves my point that writing can help us clarify our thoughts -- and plan our actions.

I used the same exercise with Miss Farrell's Grade 7 class. I loved how Sarah started her writing with the line, "Dear LIfe." (I think that would make a great book title, don't you?) And I loved how Giulianna began her writing: "Dear Dumb Diary." (Another great book title!) Later, I had the class write about a memory of when they were five years old. I was amazed by what this exercise led to. Two of the boys said their memories were so disturbing they preferred not to remember them. That's when I explained that WRITING TAKES COURAGE. I also explained that they might try FICTIONALIZING their experiences. They might try inventing a new character to go through what they did. My theory is that if you are able to remember something it's because your heart is telling you IT'S TIME TO WRITE ABOUT IT!

I finished the day with Miss Milea's Grade 8 class. A student named Alex told me he loves playing hockey. I told him publishers are super interested in books about team sports. Get started on your book, Alex! Alex said, "I have trouble writing three words." That led me to explain that I have trouble writing too. The trick is to KEEP WRITING PAST THE TROUBLE!!

I'll be back at Laval Junior Academy on December 21 for my last visit of the season. Hey, if you guys want to bring me your writing to look at, how about I eat my lunch in Miss Milea's classroom that day -- and we can talk about your writing?

Thanks to Miss Farrell and Miss Milea for having me. Thanks to the students for your energy -- and your great stories!

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Dec
01

"How Do I Know If I'm a Writer?" -- Day 2 at Laval Junior Academy

This afternoon, just as I was finishing my day of workshops at Laval Junior Academy, a student named Samantha asked me, "How do I know if I'm a writer?"

I thought I'd use Samantha's question for the title of today's blog entry -- and that I'd begin the entry with my answer.

Okay, here are some ways to know if you're a writer.

1. If you're like the two boys in today's pic (students in Miss Farrell's Grade Seven class) and you actually LIKE doing writing exercises. Or if you're like their fellow student Kiara, who had to remind me that I promised her class that we'd be doing a second writing exercise.

2. If you love words. Here's another example from Miss Farrell's class today. Just for fun, we each made a list of all the words we could think of that begin with the letter F (this was in honour of a student named Fred, who was absent for my first workshop last week). Well, even after we finished the exercise, the kids kept coming up with cool words. Kiara added "ferris wheel," to her list. TJ added "forgot" and "flute."

3. If you hate your first draft. I told all three groups that that's an excellent sign. If you think your first draft is perfect and you don't need to change a word, you are probably NOT a writer!

4. If you're snoopy. For example, if, like me, you go to restaurants with your friends and forget all about them -- because you are listening in to the conversation at THE NEXT TABLE.

5. If you enjoy doing research. (See Point 4. I consider listening in valuable research.)

6. If you're obsessed with asking the question, "What if?" For example: what if my cat attacks the cat sitter? What if I come home and find the cat sitter collapsed on the rug and my cat at the front door with a guilty look on his face? (This is an example of how asking the question 'What if?" can help you generate the plot of your story. It helps if you have a wacky cat like mine.)

My day really flew by at LJA. I think it's because the kids were fun, and I love their teachers Miss Farrell and Miss Milea. I'll share a few more highlights before I leave you to curl up on my couch with a good book (OH YEAH, I SHOULD HAVE ADDED THAT IF YOU LOVE TO READ IT COULD ALSO BE A SIGN THAT YOU'RE A WRITER!) and the wacky cat.

So, if you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know I'm obsessed with body language. Well today, I spotted body language I'd never seen before. A student named Massimo was chewing on the string inside his hoodie. I need to use that in a book.

Another highlight: a student named Ariana showed me a piece of descriptive writing that was so good it gave me goosebumps. (I only get goosebumps when I read something beautiful or hear a cool story.)

And a student named Alyssia told me her dad is snoopy. Hey Alyssia, tell him he might be a writer too!

I'll be back at LJA on Tuesday. I think it's safe to say you can expect another lively blog entry!!

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Nov
22

Kids Who Actually Enjoy Writing Exercises: Laval Junior Academy

There's something special going on at Laval Junior Academy. This is how I know: the kids I worked with today actually like doing writing exercises. Usually, even in my own classroom at Marianopolis College, the students groan when I tell them they're going to be doing in-class writing. But this morning, when I was working with Miss Milea's Grade Seven class, a student named John asked for MORE WRITING EXERCISES! (YAY!!!)

This was the first of four days of writing workshops I'll be doing at LJA. I'm also working with Miss Farrell's students. Miss Farrell and I go WAY back -- we met when I came to Mother Teresa High School (that was the former name of LJA) for a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project.

I spent the morning with Miss Milea's classes (one Grade Eight, then the Grade Seven group), and I finished the day with Miss Farrell's Grade Seven class. As usual, I have lots to tell. Often, I tell you funny stories about my school visits, but today, I have EDUCATIONAL STORIES for you. Here goes.

In the first class, two students were teasing each other. It all started when a guy named Nicholas called out, "Can you write a book about me?" Then a student named Jeffrey called back, "There isn't much to tell." Nicholas wasn't going to let the matter rest at that point, so he retaliated by shooting back, "Rapunzel!" (This was a referene to the fact that Jeffrey wears his hair kind of long.) Now here comes the teaching moment. Because I found the conversation funny, I started taking notes. I was asking Nicholas exactly what he'd said when another student named Lucas piped in: "There's already a book about Rapunzel." What's interesting is that when I investigated a little further, I learned that that wasn't exactly what Nicholas had said. (He'd just called out the name Rapunzel.) So what happened is that Lucas REWROTE the conversation. There's my first lesson for today: writers need to rewrite. (So do storytellers!!)

Second lesson came in the second class. And hey, it also has to do with rewriting. I asked the kids, "What do I do when I finish my first draft?" (I was looking for the answer "Rewrite.") But instead, a student named Luca (not to be confused with Lucas from the first class) answered. "Reread." Then a student named Alexia answered, "Add." Then I added "Subtract." And finally a student named Emanuele said, "Rewrite." But you know what? All those answers together really explain the rewriting process. First you have to REREAD. Then you may have to ADD material. You will certainly have to SUBTRACT material! And that process is called REWRITING.

Miss Farrell's students were a lively bunch, to say the least! I asked if any of them hate their first drafts. Sarab, Peter, Giulianna, Massimo, Trinity, Dante, Ryan and Ahmed all raised their hands. I told them that was great news. If you hate your first draft, you could be a real writer!!

I don't usually give homework when I do school visits, but since I'll be seeing Miss Farrell's students FOUR TIMES, I decided I could! So I've asked them to find an old person (I suggested starting with a grandparent, but told them that if they don't have a grandparent, they should just go ahead and borrow someone else's!) and find out their SECRET. (Secrets make great stories!) I suggested they ask two questions (after some chitchat, and a cup of tea -- warm drinks tend to make people tell us more stuff). My questions are: 1. What is the hardest thing you ever went through? and 2. How did you get through it?

I'll be back at LJA next week. Do you think Miss Farrell's class will uncover some secrets for me by then?

Thanks to my friends at LJHS for a great day. Thanks especially to Miss Milea and MIss Farrell for being wonderful -- and for sharing your kids with me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nov
21

Back in Dumas, Texas

Okay, so my dad and I weren't really IN Dumas, Texas this morning. But thanks to Google Hangouts, we got to hang out with two groups of wonderful Grade Six students who go to Dumas Intermediate School.

I've "been" to Dumas before -- that's because the Grade Six kids at DIS do a unit on the Holocaust and they talk about What World Is Left, my historical YA novel based on the story of my mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp.

My mum died last January, and so this was my first "visit" to Dumas without her. But I felt her spirit close. She used to get such a kick out of meeting the students (always remarking on which boys she found handsome) and sharing her message that the one thing the Nazis could never take away from their prisoners was hope.

In my sessions with the kids, I did a little talk about writing in general -- I told them how I love to do research and how I'm obsessed with the question WHAT IF? I also talked about REWRITING. I explained that when I was in Grade Six, I already wanted to be a writer. But every time I sat down to write, I hated whatever I wrote. So I asked the kids in the second group today, "Does that happen to any of you?" Now go back to the pic at the top of this blog entry -- see those kids raising their hands? They're saying that yes, they hate what they write too. I told them that's a VERY GOOD SIGN!! If you hate your first draft, you might be a writer. That's because good writing requires many drafts. I also told the kids that even now, after having published 21 books, I still HATE my first drafts. If only I'd known all those years ago that that feeling of dissatisfaction is essential to the writing process.

After I shared a few basic writing tips, we moved on to discussing What World Is Left and my mum's experience. I told the kids that despite having lived through hellish conditions, my mum never became bitter. She had a great sense of humour and everything that I know about storytelling I learned from her. She was also unusually free -- I think because living through such difficult times gave her a sense of what really mattered in life.

There was time for questions -- and the kids had prepared loads of thought-full questions for me. Victoria wanted to know if I ever think about stopping writing. I told her that ya, I consider stopping writing every day. That's because I find it so difficult. But then, I turn back to my computer and get back to my story. Maybe I just enjoy doing difficult things.

A student named Aleena asked me what I would have felt like had I been in my mum's place. I adored that question because it gets to the heart of the writing process. When you write fiction, you imagine yourself in another person's "shoes." That's especially true for writers like me who work mostly in the first-person. Writing from my mother's point-of-view helped me understand not only what she had experienced in Theresienstadt, the Nazi concentration camp where she was imprisoned for nearly three years, it also helped me understand why my mother was the kind of woman she was.

My dad said hello to both groups of students too. I think he felt good that my mum's story is still out there in the world, reaching young people. I know I feel good about that.

I reminded the students that stories are everywhere. In a way, stories are all we can really leave behind. And listening to someone's story, perhaps turning it into a book the way I do, is a great privilege.

It was also a great privelege for me to travel to Dumas today. Many many thanks to Mrs. Craigmiles and Mrs. Artho for making it possible. Also thanks to Mr. Rhodes, the school's principal, for being present. (I will say that principals looked a lot scarier when I was a kid!) But most of all, thanks to the students. Remember what my mum said about never giving up hope. I hope you get to hear lots of great stories, and that you use some of the tools we talked about today to pass them on. Love from Monique

 

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Nov
19

Reportage from the Salon du Livre

It's been a big weekend here in Montreal -- we've been celebrating the Salon du Livre. It's an event that brings together readers with authors, most of them French-speaking, but with a few like me, anglos whose books have been translated into French.

I was invited to join the team at Guy Saint-Jean Editeur, where I signed copies of my roman (that's French for novel) Béatrice. (It's the French language translation of my YA novel Scarred).

Okay, let me get to SOME STORIES.

In the first pic, I'm with Katherine and her grandmother, whom she calls Didi. They came from Repentigny to spend the day looking at books and meeting authors. Katherine, who's 14, told me she loves to read, but she isn't as keen about writing. I told her that if a person loves to read, she is halfway on the road to becoming an author. So here's a funny thing that happened -- Katherine handed me her pen when it was time for me to sign my book. I noticed it was a very nice pen and I liked the feel of it between my fingers. You don't know this about me, and don't be shocked, but I am a pen stealer! (I don't steal anything else, but well... pens... let's just say I often end the day with more pens that I started with!!) So I confessed this to Katherine and Didi, and Didi looked at Katherine and said, "Give the pen to her." You'll be glad to know that I refused. (I am trying to avoid a life of pen crime.) And I told Katherine: "Use that pen to start your book!" I'M HOPING SHE WILL!!

See that frame we're holding in the pic? It belongs to SophieLit. Here in Quebec, SophieLit is a phenomenon. She's also a real person -- a former high school teacher, now living in Belgium, who is perhaps Quebec's most important promoter of YA for teens (en français). Since moving to Belgium three years ago, Sophie has been training teachers and doing workshops with students -- all designed to get kids reading. I met SophieLit at Radio-Canada a few years ago, so I was happy to get a chance to catch up with her at the salon. Here's what she told me: "For adults, literature is too often almost sacred. It should be a part of our lives. They say adolescents don't read. But they do! We have to have confidence in teen readers. Start by asking them what interests them. What movies do you like? What kind of theater do you enjoy?"

In the next pic, I'm with someone very special to me -- my friend, the incredibly talented Quebecoise illustrator Genevieve Despres. I was hoping we'd cross paths at the salon. I was there on Friday, then again today. And just as I was leaving this afternoon, someone called my name and it was Geneviève. (That's why I look so happy in the next pic.)

Okay, today I want to say three cheers for: book salons; grandmothers who take their granddaughters to book salons; all the people who love books; and especially for friends who have met through books! Special thanks to the gang at Guy Saint-Jean Editeur for including me in your fun family!

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Nov
10

Keeping Things Lively on a Friday Afternoon -- Lindsay Place High School

Let's just say it isn't the easiest task in the world to get two Grade Eight classes writing on a Friday afternoon. But I think I did it (well kind of anyhow!).

I was back at Lindsay Place High School this afternoon -- first to meet some young writers at lunch time, and then to work with two of Miss Daigle's classes. I had already met them on Monday, so today we were able to focus mostly on writing exercises.

First, a word about today's pic. That's me with a student whom I met at lunch. Her name is Kayla, and she's in Grade Nine, so I didn't get to work with her. But she did tell me she's into writing, and that she's working on a fantasy novel about a girl who receives a mysterious rose from her grandfather. I asked Kayla to be in the pic because I loved her T-shirt. Which children's writer wouldn't?!

So I tried a variety of exercises with the afternoon groups. I had the first group explore a memory using their five senses. We also reviewed the concept of foils -- and how using characters who are unlike each other can help advance plot, and keep readers interested.

I'd say the highlight of the afternoon was when we did an exercise I like to do with my own creative writing students. I asked for a volunteer -- someone who felt he really knew the character he was writing about for an upcoming assignment. A student named Mackenzie volunteered. Then the rest of us took turns asking Mackenzie questions about his character: Joseph Salvador. A student named Anthony asked, "Has your character ever been arrested -- and if so, for what?" Great question, Anthony. I also loved Miss Daigle's question, "What does your character dream about?" As I told the students, the more they know about their characters, the more interesting their stories will be.

