monique polak

Monique Polak's Books


Kindred Spirit Caroline Pignat

TD Canadian Children's Book Week 2012 has just winded up. A lucky group of authors and illustrators were touring the country all week long. Ottawa YA author and Governor General's Prize winner Caroline Pignat visited Montreal-area schools. But because I was in Kamouraska at the beginning of the week and still a little too busy with my own school business after that, I didn't get to hear Caroline at either of her open-to-the-public talks.

So, because yesterday was my last chance to meet her, I popped by Babar en Ville on Greene Ave., where I had a short, but most entertaining visit with Caroline. (A mutual friend of ours, YA editor Peter Carver, predicted we would hit it off.)

Caroline won the Governor General's Prize for her YA historical novel, Greener Grass. The book is set in Ireland during the Great Famine of 1847. Since then, she has written two sequels to the story, and another one is already in the works. When I read Greener Grass, I could not put it down. I was as taken by the musicality of Caroline's language ("His pants draped about his gangly legs like rags on a rowan tree") as by her wonderful story and the characters in it.

Like me, Caroline is a teacher. She teaches World Religion and Writer's Craft at All Saints High School in Kanata.

Caroline told me that she begins the writing process by doing a lot of research. In fact, she seems to spend almost as much time researching as she does writing her first draft. "I find the gems you use in a story while I'm doing research," she said.

I asked Caroline what, for her, is the hardest part of the writing process. "It's finding the voice," she told me. But once she's got the voice of her narrator, why there's no stopping Caroline: "Once I get the voice, it doesn't take me that long to write it."

Caroline's been blogging about book week. Check out her book week diary at or learn more about Caroline by clicking here on her website.

Hey, Caroline, fun to meet you! Come back to Montreal soon and we'll continue comparing notes!!


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Belle Visite à St. Pascal!

Alors, chers lecteurs, préparez-vous pour un autre "blog entry" en français!

Moi et mon mari venons de rentrer à Montréal après un beau séjour dans la région de Kamouraska. J'étais invitée à l'Ecole secondaire Chanoine-Beaudet de St. Pascal, où j'ai fait des rencontres avec trois classes. Je crois que ç'est bien allé! Qu'en dites-vous, les élèves de Chanoine-Beaudet? (Et n'oubliez pas de corriger mes erreurs de français!)

Dans la photo, vous me voyez avec la bibliothéquaire Julie Néron qui a organisé ma visite (merci, Julie!!), Patrice, Josée Deschenes (enseignante d'anglais), et Claudie.

J'ai parlé de mes livres Poupée et Pris Au Jeu -- et j'ai recontré plusieurs élèves qui ont lu au moins un de ces livres, en en certains cas, les deux! J'ai aussi parlé de la nécessité de réviser nos textes. Et j'ai fini chaque atélier avec une petite exercise ... je voulais aider les élèves à trouver leurs propres histoires. Je leurs ai dit que, de temps en temps, les histoires les plus importantes et plus touchantes sont tout près... que ces histoires sont parfois dans notre propres cuisine!!

A l'heure du lunch, j'ai mangé dans le cafétéria de l'école, et un élève, Pierre-Luc Pelletier, est venu me parler de la vie d'auteur. Pierre-Luc écrit déjà des histoires droles, mais il se demande comment il pourrait parler sa vie de fils de cultivateur dans ses histoires. Un jour, Pierre-Luc aimerait bien écrire des scénarios pour des jeux vidéo ... et je lui souhaite la bonne chance.

Alors, merci encore Julie Néron pour l'invitation... et grand merci aux élèves que j'ai rencontrés. C'était pour moi une belle visite inoubliable! Låches-pas!!


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Combat de Livres -- a French blog entry

Today, I am going to write my blog entry in French because I spent my morning working en français. Here I go! Wish me luck!

Ce matin, j'ai participé dans un combat de livres å la Bibliothèque de St. Léonard. Mon livre, Poupée, était parmi les cinq titres dans le combat. Je n'ai pas seulement recontré des très bons élèves de l'Ecole Antoine-de-Saint-Exupéry, j'ai aussi recontré l'auteur Michel J. Lévesque, et l'auteur et éditeur Robert Soulières. Nous avons tous les trois parlé un peu de nos livres (Robert a parlé d'un livre qu'il a publie entitré La Lettre F de Jean-François Soman) et les élèves avaient des excéllentes questions et commentaires.

Une élève, Méganne, a expliqué que le livre Arielle Queen de Michel l'a beacoup soulagé dans une periode difficile de sa vie. Moi, j'ai dit que pour moi aussi, les livres -- les lire et les écrire -- m'a sauvé dans le passé et me sauvent encore.

J'ai découvert aussi que quand Robert lit un manuscrit d'un de ces auteurs, il élimine les adverbes. Alors, pour mes propres élèves de Marianopolis qui lisent ce "blog entry," vous voyez, je ne suis pas la seule qui ne supporte pas les adverbes!

Si, chers lecteurs, tu vois que j'ai fait des erreurs de français, dis le moi et je ferais les corrections aussi vite que possible.

La semaine prochaine, j'irais à St-Pascale dans la région de Kamouraska, pour faire une journée entière d'atéliers d'écriture en français!

Alors, un grand merci à Martine Fortin et Julie Leclair pour l'invitation aujourd'hui. C'était un grand plaisir de rencontrer vos élèves et vous autres aussi!!

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Author Alyson Richman Comes to Town

That's me in today's pic with New York author Alyson Richman (Alyson is in the middle of the pic) and Montreal historian Trudis Goldsmith-Reber.

Goldsmith-Reber was the co-chairperson who helped organize Richman's talk tonight at the Jewish Public Library here in Montreal -- and I had the honour of introducing Richman to the audience. She is the author of The Lost Wife, a wonderful historical novel set partly in Theresienstadt, the concentration camp where my mum was imprisoned and which I also wrote about in my YA novel What World Is Left. So, as you can imagine, I was keen to meet Richman and hear what she had to say.

Richman, the author of four novels, explained why she writes only historical novels: "I like to learn while I'm researching."

Like me, Richman is an accomplished eavesdropper. She got the idea for The Lost Wife when she was at a Long Island, New York beauty parlor and overhead a conversation -- the hair stylist at the next station was saying how she'd heard of an elderly man who, at his grandson's wedding rehearsal, recognized the bride-to-be's grandmother because -- get ready for this part of the story! -- she had been his wife before the war!

Art plays an important role in The Lost Wife. Richman's mother is an artist. She explained how her writing was influenced by her mother's teachings about colour theory: "Blue looks very different next to its complement of orange than when it's next to green. Characters also change in relation to other characters." (If any of my students are reading this -- think about our discussion about characters who acts as foils for other characters.)

During the question and answer period following Richman's talk, someone asked about her writing process. She admitted that when she is on tour, she isn't able to do much writing. "I need consecutive days to write. Every day I write, I re-write what I did the day before. It's this constant refinement." 

But, Richman added, she never suffers from writer's block. "I am carrying this book [whichever one she is working on] with me constantly," she said. 

So, here's to constant refinement and carrying around your book! It's a strategy that seems to work well for Richman.


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Fun Day at Heritage Regional High School

In the first of today's pics, you'll get an idea of why I had fun during my visit today to Heritage Regional High School in St. Hubert.

I spotted this pair of socks -- they belong to a student named Melissa. Later, when I explained to students that it's better for writers to SHOW, rather than TELL, I used Melissa and her socks as an example. I told that them if I wanted to show, for example, that a student is free-spirited and unconventional, I could say she often wears unmatched socks.

I worked with four groups of students, ranging from some in Secondary I to others in Secondary V. In all my workshops, I tried to leave a little time for writing. In today's second pic, you can see two devoted students named Alex and Maggy -- they got so into the writing exercise they actually stayed during their seven-minute break between classes to continue writing! Way to go, you two!

And in this last pic, you'll see me with students from one of my afternoon sessions. I've been to Heritage before, so I already knew I'd enjoy working with the students. They're bright and lively and they have spunk. It also helps that the school has a terrific English department, run by the wonderful Mary Eva. Mrs. Eva helped keep the kids in line, which made my day feel more like play than work!

A student named Colin asked if I ever run out of things to write. I told him no, my problem is  I run out of time to write about all the things I want to write about! Which is why you young writers need to keep a notebook full of your ideas. And because you're young, you won't be running out of time nearly as soon as I will!

During the writing exercise, some students accessed powerful memories -- one boy wrote about surviving a serious car accident; another wrote about celebrating his tenth birthday with his dad and his dad's girlfriend; another compared the cement in her old schoolyard to a black beach. 

Since my sessions were only a little over an hour each, I didn't tell the students everything I wanted to... Mrs. Eva had asked me to talk a little about journalistic-style feature writing to help prepare the Sec.V students for their provincial exam. So how about I pass on some tips right here?

On the exam, you're going to get background material to work with and then your task will be to produce a feature story. My advice is to begin by reviewing the background material carefully. If it was me, I'd underline what seem to be the most important points and I'd look for quotes that I could work into my story. Another thing I'd do would be to look for a beginning, middle and end. Once you've got that, you should be able to find a structure for your piece. Do an outline, figure out which quotes go where, then get to work. Leave time, of course, to revise. And once you've finished revising, revise again!

So thanks to Mrs. Eva for inviting me to Heritage Regional, thanks to the students for being such good audiences, and thanks to Melissa for wearing two different coloured socks!!

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Writer Rina Singh and a Busload of Students Come to Town


I'm going to begin today's blog entry with a little story. In 1983, probably many years before some of you readers of my blog were born, I was doing my Master's degree in English Literature at Concordia University. The student sitting next to me in a class on James Joyce was named Rina Singh. Have you ever just met someone and you know instantly he or she will be your friend for life? That's what happened with us.