This was a busy week for me with four school visits. One of my friends asked whether I was exhausted, but I told her that in fact, I feel energized from being around so many fun, smart kids this week. (Even if I had to give the Friday afternoon groups a bit of a push to keep them working!)

Thanks again to Miss Daigle, and to librarian MIss Dunning, for having me at LIndsay Place this fall. Thanks to the kids for working hard. Good luck with your story assignment. (Don't forget to REWRITE a lot before you hand it in to Miss Daigle!) Hope to see you in the fall when I come back to celebrate the release of Jelly in a Jam, a story which I dreamed up in part at your school!

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Nov
09

Back at Westwood Junior High School

I was back in St-Lazare this morning (not quite as early as on Tuesday though), where I worked with more Grade Eight students. That's me in today's pic with librarian Mrs. Wilkinson and a few of the students I met.

I took LOTS of notes today (three pages full of interesting details and funny moments) ... so it's a little hard to pick just a few for today's blog entry. But since SELECTION OF DETAILS is one of the writing elements I told the kids about, I better do some selecting right here!

A funny moment -- When I asked a student named Aisling how she got such a cool name, and she answered, "I got it for my birthday!" Good one, Aisling. Don't you like someone who can come up with a joke so quickly? (Now I wish I'd asked Aisling if she ever cracked that joke before.)

An interesting detail (the kind that are fun to include in books) -- Look carefully at the feet of the students in today's pic. You may notice that one of them (her name is Keionna and she's standing the furthest back of all of us) is wearing TWO DIFFERENT COLOURED SNEAKERS. One's pink; one's blue. I inquired and learned that her parents bought her two pairs of sneakers so she could go for the extra-colourful effect.

My favourite question of the day -- Came from a student named Francesca. She wanted to know, "How do you avoid focusing on just one character?" I told her I don't. I always try to focus on one character -- my narrator (since most of my books are written in the first person). But, as I explained to Francesca, I work as hard as I can to make my secondary characters as alive as possible. Sometimes, I even make lists of questions about them: what do they want most in the world? what are they most afraid of? what's in their front pocket?

Another funny moment -- can't resist mentioning this one too. I was giving the kids a little life advice (hey, when you're 57 you can do that too!), so I said, "Don't drive your parents too crazy." At which point a student named Tamara called out, "Too late on that one!" That's just the kind of funny thing I'd want one of my characters to say in a book. Thanks, Tamara, hope you don't mind me stealing your joke.

I had lunch in Mrs. Quinn's classroom with Mrs. Quinn and a few students who wanted a little extra time to talk books. My favourite moment at lunch came when a student named Olivia S observed about her friend Ashyln that "she smells like lettuce." I actually got up to take a sniff! Ashlyn says she loves lettuce: "I eat it like chips." Don't you think that would be another fun trait to give to a character?

I also worked with Miss Chard and Miss Roy's classes. I finished the day in Miss Roy's room, and my very last conversation was with a student named Eva, who told me, "I have my own story, but I can't write it because I'm not a very good writer." I told Eva I'd give her my answer to that comment here on the blog.

Eva, it's your story and you should be the one to write it. Quit saying you're not a very good writer. What you mean to say is that your first draft will be awful -- just like every author's first draft. Get going! I hope to read it one day!

I guess you can tell I had a fun day at Westwood Junior. Thanks to Mrs. Wilkinson for the invite (and for the box of chocolate cookies that she somehow managed to sneak into an observant lady's bag without the observant lady even noticing!), and to the teachers for sharing their lovely kids, and to the kids... well... for being who you are. You make me glad to do the work I do!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nov
07

Worth Getting Up Early for Today's Visit to Westwood Junior High School

I don't usually stay up late, but I was at the most wonderful Leonard Cohen tribute concert here in Montreal last night, and then I had to get up crazy early this morning to get to Westwood Junior High School. It's in St-Lazare, Quebec, and because there's so much road work going on in and around Montreal, I gave myself 90 minutes to get there.

All this to say I'm the sort of person who requires a lot of sleep (how else do I manage to be so lively?!) and I didn't get nearly enough sleep.

BUT... the kids at Westwood Junior were better than a double espresso!

I worked with three grade eight classes, all of whom will be learning about World War II this term, and so their teachers, Mrs. Quinn, Mr. O'Rourke and Miss Roy, had asked me to talk not only about being a writer, but also about my novel What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's childhood experience in a Nazi concentration camp called Theresienstadt.

Maybe I'll start with a funny moment. The first two groups met me in the school library and Mrs. Quinn and Mr. O'Rourke appointed note takers. When I read an excerpt from the book that had to do with the beginnings of a romantic relationship between my narrator, Anneke, and an older boy named Franticek, I explained that in Theresienstadt it was not uncommon for the prisoners to have lovers. "Sex," I told the students, "was a way for people to feel alive." Well at that moment, Luca, who was acting as a note taker, called out, "Do I write that down?" (Thanks for cracking us up, Luca. And yes, definitely write that down!)

When I was talking about finding stories all around us, a student named Emily asked, "How do you run into people?" (No one ever asked me that before!) I told her my secret: that when you are really interested in people, stories come to you. I know it sounds weird, but try it out, you'll find that it really does happen.

Another student, Josh, stayed at recess to tell me about a fascinating wartime story from his own family. Josh's great-grandfather was a French Jew whose job was to rescue people caught in the mountains after avalanches. When he was imprisoned in France early in the war, Josh's great-grandfather was helped by the warden, a man he had saved after an avalanche. Josh's grandfather, who is still alive, was a baby when his parents travelled by foot, crossing from France to Spain. Josh, get going on that story. I think you should use an avalanche in the opening scene!

I finished my visit in Miss Roy's classroom, down the hall from the library. A former art teacher, Miss Roy asked her students to take notes in their sketch books. They use their sketch books every day for doodling and to work on Miss Roy's writing prompts. In this class, I met a student named Mateo, who according to Miss Roy, is always smiling. I think it would be fun to write a story about someone who CAN'T STOP SMILING. I wonder what kind of trouble perpetual smiling could lead to. (See, I'm playing the WHAT IF? game again.) I also chatted with a student named Summer (great name!) who struck me as a natural writer. Summer, remember what I told you my grandfather told me: "You need a little talent. But mostly you need to work really really hard."

I'm always telling students my motto NEVER GIVE UP. So imagine when, on my way to the bathroom I peered into the school's planning room area, and saw giant wall art that said... you guessed it... NEVER GIVE UP (see the photo below.)

Thanks to the students, their teachers, and lovely librarian Mrs. Wilkinson for having me at Westwood Junior today. I'll be back for Part 2 of my visit this Thursday. If any of you guys at Westwood want to show me the stories you are working on, or just chat about writing, bring your lunch to Mrs. Quinn's classroom and we can meet up there!

 

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Nov
06

Happy Start to the Week -- Lindsay Place High School

My week got off to a great start with this morning's visit to Lindsay Place High School. I was back at Lindsay Place, this time to do writing workshops with Miss Daigle's Grade 7 and 8 English classes.

In the first pic, I'm with (from left to right), Eden, Lauren and Kendra. More about them in a jiffy. First I want to tell you about Miss Daigle. I had the pleasure of teaching her in my Writing for Children class at Marianopolis College -- and though I'm not allowed to have favourites, well, let's just say it sometimes happens! Miss Daigle was a wonderful, engaged student, so I am not surprised to see what a great teacher she has turned out to be! It was obvious that her students adore her, and are eager to make her happy. I also like that she knows her students' strengths -- such as who is a fabulous reader, but is a little reluctant to get into writing. Anyway, it's a special pleasure for someone like me who has been teaching for more than 30 years to see a young teacher so comfortable and good with her students. It makes me feel less sad about the fact that I'll be retiring from teaching one of these days.

Okay, on to the kids!

I'll start with a student named Scott who asked me, "Are you the author? Are you a good author?" Scott's questions cracked me up. Then, because Scott realized why I was laughing, he quickly added, "Of course you're good -- or you wouldn't be here!" Nice save, Scott, and thanks for the laugh!

If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know I collect cool names for future book projects. Here are some names I collected today: Eden (see the photograph above), Jalen and Tmar.

Because we were discussing the importance of observation, I had one of the groups do an observation exercise. One student (she wanted to remain anonymous for this blog) wrote about a bracelet given to her by a friend. I love her use of detail and the emotion behind her observation: "It smells like mint and it's a bit dirty.... It reminds me of how strong I can be and that in the end, everything will be okay." Lovely, don't you agree?

As usual, I did a little observing myself. I made the Grade 7 group laugh when I pointed out that a student named Isaac looked like a teddybear. It turns out that lots of people say that about him. What's especially interesting (and story-worthy) is that Isaac knows quite a lot about some tough subjects. So he's an example of someone who probably isn't a teddybear through and through. In other words, Isaac, you should write your story!

Another person who should get writing ASAP is Afraa. We were talking about favourite pastimes (more good material for stories) and Afraa told me she loves to play soccer. Afraa wears a hijab, so I asked whether there are other girls who wear a hijab on her team. She told me she's the only one. Afraa, that has BOOK written all over it!!

When a student named Coby handed Miss Daigle something, I thought it was a secret note. (It turned out to be Coby's telephone.) But that gave me a chance to show the students how writers like me play a kind of game by asking the magic question WHAT IF? What if Coby was sharing information with Miss Daigle in a secret note? What if he had a stomach cramp and was asking permission to use the bathroom? See how the What if? game works? Authors use it all the time to advance their plots.

I'll be back at Lindsay Place on Friday for Part 2 of my writing workshops. Special thanks to the kids for being wonderful, to librarian Miss Dunning for being so welcoming and such an expert on all things related to books and reading, and to Miss Daigle for being the kind of teacher I most admire!

 

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Nov
02

Say Hello to My Lovely Writer Pal Karen Spafford-Fitz

I just got off a Facebook video call (I didn't even know that was possible!) with my writer pal Karen Spafford-Fitz. We've been meaning to catch up for a while, and I decided I really had to speak to her after recently reading her latest YA book, Saving Grad (James Lorimer and Co.).

Saving Grad is un-put-down-able. It's the story of Vienna and her mom who are on the run from the mom's violent boyfriend Duncan. It's a story about friendship and new beginnings. Because of what Vienna has witnessed, she decides to implement "a strict no-dating rule." As she explains, "After our experience with Duncan, that's just how it has to be."

I asked Karen what made her decide to write a book about domestic violence. Her answer took me by surprise. "Even when I was in elementary school," she told me, "I was aware that some kids didn't have a safe place to go home to like I did." As I told Karen, when I was a kid growing up, I had no sense at all that these kinds of problems existed.

In Saving Grad an outreach worker named Jerome helps Vienna and her mom. Jerome first meets them in the Edmonton Public Library. Karen got the inspiration for Jerome from a real life social worker who does outreach work in the library because it's a place where homeless people sometimes come to find shelter -- especially on cold Edmonton days.

I first met Karen a few years ago when one of her daughters was studying at McGill University. Over the years, we've had a few really fun coffee dates. I guess some people just click. We always compare notes about our latest writing projects. Karen filled me in about her upcoming YA novel Unity Club. It's scheduled for release in fall 2018 with Orca Books and it's about a girl with a strong social conscience. I like it already!

And because I'm always thinking of you, dear blog reader, I asked Karen if she had a writing tip that I could pass on. Here's what she came up with: "Read read read! Write write write!"

Hope wherever you are that you found a little time today to read and write. I'm about to have a quick dinner -- and then curl up with a new book (I'm reading Tortues à L'Infini by John Green -- it's the French translation of his latest YA novel, Turtles All the Way Down. Happy reading and writing to ALL OF US! Thanks, Karen, for another wonderful conversation. Hope the next one will be in person!

 

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Oct
26

Day 2 at Lindsay Place High School

How about I use the three photos at the top of this post to tell you about my visit to Lindsay Place High School today?

In the first pic, I'm with Angelica -- a student at the school who is VERY SPECIAL to me. (I try to avoid the word VERY -- ADVERB ALERT!! -- but it's necessary in Angelica's case). Three years ago, around this time of year, I was visiting Lindsay Place and I remarked to my friend, librarian Miss Dunning, how impressed I was with a student named Angelica. Miss Dunning said, "Oh, you mean Jelly!" That was the moment I came up with the name of the princess I'd been dreaming of writing about. And in the first pic, you see the real-life Angelica with the ARC (that stands for Advance Reading Copy) of my spring 2018 book Princess Angelica: Camp Catatrophe. It's the first in a four-book series that's called Jelly in a Jam!

How fun is that?

VERY (second adverb alert, but I couldn't help it).

In the second pic, I'm with Alexa, one of the students I worked with today (and yesterday). She's in Miss J's class. I figured out yesterday that Alexa is a born storyteller. Every time I brought up the subject of plot, Alexa could figure out what was going to happen next. Alexa, get writing! I gave the students an exercise today in which they had to imagine a character who was their total opposite. I asked Alexa's permission to let me quote part of what she wrote: "Some people say I have a horrible personality, but who cares since I'm gorgeous?" That led us to a little discussion about the wonderful, exciting challenge of writing about an unlikeable character (and ultimately, making them likeable).

My last pic has a funny, sweet story behind it. Don't you love the combination of funny and sweet? It's way better than pure funny or pure sweet if you ask me! In that pic, I'm with Miss Dunning, and two students (James and Jess) are coming over with two white roses. What's funny is that I made several wrong assumptions. First, I assumed both roses were for ME! Second, I assumed that either Miss Dunning or Miss J were behind the presentation. So I teased James and Jess about looking like they were forced to be on good behavior! Only guess what? It was their idea. There's more to the story. James and Jess had an ulterior motive! They were doing an assignment for Miss J's French class -- they had to do (and film) a random act of kindness. And guess what? Their random act of kindness was to give me and Miss Dunning each a rose. See what I meant about funny and sweet? James and Jess, if you're reading this -- thanks! (I'm afraid that in all the excitement, I may have forgotten my manners!) The rose is in a vase in my kitchen -- looking lovely.

I spent lunch working with two aspiring writers -- Kendra and Katana. Great to meet you, girls. Delighted to know that you caught the writing bug. The pair are writing an exciting book together and they are both characters in their own story.

I'll be back at Lindsay Place the second week of November for two more days of writing workshops.

In the mean time, happy reading, happy writing. Oh, a quick shout-out to Ryan, who insisted that he isn't into reading or writing. He told me, "My grandmother buys me a book every Christmas. I appreciate it because it's a gift. But I tell her, 'I don't know why you keep buying them!'" I had the students do a final writing exercise, and guess whose writing turned out to be stellar? I'm not saying his name because I don't want to ruin his reputation as a hater of reading and WRITING!

Thanks thanks to the students, and to the most wonderful, funny and kind Miss J, and to the always delightful and devoted Miss Dunning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Oct
25

Happy to be Back at School: Visit to Lindsay Place High School

I didn't realize how much I missed hanging out with teenagers until this morning when I did the first of a series of four author visits to Lindsay Place High School in Pointe-Claire.

I can't even tell you why I enjoy teenagers so much... it might have something to do with their openness and the fact that they are trying to figure out the world -- and themselves! (I'm still trying to do that myself at the age of fifty-seven!!)

I'm on sabbatical until January from my full-time teaching job at Marianopolis College, so let's just say I had a lot of energy to give to Miss J's Grade 10 and 11 English class. (Meet four of them in today's pic -- Kyle, Evan, James and Liam, who is stroking Evan's cheeks -- it's a long story.) My workshop was in the library and these four kids stole my heart by spending the break with me in the library rather than dashing out to do more exciting things!

I am going to get to spend FOUR HOURS with this gang. Heaven! It means I don't have to rush through my writing tips, I can get them to do a bunch of writing exercises, and I can get to know them a little (and STEAL THEM TO USE IN MY UPCOMING BOOKS!!)

How about I share a few highlights from this morning's visit? I loved when a student named Jo said about trouble (one of my favourite subjects): "You can pull a story out of it." Right on, Jo!! I also appreciated that at the end of my visit, Jo came to offer me a suggestion for the story I am working on (I told the students I had a problem to solve -- how to kill a character in a less gruesome way than I had been planning.)

Anastasia, whose arm was wrapped in a bandage, told us how she'd injured it during the summer while she was playing football with boys at sleepaway camp. I used Anastasia to demonstrate how authors need to be snoopy. So I asked her a lot of questions about the injury and made the interesting discovery that she waited for two months to get an X-ray. In-ter-esting!

My favourite moment of all was when the students were writing about a memory and Brayden asked me, "What if you don't want to write about what you remembered?" So I told him what I thought: that if you don't want to write about something it means YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY WRITE ABOUT IT.

I had another favourite moment on my drive home. I was listening to an interview and someone mentioned something American author Don DeLillo wrote. It was so wise I pulled over to the side of the road and scribbled it down (don't you like the word scribbled?). Also, it's perfect advice for Brayden and writers like him. Ready to be dazzled?

DeLillo wrote: "What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation."

How 'bout I end today's blog entry with that wondrous thought? See you tomorrow, Miss J's class. Looking forward to Part 2 of our adventures together! Special thanks to Miss J for sharing her students, and to librarian extraordinaire, Miss Dunning, for the invite -- and for the inspiration!

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Oct
20

Kids Who Love to Write Sometimes Grow Up to Become Authors

If you're a kid who loves to write, who invents stories for the fun of it, you just might become an author!

That's what happened to me, and also to the two other women in today's pic. That's Montreal playwright Colleen Curran in the flowery jacket, and my tall friend is picture book author Bonnie Farmer, who is also based in Montreal.

Bonnie is the brains behind a lovely little exhibit at Atwater Library. It's called Little Books and she's displayed the childhood works of several Montreal writers.

Colleen grew up in a writing household. Her dad was Gazette sports reporter Pat Curran. "He used to type his stories at our kitchen table. We grew up watching someone who wrote for an audience and got published. I thought everybody who wrote got published," Colleen told me last night at a reception to celebrate the exhibit. Colleen wrote a lot as a child, but she couldn't find any of her "little books." So instead she loaned the typewriter she used to write on when she was a kid!

Like me, Bonnie is a teacher. She contributed some stories she helped ESL students write in the 1990s. These days, Bonnie teaches kindergarten, where she observes that kids seem to want to make books. "Kids take bits of pieces of paper and draw on them, and write words, and glue and staple them into books," she told me.

As for me, I lent the library a "book" I wrote in Grade Five which I called "The Diary of Ooma Lella." It's the diary of a woman who dies during the Ice Age. In many ways, that book made me feel like a writer. I still remember how much my teacher, Mrs. Browman, liked it -- and I remember how she looked at me in a different way after she read my book! And guess what? I'm still friends with Mrs. Browman.

My mum died last January and I've been helping my dad organize the house and throw stuff out. I was very moved when I found "The Diary of Ooma Lella" in my mum's collection of favourite books.

Why am I telling you all this?

So you will know that every story you write, or your kid writes, is important.

Here's to teachers like Bonnie Farmer and Mrs. Browman, to parents who encourage their kids' creativity -- and to little books!

 

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Oct
04

Writers Eat Pizza -- and Give Writing Advice to Young Writers

I'm just back from the local pizza joint -- where I had pizza with a bunch of writers. And because I was thinking about you, dear blog reader, I brought some notepaper and made sure to get you top-of-the-line writing advice.

The guy in the bottom left corner was our visiting writer, and the reason we got together. He's Greg Neri, whose latest book is Tru and Nelle (Houghton Mifflin, 2016), a middle grade novel based on the real-life friendship between writers Truman Capote and Harper Lee.

Next to Greg is Mathew McCarney, who teaches Grades 7 and 8 English at Selwyn House School in Montreal, and who writes poetry. The woman behind Matthew is Carol-Ann Hoyte, a poet and librarian at Sewlyn House. And the woman behind Greg is my dear pal and fellow YA author Raquel Rivera.

Okay let's get to the advice.

I asked Greg first (after all he was the guest of honour). He said to tell you the following: "My advice is don't listen to anybody who gives you advice. Especially if they say, 'You should do this...'"

But then Greg said he actually did have some advice for young writers: "Give yourself permission to be lousy because young writers put too much pressure on themselves. Even if you know it's lousy when you're writing it, keep writing it. Let it out. You'll fix it later." (NOTE: Greg didn't use the word LOUSY. He used a better word, but can you believe it? I just got a message to this blog saying I had to remove the word. BOO!!!)

I LOVE THAT ADVICE and I HOPE YOU WON'T LISTEN TO GREG'S FIRST BIT OF ADVICE ABOUT NOT LISTENING TO ANYBODY'S ADVICE!!

I got even more advice for you guys. Matthew says he tells his students, "Everyone can tell a story. Now go ahead and tell yours." Raquel, whose latest novel is Show Mode (Orca Book Publishers) decided to pass on another writer's advice. She quoted Toronto poet Lillian Allen who tells aspiring writers: "You want to be a writer? Find an interest. Write about it." Raquel's latest interest (she has many, it's one of the reasons she's my pal) is samba reggae drumming. "It's my new religion," she told me.

Carol-Ann recently edited and anthologized Dear Tomato, a poetry collection. Her advice has more to do with reading than writing -- but you'll never become a writer if you're not a reader. Carol-Ann said to tell you, "There is a right book for everyone. You may just not have found it yet."

Speaking of books, dear blog reader, it's 9:32 PM in Montreal. I'm about to retire for the day -- with a book. Hope you've got something delicious to read too.

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Sep
23

In Which I Find This Mascot Sitting on a Bathroom Floor

You might be wondering who's that with me in today's pic? It's Scout, the CBC mascot I met earlier this afternoon at Arts Alive! -- an arts festival organized by ELAN (English Language Arts Network). I was there to do a multi-generational writing workshop. But first, I need to explain about Scout.

The festival is taking place all this weekend at St. John Fisher School in Pointe-Claire. The first thing I did when I walked into the building was ask where the bathroom was (you'll do that too when you're fifty-seven years old!!). The bathroom was immediately to my left. When I walked in, there was Scout sitting on the floor! I asked Scout whether she was all right... Scout told me, "I needed a break from the heat and all the kids!" I guess the bathroom was the only safe place for Scout to escape to!

Why am I telling you all this about Scout? Beause it isn't every day you walk into a school bathroom and find a mascot sitting on the tile floor. And that's how I opened this afternoon's writing workshop -- with the story of Scout. I told my workshop participants that writers need to be on the lookout for things that are WEIRD, FUNNY, and also SAD. Meeting Scout was weird and funny. And hey, I could make up the sad part. (That's the best thing about being a fiction writer ... we get to make stuff up!!) What if Scout (or more accurately the girl underneath the costume) saw her old frenemy from high school -- and she was worried that her frenemy might figure out that she had to spend today wearing a heavy, wooly costume for minimum wage pay? What if she ducked into the bathroom to avoid her frenemy? (See how much fun it is to make stuff up...)

There were only three participants at today's workshop. But because we were such a small group, we got a lot done and there was time to read from each other's work. There were two kids: Zahra, who's 10, and her brother Noah, who's 8. Zahra has been at several of my writing workshops. Soon, she'll be able to GIVE the workshops for me. The other participant was a grown-up named Mary.

I think it's safe to say we had a blast.

Here are some highlights from our ninety minutes together.

When I talked about how writers need to read, Zahra said, "I can't go to sleep without reading." Then Mary called out, "Me too, me too." I pointed out that Mary's use of the double "Me too" was a great example of fun language. Later, I was not surprised to discover that Mary writes great dialogue.

Another fun moment happened when I told the group, "Get ready to do a lot of writing." Noah looked up from his paper and said, "I can't spell though." I assured him that there are many fine writers who can't spell and that there's always spellcheck. For today, all he had to do was write write write. Noah also made us laugh when I asked the kids their ages. I wasn't going to ask Mary hers -- she's a grownup after all, and not all grown ups like to divulge this sort of information... but then Noah turned to Mary and asked, "How old are you?"

We did an exercise tht involved writing about a memory from when we were five years old. Zahra wrote about palying ringette. She included the line, "My toes hurt from rubbing on my ice skates for so long."I thought that was an excellent use of detail. Mary remembered being in her family's barn with a workhorse named King: "King munched on hay -- and I did too." I LOVE the picture of a five-year-old girl eating hay along with her horse. Don't you?

i was a little sorry when our ninety minutes were over. Zahra was going to her Arab lesson, Mary met up with her husband. And guess who I ran into in the school lobby? Scout.

Have a lovely weekend whenever you are. Hope you meet someone WEIRD and FUNNY too. And if something SAD happens, I wish you strength to deal with it... and don't forget to take notes. Because hey, that's what writers do!!!

Here's one more pic from the actual workshop today!

 

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Jul
24

Adventures in Writing a Board Book

Ever heard of a board book?

They're made of hard cardboard (hence the name board book) and they're aimed at children aged 0-3. Basically, they're for parents to read to their infants and toddlers -- and for babies to CHEW ON!!

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I write mostly for pre-teens and teens. So, imagine my surprise when, in May, an editor at my publisher Orca Books contacted me to ask if I was willing to write a board book. One hundred words on a topic that I can't disclose because it's still top-secret. Of course, I said YES.

You probably think one hundred words on some undisclosed topic is a snap, right?

But I knew it would be tough. That's because I have friends who write board books.

I started in May. As I often do, I worked on the floor in my little home office. I spread out notes all around me, and I started writing. I have to admit that when an unfortunate tele-marketer happened to phone, I SHOUTED AT HIM.

But I kept writing for two days straight. I thought my first draft was pretty excellent. Then I sent it to my friend and fellow author Rina Singh.

Rina, whose first book was a collection of poetry, made some great comments. When you only have one hundred words every word counts.

I worked some more and sent the manuscript off to Orca.

How hard can it be to write one hundred words?

Crazy hard. As in the hardest thing I have ever done. Harder than writing a 30,000 word manuscript!

I wrote -- are you ready? -- NINE drafts of the project.

Still, my friends at Orca didn't think I had it quite right. I suggested that maybe they should FIRE ME!! But they said, "No, we believe you are the person for this project. We believe that you will get it right."

And so, on a recent trans-Atlantic flight, sitting next to my daughter Alicia, I re-wrote the story for the TENTH time. Special thanks to Alicia, for her input and suggestions -- and for putting up with me while I read the story over and over and over again. Even our seat mate, a man with mutton chop sideburns (he's another story altogether!!) was forced to hear my WIP (that stands for work-in-progress).

And guess what? That tenth draft of my first board book?

It worked. You'll be able to read it to a baby in spring 2018.

The moral of today's blog entry: you can do it even if it's hard. Even if it feels IMPOSSIBLE. All you need to do is fly to Europe -- and never ever EVER give up.

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Jun
21

Book Launch at St. Monica School!!

It's been an exciting morning here in NDG. I am just home from a book launch at St. Monica School, which happens to be conveniently located around the corner from my house!

We were celebrating the launch of this year's edition of Quebec Roots -- it's a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project in which students from across the province work with a team of authors and photographers to contribute a chapter to the book.

Photographer Thomas Kneubuhler and I were lucky that we got to work with Mr. Trister's Grade Five class at St. Monica's. (That's Mr. Trister in the back corner of the first pic.) Thomas is away in Switzerland on a work assignment, so I had to talk enough for two people (not a problem for me!!).

As you can imagine, the kids were pretty psyched to see their words and images published in a real book! A student named Joanne told me, "I got inside a published book and I want to do more!" And a student named Mel made me happy when he said he might keep a journal this summer: "I might write about my vacation. We might go to Auberge Lac Taureau and there's a beautiful beach there."

And because I'm me, I took a few minutes to pick the students' brains about a book project I'm working on. I need one of my characters to be hooked on video games -- and the kids told me the latest, best video games: 2K17 and Battlefield 1. Thanks, guys!