Rina had recently married her husband and moved to Montreal from India. She was already an established poet in her home country and she was doing her Master's in Creative Writing at Concordia. When, a few months later, I found out I was pregnant, Rina was the first person I told! And over the years, Rina encouraged me in my writing -- when I was getting rejection letters from publishers, she assured me it was all just part of the process. And when she gave me a lucky little blue glass Ganesh statue... well, I sold my first manuscript not long after that!

Rina quickly established herself on the North American literary scene too. Her most recent book, published by Groundwood, is called Guru Nanak: The First Sikh Guru.

So you will understand why this morning I zipped out on my bike to a hotel in downtown Montreal where Rina is staying for a couple of days with her students from Doncrest Public School in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Rina only had a little bit of time because the group was heading out for a tour of Old Montreal.

Not only did I get to see Rina, but I also got to meet Tiffany Tse and Tanushka Doctor. Along with Caleb Ajao (he was unable to make the trip to Montreal), Tiffany and Tanushka have recently  completed an amazing book trailer for my YA novel, Miracleville. Click here, then look for the tab on the right, to see the trailer for yourself!


In this second pic, you can see me with Rina, and in between us are Tanushka and Tiffany. Thanks, girls, for that wonderful wonderful trailer -- and thank Caleb for me too!

There are many things to love about Rina and one of them is that she is multi-talented. Not only is she an amazing children's writer, she is also a photographer and artist -- and a terrific teacher. She even taught her class how to make book trailers! As Tanushka told me, "Mrs. Singh always brings excitement to the lessons." Tiffany added, "The projects she gives us are a challenge and they always teach us something in the end."

From May 7 to 11, Rina will be touring Alberta for TD Children's Book Week. That means many more youngsters and teachers and librarians are going to experience the joy of being with Rina. Get ready to be energized and inspired!!

When we were sitting together on a bench at the hotel, Rina told me something I never knew about her. She told me that when she was about 15, she made her own books. "They were mostly poetry. I made book after book and I still have them," she said. And guess what, Albertans? Rina is going to bring some of those books to show you when she visits your province.



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Biting Stories: Meet Alyxandra Harvey

Today's pic was taken on Saturday afternoon at the prize ceremony for a Blue Metropolis contest called "Biting Stories." In the pic, author Alyxandra Harvey has just awarded the prize for top story to Nabil Shah, a Grade 11 student at John Rennie High School here in Montreal.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Harvey on stage before she announced the contest results. She is the author of the hugely popular Drake Chronicles, a vampire series published by Bloomsbury.

Last week, I geared up for our meeting by reading her latest Canadian release, Bleeding Hearts. I found it so compelling and scary that every time I brushed my teeth, I looked in the mirror  -- expecting to see fangs!!

Harvey told us she has been writing since she was nine years old. She explained how vampire stories have a long illustrious history. She says that overall, the recent success of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series has been good for other authors working in the vampire genre: "A lot of us wouldn't have been published if it weren't for her."

Harvey says what distinguishes her vampires from Meyer's is that hers have what she calls "snark": "I like the snark... when vampires are sarcastic." During our live on-stage interview, I decided that Harvey did not seem very snarky herself, but she admitted to us that she was on her best behavior! "I do have some snark in me," she said.

What advice does Harvey have to offer aspiring writers? "Be stubborn, stubborn, stubborn. I started sending stuff out to publishers when I was 15. The more rejection letters you get, the better. It means you're writing!"

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"Talent is probably more common than we think" -- Esi Edugyan

Why hello blog readers! It's Sunday morning and I'll be heading out soon to host a Writing Salon on the final day of this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. I'm going to talk a little about writing and then, well ... we're going to do something wonderful: WRITE!

Because I attended three super talks at Blue Met yesterday and did an on-stage interview, I've got loads of useful new writing tips to share with the people at this morning's event.

I think I'll start by telling them how Esi Edugyan, the Giller Prize winning author of Half-Blood Blues told us, "Talent is probably more common than we think." (That's Esi and me in today's pic. the CBC's Maria Turner gave me the honourable task of escorting Esi to the bathroom and the festival bookstore, and I got someone to snap our photo just after Esi and I washed our hands!!)

Edugyan told us many important things. She explained a little about her writing process: "My first draft was very straightforwardly written. I thought, 'I'm going to have fun and play.'") Hey, student in my Nonsense class, I hope you are seeing the link here to what we've been talking about during the semester: the important connection between hard work and play.

To be honest, I would not have trusted Edugyan if she'd told us that all parts of the writing process come easily to her. So I loved when she admitted, "the early drafts feel thankless. The passion has to be there."

So, I've got so many notes from Blue Met that you can expect several more blog entries about it this coming week. Talk to you soon. Happy writing and reading!!

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Lunch with Catherine Austen -- and Launch of Quebec Roots

Today was Day 2 at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival here in Montreal. On my way to the launch of this year's edition of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live, I met up with YA author and festival participant Catherine Austen.

Catherine lives in Aylmer, Quebec -- so she was up at 5 this morning to make it to the festival. It's safe to say Catherine is currently the most feted YA author in Canada. Her novel, All Good Children, just won the Canadian Library Association 2012 YA Book Award and it's also up for the American YALSA prize.

In today's pic, you can see Catherine holding up a copy of her other new book, 26 Tips for Surviving Grade Six. Only she doctored the cover for her talk at the festival today -- she changed the words to "10 Tips for Surviving the Writing Life"!

I asked Catherine whether she'd mind sharing her Number One tip and she was glad to do it. So here's her answer: "Everyone loves to laugh." She added that, "Even in a sad book, there's nothing unrelentingly bleak."

Catherine made ME laugh when she told me that sometimes, when she is working on a really emotional scene, she answers her door in tears -- only to tell whoever is there: "I had such a good day at work today!"

Anyway, it was super-fun to compare notes with Catherine. We both work with the same editor at Orca, Sarah Harvey, and we talked about how helpful it is to have a smart, sensitive editor with a great sense of humour.

Then, because Catherine had a little time before she had to catch her train back to Aylmer, she came to the launch of Quebec Roots! The book, Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live, 2012, is the culmination of a Blue Metropolis Literary educational project that began last fall. Teams of writers and photographers traveled across the province, helping students in six schools to tell a story about their community using words and photographs.

That's me in this pic with students from Ecole Luke Mettaweskum in the James Bay Region, and with their wonderful teacher Victoria Howard. Another wonderful teacher, Rose Roussy, was there too, with students from New Carlisle High School in the Gaspé. (I was sorry though that the students I worked with from FACE High School in Montreal did not make it to the launch.) 

Anyway... it was a really happy occasion, and a real celebration of young people and their talent. Author Carolyn Souaid, who was also part of the project, talked about the hard work and persistence required during the re-writing stage. Just like photographers need to re-shoot their images until they get them right, we writers need to re-write, then re-write some more.

Special thanks to the wonderful dedicated people that helped make this year's edition of Quebec Roots a reality -- project coordinator and Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation production manager Florence Allegrini; Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation director William St-Hilaire; and Michele Luchs from the Ministry of Education. And thanks, of course, to all the students and teachers who participated. HEY, YOU GUYS MADE A SUPER BEAUTIFUL BOOK!!!



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Meet Mahtab Narsimhan

Today was the first day of this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. I've asked all my students to try and attend at least one event -- there are loads to choose from. My Journalism class today happened to coincide with a talk by one of my favourite YA authors, Mahtab Narmsimhan, who is in from Toronto for  Blue Met ... and so several students from my class and I hopped on a metro and took a field trip over to the Richmond Square Branch of the Montreal Children's Library. 

In this first pic, you will see and some of my students en route to meet Mahtab. (I think they were a little embarrassed when I asked a strange man on the metro to take our pic!)

In the next pic, you too can meet Mahtab Narsimhan, who did a wonderful talk about her books, her writing process and what writing means to her. In this pic, Mahtab is showing us a tiffin, which happens to be the title of her latest YA book, The Tiffin. (In Mumbai, India, a tiffin is like a lunchbox.)

  Mahtab told us many interesting and important things. She told us that as a child, she was more of a reader than a writer. Her decision to write followed her dad's death in 2003. She wrote her first novel, The Third Eye, which went on to win the Silver Birch Fiction Award, as a tribute to her dad. She made us guess how many times she re-wrote the book before it was published. None of us guessed the answer -- which was 20! "When it came out, I never read it again," Mahtab said.

The Third Eye is the first book in Mahtab's Tara trilogy. Though she didn't write The Third Eye with a theme in mind, she came to realize that, "The story is about belief in yourself." Mahtab pointed out that no matter our age, we all have fears, and that we mustn't let those fears stop us. Mahtab confided that years ago, she was afraid of public speaking. (It's hard to believe when you see how comfortable Mahtab is speaking to a small crowd at the library.) Mahtab knew she had to do something about that fear -- so she joined a group called Toastmasters.

It's obvious that Mahtab is very very disciplined. Because she works in information technology from 9 to 5 on weekdays, she has to get up early to make time for her writing. She wakes up at 5 or 5:30 and writes 1,500 words a day. "I feel guilty if I don't do it," she told us.

I was really struck and touched by Mahtab's honesty. She told us that sometimes, those 1,500 words don't come easily. "Some days," she said, "it's as if every word you write is written in blood."

It turns out that Mahtab's truthful approach during her presentations is also an important element in her writing. "The best way to make your writing shine," Mahtab said, "is to write the truth the way you see it."

Here's to Mahtab Narsimhan for sharing her truth the way she sees it -- in her talks and in her books. Here's to Blue Met for bringing writers like Mahtab to Montreal... and here's to my students for joining me on today's field trip!

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Gearing Up for Blue Met 2012

Tomorrow is the start of this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival -- so I'll be trying to do as many blog entries as possible over the next few days.

Tomorrow afternoon, together with students in my Journalism class, we'll be going to listen to YA writer Mahtab Narsimhan discuss her latest book, The Tiffin. After that, Mahtab and I plan to hop in a cab and get to the opening gala event at the Opus Hotel.

Thursday, I'm planning to meet up with Gatineau author Catherine Austen whose amazing YA book All Good Children just won a coveted Canadian Library Association Prize. Don't worry, readers, I'll bring my camera and notebook and try to get you some pointers from both Mahtab and Catherine!

Thursday afternoon is the launch of this year's Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live, a project I was lucky enough to participate in. I can't wait to see the students I worked with -- and also the book they produced!

I'm a little nervous for Thursday night when I'll be doing a live storytelling event -- no notes!

Saturday, I'm doing a live on-stage interview with Alyxandra Harvey, popular author of The Drake Chronicles, a vampire series. I'm reading her latest book, Bleeding Hearts, and if I look a little tired this week, it's because I'm staying up too late reading about handsome vampires!

Sunday, I'm hosting a breakfast brunch -- in which I'm going to do a little talk to help aspiring writers... and then I'm going to let them WRITE. 

In between all this, I'm planning to listen to talks by authors Kim Thuy, Ahdaf Soueif, Esi Edugyan and the festival honoree, Joyce Carol Oates.

Sounds like a busy week, doesn't it? And guess what? I can't wait!

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Today's Visit to Montreal Children's Library -- Richmond Square Branch

I'm just back from a magic afternoon at the Montreal Children's Library Richmond Square Branch. I guess you're wondering what made it magical! Well, here's the explanation: It's a gorgeous day here in Montreal and the youngsters who come to the Tyndale St. George Community Centre could either go play outside -- or listen to me telling them what to do if they want to become writers.

As you can imagine, most of them ran for the front door!

But the ones who stayed -- they made the afternoon magical. I worked with about a dozen young women, ranging in age from 7 to 16, and they were a totally focused, interested audience. Four of them were students from Sacred Heart School who volunteer at the library on Friday afternoons. I could tell from their eyes that they're all interested in writing. Sara, Gabriella, Esmé and Maria, it was great to meet you! (I like the name Esmé so much I think I might just use it in my next manuscript. Thanks, Esmé, for giving me permission!)

The two youngest members of the audience were super bright. Adelene helped with translating when I was stuck for a French word or two. I told the group how I like to ask the question, "What if?" when I'm working on a story. That translates, according to Adelene, to: "Et si?" (Sounds even better in French, doesn't it?)

In today's pic, you'll see me with sisters Ciara and Cianna and their new friend Nora. Ciara and Cianna love writing and reading stories. Ciara's questions suggested to me that she is a natural writer. Like all the young women I met today, I hope you'll write your stories, Ciara -- and I'm super glad to have met you! Special thanks to librarian Carmen Mandrila for making me feel so at home at your library!

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Lori Weber Returns to Marianopolis

To kick off Arts Festival at Marianopolis College where I teach, YA writer Lori Weber popped by for a visit. Lori has spoken at the college before and so I knew we were in for a fun, stimulating visit.

Lori spoke mostly about her latest novel, Yellow Mini, her first free verse project. She explained how the opening poem is based on her own memories of Grade Eight here in Montreal. I'm going to quote the first four lines of that poem, so you'll have an idea of the kind of work Lori does:

I hate to walk past the third floor lounge

of my school, where

the cool kids

hang out.

Lori told us that when she was in Grade Eight, the older "cool" kids really did hang out in a lounge near the library on the third floor. Lori explained that she draws on her memories for inspiration. She told us, "That's the way a writer's mind works. You store the details, you store the memories."

Lori also discussed the importance of just getting the first draft "out." (This was useful advice for my students in the Writing for Children class, who are just beginning their final assignment -- the first chapter of a YA novel. Come to think of it, it's good advice for all writers!) Lori admitted that when she writes a first draft, she seldom knows where her story is going. "At first," she says, "I kind of just let it go."

So if you're struggling with a first draft, why don't you try Lori's method? Just let it go!

And when you have a chance, read Yellow Mini. I gobbled it up in one night!





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I Got to Be a Book Yesterday!

If you were a book, what would your title be?

That's the question some of the faculty and staff had to answer at Marianopolis College, where I teach. This week, several of us are taking part in a cool event called Living Library. Living Libraries have been done at other colleges and universities, but this was the inaugural one at our school.

I wish I had time to "check out" a few of the books! Art teacher Selena Liss will be a book tomorrow -- her titles is Lesbian Mom. Eric Lavigne, our Associate Dean for Programs, was a book about martial arts.

My book was called Hunting for Stories. If you know me, you'll know that hunting for stories is one of my favourite pastimes. And I'm a brave hunter -- I'll go just about anywhere for a story!

Two students checked me out. Both are interested in becoming professional writers and both had excellent questions. The first student, Deborah, was looking for some guidance on a short story she's writing. I suggested she focus on developing her characters -- and we spoke quite a lot about what drives her main character. My second student was named Debra and she told me she's been telling stories since she was three or four. She wanted tips to help her build her characters. I suggested she try an exercise I used in my own Writing for Children class a couple of weeks ago -- students had to come up with a long list of questions... what's in your character's pocket? who's your character's best friend? what is your character's greatest fear? We brainstormed our list and then everyone had to answer the questions. I told the class it's important to know MORE about your character than you'll need to know for your story.

Debra had another question I liked a lot, too. She asked, "Did you ever surprise yourself when you were writing?" That question made me smile because the answer is... yes, not very often, but it has happened and it's FUN!

So here's to Living Books! Thanks to librarian extraordinaire Amy MacLean for bringing the event to Marianopolis. It's fun to think about people as books!

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Turns Out I'm Not the Only Writer Who Loves to Eavesdsrop

Students are always a little shocked, I think, when I tell them I consider eavesdropping (an old-fashioned sort of word that means "listening in") an essential part of my work as a writer. I guess they think I'm snoopy -- which I am!

Well, last night I was reading a wonderful profile of author Anne Tyler in the latest issue of Maclean's Magazine and I was delighted to learn that Tyler, who is one of my writing idols, is an eavesdropper, too. She says, "I love to eavesdrop." Apparently, she especially enjoys conversations between gossiping workmen. Tyler also likes to chat with grocery store workers: "I've been told some pretty amazing things by people." The article also says that when Tyler visits someone's home, she "gravitate[s] to the kitchen," where she examines "pictures plastered to refrigerator doors."

So you see ... writers are, in our way, spies! Here's the link if you want to read the complete interview with Tyler. And here's to good eavesdropping -- and spying!!

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Lots of Familiar Faces at Beaconsfield High School

Lucky for me the students at Beaconsfield High School aren't sick of me yet!! I've made several visits to their school over the last few years, so when I returned today, I tried to shake things up by concentrating on my latest books and by testing out some new and improved writing exercises!

That's me in the pic with students in one of Melinda Cochrane's Grade Nine English classes. I worked with two of Mrs. Cochrane's Grade Nine groups, and with one of her Grade Eight classes. Overall, I'd say my workshops went well, though some of the natives got a little restless when it got close to lunchtime! 

I told the students in all three groups that one of my favourite questions is, "What if?" In daily life, I find myself asking this question all the time! What if one of the students at my school found a way to break into the school computer system and changed all the grades?

I can't seem to stop myself from asking "What if?" questions. The cool thing, I pointed out to the students, is that writers need to ask "What if?" It's the question that propels our stories forward.

Mrs. Cochrane burst into laughter when I said how I'm always asking myself, "What if?" Turns out she has the same habit. Which is not surprising since Mrs. Cochrane is a writer too, currently hard at work on a YA project for James Lorimer and Company in Toronto.

Students named Morgan and Charlie told me they're also into the "What if?" question. A student named Keefer came by to say hello. He'd introduced himself a couple of years back (or was it last year?) when I was at BHS. Keefer's aunt is a dear friend of mine -- so I know Keefer from when he was just a little guy!

Today was the first time I ever gave writing workshops with musical accompaniment. That's because music teacher Mr. Legault was down the hall, preparing the senior stage band for the St. Hubert Jazz Fest tomorrow. They were playing Metropole Sun -- and you guys sounded great!

I'm a great believer in the power of making things -- whether it's stories or music or spaghetti sauce!! Hope you find time to make something wonderful this weekend! Thanks Mrs. Cochrane for the invite, and Mr. Legault for the music!

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One of My Favourite Writers Comes to Class

Joel Yanofsky is not only one of my favourite writers, he's one of my favourite people. So imagine how pleased I was when he accepted my invitation to come and speak to my Journalism class today.

Joel is an author and journalist based here in Montreal. His latest book is Bad Animals: A Father's Accidental Education in Autism. It's a frank, big-hearted account of Joel's life with his son Jonah. That's Joel in today's pic. He's with another delightful person -- my student Emily Wing, who's been working on a book review of Bad Animals.

My students practically chortled with pleasure when Joel told them he doesn't use an outline. (That's because my students are kind of sick of teachers -- like me -- who insist they do outlines.) But Joel did say, "I think in terms of chunks of material." Sorry, students, to tell you this, but that's kind of like an outline!

Joel also compared writing to doing a jigsaw puzzle. "You organize your chunks. You put all the yellow chunks for the sun together. And all the blue chunks for the sky." Then he admitted, "I outline in my head."

If you know Joel's writing (and if you don't, hurry out and get yourself a copy of Bad Animals -- Joel told us it's now available at Costco at a steeply discounted price), you'll know that he has a natural style that seems almost effortless. Joel confessed it takes a lot of effort to achieve that effortless quality!

Luckily, Joel enjoys revising. He told us he spent two hours last night revising a story for the Montreal Gazette (the story is about Passover; look for it in this Saturday's paper), and another hour or two on the same project this morning. "You know you're a real writer," Joel said, "if you lose track of time when you're revising."

Thanks, Joel, for the wisdom -- and the inspiration! As for you students, KEEP OUTLINING -- at least in your heads!!!


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Wanted to Practice My French, Mais...