This winter, I also travelled to Salluit in Nunavik, to work with students at Ikusik School. The Ikusik kids contributed two wonderful chapters to this year's Quebec Roots. In all, there are seven chapters. I can't wait to read them all. I hope you will too!!

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May
10

Special Morning at LCCHS

So what if I took a bridge I didn't have to and got totally lost -- and had to put in an emergency SOS phonecall -- on my way to Lasalle Community Comprehensive High School this morning? It was ALL WORTH IT because the two groups of students I worked with ... well... they made me happy! (Hopefully I taught them some stuff too!)

I started the morning with Miss Di Criscio's Grade Seven class. When I asked if any of them tend to ask themselves what I call the "magic question": "What if?" Abigail answered, "I ask 'What if?' all day every day!" Way to go, Abigail! You sound like a writer! You know how I'm always on the hunt for cool names to use for future characters in my books? Well, one of the Grade Seven students was named Blade. When I asked him how his parents came up with that name, he told me, "They were into medieval stuff." Très cool, Blade. (I also met a student named Karma -- but she was in my second group. Love her name too.)

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know how I love observing small, interesting things. I noticed that a student named Fardin is detail-oriented. When I asked the students to write something down, Fardin asked, "Is there a comma?" I think it would be fun to use a character like Fardin in a story, don't you? I also noticed that a student named Alyssa was kind -- this is because, when I mentioned that my mom died four months ago, Alyssa looked at me and said, "Sorry for your loss."

During my break, a talented Grade Ten student named Alice dropped by the library to show me some poetry she's been working on as part of a project called Leave Out Violence. I gave Alice a few tips for tightening up her poems -- such as to reduce the number of words whenever possible, and to avoid rhyme when it sounds forced. I also asked Alice for permission to share one of her lines that I liked most. It comes from a poem called "Funerals": "Funerals aren't for the living/ They're for the dead." What I like about these lines is that they are clear, concise and powerful. Keep writing, Alice!

I ended my morning with students in the school's Phoenix program, an alternative program that lets them complete their Sec. IV and V classes. (You can see a few of them in today's pic.) These kids have stories! When they first sat down in the library, I noticed that a student named Sabrina was sitting alone. When I mentioned this, another student -- Austin -- got up from his table and went to sit with her. I loved that. Also, it would make a great scene in a book. Thanks for the inspiration, Sabrina and Austin.

I gave both groups of students a short writing exercise. A student named Kyle said I could go ahead and quote my favourite line from what he wrote. Here goes: "I am addicted to the feeling of helping others." That line really touched my heart. Thanks, Kyle, for letting me share it here.

Also, I often say the same things when I do school visits, so it was exciting that today I came up with a new line -- especially for the Phoenix kids. I told them, "Cash in on your misery and write about it!" What do you think of that wisdom? (I like it a lot!)

Special thanks to my friend, librarian Miss Lumi, for inviting me to LCCHS today -- and for helping me find my way from the Mercier Bridge. (That's Miss Lumi next to me in today's pic.) Thanks to the students for being wonderful. Let's just say -- I needed you today!

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Apr
28

Writing Workshop for Seniors (and Two Imposters!) at the Blue Met Festival

Yesterday afternoon, I did a workshop called "Finding the Story You Need to Tell" at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. The workshop was meant to be for seniors -- but two young women turned up to join us. All I can say is we had a magical afternoon together. The workshop was 2-1/2 hours long, but I never once checked my watch!

I tried to bit of everything. That means some of my usual writing tips (the same ones I pass on to high school students), as well as writing exercises. I made sure to do exercises that were quick and fun, as well as a couple that were more difficult and required a little more "giving."

When the workshop started, I asked everyone to introduce themselves. Carol made us laugh when she told us her reason for coming to the workshop: "I'm avoiding my income taxes!" Sylvia explained that she's been writing since she was a little girl: "I had to write books for my parents for birthdays and at Christmas." It sounds to me like you had great parents, Sylvia! Several of the participants were retired teachers. One of them, Nigel, who also works as a translator, said he needs to follow the same advice he used to give to his students at Champlain College when they were avoiding their writing assignments: "Trip yourself up! Walk backwards -- go blind!" Cheryl, another retired teacher, said that at this stage in her life, she finally has time to write. "When I was working," Cheryl said, "I was too exhausted to do all the things I wanted to do."

I must say I never felt for a moment like I was working. At the end of the workshop, Cheryl (the income tax-avoider!) told me: "I've got two short stories blooming as a result of your exercises. They've been rattling around."

Here's to blooming, here's to rattling -- here's to writers of all ages and stages in their careers!

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Apr
27

Day 4 at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival: Westmount Library

It's me again! Reporting in from Day 4 of this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. Don't you love today's pic? Mett Melea (on the left) and Kashuf (on the right). I was at the Westmount Library, doing a writing workshop for their Grade 8 class at Westmount High, when I spotted these two students in perfect "concentrating" position. So of course, I whipped out my cellphone and took a pic that I could post here for all the world to see.

I also explained to the class that I love love love the old writing rule, "Show; don't tell." I could TELL you that the girls were concentrating. But it's way better to SHOW you that they were resting their chins on their hands, taking notes and looking right at me.

More exciting news: the students' teacher, Miss Tevel, was one of MY students at Marianopolis College. Makes me think I must do a good job!!!

I love learning stuff about kids, and of course, I write everything down for possible future use in a story. I loved that a student named Mohammed was keeping track of which number point I was on. "Maybe I want to be an engineer," Mohammed told me. Sorry, by the way, for hopping around between points, Mohammed. As you can guess, I would have made a terrible engineer!

I was also kind of fascinated by a student named Josh. (I told the class that if I'd had a son instead of a daughter, his name would have been Josh.) Anyway, Josh looked a little sluggish (leaning way back in his chair, not taking notes), but also quite smart (could have been on account of his glasses). When I asked him to write a list of ten things he hated, I discovered that Josh is a creative thinker. Now go use that talent, Josh!

The other students wrote about a memory connected to bullying. I absolutely loved Nikitas's first line: "It was 3:06 dot on." The "dot on" part really catches my attention. Cyrus wrote about how his older brother "hit me with a belt as a joke" -- that's powerful material, Cyrus. And Hang wrote something really really beautiful that I think she should develop into a book. She described her memory of being in Grade 4 in China: "It was HELL. There was a rumour going around about the fact that I'm Japanese." When I asked Hang more about the rumour, I learned something super interesting -- that it was only afterwards that Hang learned that she is actually part Japanese. Whoo! How interesting! I wish I could write a book about Hang's experience -- only problem is that Hang would do a way better job since she lived it. Hang, start writing!

I had another great morning at the festival. Thanks to my friend, Westmount Library's children's librarian Wendy Wayling, for hosting me; thanks to Miss Tevel; to the other adults who were present; and special thanks to the kids. I had a blast with you guys this morning. Now, go write and read!!

 

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Apr
26

Day 3: Blue Metropolis Literary Festival: Mini-Workshop, Max-Pleasure

No kids in today's pic -- just me at the Montreal Children's Hospital. I was there this morning to do a mini-workshop. I had four participants, all teens who are being treated at the hospital. But as I explained in the title of today's blog entry, I had maximum-pleasure. What a treat to work so closely with a small, talented group!

As usual, I did my usual: writing tips, stories. I warned the kids beforehand that they would probably need a long nap after they met me! One of them, who has had trouble sleeping lately, thought that was great news! Who knew that I could have a medicinal effect?!!

When I talked about the importance of making writing a habit, "S" (I'm not using any real names in today's blog entry) said that she writes every day. "Farrell" said, "I text my friends rants or else I text them about my dreams." So S and Farrell are already cultivating the habits that could turn them into professional writers. Make sure you back up all those texts, Farrell!

Here's a funny snippet of a mini-conversation we had during today's mini-workshop:

S: Can I ask you something?

Me: You can ask me anything.

S: That's good to know.

That line, "That's good to know" cracked me up. What do you say, S, should one of us use it for a book title: "That's Good to Know"? If I use it, I will credit you!

There was a time for a writing exercise! Yay! I asked the kids to write about a moment of change in their lives. Here's how "Luna" started her piece: "Her eyes examined me. Up and down, up and down." I have to admit I was a little JEALOUS when I read that!! That's because I usually hate the first line I write when I am getting started. But Luna's first line was PERFECT.

And here's a little tidbit to wrap up today's blog entry. If you know me, you know I love to tell the story of the monkey man charm I wear around my neck. I asked the kids if they wanted to touch the charm. "Veronica" didn't want to touch it. In fact, I noticed her giving me a weird look (I suppose it is a little weird if some energetic lady with curly hair invites you to touch her monkey man charm!). But guess what? When I finished telling the story of the charm, Veronica wanted to touch it! That made me happy in a way that is hard to describe here.

So, thanks to Blue Met for sending me to work with this lovely group today. S, Farrell, Luna and Veronica -- keep writing. I feel like the luckiest woman in all Montreal today that I got to work with you!

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Apr
25

Day 2 at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival: Jewish Public Library

I'm still flying from my second morning at this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. Today, I was at the Jewish Public Library working with Miss Horvath's Grade Seven students (there were some Grade Six-ers too) at Hebrew Academy. If I may say so myself, I got a lot done in my one-hour presentation -- and there was even time for writing -- and lively discussion!

I started with my usual writing tips, and then I turned the subject to stories about bullying and my new book, Bullies Rule. I explained how most stories about bullying focus on the victim, and how I think it'd be interesting to read more stories from the bully's point of view and also from the bystander's point of view. During the short writing exercise I did with the students, I was impressed with a student named Miriam's opening line: "I was a bully a few years ago because I was scared to be bullied." The first thing I did (well, okay, the first thing I did was tell Miriam I liked her work), but then the next thing I did was suggest she leave out the words "a few years ago." So we tried the line out this way: "I was a bully because I was scared to be bullied." Don't you agree that it reads even more powerfully this way? (I follow the rule that the fewest possible words are usually best.)

Because I am always HUNTING for stories and a SNOOPY person by nature, I noticed that a student named Yehuda was wearing a rather unattractive cast -- the thing that made it unattractive was that it was on his left forearm and also two of his fingers. Well, it was a good thing I asked Yehuda about the cast because he ended up telling me a story that gave me goosebumps (goosebumps happen when I hear a story I might end up writing about!!). It turned out Yehuda was playing basketball with Baruch (a boy sitting two seats over from Yehuda this morning) and Baruch accidentally broke Yehuda's finger. "Did you cry?" I asked Yehuda. I got the goosebumps when he answered, "Yes." I also asked Baruch how he felt about what had happened and whether he had tried to make it up to Yehuda. "I called him afterwards. My dad thought I should buy him something." I smell a story there. Do you?

When we were talking about re-writing, a student named Ben said something I considered wise: "It's not like you can expect it to be perfect. It's not like you can write a book and it has no mistakes." I hear you, Ben! For me, writing is all about re-writing, and then re-writing some more. Followed by more re-writing!

At the end of my session, I told the students about the monkey man charm I wear around my neck -- and I told them how the story formed the basis for what will be my first picture book. A student named Gavi had a great question, "Is that how you wrote it?" -- Imust say that question impressed me a lot. So I explained that no, I had to inject a lot of imagination into the real story to turn it into something that would appeal to kids today. And that I also relied on my memory of a shocking thing that happened during a giant storm when I was a kid. Memory, I told the students, is a big part of a writer's toolbox.

You can probably tell that I had a great time with the kids at the Jewish Public Library today. In fact, I was having so much fun that I forgot to get someone to snap a pic. Luckily, a few students came back to chat with me while I was packing my book bag! In today's pic, you can see those girls, as well as their teacher, Miss Horvath, who is standing between them. The JPL's children's librarian Talya Pardo is at the far left. And next to her is my surprise visitor -- the library's director of  financial resource development, my former student Alyson Lozoff!

I'll be back at the festival every day this week. Stay tuned for more updates!

 

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Apr
24

Day 1 at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival: Kirkland Library

It's Day 1 of this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. I kicked off the week with a super-fun visit to the Kirkland Library where I worked with about 60 Grade Five students from Kuper Academy.

I bet you're wondering why so many of them have their hands raised in today's pic! It's because I asked them, "How many of you write something and immediately hate it?" When so many kids raised their hands, I told them, "Don't move. I need to take a pic of you guys!" and then I told them, "If you feel dissatisfied with your first drafts, it's a sign that you could be REAL WRITERS!" Or as a student named Kayleigh explained, "A first draft is horrible." Exactly, Kayleigh! And what distinguishes amateur writers from professionals is that we re-write and re-write, and re-write all over again -- until, finally, we start to like our own work!

I was at the library to do a workshop about my latest book, Bullies Rule. I also made time to give the kids some basic book-writing tips. And we did an exercise in our heads (I explained that that's where all writing starts: in our imaginations). I asked the students to recall a memory of being bullied/being a bully/ or having been a witness to bullying. I explained that most stories about bullying focus on the victims, and I challenged the students to try, instead, to write a story from a bully's point of view. (That's what I did in Bullies Rule.)

As usual, I collected cool names for possible inclusion in my future books. My favourites today were Gage, Spiro, Aniruddha, Cinar and Ilgaz (Cinar and Ilgaz happen to be twins). I also learned cool stuff, such as that Kayleigh is a TRIPLET (Write about it, Kayleigh!!), and that, like me, a student named Ella wears a necklace that is precious to her, and which is connected to the Holocaust (Write about it, Ella!).

I'll end today's blog entry with something a student named Lauren told me -- it's actually something Lauren's older sister told her: "Books make you homesick for a place you've never been." Don't you just love that line?

Thanks to Blue Met for sending me to the Kirkland Library to work with the kids from Kuper. Thanks to teachers Madame Assya (my former student!!!) and Miss G for sharing their classes with me. And thanks to the universe for a happy start to this busy week. Stay tuned for lots of blog entries this week -- direct from the Blue Met Literary Festival!

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Apr
10

Great Start to the Week at Laurentian Regional High School

My week got off to a great start with my visit today to Laurentian Regional High School in Lachute. That's me in the pic with a lovely student named Chris who kept me company -- and discussed writing and photography -- during my lunch break. More about Chris later....