I was invited to do a presentation this morning at the Foire du Livre St-Hyacinthe... only I drove the hour-and-fifteen-minutes to get there -- and there weren't any students! GRR!

I tried not to GRR! for long. (Just a short GRR! while I was there and a little more GRR!-ing on the drive home). Instead, I tried to make the most out of what seemed to me not a very well organized event.

I did that by chatting up several of the other writers who were there. First, I talked to François Gravel, the author of a whopping 65(!!) books, most for young adults. Gravel (that's him with me in today's pic) is the author of the popular Klonk series. Because I'm always thinking of you, dear blog reader (even in GRR! situations), I asked him if he had any writing tips for aspiring writers. Here's what he told me: "Try not to think about it. When I stop thinking, I get ideas!"

Like me, François was a long-time CEGEP teacher. Only he taught economics, not literature and humanities. He is married to YA author Michele Marineau, best known for her book, La Route de Chlifa. They both work at home in separate offices. But every day, after lunch, they each have a cup of green tea and play a game of Scrabble. François says he and Michele love talking about words.

I also met Chloe Varin, who at only 25 years old, has already published three books for young adults. I bought one of them -- Planches D'Enfer. It's about skateboarding and snowboarding -- and I hope it'll be another way for me to practice my French. Chloe had advice for you, too. She says: "Lis beacoup beacoup" -- which means read a lot, a lot! Then she added, "Write a lot too. Put your emotions into words."

I also enjoyed meeting Mariane Cayer, who was working in the bookstore associated with the event. I already knew Mariane through her blog, Les Lectures de Prosperyne -- and so I was excited to meet her in real life. Check out her book blog. Mariane says it's easier to explain the kinds of books she doesn't like -- since a list of what sorts of books she likes would be too long: "I don't like thrillers, poetry or horror."

So, if you're facing any GRR! situations today, you might also try to make the best of them. I'd have liked to work with some students in St-Hyacinthe this morning, but it was still good to connect with some fellow writers.

  2016 Hits

A Little Advice for the 100 or so Students Writing for Me This Weekend...

It's a beautiful warm weekend here in Montreal and right now, there are about 100 students who are probably working on writing assignments for me... unless of course, they're going to wait till the night before their work is due!

So I thought in case of you guys are checking my blog, I'd give you a little advice to help you get started and get through what you've got to do. Plus who knows how many other students out there might find this advice a wee bit useful?

Okay, so the main advice is: quit procrastinating or worrying or whatever it is you do before you settle down to work and START WRITING. That energy you spend procrastinating or worrying is energy that will be better spent on your writing. (I know because it happens to me, too. It happens to all writers.)

Next advice. Don't worry if it's not perfect. Just get that first draft out! Yesterday, I read a great line from Margaret Atwood, who says: "If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word." See! If Margaret Atwood feels that way, you're in fine company. Don't worry if it's not perfect... just get that draft out!

More advice. Don't hand in that first draft. (I say this because next weekend, you may be out enjoying the fine weather, and I'll be home reading your assignments... so please, try to make them wonderful.) The real work comes in the revising stages. Note that I say stageS (with an S) because one re-write is rarely enough.

Final bit of advice. This comes from Ron, my boxing teacher, who just told me this morning: "You need to develop relaxed intensity." Work hard (that's the intensity part), but try not to be too anxious. Breathe deep, take pleasure in facing the challenge that writing presents. 

I look forward to reading your writing!


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We All Need a (March) Break Sometimes!

I'm gearing up to go back to school this afternoon after a week off for March Break. This year, because my husband couldn't get time off at the same time as me, I stayed in town for March Break -- and that was exactly what it was: a break.

I spent a lot of my week reading in preparation for my next two appearances on the Radio Canada show, Plus qu'on est de fous, plus on lit.

But I've also been dipping into a book by Tony Schwartz called, Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live. As it turns out, Schwartz believes in breaks. Early on in his book, he cites a really interesting 1993 study by Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University, who specializes in expert performance.

Ericsson studied 30 young violinists at the Music Academy of Berlin. The very best of these violinists practiced a lot -- on average for 24 hours a week. But they also took what Ericsson calls "renewal breaks between sessions."

This is what Schwartz has to say about Ericsson's findings: "Great performers ... work more intensely than most of us do, but also recover more deeply.... They ... recognized it was essential to take time, intermittently, to rest and refuel."

I'm not the best at refueling... but thanks to March break, I did it last week. What about you? Have you rested and refueled yourself lately?

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Reading, Reading and More Reading!

I don't think I've had to read so much since I studied English Literature at McGill University here in Montreal. I still remember the first week of classes, when the professors handed out the reading lists ... and I wondered how I'd ever get it all done. (The answer, as I tell my students, is "Bird by Bird" -- thanks Ann Lamott! -- her brother was stressed out because he had to do a project on birds, and their father advised him to do it "Bird by Bird.")

I'm re-reading like crazy for the Radio Canada program, Plus qu'on est de fous, plus qu'on lit. This week, I spoke about Robertson Davies's book, Fifth Business. Next Tuesday, I'll be discussing Carold Shields's The Stone Diaries. I won't even tell you about the books I'm reading for the Montreal Gazette!

But today, I thought I'd tell you about a few great lines in Fifth Business. The narrator Dunstan Ramsay is quite old when he first discovers true love. The woman he comes to love is unattractive, but he tells us that, she "became less ugly after an hour or two." What I like about that line is that it really shows how a person's looks stop mattering so much once we get to know them. Ever meet a beautiful person with an ugly inside? If you have, you'll know what I mean.

Dunstan tries awfully hard to be good all the time. For most of his life, he doesn't even acknowledge that he has a darker side, what Carl Gustav Jung would call the "shadow self." It's only quite close to the end of his life that Dunstan begins to understand he needs to embrace all of life, not just what's pleasant or beautiful. He asks his friend, "Don't you want to possess it [the totality of life] as a whole -- the bad with the good?" What about you? What do you think? You know what I think?... that Robertson Davies was a very wise man. I'm so glad he wrote this book for us.

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Thinking About "Kindred Spirits"

If you're like me and you read Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables when you were a kid, "kindred spirits" is probably part of your vocabulary -- and part of your life, too.

In the novel, its spunky red-headed heroine Anne Shirley arrives in Avonlea, Prince Edward Island, direct from a Nova Scotia orphanage. She needs a home, she needs adults to care for her and raise her, but she's also in search of a "kindred spirit."

Aren't we all?

I had the delicious pleasure of re-reading Anne of Green Gables last week because I was discussing it on Plus qu'on est de fous, plus qu'on lit, a Radio Canada program I'll be appearing on (can a person "appear" on radio?) over the next four Tuesdays. (Here's the link if you want to hear last Tuesday's broadcast.)

Anyway, I've been thinking a lot about kindred spirits. Anne finds a best friend in Avonlea -- Diana Barry. But to her great delight, Anne also finds several other kindred spirits. They include Matthew, the timid elderly man who shares his home with her; Diana's aging aunt; and the minister's wife.

To me, a kindred spirit is more than a run-of-the-mill friend, though those are nice to have too! A kindred spirit is someone who appreciates you, who accepts you for who you are, someone who "gets" you ... when we're in the company of a kindred spirit, well, we feel right at home.

Here's hoping that like Anne Shirley, you find lots of them in your life, too. And there's an extra bonus for those of us who love to read fiction -- we find kindred spirits in books, too!

Anne Shirley is definitely one of my kindred spirits. Not only is she a delightful chatterbox, but she is also something of a philosopher. "Isn't it nice," she says, "to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?" Anne Shirley, I loved you when I was 11, and I still love you now... a mere 40 years later!!

  2016 Hits

Art Lessons

You may remember I've been working on a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called, En Mots et En Images. For the project, I helped students in Carole Blouin's class at Ecole Paul-Bruchési here in Montreal to finish a story begun by another class in Ontario.

Carole's class is super imaginative and they came up with a story that is so funny it's guaranteed to make readers laugh out loud.

After the text was completed, Montreal illustrator and author Philippe Béha took over. He helped Madame Blouin's class to illustrate their story. Because today was Philippe's last session with the class, I invited myself to come and see their work. AND WAS IT EVER WONDERFUL!!

In today's first pic, you'll see a student named Arnaud working on his drawing. I don't want to tell  you too much about the story, which will be on display at this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival, but let's just say there are a lot of squirrels in it. In my second pic, you can see Philippe working on one of the student's drawings, and in the last pic, you can see Charlie and his drawing of a squirrel who is on the attack!

Charlie told me he learned a lot about drawing from Philippe: "I learned that instead of just using one colour, we can use many colours to make one colour." Arnaud said he learned about shading. He showed me how he'd added shading to the round parts on his drawing. Arnaud told me one more thing before I left his classroom: "I like writing and drawing both, but I think I like writing a little bit more. I like inventing a subject."

Anyway, if you're in Montreal, don't miss this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. Be sure to check out the stories written and created by students for En Mots et En Images.

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Some Valentine's Day Thoughts -- on Love and Writing

It's Valentine's Day, so no surprise that I'm thinking about love -- and writing (I'm always thinking about writing!!).

I was thinking how people seldom tell you the truth about love. They seldom tell you love is hard work, and that sometimes, they feel like giving up altogether on love! You'd certainly never read that on a Hallmark card, would you?

Yes, yes... it's also true that love can transform us, make us better than we were before, and that love can make us grow in the most unexpected ways. But it's not honest or fair to focus just on the "up side" of love.

The same is true for writing. And especially for RE-WRITING.

Those of us involved in this year's Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live project are all hard at work now on re-writing. I'm sure the students who are working with me will be quick to tell you that the re-writing can be difficult and discouraging. Last week, photographer Monique Dykstra and I met -- via video-conference -- with our class at New Carlisle HIgh School in the Gaspé. Teacher Rose Roussy said some of the girls were pretty down when they read the comments I'd made about their writing. I told them how one of my friends, Montreal writer Elaine Kalman Naves, once told me how a writer needs to have both a thin skin and a thick skin. The thin skin is to be sensitive to the world around us; the thick skin is to be strong enough to handle criticism.

During that video-conference, I could actually see the girls in Mrs. Roussy's class coming around... beginning to understand that re-writing, solving problems, is all just part of the writing process. Together, we had time to work on a group poem. It was about the things we wish we could say to someone we love. Cheyenne came up with the amazing beautiful line: "I'd tell you that my heart beats 24-7 for you." Way to go, Cheyennne!

Yesterday, I was at FACE High School here in Montreal. There too, Kristen O'Sullivan's students were struggling with their re-writes. Kristen had sent me a huge packet of material last week... but it lacked shape. It needed pruning -- kind of like an overgrown tree! But guess what? The students did it! On their own, then together with Kristin, and then with me, they turned their material into something beautiful. In fact, I can't wait for you to read it. Here's one small preview. It's a line from a poem by a student named Jyoti, in which she describes her music class: "Even the birds outside stop to listen to our music."

So today, I want to wish you all a happy Valentine's Day. I want to tell you that love and writing can sometimes be hard... but that's okay. Look -- and listen -- for those birds. Let your hearts beat 24-7 for the person you love, but also for the creative work -- the writing, the music, whatever...  -- that brings you satisfaction!

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Fun on French Radio

There's only time for a quick blog entry since it's getting late. I'm just back from Radio Canada, where I took part in a French language discussion about YA literature and political correctness. Our segment was part of the program Plus on est de fous, plus on lit with host Marie-Louise Arsenault.

That's Marie-Louise in the foreground of the pic. Next to me is Montreal teacher and YA blogger extraordinaire Sophie Gagnon (if you haven't already done so, check out her blog Sophie lit), and next to her is Quebec author Catherine Girard-Audet, whose latest book is La Vie Compliquée de Léa Olivier.

We panelists agreed that contemporary YA literature is not restrained by political correctness. Rather, no subject seems taboo for today's YA books -- not drugs, not alcohol, and certainly not sexuality.

There were other guests on tonight's show, too -- all interesting and well-spoken. One of them was songwriter Roger Tabra, who was there to discuss his hit son Mon Ange. Marie-Louise asked Roger how he gets his inspiration. I loved his answer so much, dear blog reader, that I jotted it down JUST FOR YOU. Tabra said, "I don't believe in inspiration. It's a white page you have to fill."

So maybe we all need to try Tabra's approach. Don't wait for the perfect moment of inspiration, just start filling up that white page!!

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Du Fun -- en Français!

You may have noticed that the title of today's blog entry is in French -- that's because I'm practicing my French today in preparation for my participation on a French-speaking radio panel tonight.

I'm going to be a panelist on the Radio Canada literary program, Plus on de fous, plus on lit. The topic is: has YA literature become too politically correct? My answer (in case you can't listen to the "émission" is: NO WAY! I think today's YA writers are courageous souls, unafraid to tackle topics young readers want and need to read about!

I'm looking forward to meeting Marie-Louise Arsenault, who hosts the show. There'll be two other panelists besides me: YA author Catherine Girard-Audet and book blogger Sophie Gagnon. I haven't met Catherine, but I am already a fan of Sophie's blog, Sophie lit.

The show airs tonight between 8 and 9 (not sure what time our segment, which is supposed to last 15 to 20 minutes will be on). If you're in Quebec, set your radio dial to 95.1 FM.

I lead most of my life in English, but with two of my books now translated into French by Courte Echelle, I'm eager to connect with French-speaking audiences. A little warning though: I do speak French with an English accent. When I was a teenager working in an ice cream parlour (that's another story altogether!), French-speaking customers used to remark: "Mademoiselle, J'aime ton français! As tu étudié en angleterre?" (Meaning, "Miss, I like your accent! Did you study in Britain?") Wish me bonne chance!!



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My Day Flies By at Laurentian Regional High School

Ever have a day that just flies by? That's what my day was like today at Laurentian Regional High School in Lachute.

That's me in the pic with LRHS librarian Megan Bryan. Megan and I are having a yummy lunch (chicken and fries) in the library between class visits.

I worked with two Secondary I groups, both belonging to English teacher Mrs. Welden. When we talked about the importance of trouble in stories (I told the students that in stories, trouble works like gasoline -- it makes a story MOVE FORWARD!), I could tell that Mrs. Welden's students understood the concept. As it turns out, they've been working on their own stories about survival in challenging circumstances (or in other words, TROUBLE!)

Before Miss Bryan and I took our lunch break, I had an informal session with students who just wanted to pop by the library and chat about writing. I must say that part of the day was super fun and added to the flying-by-feeling. A student named Emma showed me a poem she'd written that's about to be published in an anthology. Emma's poem is about writing, and includes the lovely, honest line: "I'm afraid of rejection." (Aren't we all, Emma? But writers keep going, even in the face of rejection!)

A Sec V student named Danielle MacRaye came to interview me for the school board newspaper and also for The Laurentian Review. (That's Danielle interviewing me in the second pic.) Though Danielle told me she wants to be a doctor, I must say she'd make a super  reporter. She was well-prepared and organized, and she made me want to tell her everything I could about writing and how to get published.

I had some good laughs today, too. I asked the morning group to guess what I bring with me when I go for a run. A student named Jonathan called out, "A chicken!" Then a student named Lucas said, "Flowers!" When Lucas guessed again, he got the right answer: "pen and paper." (I sometimes get good writing ideas when I'm running.)

I'm off now to go out for supper with my husband. And the students I met today know exactly what that means: I'll likely be listening in to conversations at the tables near ours. Don't be shocked -- I'm just being a writer, gathering stories and story ideas wherever I go.

Big thanks to Miss Bryan for inviting me to LRHS, to Mrs. Welden for sharing your students with me, and to the students for being so enthusiastic!

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Happy Morning at Westmount Park School

Don't you like today's pic? It was taken by Miss Rachelle, one of three Grade Five teachers at Westmount Park School whose classes I worked with this morning.

My talk was arranged by Elizabeth Macdonnell, librarian at the Montreal Children's Library. The plan was for me to speak at the library, but the sidewalks are so slick and wet in Montreal today, that in the end, Elizabeth and I scooted over to the school and I did my talk right there.

I must say it was fun! Usually, I have to ask students (even the ones in my own classes at Marianopolis) to settle down and adjust their body language, but I never had to say a word to these kids. They were alert and attentive the whole time. Thanks you guys!

Some highlight of today's visit: A student named Sabrina came to meet us at the school office. "Are you the famous writer?" she asked. But just so my head wouldn't get too swollen, the first young man I met when I walked into the classroom said, "Hey! I never heard of you!!"

A student named Kevon asked me a very deep question about my book What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp. I explained to the students that if it were not for the propaganda drawings my grandfather was forced by the Nazis to make, I would not be alive. Kevon asked: "Do you feel bad or sad knowing that you were not supposed to be made?" Not only did I think that was a wonderful sensitive question, but I also thought Kevon expressed it in a poetic way -- quite unusual for a young man in Grade Five. My answer is that I do not feel bad or sad. Instead, I feel very privileged to have this chance at life.

I learned that another young man, let's call him... Dakota ... had to spend lunch in the detention room. I reminded him of the point I'd made during my talk: trouble makes good stories. Dakota, maybe you should write a story about a boy eating his lunch in a detention room.

On my way out of the school, a student named Kaitlyn reminded me to mention a guy named Austin in today's blog. Austin is the Grade Five computer wiz who made sure I didn't have trouble with the whiteboard.

Many thanks to Elizabeth Macdonnell for organizing today's visit, to the Canada Council for providing the funding, to the Grade Five teachers at Westmount Park for sending me such lovely students, and especially to the students themselves... you guys really made me happy!!

  3160 Hits

Things We Can Learn from Children -- and From A Children's Book Author

I'll begin today's blog entry by telling you about an interesting discussion today in my Stuff of Nonsense Humanities class at Marianopolis College. We were talking about what kinds of things we can learn from children, and one of my students -- Cristina -- had such a good answer I wrote it down and asked her permission to share it here. Cristina said: "Children can teach us to be free, to not be scared, and to be who we are." We went on to discuss how the focus is usually on how much adults can teach children, but of course, the lessons Cristina mentioned, the ones kids can teach us, are pretty important, too.

What does this have to do with the subject of today's pic? Keep reading and it'll all become clear!

The woman in today's pic is Nancy Gow, a Montreal picture book author, who came to my Writing for Children class (I teach it right after The Stuff of Nonsense) to tell us about her book Ten Big Toes and a Prince's Nose. The refrain in Nancy's book reminded me of what Cristina had said in the Nonsense class. Here's part of the refrain: "I am who I am and that's all right with me." See what I mean? The theme of Nancy's book is accepting ourselves and others for who we are.

As you can see from the pic, Nancy actually read her picture book to my class. Some of the students even came to sit on the floor in front of her so they could really get the feeling of being kids again!

After her reading, Nancy told us how the story of her story. She was just about to have a nap when the lines of the story began to come to her. Though she was tired, she got up to write them down. She went back to take her nap, but more lines kept coming!

It's no coincidence, I think, that Nancy taught yoga for many years. She told us that, "Learning to relax your mind and body can work better than continual effort." She also said that having a good supportive friend (in her case, a man named Bernie, one of the people to whom Ten Big Toes is dedicated) helped her become a published author. She told us that Bernie was always glad to listen to her story while she was working on it and that he believed in her.

Another thing Nancy said struck me as wonderfully wise: "Your specialty is usually what you like most." Ah ha! That should get the rest of us thinking... what kind of stories do we like most? Perhaps it's time to begin writing one of those stories!


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To Outline Or Not To Outline? -- That is the Question

Yesterday, in my Writing for Children class at Marianopolis College, we discussed the pros and cons of using an outline.