I worked with two groups: first, Miss Matthews's grade nines, then Miss Welden's grade sevens. You know how I  LOVE TROUBLE? (Well in a story, anyhow!!) These kids were perfect -- they caused no trouble at all. That meant I got to cover a lot of writing tips and also tell some stories.  As Louis, one of Miss Welden's students, said, "There's always a story." I couldn't agree with you more, Louis.

Both classes had amazing questions which they'd prepared in advance. One of Miss Matthew's students, Cassidy, asked, "Do you feel a personal connection to your characters?" When I said yes, Cassidy laughed. That's when I knew she was a writer too. Later, when we chatted, Cassidy told me she is working on a project that has over 80 characters. I told Cassidy that I'm reading a novel I really love, Men Walking on Water by Emily Schultz, and it's also what I described as an "ensemble piece" with many characters, all of them fascinating!

Kalina asked, "When you get an idea, do you write about it right away or do you think about it?" Instead of answering, I asked Kalina (who had only known me for about an hour) to guess my answer. She said, "I bet you write about it right away." That was my turn to laugh. Kalina was right. I figure things out by writing about them, though I certainly know other writers who mull a lot before they start typing. I guess I mull at the keyboard.

I explained to both groups that it's important to do research and ask lots of questions. I also told both groups about the monkey man charm I wear around my neck. So I was super-impressed when Mathys, one of Miss Welden's students, asked about the other necklace I wear. Because I like to be as honest as possible at all times, I told the students something I have never told any other kids -- that I had the necklace made after my second marriage broke up. It was a way to use the diamond that I used to wear on my left hand. Mathys, who is SUPER SMART, then asked me, "Is it like you moved on -- but you don't forget the past?" Mathys, I couldn't have put it better myself. Thanks for teaching me that!!

I'll end today's blog entry with a word or two about Chris, who also goes by the nickname Red (because he loves red foxes). Chris is a talented photographer. I know because he showed me some of his nature pics and they are really remarkable. He turned out to be FULL OF STORIES (no wonder I enjoyed his company so much). When Chris was 14, he worked as a baker at the local Tim Horton's. Here's how he described it: "It was hell." These days, Chris says he has a problem with motivation. "I haven't done homework for years, but I'm still passing everything." So Chris, and any other blog readers with a similar approach to homework, here's what I have to tell you: GET SERIOUS, YOU'RE SMART AND TALENTED -- NOW GO USE THOSE GIFTS. AND DO YOUR DANGED HOMEWORK!!

Many thanks to librarian Megan Bryan for inviting me to Laurentian Regional today. And to Miss Matthews and Miss Welden for sharing your wonderful kids. And to the kids for being wonderful.

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Apr
07

Another Special Morning at Mackay Center School

I was back at Mackay Centre School this morning for a second series of writing workshops. If you don't live in Montreal, you probably don't know what a special place Mackay is -- many of the students there have motor, speech or sensoral difficulties. Yet despite those challenges, the mood in the school is totally upbeat. As librarian Anne o'Connor told me this morning, "I love the spirit of the kids -- there's a joy here."

In today's pic, I am actually working with a group of visually impaired students who go to Philip E. Layton School -- located inside Mackay Centre. I was able to get through a lot of my writing tips with this bright gang of kids. One boy (no names in today's blog) had lots of interesting questions, such as, "Are you allergic to cats?" and "Are you right-handed or left-handed?" Hey, maybe I should include a character in my next book who asks cool questions! (Yes, I'm allergic to cats and I'm right-handed.)

I started my day with two kindergarten classes. These kids were so cute and bright, I wished I could take them all home! I was inventing a story for the kids (to demonstrate the need for TROUBLE to make a story move forward) and I came up with something about running into traffic. One student raised her hand because she wanted to add to my story: "You'd be like a pancake!" she said. I thought that was a great twist -- and also a great way of putting it ("You'd be like a pancake" is a simile which sounds a lot better than "You'd be flattened.")

I asked the kindergarteners to come up with their own examples of trouble -- and they did a gret job. One girl told me, "I didn't listen to my parents." Another student remembered when he "lost an airplane in the park."

I also worked with a group of deaf students. Thanks so much to their teacher, Glenna, for signing so that the kids could follow everything I was saying. If you know me, I'm a quick talker, so I made Glenna work hard! When I told the students that first drafts are usually junk, one of them nodded like crazy. I loved that -- because it shows he understands that the difference between junky writing and good writing is REWRITING!! When we were discussing trouble, two students shared memories about getting lost -- one on a train, and another in a clothing store. Great use of details, you two!

To be honest, I'm a little sorry that my visits to Mackay are over. I feel super inspired by the young people I met at Mackay this week. You know, of course, that you guys have great stories to tell and to share with the world. Readers need to learn about the kinds of challenges you face. The world can learn a lot about humour and resilience and kindness from you. SO GET WRITING!

Thanks to my friends at Mackay (and Philip E. Layton) for having me at your school(s). Thanks, especially, to my friend Sebastian Piquette and to librarian Anne O'Connor. And to the kids, THANKS FOR BEING AMAZING. Signed, Grateful Author

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Apr
04

"Oh Happy Day" -- Visit to Mackay Center School

I'm an awful singer, but when I'm in a really good mood, I sometimes catch myself singing the song, "Oh Happy Day." That's what I did on my way home this morning from Mackay Centre School, a school where many of the students have motor, speech or sensorial difficulties. I was there to do writing workshops with big kids and little kids -- and they all have giant hearts!

I did mini writing workshops with kids in pre-k, and more complex workshops with kids in grades one through six. I jotted down some of the highlights of my visit to share with you here. In the pic below, I am working with grades three and fours. Thanks to my lovely niece, Erica Lighter, who works at the school and who popped in to attend my workshop -- and act as official photographer!

The library where I did my presentations has a carpet with all the Canadian provinces on it. A student named Hebe sat down on top of British Columbia and explained, "it's because my aunt lives there." When I told the kids that I keep a daily journal, a student named Junior said, "I have a comment book that I'm making." I like the sounds of that, don't you? Maybe I should start calling my journal a "comment book" instead!

I was impressed that a Grade One, Nevina, had already checked out my website. I also laughed when, after I told Nevina's class that I'd published 21 books, Nevina called out, "No way, Jose!!" And later, when I was making up a story for the class (I was demonstrating how asking the question "What if?" can help move a story's plot forward), I invented a story about scraping my knee on the way to the school this morning. "What could happen next?" I asked the kids. Nevina really touched my heart when she said, "Your mom could wash you off."

A student named Thelma impressed me with her cool outfit -- plaid shirt, hot pink pants, and orange socks. Maybe I'll use a girl dressed like Thelma in one of my next books. And I also laughed when a student named Bishal wanted to know, "Do you write in small letters or big letters?" I told Bishal I write in ALL letters!!

I had the pre-k class just after recess. Simone, one of the pre-k kids saw me and remarked, "Oh there's someone new." Simone also told me that she keeps "a yellow journal." Wow, that's impressive for a pre-k student!

I ended my visit to Mackay today with the grades five and six students. They were super smart and focused. When I told them that I learned boxing in order to research my novel Straight Punch, a student named Asher called out, "I'm scared of you right now." Later, when the students did a writing exercise, Asher described the first time he came to Mackay. He wrote, "It smelled like new carpet." Can't you just smell it?

There was a tall, confident-looking young man sitting at the back of the room. His name is Androel. The funny thing that happened with Androel is that I thought he was the principal -- and not a student!

So, I hope this blog entry gives you an idea of why I had such a happy day at Mackay. Many of the students at this school face major challenges -- but they're smart and funny and COURAGEOUS (in my view, courage is the most important gift of all). So thanks to wonderful teacher Sebastian Piquette for the invite, thanks to all the teachers for sharing your students with me, and thanks to the kids for being AMAZING. I'll be back at Mackay on Friday for another morning of writing workshops. LUCKY MOI!!

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Apr
03

"Interesting" Day at Joliette High School

I'm just home from an interesting day at Joliette High School, where I worked with Miss Castiglione's two grade seven classes. You have probably figured out that when a person uses the word "interesting," there must be a story behind it! And there is! The first class I worked with this morning had some students who were a little disinterested. When I suggested that one of them might be happier if he left the classroom, he decided to leave. (To be honest, I didn't really want him to go... I thought that my comment would get him to participate more fully... but oh well, life doesn't always go according to plan, does it?)

That's Miss C in the striped sweater in today's pic. The other teacher is Miss Beddia, who teaches Grades 10 and 11 English and WHO WAS MY STUDENT AT MARIANOPOLIS COLLEGE!! (She came to sit on for part of my afternoon session.)

The student in the pic was also in this morning's group -- and he was wonderful. His name is Mathieu, but he also responds to the name Mathew. Which led us to discuss the possibility of a character who has an English and French name, and whose hair is dyed half-blond! Good idea, don't you agree?

The afternoon group was A PIECE OF CAKE. Sorry, I know tht's a cliché, but hey I LOVE CAKE. The kids were super. We had a good laugh when I asked a guy what his name was and he took a minute to consider the answer. Alice, the student sitting in front of him, answered for him: "His name's Selvin," she told me. I noticed a student named Chad had stabbed his eraser with his pencil. That led another student, Sophia, to say, "Pencil, it's like, 'Die Eraser!'" I suggested to Sophia that that might make a great title for a poem.

There was even time for a short exercise with the second group. Arabell (great name for a character!!) wrote about her memory of losing a tooth in kindergarten breakfast club: "the teacher gave me a little red tooth-shaped box.... I ate pancakes." Nice details, Arabell! Roxan remembered the "dress up chest" in her kindergarten classroom. Don't you agree that the word "chest" there really takes us to the scene?

Many thanks to Miss Ruby for the invitation to return to Joliette High School and to Miss C for sharing your students with me today. Yes, there were some challenging moments, but all in all, I had a great day -- and wouldn't have it any other way!

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Feb
20

Back at William Latter School!

I was back today at William Latter School in Chambly, working with two more Grades Five and Six classes. In today's pic, I am with a lovely young man named Kyler, who, I think it's safe to say, is my biggest fan in Chambly. Until his teacher, Miss Kozub, suggested he read my Orca Currents title, Junkyard Dog, Kyler says he wasn't much of a reader. Now Kyler's read three of my books -- and I left him another one to get busy with (he promised to pass it on to school library when he's done). I asked Kyler to tell me why he likes Orca's Currents series, and he told me: "The biggest reason why I actually like them is because someone my age can really relate." YAY!!

So, today I worked with Miss Kozub's and Miss Kim's groups. I must say the mood in the two classrooms was very different -- Miss Kozub's students were hardworking and serious; Miss Kim's had a zillion questions for me -- and also a lot of stories that they wanted to share!

I thought I'd use today's blog entry to share some of the highlights of my day at William Latter. In Miss Kozub's class, I OBSERVED (writers need to do a lot of observation) a student named Samantha. What I noticed about her was how her blonde hair, which was tied back in a ponytail, shone in the morning sunshine, and looked like a HALO. When I asked Samantha whether she was angelic, Samantha fluttered her hand in the air -- as if to say, "so so!" I'm thinking it would be fun to open a novel with an angelic-looking girl who is not 100 per cent angelic!!

I told both classes how writers need to ask WHAT IF? in order to move their stories forward. One of Miss Kozub's students, Elyse, came up with an amazing WHAT IF? We were talking about how the Nazis hated Jews, Roma, those who were disabled, as well as those who were gay, and Elyse wondered out loud, "What if one of the Nazis was gay?" Amazing story idea, Elyse!

I also talked about how writers need to be SNOOPY. So when I came back from recess and found one of Miss Kozub's students, Carl-Eric, reading my notes, I admired him for his SNOOPINESS. Good work, Carl-Eric!

Miss Kim's students had some great ideas for themes they might explore in stories. Christopher suggested writing about jealousy; Jayden came up with the theme of being left out. Miss Lyne, a French teacher who was with Miss Kim's kids for one period, had a good question for me. She wanted to know, "DId any of your books ever get rejected?" I told her the answer was YES and I thanked her for asking me the question. Four or five of my manuscripts were rejected before I made my first book sale. I explained to the class that the only reason I got to be a published author is that I NEVER GAVE UP. I told the kids that whatever they dream of doing, they should go for it, and they should expect obstacles along the way -- but that they mustn't give up. Ever!

So, many thanks to my friends at William Latter for having me back at your school. I feel inspired by the time I spent with you guys. Thanks to the teachers for sharing your classes with me; and thanks to the students for being wonderful!!!

 

 

 

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Feb
13

Great Start to the Week -- Visit to William Latter School

We've had 30 centimeters of snow in the Montreal area -- so I was a little nervous about driving out to Chambly this morning to do the first of two visits at William Latter School. But I needn't have worried. The drive went well, and the students were WONDERFUL.

I worked with two groups of Grades Five and Six students. I started the day with Genevieve's class. When I asked them whether they are the kinds of people who ask themselves WHAT IF? a lot, I was astounded by the answer. Twenty of the twenty-two students, as well as Genevieve, are all WHAT IF? wonderers. For me, that means they are potential writers. It's by asking myself the question, "What if?" that I'm able to advance the plot in my stories.

When I asked the students why it's a good idea to interview old people, a student named Kyra shot her hand up into the air. "It's because," she said, "they're more old and they know more things!" Exactly, Kyra!

I also talked about the Holocaust and my historical novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp. We talked about how we need to make sure that every single person on our planet is treated equally -- and how it is more important than ever to stand up for each other. I like to think that reading and writing stories are a way for us to build connections with each other.

My next stop was Daisy's class. There I met a smiling student named Riley. When I commented on his smile, his classmates called out, "We call him 'Smiley Riley.'" Now don't you think that would make a great book title? I also met a student named Graham, who explained that his friends call him, "Graham Crackers." Maybe there should be a book called, "The Adventures of Smiley Riley and Graham Crackers."

Because I had both groups for two hours, there was time for writing exercises. (Yay! I love writing exercises. There's nothing that pleases me more than to see pens flying on the page!!) I thought I'd end today's blog entry with some of my favourite lines from the students' work. Here's how Antonia described the voice of someone she dislikes: "her voice is like someone strangling a rat." Yikes -- can't you just hear it? A student named Elorie started her piece about an imaginary character by writing, "My name is Maude and I am famous, well, I was." I definitely want to find out what happened to Maude!

For last period, I was back with Genevieve's students. There, a student named Lana wrote about her memory of the first day of school: "No one knew me and I didn't know anyone." I find that line hauntingly beautiful! And a student named Tiffany wrote about a girl who was bullied; the bullies called her "Creepy no life girl." Now that's a book title if I ever heard one. Tiffany, if you don't write that book, I may have to steal your title!!

I'll be back at William Latter to work with two more groups of students next Monday. I'm crossing my fingers that they'll be as bright and creative as the students I met today. And for anyone who wants to pop by and show me their writing, I'll bring my lunch and eat it in Genevieve's classroom. Okay, off I go to my own students at Marianopolis College -- have a good week, dear blog readers!

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Feb
09

Reporting Back from Ikusik School in Salluit, Nunavik!!

I'm just just home from an AMAZING, dare I say LIFE-CHANGING trip to Salluit, where I worked with two groups of students at Ikusik School. Salluit is the second northernmost community in the province of Quebec. I was there thanks to an amazing Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Quebec Roots. The seven classes participating in Quebec Roots this year will each be contributing a chapter to a book that will be published at the end of the school year. The kids are writing and taking photographs on a subject linked to the theme of community. My friend, photographer Monique Dykstra (when we work together, we are known as "The Moniques") will head to Salluit in two weeks to work with the same students. Usually, "The Moniques" travel as a pair, but this time we divided up the trips. And though I missed her company, it was great to have nearly two full school days to work with the students. AND SOME OF THEM EVEN TURNED UP AFTER SCHOOL ON TUESDAY TO DO A LITTLE MORE WRITING. YAY!!!!

Even without Monique, I wasn't working alone. Kativik School Board English consultant Crystal Speedie was there too, providing wisdom and guidance. And so was teacher Christopher Kim, a lovely, kind guy who shared his students with us. We were also accompanied by two reporters: Christopher Curtis of the Montreal Gazette, and Marika Wheeler of the CBC. In today's pic, the YOUNG woman working with the students isn't me, it's Marika. She was there to interview the students about Quebec Roots, but I asked if Marika could take a few minutes to share her advice about interviewing. So I took today's pic, while she was talking to them. She reminded students that when they are interviewing members of their community, it's better not to ask "close-ended" questions -- meaning questions that get a "yes" or "no" answer. Instead, she recommended "open-ended" questions.

My main goal this week was to help the students choose topics for the chapters they will be contributing to this year's edition of Quebec Roots. The younger students came up with the brilliant idea of writing about "Community and Sharing." Credit here goes to a student named Nathan, who personally generated a whole list of ideas -- then the kids voted since the thinking behind Quebec Roots is that we really want kids to feel invested in their chapters. The timing could not have been better for this subject -- that's because on Monday, there was a community feast to mark the arrival of two young men who are doing a walking journey in Nunavik to raise awareness about abuse of all kinds. Nearly everyone in town turned out for the feast -- and everyone brought food and shared it.

The older kids decided to write about the topic of "Purple Dope" -- a term that refers to marijuana. Not all of the kids in the older group are marijuana users, but even the ones who aren't voted for the topic, saying they wanted to learn more abou it. At first, I have to admit that I was slightly worried about the choice of topic, but once the writing started to happen, I really felt like it was an important topic that needs discussing. Wait till you read our chapter! I thought I'd give you a sneak preview here today -- the following passage comes from a group poem the kids wrote about an example of the pain that leads to drug use in their community: "The pain also comes/ When loved ones die/ Or when we have alcoholic parents/ It's horrible./ They beat each other up./ Then both of them get sent to jail./ And there's no one to look after us."

Not an easy passage to read, I know, but an important, beautiful one. So here I am, back at my desk in Montreal, but I must say that my mind and heart are with the kids I worked with at Ikuskik School. Keep writing, learn a lot about photography from the other Monique -- that way, you will be able to tell your stories. I already miss you guys!

 

 

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Feb
01

Book Recommendation: Subject to Change by Karen Nesbitt

I'm excited to tell you about my friend Karen Nesbitt's upcoming YA novel, Subject to Change. I got an ARC (that stands for Advance Reading Copy) from Orca Book Publishers so I had a chance to read the novel before it comes out in stores at the end of February. LIt was a great read. Tough at first because the main character, Declan, faces so much hardship -- but well worth reading because of everything Declan discovers about others and himself.

Tonight, I had a chance to catch up with Karen by telephone. We met in 2010 when Karen was in a Quebec Writer's Federation course that I co-taught with YA author Lori Weber. That was also when I first met Declan -- and he's a character who felt real to me from the first time I read about him.

Karen also had the good fortune to work with another Montreal-based YA author, Raquel Rivera, through the QWF's mentorship program. Karen says that Raquel really helped her to get her manuscript into shape -- and to get deeper into her characters.

Karen, who works as a guidance counselor at Westwood Senior School as well as at an alternative school called Horizon, told me that she based Declan on a young man she worked with. "His situation was similar to my protagonist's. He discovered that his dad was gay," said Karen.

Leah, another important character in the book, was inspired im part by Karen's niece. "She hiphop dances and she has beatiful hair," Karen told me. "But Leah is a composite of lots of kids I know," she added.

I asked Karen whether she had writing advice to share with you, dear blog reader. Here's what she told me: "Entertain your own fancy. Write what you want to write. Your own ideas will result in more interesting stories because you're more attached to them."

Karen also credits a writers' group for helping her to complete the manuscript that became Subject to Change. She actually met two of the other members of her writing group in the class she took with Lori and me. I've never been part of a writing group myself, but I wanted to learn why it helped Karen so much. She said the feedback she got from the group helped her improve her manuscript: "They were tough. They forced me to look at what I wrote critically. You have to hear it when people say, 'This is what I feel like when I read it.'"

I know how I felt when I read Subject to Change -- lucky. I hope you'll read it too!

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Jan
25

Quebec Roots Goes to St. Monica School

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know all about Quebec Roots -- an amazing Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project that brings teams of writers and photographers to classes across the province so that students can contribute to a real life book!

Today, visual artist Thomas Kneubuhler and I visited St. Monica School (which happens to be around the corner from my house in Montreal). We worked with Mr. Trister's (the students call him "Mr. Noah") grade five class and they were AMAZING.

In today's pic, we are with a student named Raquel. She is showing us her journal. She first whipped out her journal when I was talking about mine, and about the importance of making writing a daily habit. Raquel's journal has two entries in it -- so it's pretty new. When I did a little RESEARCH, I found out something super interesting -- that Raquel paid for the journal with her own money, and that she is a businessperson. She sells soap she makes herself. One of the scents she uses is called "grapefruit blush." Can't you just smell it?

Thomas taught the students some photography tips and I taught writing tips. One thing Thomas told the class was that, "Sometimes you need to shoot a portrait 10 to 20 times to get it right." Which made me interrupt and ask the class, "What's that like in wriitng?" And because they are so smart, they knew the answer: RE-WRITING!!

One of our main goals today was to help the students brainstorm a sujbect for their chapter in the 2017 edition of Quebec Roots. There was a close vote -- the two final choices were "Accidents/Booboos/Fights" and "Being a Newcomer." "Accidents/Booboos/Fights" won by a narrow margin. I thought it was fascinating that many students in the class had stories about accidents. Louie's mom crashed her car yesterday (it was really icy here in Montreal) and a student named Youssef has an unusual scar on his head (the result of an operation he had when he was a baby). A student named Ernest has a booboo caused by excessive nose-blowing. I don't know about you, but I am already looking forward to seeing the work Mr. Noah's class does for their chapter in this year's Quebec Roots.

Three cheers for Mr. Noah and his class, and three extra loud cheers for Quebec Roots. We're so glad to be back on the road -- reaching students across Quebec!

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Jan
23

"What if the lunch monitor and the school secretary were sisters?" -- Another Happy Day at St. Thomas High School

You are probably wondering where I got the idea for the title of today's blog entry, "What if the lunch monitor and the school secretary were sisters?"

Catchy, don't you think?

The idea came during junior lunch at St. Thomas High School, where I was completing my last day of a series of writing workshops. I had lunch with two girls named Jordan and a guy named Noah, and the three of them started inventing a story which started with the question, "What if the lunch monitor and the school secretary were sisters?" Those three students were super inventive because their story got better and better. Their fictional characters turn the children into food and serve them up to the other students. A dog named Cricket (a real life dog who is the school's mascot) sniffs out the trouble!

I often tell students that for me, writing is a mix of work and play -- my three lunch companions were definitely having fun PLAYING with ideas. Now if they'd get to WORK, I think they could write a great story together!

Today, I worked with students in grades seven, eight and nine. One of the best questions I got all day was from a seventh grader named Kurt (he's Miss Beach's student). Kurt asked, "Isn't it a bit disrespectful to let someone else's secret out in public?" This question arose after I told the students how I got my mum to share a story she had kept secret for more than 60 years -- about her experience as a child in a Nazi concentration camp. I answered Kurt's sensitive and mature question with something my mum once told me, "If you think it helps kids to hear the truth about my life, go ahead and tell them!"

In the afternoon when I was working with the grade nines, I focused on writing exercises. With Mr. Katz's class, we did observation and discussed how what we observe reveals something about us. With Miss Ditchburn's class, we did an exercise that required students to access a memory of trouble. Nicholas came up with a beautiful phrase that he gave me permission to quote here: "pushing deeper into my regret." And a student named Samantha stole my heart when she described witnessing a family argument. Instead of focusing on the actual argument, Samantha wrote, "My cat jumps on my bed to try and console me. He curls up in my lap." Beautiful work, Samantha, and so moving!

So that wraps up my writing workshops at St. Thomas High School for this year. Special thanks to librarians Mrs. Pye and Mrs. Di Maulo for hosting me, to the teachers for sharing your classes with me, and to the students for being a great audience. If I need young readers to test my next story on -- well, I know where to go! Happy reading and writing to all of you! Remember -- life and writing require courage!

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Jan
17

"What If a Whole Class Was on the Run From the Law?" -- Day 3, St. Thomas High School

Today's pic was taken on my third day of writing workshops at St. Thomas High School. Mostly, I've been at the school to work with grade nine classes, but today, I had the added pleasure of working with two grade seven groups. It was Matthieu, a grade seven student in one of Miss Beach's classes who came up with a story idea that inspired the title for today's blog post: "What if a whole class was on the run from the law?" Hey, Matthieu, I'm pretty busy with writing at the moment, so I think YOU SHOULD GET STARTED IMMEDIATELY ON THAT BOOK! Also, does your name really have two t's in it -- or did I get it wrong? (If so, let me know and I'll fix it.)

As usual, I have many things to report about my visit. One of the highlights was meeting a young man, Noah, who is another of Miss Beach's grade seven students. Like me, Noah loves doing research (I told the students that research tends to be an essential part of the fiction-writing process). At recess, I also learned that Noah also loves drawing and that, in fourth grade, a friend challenged him to write a book. "I completed two chapters and then I ran out of ideas," Noah told me. So I gave him my advice: to keep writing, even when it feels like the ideas are not coming. Sometimes, I even write on the page things like, "I am stuck. I hate this. This part is so frustrating. Why do I even want to be a writer?" And you know what? If I stick with it, I almost always get UN-STUCK!

Mr. Katz's class got a good laugh when I read aloud something a student named Abdullah had written: "This exercise did not work for me!" But they stopped laughing when I read the next sentence: "There were too many things jumping around in my mind." Excellent news, Abdullah, because it sounds to me like you are a person with a lot of stories to write and tell.

In Ms. Ditchburn's class, three girls sitting together (Alicia, Cameron and Samantha) all like to ask my favourite question: "What if?" I told them that if they cannot turn off the "What if?"" switch in their brains, and if they hate their very first drafts, they might be real writers!

I was also impressed with Palmer, one of Ms. Ditchburn's ninth graders, who described his classmates in this way: "Everyone seems to be looking around and smiling. They are all holding in a laugh... well, most of them." What I like about Palmer's writing is that it captures a moment, and that it also gives us a sense of Palmer's observant and humorous nature.

Lunch time was pretty special too -- that's because I told students to come and hang out with me in the library if they felt like it. I showed a few of them the manuscript I am working on (I'm at the stage where I am responding to my editor's comments) and the students helped me get the wording right in a few spots. (Thanks, guys!) Sarah and Amanda, both excellent writers, showed me some of their work. Sarah is working on a fascinating project about "untold stories throughout history" and Amanda is writing about a boy who does not want to hang out with a cousin, only to discover that he really likes her. Amanda has a flare for dialogue. At one point in her story, the narrator's thoughts are interrupted by a question: "Lemonade?" (I just loved that.)

A student named Alex was part of our lunch bunch too. He told us he was named after Alexander the Great. Cool! Also, he told us about his great-grandfather, a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz because he worked as a tailor for the Nazis. Alex, you must write that story!

I'll be back at St. Thomas on Monday -- and available at junior lunch. Thanks to librarian Mrs. Pye, for inviting me, and to Miss Beach, Mr. Katz, and Ms. Ditchburn for sharing your classes with me. As for the students, KEEP WRITING. (And reading.) See you next week!

 

 

 

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Jan
15

Super vendredi, oops Friday... at Ecole Secondaire de le Seigneurie!

I had a super vendredi -- oops! I am not supposed to be speaking French -- at Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie in Beauport, just outside Quebec City.

In today's pic, I'm looking at a student named Hélèna's journal. She is one of Mr. Lord's students -- and when I asked the class if any of them make a HABIT out of writing (I was discussing the value of writing regularly so that we can keep our writing muscles limber), Hélèna lifted up her journal as proof that she loves to write. After my workshop (when this photo was taken), Hélèna told me: "I love being able to take the ideas in my head and put them onto paper." It sounds to me, Hélèna, like you have caught the writing bug. Félicitations... I should say CONGRATULATIONS!