One student in the class told us she never begins a term paper assignment without preparing an outline first. But she added that when she is writing fiction, she finds it easier to work sans outline.

Sorry to disappoint you, dear blog reader, but I don't have an easy answer to the question that is the title of today's blog entry: To Outline Or Not To Outline?

I say find the method that works best for you. Every writer is different and has her or his own way of working.

Here's what I like about outlines: They serve as a kind of road map -- that is they can help you figure out where your story is going. Also, sometimes working on an outline can help reduce a writer's anxiety about the writing process.

Here's the problem with outlines: Sometimes, they are too rigid, and sometimes, writers (especially those who are just getting started, like my students) stick too rigidly to an outline. One of the things I like best about writing (both non-fiction, as in my newspaper stories, as well as fiction, as in my YA novels) is that every time I sit down to write, I discover something new.... something I did not know when I got started. WRITING IS THINKING.

That being said -- I've got to go now. I'm working on an outline!!

  1999 Hits

St. Thomas, Marianopolis and the Power of Stories

Hello hello dear blog readers,

Doesn't the young man in my first pic today look clever?

He's a student named Isaiah -- and I began my day today with him and his class at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. (I was there last week too, in case the name of the school sounds familiar.) I pointed to Isaiah when I wanted to show the students what a smart, motivated student looks like... that's when Isaiah's friends called out, "Put on your glasses!" (His glasses make him look even smarter!) I was making the point that writers need to OBSERVE DETAILS. Rather than saying, 'Here's a student who looks clever,' I could point to the way Isaiah was looking at me (directly, full of concentration!), his straight spine, and of course, his crisp shirt, cool tie and those studious-looking glasses.

I worked with four classes this morning at St. Thomas, each class wonderful in its own way. I was there to talk about my writing process and to offer some insights into memoirs, which the students are now studying.

Two students -- Joey and Adam -- told me some amazing stories about relatives who, like my mum, survived the Holocaust. I hope that Joey and Adam will be able to research and then share these stories. Go for it, guys!

I had to laugh when a student named Veronica said, "I could listen to you forever!" Hey, thanks, Veronica! That made me feel good on such a busy day! And the truth is -- if you had to listen to me forever, you'd go BONKERS!! Forty-five minutes is probably just right!!

In this next pic, you'll meet my Stuff of Nonsense Humanities class at Marianopolis. Aren't they lovely? They're also very bright. I know because though it was only our first class, we already had a lively, stimulating discussion. Thanks, guys, for making me feel privileged to be back teaching full-time.

My day didn't end with the Stuff of Nonsense. After that, I taught my Writing for Children English class. That's another course that's very dear to my heart. One special treat (it was supposed to be for the students, but really, I have to admit it was a special treat for me too) was that I told them to relax and just try to be kids again, and then I read them two delightful picture books by Maurice Sendak, Chicken Soup With Rice and Pierre. I wish I'd taken a pic of that group too... but I kept the class too long and some students were worried about missing their bus. But I promise to post their pic before the end of the week.

Here's to stories -- listening to them, researching them, writing them, sharing them. As I said to ?? -- I can't remember who I said it to! I've seen so many students the last few days!! -- everything in our lives disappears (even us, sorry to say), but stories endure. Go find them! Then tell them!

  2141 Hits

Another New Beginning!

I do like beginnings -- of books and of school semesters.

Today was the first day of the winter semester at Marianopolis College, where I teach in Montreal. I've been on sabbatical (writing writing and writing some more) since May, so I was, I admit, a little reluctant to return to my busy life as a teacher.

But you know what I remembered when I walked into my Print Journalism class? That I love teaching and I love teenagers.

So, in today's pic, you'll meet my Journalism students. Lucky them -- they get to spend four hours a week over the next 15 weeks with me! And lucky me -- I get to spend all that time with them.

I think of these pictures (I'll get one in each of my three classes) as "before" ... come May, when the semester is nearly over, I'll get the classes to pose for a second photo and we'll see what "after" looks like.

Here's to a great beginning, middle and end!

  1988 Hits

Happy Morning in the Library at St. Thomas High

I'm beginning to feel like I belong at St. Thomas High. That's because it's my third year visiting the Pointe-Claire high school. Today, I worked with four groups of Grade Nine students. You can meet some students from one of my morning groups in the top pic. From left to right, there's Amabel (cool name, no? I'll add it to my list of possible names to use in upcoming books!), Stephanie, Stefanie and Allison.

The Grades Nines are all reading The Glass Castle, a powerful memoir by Jeannette Walls. So I designed some of my talks today to look at the memoir form. We talked about the connection between memory and memoir -- I told students that writers tend to draw on their own sensory memories, even when they are not writing memoirs!

Mr. Katz's class has been studying the Holocaust and so, for that group, I focused on my book What World Is Left -- which is a work of fiction based on my mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp. I told the students that for me, fiction is a way of GETTING AT THE TRUTH. I know it's an odd concept, but I think they got it!

My sessions were 45 minutes long, so there wasn't much time for writing -- except with one group and I must say they came up with some interesting material. I asked students to remember a moment when they felt they were no longer kids, but had begun to enter the world of adulthood. A student named Evelyn took a lovely, creative approach: she wrote about a moment when an older woman treated her differently, subtly acknowledging she was no longer a child. 

By the time my fourth session started, I'd kind of lost track of what I'd said to whom! But that last group of students saved me -- that's because they had so many good questions, and so my talk was part lecture and part just-good-conversation. Joe wanted to know the difference between memoir and autobiography. I admitted I was kind of stumped -- autobiography tends more to be the full picture of a life from beginning to end, and it's often a kind of "authorized" version; memoirs tend to be grittier and have a narrower focus. I promised Joe that by Tuesday, when I return to St. Thomas for a second visit, I'll see if I can come up with an even better answer!

A special treat for me was staying for lunch in the library, where I said I'd be around to take more questions or to look at students' writing. I knew some of the students from my previous visits -- so that made this writer feel very good (we writers like "return" readers and writers!!)

Stephanie (not the one in the picture above) talked about her grandmother who grew up in Nazi Germany. Stephanie, you've got to get your oma's story -- just like I had to get my mum's. Alyssa wanted to know how to begin a book. I told her I had the perfect answer: Just begin!! Also, I told her to come up with interesting characters (for instance, two people who are quite different), to put them in an interesting situation, and to use dialogue.

If you're wondering about what's going on in the next pic -- I'm shaking hands with Chris (another return reader and writer!) who is a leftie... so he's giving me his left hand. I don't think I've ever shaken a left hand before, so we decided to record the moment!

And in this very last pic, you'll see Chris again, this time with Alexandra and Mr. Katz. 

Well that's it for today's blog entry. I'll be back in St. Thomas early Tuesday morning. I'm already looking forward to it! Special thanks to the very kind Mrs. Pye for inviting me back -- and for supplying snacks and the most delicious water ever!!

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A Little Magic!

I'd say I made a LITTLE MAGIC happen this morning, during my second visit at Perspectives I, an alternative school in Montreal North.

I don't have a bunny to pull out of a hat, or a deck of trick cards, all I've got is STORIES. And the funny thing, the beautiful thing, the thing that makes everything we all go through worthwhile, is how people who are very different can connect through stories.

The students at Perspectives I haven't had it easy. But as I told them, it means they have stories. The question is: what are you going to do with your story? Can you change it up in some way? Is it possible another young person will read your story and learn from it or feel inspired or less hopeless?

So, let me tell you about the people in today's pic. That's the wonderful Miss Adair, the Grades 8&9 English teacher at Perspectives. (In addition to teaching, Miss Adair is part of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra choir -- and she plays hockey, too! Talk about a character for a book!!) The guy combing his hair is Isaiah (hey, correct my spelling if I got it wrong... Jason already sent me a big correction on yesterday blog entry -- tnx Jason!). Jason's in the red cap, standing next to me. (Have to admit I have a bit of a soft spot for him!) At the front in the red sweatshirt is Marvin. Marvin wouldn't let me read what he wrote, but I didn't mind -- in fact, I was happy -- that's because I know Marvin was WRITING SOMETHING IMPORTANT. I THINK MARVIN FOUND HIS STORY!! The guy with the winter-y hat is Kevin (he says there's nothing especially interesting about him story-wise, though of course, I don't believe him!) The guy in the black baseball cap is Mikey. (Did I ever tell you one of my books has five Mikes in it?!)  And the guy in black is Andrew, who's not in the class, but is a talented writer (way to go, Andrew!) and so the head teacher, Barbara White, arranged for him to be at my workshops too.

Here come some highlights of my visit: The students in the pic are in what's called "D" group, but I also worked with "C" group. When he was working on a description of life in a group home, Jason wrote that the place smelled like turkey. I TOTALLY LOVED THAT. I have never been to a group home, but Jason TOOK ME THERE (just like the singer Mavis Staples sings about!!) I told the students in both groups about my mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp and I could tell that some of them, like Harry, really "felt" the story. Oh, I promised Harry (I think it was Harry!) that I'd post a sketch that was done of my mum before the Holocaust. (Here it comes, Harry!)

She didn't want to look at this sketch because it made her too sad, but she agreed to give it to me -- I keep it over my desk to remind me of good things and bad things... since that's life, no?... a combination of everything, with enough good things and hope to keep us moving forward.

The "C" group was... let's say... a little more challenging, but even they came around today. (I told you it was magic!!) When I talked about coming up with interesting settings for stories, Chris came up with a setting I've never used (and now I plan to steal your idea, Chris, hope you don't mind!): a bathroom!!! The first three words of Alexia's story made me call out, "Yes!!" Though she didn't want me to share them here, let's just say those three words totally hooked me -- and now I really want to read that story, Alexia!

CAN YOU TELL I HAD A GREAT DAY AT PERSPECTIVES I? Thanks you guys, for inspiring me with your courage and humour and goodness!!