In all, I worked with four Secondary III classes. I spent the morning with Mr. Lord's students, and the afternoon with Mr. Michaud's. The students at Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie are French-speaking, but because I have visited the school before, I know that their English is very strong. I also know because they followed me (if you know me, you know that I get quite excited when I talk about writing and that I move quickly from one idea to another) without difficulty.

When I told the students that I never read without a pen (because I am always taking notes), a student named Maxim nodded and said, "I do that all the time!" Like Hélèna, Maxim seems to have the writing bug. When we had a few minutes to chat, Maxim asked me how I get ideas. I told her, "Ideas come to me." I explained that if she decides to become a writer, really commits to the idea of developing her talent, ideas will come to her too!

One of Mr. MIchaud's students, Ilyas, had two copies of my book What World Is Left. I learned that one copy belonged to his friend Thomas (Ilyas wanted me to autograph both books -- that's why he had Thomas's copy with him.) I was telling the class about my mum, who died last week, and whose experience in a Nazi concentration camp inspired What World Is Left. I told Ilyas how my mum loved to flirt with men of all ages -- and that, if she'd met him, she'd definitely have commented about his excellent hair!

A student named Rosalie nodded like crazy when I told her class that reading is my safe place. Rosalie told me that her preferred place to read is her bedroom. And when I told the class that when I hear a good story, I get goosebumps -- Rosalie kindly provided the French translation: "frissons." Don't you think the word "frissons" is much nicer than "goosebumps"?

Like me, a student named Frédérique confessed that she enjoys listening in on other people's conversations. (It's another common trait in writers.) I also learned that Frédérique's parents are both chefs. Now, that would make an interesting family for a book -- two chefs and their only daugher. Maybe because I love food, I often compare writing to cooking -- like chefs, we writers need good ingredients or material to get us started; we need to do research (for chefs that could mean studying recipes); and we need to adjust our creations in order to improve them (for chefs, that could mean adding spices; for writers, it means editing.)

I was a little sorry when 4:15 arrived and it was time to say good-bye to the last class at Ecole Sécondaire de la Seigneurie. You students were wonderful -- and I thank you for being especially kind when I told you about my mum's story and her recent death. Special thanks to Mr. Lord for arranging my visit, and to both Mr. Lord and Mr. Michaud for sharing your lovely students with me.

Bonne fin de semaine, mes amis à Beauport. Grand merci pour votre acceuil chaleureux!

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Jan
12

I Tried Not to Write Another Blog Entry Today...

I tried not to write another blog entry today, but my plan failed. That's because I had too many interesting moments during my second day of writing workshops at St. Thomas High School!! So although I'm only home for another hour (I'm heading to Quebec City to do more writing workshops there tomorrow), I could not resist filling you in on today's developments!

Because this was my second day with the same students, there was time to tell them about how mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp (a story she kept secret for more than 60 years) inspired my novel What World Is Left. I also told the story of my monkey man necklace... and then we moved on to a variety of writing exercises.

What, you may be asking, is the meaning of today's pic -- in which you see me and a student named Cory admiring a stuffed crow? Well, it's because I asked the students to observe something interesting in their classrooms -- and Cory came up with the crow. Here's how he described it: "It looks like he has gotten himself stuck in time because he isn't moving." Interesting, no?

Most of the exercises I did with the students today focused on observations and how what we observe reveals interesting things about what matters to us -- or in the case of fiction, our characters. A student named Anastasia observed something that cracked me up -- that there was a long black piece of thread hanging from the bottom of my leopard-print skirt. I loved Anastasia's description of the thread: "It almost touches the floor and dances around as her skirt moves in motion with her body." (Not to leave you in suspense here -- I tore off the errant thread, although I did like the idea of it dancing around with me!!) In another exercise, Anastasia reflected that her observation showed that she may be what she described as "a bit of a perfectionist."

A student named Giuliana observed a dying poinsettia plant. "It looks," she wrote, "sad, wilted, dry." In her reflection, Giuliana added, "I think my eyes met with the flowers because I had a hard week." That sentence and the way Giuliana said her eyes "met" with the plant really touched my heart.

I spent lunch in the library and I encouraged aspiring writers to come and show me their work or talk to me about writing. A student named Sophie told me, "What I write is never as good as what's in my head." I loved that -- you know why? Because it's the way I feel about writing every single day -- and I bet most professional writers feel that way too. So guess what, Sophie? You're on the right track!

A student named Maya showed me the work she had done during my workshop yesterday -- she'd written about her memory of a family dinner. The third line really grabbed me: "It was an odd night to have pie." I told Maya to move that line up so that it was the opening of her piece. And then I suggested she could even use it for a book title: It Was an Odd Night to Have Pie. I don't know about you -- but I would so want to read that book.

Well then, that's enough blogging from me for today. I'll be at Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie tomorrow, then back at St. Thomas next Tuesday. Something tells me there'll be plenty more to report to you!

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Jan
11

Hard Day/Wonderful Day at St. Thomas High School

Hello, dear blog readers. If you're a regular reader of my blog, you'll know what a great woman my mum was -- and that her experience in a Nazi concentration camp inspired one of my novels. She had been in hospital for 3-1/2 months and she died peacefully early Sunday morning. I tried to visit every day (I only missed four days) and I read a lot to her from the poetry book my grandparents gave to me when I was a little girl. I like to think that poetry (like me, my mum loved words) brought her a little solace at the end of her life.

Today, I was scheduled to do the first of four writing workshops at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire -- and though I had the option to postpone the visit, I had a hunch that it would do me good to be with teenagers and to talk about writing, and about how my mum's story shaped me as a person and a writer. And you know what? My hunch was right. So I'd like to start today's blog entry by saying thank you to every single student I worked with today, to your teachers and to my friend, librarian Mrs. Pye, for your kindness and open hearts.

I'll be working with eight Grade Nine classes at St. Thomas, and I'll get to see each class twice. That gives me time to cover some basic writing tips, and also to get the students writing.

In today's pic, I am with two students named Sydney and Nelson. I asked Sydney about the piece of plastic I happened to notice her chewing on -- and it led to the discovery of a sweet story. The plastic turns out to be what was left of the price tag on the grey top she was wearing. So, I demonstrated to Sydney's class (taught by Mr. Katz) some investigative reporting. Here's what I learned: the top was a Christmas present from Sudney's grandmother; her grandmother picked the top out personally; the top is made by a company called Pink; and here comes my favourite part of the story (a quote from Sydney): "My grandmother understands what I like." So, you see, all from a little tag I learned quite a lot about Sydney's relationship with her grandmother.

I also worked with two of Miss O'Neill's classes. I asked a couple of students' permission to share here what they wrote about remembering trouble. A student named Destiny came up with a haunting line to describe an experience when she was in Sec. I: "I had no one." And a student named Gabriel wrote about feeling, "Disappointment... the struggle of them not seeing what they were doing." I think Destiny and Gabriel should expand the pieces they started on today, don't you?

I also enjoyed reading something written by Abby, a student in Mr. Cloney's class. Abby started off her memory of Sec. II by writing, "I got in trouble on a daily basis." I definitely wanted to keep reading that paragraph! I also got a chuckle (always a good thing for a reader) when Abby recalled being sent to a school administrator whom Abby and her friends called "Dragon Nose." You know, Abby, they say it's harder to make a reader laugh than to make him (or her) cry... even from your little paragraph, I have the sense that you have a talent for humorous writing. Use that talent!

I'd like to end today's blog entry by telling you about a student who wasn't even in one of my workshops. Anna, a tenth grader (I'd met her when I visited the school last year), popped into the library to help put plastic covers on new books. When Anna asked how my holidays were, I told her the truth: that my mum had been sick and that she died on Sunday. I added that my mum -- despite her early difficulties -- had had a long, great life. And you know what Anna said? "That's awesome!" Thanks, Anna, for your wisdom and optimism. I phoned my dad to tell him about you.

I'll be back at St. Thomas tomorrow, then on to Ecole Secondaiare de la Seigneurie in Quebec City on Friday. Happy new year to you, dear blog reader -- here's to awesome-ness.

 

 

 

 

 

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Jan
02

New Year's Interview with Lucas Bully-Stomper

Happy new year, dear blog readers! I thought I'd get 2017 off to a good start with an interview with a special young man I want you to meet. Here's introducing Lucas the Bully-Stomper!

I met Lucas a couple of years back when I visited Joliette High School. That's when he first told me about his life as a bully-stomper. At the time, I knew I'd have to write about Lucas one day. And today turns out to be that day!

Lucas is now 17 and in his final year at Joliette High. As you would expect, a bully-stomper must have an interesting story behind him -- and Lucas does.

During elementary school, Lucas was bullied for five years. He turned to his mom for help; she went to the school principal, but as Lucas puts it, "no one believed me." Lucas recalls that the kids who bullied him called him "ugly" and "fat." Things got so bad that when Lucas was in sixth grade, he tried to commit suicide.

Music helped Lucas find comfort in those dark days. He knew he didn't have a great singing voice, but Lucas discovered that he had a talent for speaking quickly -- and so rap was a natural choice. Lucas now raps and does motivational speaking. Last August, he performed at the skate park in Rawdon to an audience of about fifty. And Lucas's Facebook page has had 1,000 visitors!

I asked Lucas what advice he has for other kids who are being bullied. This is what he told me: "Speak out and make yourself heard. Suicide isn't an option. What you're going through is just one point in your life. You can't let it determine your future."

I guess now you understand why I wanted you to meet Lucas. Please pass on his words to any kids you know who can benefit from Lucas's message -- and his music. Happy new year!

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Nov
30

Happy Morning at Lakeside Academy

I'm just home from a happy morning at Lakeside Academy. Here's some of the reasons my morning was happy. The teacher who invited me to teach -- Miss Daigle -- was my former student at Marianopolis College. How fun to see what a great teacher she is, how her students both like and respect her. Second reason -- the library felt like home the moment I walked in (even if I knocked at the wrong door first!!). Third reason -- this was the first time I read my upcoming picture book text to a class (two classes in fact) -- and I think that though the text could be a little shorter, it worked. Which goes to show you that authors should always READ THEIR WORK OUT LOUD! And there's a fourth reason too -- I got to laugh! A student named Jayden (lovely young man by the way, I could tell he's full of important stories!) asked me, "How do you spell 'Revise'?" Because I was in a hurry to tell the students all my pointers, I told Jayden not to worry about how to spell the word -- and then his teacher, Miss Jones, said to Jayden, "You'll REVISE it later!" Thanks for the laugh, Jayden and Miss Jones.

I worked with three groups of students -- they included grade sevens, eights and nines, and also students from the school's pre-work program. In the second group, a student named Austin told me, "My whole family's shy." I told Austin that I think that would make an amazing title for a picture book. Just don't forget to add TROUBLE to your story, Austin. That also made me think of another idea for a pic book -- if it was about my family, it could be called "My whole family's NOT shy!!"

The last group were Ms. McCulloch's grade sevens. These students had amazing questions. Lisi wanted to know, "Is writing like acting?" No one's ever asked me that before, so I loved her question. I told Lisi that yeah, I think writing and acting have a lot in common. Both fiction writers and actors get to be other people, to try on other lives. I think that's partly why I love writing so much. Of course, writing is better than acting if you happen to be shy (though that isn't my case). A student named Khenyan asked, "Do you use dreams when you make books?" That question got me pretty excited because I'm a great believer in finding inspiration in dreams. That's why I take so many naps.

Finally, a student named Luca caught my attention because he just looks so smart. (That's him wearing glasses in today's pic.) He nodded with what seemed to be great understanding when I talked about the connection between lies and fiction. I told the students that in real life, I'm a terrible liar -- but that I'm a good liar when it comes to making up book stories!! And when we discussed how trouble helps FUEL a story, Luca commented, "So when you get in trouble, it helps you bridge off and make stories about trouble."

Now you understand why my morning was so happy. Thanks to the students for being wonderful, to the teachers, espeically Miss Daigle, for sharing your classes with me, and to my new friend librarian Miss Jenn!

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Nov
21

Love is Forever -- Special Visit to Dumas, Texas

For the last few falls, I have been visiting Dumas, Texas. Not in person, mind you, but petty close to it. That's because I've been Skyping with the Grade Six students at Dumas Intermediate School. I've been invited to tell them a little about my life as a writer, but mostly the focus is on the Holocaust, and my novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp.

My mum was 12 -- the same age as some of the Grade Six students I worked with today -- when she was sent from Amsterdam to Theresienstadt, where she was imprisoned for nearly three years. I told the students that, when I was growing up, I had a difficult relationship with my mum. Things changed when I finally learned her story. I was the first person she told about her experience during the Holocaust. She had kept her story secret for more than sixty years.

In past years, my mum has been able to say hello on Skype to the students, but sadly, this year, she is quite ill in hospital. But if she's well enough tomorrow, I will read her this blog entry when I visit. Also, I chose the photo in today's blog entry for my mom. The student in the pic is named Faith and I love how her sweatshirt says, "Love is Forever."

I wanted the students to know something really important about my mom -- that despite the difficulties she went through as a teenager, that she emerged WHOLE, and that she had a great sense of humour. Also, I shared the message that, in past years, she shared with students in Dumas: that they must never give up hope. She told them that the Nazis were able to take away their food, their clothing and their homes, but NEVER THEIR HOPE. AND THAT THAT HOPE HELPED TO KEEP THEM ALIVE.

I did two presentations this morning, and there was time at the end of both for questions. I must say I was deeply moved by the students' sensitivity and intelligence. A student named Abram asked, "How does it feel to be in a concentration camp?" I answered by trying to put myself in my mother's place (the way I did when I wrote the book), and I told Abram that in my view, the main feeling would be injustice. If you're in prison for robbing a bank, well, that would make sense -- but my mother was imprisoned simply because she was Jewish -- and that's unjust. And a student named Josée (correct me Josée if there's only one 'e' in your name and I'll fix this entry) asked a beautiful question: "Was your heart broken when you learned your mother's story? And did you cry?" I told him the truth: that my heart was broken sometimes, but at other times, I felt privileged and even happy to be getting the story. THAT'S BECAUSE I'M A WRITER. We writers live for stories. And in my own way, I think I helped my mum by allowing her to finally tell her story -- and to get it out into the world so that others can learn, and be inspired by it. When I told all that to Josée, he said something super kind: "I'm so glad for you."

I asked one of the students, Nolan, in the second group to record a video message for my mum. He thanked her for sharing her story. Nolan, when I go back to the hospital tomorrow morning, and if she's well enough, I will play her your message.

Many many thanks to my friends at Dumas Intermediate for inviting me to visit again, especially to Cathy Craigmiles, who has become my friend over the years. And a special thanks, too, to the students for being such wonderful listeners and for asking such wise questions. Now get to work on your own stories! Make writing and reading your habits -- and interview the people who drive you crazy sometimes; find out what they went through when they were growing up. I look forward to reading YOUR stories.

A big hug for all of you from Monique

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Nov
14

Adventures at Rosemere High School

I don't want you to think that the students I spoke to this morning at Rosemere High School were NOT paying attention, but I could not resist taking this pic of a young man doing a cool trick with the bookmark I gave him! I might be able to write books, but I sure can't do that with a bookmark!!

So, I was at Rosemere High this morning to work with two of Miss Lawrence's Grade Eight English classes. There were also some extra students who got to come because they LOVE writing. Yay!

In addition to sharing every writing tip I know, I told the students a few stories. (I have a new one this week about how a long thin green leafy stick came out of my cat's nostril this weekend.) There was also time for a writing exercise and I asked the students' permission to share some of their work in today's blog entry.

Sara-Elizabeth wrote about the day she met her best friend. I love how she used sound to take us into her story: "I could hear her dad washing his car, her mom gardening, and her brother playing basketball." A student named Shanie wrote about having experienced trouble. I was impressed by the poetic quality of her words: "I could see good times disappearing.... It felt like someone had turned the sun off inside my house." Elisa had a brilliant title for her piece: "The Day I Realized I Could Never Trust Anyone Again." Hey, Elisa, I'd read that book for sure! And a student named Cedric showed me some work he had already done -- it comes from the prologue to his novel-in-progress. Here's my favourite line: "The dark empty room was so quiet, I could hear my tears dropping onto the ground."

So I'm supposed to go and inspire students, but when I look at my notes from today, and think about my morning at Rosemere, I realized they have INSPIRED ME!

If you've met me, you'll know I'm crazy about body language. Well, I collected a new example of body language today. A student named Lindsay tugged on her ear when she answered my question about whether there were any students in the class who like to play what I call "the what if game." That means they're always asking themselves "what if?" Lindsay says she's one of those people -- and I told her that will help her with her stories.

I also liked that a student named Raquela noticed there was a coffee stain in the diary entry I showed the class. Writers also need to be careful observers.

Okay, dear blog reader, I've got to zip out of here to go to my own class at Marianopolis College. Thanks to Mrs. Lawrence for the invite, and to the students for getting my week off to a happy, stimulating start!

 

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Oct
31

"I started writing a book, but I'm not that good at it"

I spent the first half of today doing four writing workshops at Lindsay Place High School in Pointe-Claire. It's Hallowe'en in case you are trying to figure out why there is a ghoul in my lap in today's pic!

The title of this blog entry comes from one of my favourite conversations I had at Lindsay Place today. A student named Krista came to chat with me after my workshop and told me that, "I started writing a book, but I'm not that good at it." I got quite excited when Krista said that because IT'S EXACTLY HOW I FEEL EVERY TIME I WRITE. I also told Krista that there is only one thing she can do -- KEEP WRITING. I even think Krista's dissatisfaction with her writing could be a sign that she's a REAL WRITER. In fact, for me, the challenge is to keep writing, keep working hard, despite the doubts I feel almost every time I sit down to write.
I worked with four of Mrs. Russell's classes -- two grade sevens, and two grade eight groups. I had met the grade eights last year, so we discussed some rather complex material, such as that hearing someone's story can be both a privilege and a burden.

A student named Owen noticed that I was jotting a lot of stuff down. He observed, "You take a lot of notes" and asked, "Do you have a notebook with you at all times?" I told him the answer was YES. I almost always have a notebook with me. That's because we writers never know when a good idea will strike. I also suggested to the students I met today that they do the same thing -- keep a notebook handy to jot down ideas and observations.

Because each workshop was 50 mintues long, there wasn't much time for the students to do their own writing. But I did manage to fit one exercise in with the group of grade eights I worked with before lunch. I asked them to access a memory (I explained that memory is an important part of a writer's toolbox). They wrote some beautiful stuff and I asked two students' permission to quote them here. Yutong Hu, an exchange student who comes from China, wrote about a plane trip to Canada and how she tasted orange juice for the first time. She ended her piece by sharing something her mum told her on that plane ride: "You will be okay." I love that line. A student named Samantha wrote about her love for books. Here's my favourite line from Samantha's piece: "Most of my books are used, so they all have personalities."

Before I sign off for today, I want to tell you one more little story that helps explain why I have a special spot in my heart for Lindsay Place. Last year, I was contemplating writing a story about an untraditional princess. Then, during a visit to Lindsay Place, I met a lovely student named Angelica. Angelica's teacher, Mrs. Russell, told me that everyone calls Angelica "Jelly." Well, that was the inspiration I needed to get that book project started. Angelica, AKA Jelly is coming out in 2018 with Orca Books! And I couldn't have done it without my friends at Lindsay Place. Special thanks to the students for being wonderful, and to Mrs. Russell and librarian Mrs. Dunning for arranging my visit today. Oh, thanks also to Principal Estok, who dropped by to catch part of my workshop -- only I thought he was the chef from the cafeteria. I guess I was so pleased that a chef wanted to learn about writing that I totally forgot it was Hallowe'en. See what I mean when I say STORIES ARE EVERYWHERE!!!

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Oct
16

Reporting in from Greenwood StoryFest 2016

I have always wanted to be invited to the Greenwood StoryFest -- and this year my wish came true. This small, but wonderful literary festival, now in its 15th year, takes place at the historic Greenwood House in Hudson, Quebec. This year's participating authors included Terry Fallis, Heather O'Neill, Marina Endicott, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Gail Anderson-Dargatz and Eric Siblin.

For my stint at the festival, I did a writing workshop yesterday afternoon. There were a dozen of us in all, gathered in the diningroom. We worked on "Finding the Fun in Writing." Although I LOVE my students at Marianopolis College, I must say it was a treat to work with people who were so eager to write. In my classroom, when I announce we're going to do a writing exercise, I'm used to hearing a round of groans, grumbles, sighs and "do we have to's?"!! 

So for today's pic, I decided to let you see what it looks like when a dozen people LOVE TO WRITE. In fact, I had a hard time stopping them!

We did six or so exercises to help find the fun in writing -- that's because, as I explained to the participants, writing is a curious mix of hard work and great fun. Sometimes, on a really good day, we hit the sweetspot between those two experiences. One of the exercises we did involved accessing a childhood memory. I asked some of the participants whether I could go ahead and share some of my favourite lines that they came up with -- and they said yes!

Sandy wrote about her memory of being home sick and missing a day at school. She didn't mind so much because, as she wrote, "I was afraid of my teacher in Grade Four." Don't you want to read the rest of Sandy's story?

We talked about how smells can lead us deeper into memories. Marian remembered being in elementary school and the "sharpness  [of the scent] from photocopies."

Janice shared a poignant memory of a day in a small town in Saskatchewan: "I wanted my brother to like me." That simple sentence struck me as beautiful and evocative.

Karen remembered, "my teacher's voice as she reads Red Fox out loud" and "my mother's soft fingers brushing my knees as she adjusts the hem of my new party dress." Don't you feel like you are there with Karen when you read those sentences?

I'm glad I got to take part in Greenwood StoryFest this year, and I'm especially glad I got to work with such a wonderful gang. And really, it felt more like fun than work! Special thanks to my friends at Greenwood for inviting me, and especially to Terry O'Shaughnessy for making it happen!

 

 

 

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Sep
19

Two Classes & Two Lunch Periods at Centennial Academy

Today was my last day of writing workshops at Centennial Academy. I've had a chance to work with every high school student in the school's English stream. And because I wanted the kids to have some time to ask me some more questions, or just to chat informally, I decided to take my egg salad sandwich to school and hang out in the cafeteria during the school's two lunch periods.

My day started with Miss McNaughton's Grade 10 class. She introduced them to me by saying, "They're my favourite Grade 10 class," but then she added that they were her ONLY Grade ten group. At first, the class -- all boys -- were kind of reserved, but they opened up when we started talking about how trouble fuels a story. A student named Emile told a story about his family that gave me goosebumps. Afterwards his classmate Yedidia commented, "We don't know what goes on in other people's lives, especially the people we go around with every day." And I should add, that as a special treat during lunch, Yedidia, who is a talented singer and songwriter, sang "Moondance." Thanks for that, Yedidia!

Both lunches were lively. Here are some of the highlights: a student named Stuart asked if I could sign his forehead. (I declined, but I admit that it would have been fun, and definitely a first!) A student named Nikolas told me that he loves writing, but that sometimes, he runs out of steam. "I get inspired," he told me, "but then, the next day, I lose my inspiration." I told Nikolas that for me, writing a book is like running a marathon -- you've got to keep at it even when you feel like you've got nothing left! A student named Kasi wanted to know where I got the idea for my novel Scarred. I explained that though I never cut myself, I feel like I understand the impulse behind self-mutilation. Kasi responded by saying, "You feel empathy, not sympathy" -- which I thought was a brilliant comment. That's what writers need to do, not feel sorry for their characters, but crawl inside their skin. And a student named Steve cracked me up when he said, "I read three of your books this summer. My parents kind of forced me."

I ended my day at Centennial with Miss Markies's Grade Nine class. Since I had met many of these students last spring, I did a more advanced session with them -- I reviewed my usual points, but there was time for a writing exercise. I had the students access a memory of a time when they felt they had changed. Kasi wrote a beautiful paragraph about her grandfather's death in 2013. I asked her permission to let me quote a line here. "He was the only grandparent who had cool stories and who taught me how to play golf." You know what I think, Kasi? That you should write about your grandpa -- and also play golf!

I had another special treat at lunch. The head of school, Ms. Burgos, came to sit with me. I asked her what she likes most about Centennial. She told me, "You're free to be who you are. That's why our kids grow and exceed expectations." I must say that that is the sense I got, too, of the students I've been working with this month at Centennial. Thanks to all of you for welcoming me into your classes, for listening to my stories, and for sharing yours. Here's to being free to be who we are!

 

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Sep
16

Another Happy Day at Centennial Academy

You know how you can tell for sure that I'm enjoying the kids I'm working with at Centennial Academy? This coming Monday, I'm going to go and eat lunch with them -- just so I can hear more of their stories and answer questions they may have come up with after meeting me.

Today, I worked with two of Miss Markies's English classes. Also, my day started off happily (no broken fridge, no bicycle with jammed brakes!)... Miss Markies must have noticed last week that I have an aversion to holding chalk, so she gave me the perfect gift: an electric blue chalk holder!! (I will treasure it always, Miss M!)

I started the morning with Miss Markies's Grade Nine class. They cracked me up when I asked how many of them (there were 15 students in all) TELL LIES and 12 of them put up their hands! I explained that fiction writers need to tell good lies! I told the students that I've been working on a book about a princess who tells lies. I asked them, "What do you think my editor warned me NOT to do?" A student named Oscar came up with the answer: "Don't make her typical," he said. Which is exactly right. A student named Michael suggested I combine characters from two of my books. A student named Avi pointed out something I never realized: there is a boy named Todd in my book Pyro and also in Home Invader. (I guess I like the name.) "What if they turned out to be the same person?" Avi suggested. And a student named Dario told me something wonderful his mom told him about people who have learning disabilities like ADHD. Dario's mom said, "We're not defective; we're different." (I love that philosophy!)

Later, I did a workshop for MIss Markies's Grade Ten students. A student named Benjie wanted to know whether there is a connection between the writing I do in my daily journal and the writing I do for my books. I explained that the journal is my warm-up activity, but that sometimes, when I'm in what I call a writing pickle, I use my journal to try and figure out a solution. A student named Alexia told me she also keeps a journal. "I've already filled five books," Alexia said. "I write about my day and how it was -- and if there were any problems." Alexia, you sound like a writer to me!

Many thanks to my friends at Centennial for another happy day of writing workshops. Hey, don't forget that I'll be around for junior and senior lunch on Monday. Come by to say hello!

 

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Sep
13

What Happens When An Author Writes a Musical Comedy?

I'm always interested in what happens when an author -- take my friend Joel Yanofsky -- tries a new kind of writing. Which is why I'm devoting today's blog entry to Joel and his new romantic musical comedy Love U: the Grad School Musical which premieres tomorrow night at the Segal Centre here in Montreal.

Joel and I had a phone chat this morning and he told me that he's spent 18 years (off and on, of course!) working on this project. His artistic partner is California-based musician Peter Curtis. Joel says that the best thing about this project was being part of a creative team. Thanks to Infinititheater, Joel got to work with a "unit" of playwrights and actors who workshopped their projects together.

I asked Joel what he learned about writing from the experience, and he told me that the biggest lessons came from seeing an audience (the other members of the unit) respond to his writing. "You get to sit there and notice how people are reacting at the time to things like pacing. You realize where you have to make it faster," Joel explained.

Joel also pointed out that book-writing tends to be a solitary process. "I'll miss the collaborative nature of this project," he said. But Joel feels that he will take the lessons he learned from his work on this musical comedy back to his book-writing: "I have a better understanding of the importance of getting to the action."

Hey, if you're in Montreal tomorrow night, maybe you'll want to come to the premiere of Love U: the the Grad School Musical. Tickets are free. Go to the Love U: the Grad School Musical Facebook page to learn more and to reserve a ticket.

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