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How Does One Small Woman Get To Be in Three Schools in One Day?

You may have guessed, dear blog reader, that the small woman mentioned in the title of today's  blog entry is me! I'm just home after a whirlwind kind of day -- and yes, I was at THREE schools... though the last one was my own school (Marianopolis College here in Montreal) and since classes don't  begin until next week, I was just there to drop off some photocopying.

So let me tell you about my other two school visits! At 8:45 A.M., I was working with Miss Adair's students at Perspectives I, an alternative high school near Boulevard Pie-IX. But because I'm headed back there again tomorrow, I'm going to wait till tomorrow to write a blog about that visit. All I'll say for now is that the  students at Perspectives I are bright and the air in their school is THICK WITH STORIES! (My favourite kind of air!) If I make the magic I'm hoping to make, by tomorrow at lunch time, some of Miss Adair's students will have started the stories they need to tell and really want to read.

At 1 P.M., I was at Bialik High School, a parochial school in  Cote St. Luc (the part of town where I grew up.) While I worked with small groups of students this morning (not more than nine or ten at a time), I talked to a whole gymnasium full of Grade 8's this afternoon. I had a little over an hour and I tried my best to pack in everything I know about writing. Because these students already know quite a lot about the Holocaust (in fact, they know more than many adults do about the subject), I was eager to tell them about my novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp.

I must say the gym got suddenly quiet when I started to talk about the Holocaust. I am always moved when young people care so much about this subject. Frankly, it gives me hope for the future.

There was some time for questions, but then I had a special treat. Librarian Marsha Lustigman (click here to check out Mrs. Lustigman's cool book blog) had invited a group of students, some of whom are members of the school's Junior Book Blasters club, to meet with me in the library (that's us in today's pic). So I moved out of presentation mode and into having-an-interesting-chat mode instead. The students had WONDERFUL questions -- and I was sorry when the school day came to an end.

Rebecca wanted to know what I recommend for writer's block. My answer: I recommend writing! (Even if all you write on your sheet is how much you  hate writing and how totally frustrated you are!!) Aaron, who's the philosophical type, asked, "Why do you write?" I must say I had to think about that one. I told Aaron it's because I love stories, I live for stories, but now I've got another answer, too: it's because I CAN'T STOP WRITING. I'm hooked! Stav wanted to know whether I use an outline (the answer to that one is: sometimes yes and sometimes no, and I don't  believe in sticking too rigidly to an outline... but if you don't outline at all, you can find yourself in a writer's  tizzy, juggling too many balls at a time!!)

Well then, that was a pretty long blog entry, wasn't it? Time now to start making din-din. Thanks to all the people who helped organize today's visits. That includes Anne Beamish, the English consultant at the Montreal English School Board (Anne is attending my workshops at Perspectives I!!), Marsha Lustigman and Lanie Smajovits at Bialik (I mention Lanie because some of those students with the great questions are Lanie's). And a special thanks to all the young people I met today -- you made this one small woman feel lucky to be a writer!


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"Knowing When to Walk Away"

Happy 2012, dear blog readers!

In this, my first blog entry of the new year, meet Kathleen Strukoff. We met her in November in Las Vegas, just after our hike into the Grand Canyon. 

Kathleen has a studio in a space called Emergency Arts, on Fremont Street in old Vegas. As you can see from the pic, we found her in mid-creation.

Maybe because my Opa (the Dutch word for grandfather) was an artist, I've always had a soft spot for painters. Kathleen told us a little about how she works. One of her observations felt so useful that I found my pen and started taking notes. Here's what she said: "The trick for a painter is knowing when to walk away... knowing when the painting is finished." She added that this is true for musicians, too, and that she knows this because her husband is a blues musician.

Of course, I started thinking about writing as soon as Kathleen said that. And it's somehow fitting that this morning, I came across  the little set of notes I took while we were visiting Emergency Arts.... I'm coming quite close to the end of a manuscript I've been tinkering with for ages. Part of me can't wait to let it go; another part of me is not quite sure it's ready to leave the safety of my computer screen!  For now, my plan is to  keep tinkering and re-reading and tinkering just a little more... and I'll try to keep Kathleen's wisdom close so that I will know when it's time for me to walk away!

Thanks, Kathleen, for the inspiration. I love your paintings and hope to see you when you come to Montreal. Keep that painting of the flower fields for me, okay?

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Great Way to Start A Day: At Kuper Academy

I started my day today at Kuper Academy in Kirkland, where I worked with Miss Lechman's Grade Eight English class. It was a real treat for me to spend time with such attentive and well-informed young people.

Miss Lechman's students have been studying about the Holocaust and so they were mostly eager to hear about my novel, What World is Left. (Still, I couldn't resist doing a short intro about the writing life... how writers need to be persistent and always on the hunt for stories and how for me, writing, though not always easy, is something I can't seem to live without!)

Many of Miss Lechman's students had read The Diary of Anne Frank and were interested to know that my mum went to school in Amsterdam with Anne Frank. In What World Is Left, Anne Frank's name is changed Eva; but in the Dutch translation of my book (on bookstore shelves in Holland this coming April), Anne Frank's name will re-appear. As I explained to the students this morning, for European readers, Anne Frank is a real girl; for those of us who live in North America, she's an icon. My Canadian editor felt if I included Anne Frank in my story, North American readers might get distracted.

My hour with the students went too quickly. (I'd have happily kept talking for another hour!!). Luckily, there was time for a few questions. A student named Cara wanted to know whether any of the teenage friends my mother had in the camp managed to survive. Sadly, the answer was no... though both of my mum's brothers survived along with her and their parents. A student named Ross impressed me not only with his question (it had to do with the difference between a death camp like Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, where my mum was imprisoned, but where there were no gas chambers), but also with the way in which he asked it. It was a sensitive question and Ross showed great sensitivity in how he phrased it. Most impressive for a guy in Grade Eight!

I also had a chance to chat a little with a student named Emilie. Though she isn't in Miss Lechman's class, Emilie had special permission to attend my talk. Emilie is a foreign student at Kuper. She comes from a town in Belgium called Wolhain, which she explained is close to another town called Wavre. I was excited to meet her because as I explained to her, I have some very dear friends in Belgium. I also practiced my Dutch with Emilie since she speaks some Flemish (which is quite similar to Dutch).

On the drive home, I realized I should have offered my condolences to Emilie. Earlier this week, there was a terrible, senseless shooting in Liège, in which five people were killed and many others injured. I'm sure the whole country is in mourning and for Emilie, it must be a difficult time to be away from home.

Before I end this blog entry, I want to say a special thanks to Jennifer Mohammed, the librarian at Kuper who arranged my visit. Miss Lechman, you have a super class -- thanks for sharing them with me today! Kids, if you had a question you didn't get around to asking, just post it here and I'll get to it as quickly as I can.

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Lots of Freds and One Dear Geraldine!

My photographer pal Monique Dykstra and I are back from our latest adventure! This time, together with Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation production manager, Florence Allegrini, we traveled to Nemaska, a Cree community in the James Bay region.

We were there to help Victoria Howard's Resource students produce a chapter for this year's edition of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. One of the things we try to do when we visit is help students come up with a subject for their chapter. But this time, our students had a brainstorm before we visited. They  want to write about their favourite subject at school: Cree culture.

As you can imagine, we learned a lot about Cree culture, too. We heard, for example, how Charles, the Cree culture teacher, brought a dead black bear into the school this fall -- and how the students learned to skin the bear. Geraldine dunked the bear's giant paws in a pot of hot water. She did that to loosen the fur from the skin. Pretty cool, don't you think?

Now, I need to explain about all the Freds!

The boys in the Resource class have an inside joke. They all call each other Fred. And they've even written Fred on their notebooks! Luckily, Geraldine (the only girl in the group) has not tried to change her name!

Besides knowing a lot about life on the land, about hunting, and making fires and chopping wood, the Cree students we met have a great sense of humour. A boy named ... well Fred if you go according to his notebook ... but Israel, if you know him better ...  worked with me on a poem that will make readers laugh out loud. It's about how Fred/Israel was at his grandparents' cabin, all alone while the others were visiting a neighbour. Then Fred heard loud noises. He was sure it was a black bear... but let's just say it turned out to be something a little less threatening than a bear. To find out more, you'll need to read a copy of the 2012 edition of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. It'll be available this April at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival.

Though I was pretty busy working with Victoria's students, I managed to visit two other classes at Ecole Luke Mettaweskum School. First, I spent an hour with some of Angela Hunter's students. In an hour, I tried to tell them all my writing secrets! There was even a little time for them to do a writing exercise. A student named Jasmin (not sure if there's an e at the end -- let me know, Jasmin, if you are reading this blog and I need to fix the spelling) started a lovely piece that I hope she'll finish.

I finished my day with a delightful group of Grades Three and Four students and their teacher, Hélène. I gave them a simplified lesson about how stories work and I read to them from my book 121 Express. Most Cree have straight dark hair and so my blonde curls were an object of fascination. A little girl named Maria asked whether she could touch my hair -- which gave all  her classmates the idea to do the same. Now if only photographer Monique Dykstra had been there to capture the moment!


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Meet Philippe Béha!

That's famous Quebec illustrator and author Philippe Béha with me and a student named Eloi in today's pic.

Thanks to another terrific Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called En Mots et En Images, I have been working with Carole Blouin's English class at Ecole Paul-Bruchési here in Montreal (Mrs. Blouin's students' first language is French). A class in Ontario wrote the first paragraph of a story for us, and our task has been to expand it into a full-length story. Our expanded version is called "A Crazy Day at the Lab" and everyone who hears it ends up laughing -- a lot! (In the mean time, the class in Ontario is working on completing a French-language story begun by students at Paul-Bruchési.)

Philippe Béha certainly laughed when the students read him the story this morning. We still needed to come up with a final line or two, and Philippe had a great suggestion. We put that together with other suggestions from the class and I think that now our story really works. Not only is it funny, but it has a beginning, middle and ending, there is dialogue and the main character changes in a positive way.

Now Philippe will meet four times with the same students to help them illustrate their story. I took some notes on what Philippe told the class today. He was speaking about illustration, but I think his advice applies also to writing. He said that he never starts drawing right away -- he thinks first! "I don't start right away with my pencil. I start by thinking and sometimes by writing out my ideas or sketching them. It's a way for me to remember my ideas," he told us. I guess that's an illustrator's version of the brainstorming we writers like to do.

Though I don't want to give away too much, I will tell you that squirrels play a prominent role in "A Crazy Day at the Lab." Philippe asked the students, "What is particular about squirrels?" They answered: "big tails," "lots of teeth" and "round ears." Those details will help them when they start their drawings. Philippe also asked students to LOOK at squirrels in the park, in their gardens, or in books or on the computer. "Does that mean you want them to do RESEARCH?" I called out. (You will know by now that I am very keen on doing research and was excited to know that illustrators are researchers, too.)

Near the end of his session, Philippe compared illustrating to making soup: "You need to let it cook!" At that point, one of the students looked at me and said, "You told us that too!"

So, all in all, it was a very happy morning for all of us. If I can, I'll try to slip into one of Philippe's art workshops with the class (he said it would be okay, and Mrs. Blouin agreed as well). When I go, I'll be sure to write a blog entry about everything I learn.

Monday morning early, I'm off to the town of Nemaska in the James Bay region. That visit is also connected to Blue Metropolis. Photographer Monique Dykstra and I will meet another group of students who'll be contributing to the 2012 edition of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. If you think I have an exciting life... you're right!!

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The Moniques Are Back From the Gaspé!

The Moniques?

Are you wondering whether there is more than one of me?!

Well there is! I'm  just back from a teaching about writing project in the Gaspé. I was there with my pal, photographer Monique Dykstra. We were working with Rose Roussy's class of Grade Eight girls at New Carlisle High School. We are helping the girls produce a chapter for the 2012 edition of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. This project is part of the educational outreach division of the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation here in Montreal.

Our job this week was to help the students come up with a subject for their chapter. Like most girls their age, the students in Miss Roussy's class are interested in romance. Like all of us, they long for love. They're also at the age where they've begun to figure out that romantic love can get complicated. Some of them already know what it feels like to be disappointed or hurt. Of course, if you know me, you'll be able to imagine me rubbing my hands together and telling the girls how LUCKY they are to have GREAT MATERIAL for their chapter, which will combine words and images.

I always love listening to Monique D's photography lessons -- and I always manage to learn something new from her. Yesterday, she told the students," Shoot from the heart." She was talking about shooting photos, of course... but I was thinking how the same is true for our writing. If it comes from someplace deep inside of us, it's bound to be good. Just don't forget the re-writing and editing that need to come in between.

You can learn more about this year's Quebec Roots project by visiting their website. In fact, I'm headed there now myself to write another blog entry... but it won't get posted till Monique D loads up some photos to go with it.

And guess what? We're off to the James Bay community of Nemaska on Monday morning. Stay tuned as the Moniques continue their adventures!!

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Starting to Feel Like I Belong at Forest Hill Senior!

Today was my second visit to Forest Hill Senior Elementary School in St-Lazare.

I suppose you want me to explain what's going on in today's pic! Librarian Maria Cavaiuolo took the picture during lunch. (There's usually no eating allowed in the library, but she bent the rule for I Love to Read Week!)  The young man in red is Harrison, who was reading a story he wrote (last night) about a family's misadventures in the Grand Canyon! (Wonder where he got that idea?!) Anyway, I asked Harrison to read half a page of what he'd written, but his story had so much suspense we made him read till the end of what he'd done... a page-and-a-half. I really like his characters and his setting, but I suggested Harrison do some research in order to add a little more DETAIL. And I thought he might try adding some DIALOGUE to his story, too. Dialogue adds DRAMA (that's why plays are basically all dialogue).

We had a second reading, too, this one by Madison and Victoria, who'd worked on their own first chapter of a story. Theirs has lots of dialogue (good work, girls!), but interestingly, it has a little TOO MUCH detail. I was explaining to the students how earlier this week, a photographer friend of mine, told another class how anything that does not belong in a photo DETRACTS from the photo. The same rule applies to writing. If a room has a stripe on a wall, only tell us if it MATTERS, if it TIES INTO YOUR STORY. Madison and Victoria, I hope you'll continue with your story, too. I'm really curious to know more about how the dad's situation affects the other family members.

After lunch, I worked with two lovely groups: Miss Kim's Grade 6's, and then Mrs. B's Grade 5's. A student named "Cat" (cool name, no? it's short for Catriona, which is also a cool name!) agreed to take notes for all the others. One of her classmates, Lorenzo, told me a story that made my arms tingle (that happens when I hear a great story!). His great-grandfather (after whom Lorenzo is named), who lived in Italy, was a prisoner during World War II. Every day that he was held prisoner, his captors pulled one of his teeth. It's such a terrible shocking detail, but one that I will never ever forget. We writers really need to select details that help us tell our stories -- and that will make our stories part of our readers' lives.

I thought Mrs. B's Grade 6's might get a little antsy. It was Friday and the last class of the week -- but you guys were super wonderful, and I thank you for being so attentive and fun. Thanks to everyone at Forest Hill Senior, especially Maria Cavaiuolo. I'm excited that you guys have posted so many comments on yesterday's blog entry. Tomorrow, I'll make some time to begin answering your many good questions! Look for my answers in the comment section of these blog entries!

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New Friends at Forest Hill Senior Elementary School

I've had a busy, but exciting day at Forest Hill Senior Elementary in St-Lazare, which is about a 45-minute drive west of where I live in Montreal.

In today's pic, you'll meet a couple of my new friends: librarian Maria Cavaiuolo who invited me to visit, and Grade Six English teacher Jean Sancton. But I also made over 100 other new friends -- the grades six and five students with whom I worked today.

Miss Sancton's students have been studying the Holocaust and they were especially interested to hear about my book, What World Is Left, a historical novel based on my own mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp. Of course, that part of my presentation was pretty serious, but we also had some fun moments.

I told the students that writing makes me happy. That made me think of asking what makes them happy. Jared said "P53!" (he had to explain to me that that's a video game); Ryan said "Pizza!" and Mattias gave an answer that made me think he may have the writing bug, too. He said, "Listening in on my brother's conversations with his friends!" (Hope your brother isn't reading this, Mattias!)

One of the highlights of my day was lunchtime... that's because I ate my sandwich in the company of 17 aspiring writers who all had good questions for me. One of them, Michael, was actually working on his manuscript during lunch! A student named Amy told me she's written four manuscripts, one with the intriguing title, "My Brother is an Alien." Amy also told me the fun news that her mom Fiona is one of my fans!

But I want to end today's blog entry with a comment from a student named Victoria. I'd been talking about the book based on my mum's past, and about using trouble we've experienced to bring our own stories to life. Victoria asked, "What if you don't want to remember the trouble?"

If you know me, you will know that I usually have a quick answer to most questions... but this time, I didn't. In fact, I'm still thinking about what you asked, Victoria. But I think my answer to you has something to do with the passage of time. Sometimes, we are not ready to remember a difficult time. Sometimes, as time passes, we grow more ready. Sometimes, our daughters who happen to be writers give us a push. But as I told the students, I'd say that overall, my mum is glad she told me about what happened to her in Theresienstadt. She says that if her story gives young people hope, well then, that's what is most important.

Tomorrow, I'm heading back to Forest Hill to work with the Grades 5 and 6 students I did not see today. Plus, I'm hoping to have more good company at lunch! Thanks to all of you for such a stimulating, fun day! Hope you learned a lot -- and caught the writing bug!!

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Super Great Day at FACE

I spent this morning (and part of this afternoon) with photographer Joel Silverstein at FACE School here in Montreal. We were there to work with Kristen O'Sullivan's Grade Eight English class -- and they were super!

Joel and I were at FACE thanks to a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Quebec Roots. Thanks to the project, two teams of writers and photographers will work with six classes across Quebec, helping students produce a chapter of text and photos for the 2012 edition of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live.

What made our group this morning so special was their energy and creativity -- and smarts! FACE is a fine arts school, and all of the students take music. Honestly, I could feel the talent in the room. Also, you may find this weird, but I've noticed that musicians have lovely slender fingers -- and guess what? Many of them did!!

Our goal today (besides discussing writing and photography in a general way) was to help the students come up with a theme for their chapter. We agreed to focus (note the photography term!) on music. They are going to try and structure their chapter around musical terms such as "Prelude" (the beginning), "Presto" (meaning quick!), and "Dissonance" (meaning conflict). I LOVE the idea and look forward to seeing how they manage to combine music, words and images!

As usual, I learned new things about photography! Joel told the class, "If something is not important to the scene, it detracts from the scene." I thought that that was not only a good photography tip, but also one that applies to writing. (Thanks, Joel!)

I'm beginning to learn the names of some of the students. One student named Cynthia is working on developing a character in a futuristic story. Cynthia stayed during the break to chat with me. Her character is 16 or 17, but behaves as if she's younger. I suggested to Cynthia she try to figure out why that might be (has she been coddled by her parents? was she late to develop, making her look younger than her classmates?). A student named Olive said she has many story ideas, and that sometimes, that's a problem: "my ideas are all piling up." I really like that image, Olive -- it reminds me of a traffic jam of ideas!! A student named Kali stole my heart when she told me she'd come to school today, even with a bad headache: "I came to school for you!" And let's just say there are lots of other stories and storytellers in Room 308 at FACE. I so look forward to working with you guys and reading your work.

Three cheers today for Blue Met, for Miss O'Sullivan's class, and for Miss O'Sullivan!

Be sure to visit the Quebec Roots website in the next day or two. Joel took some pics of the class in action (which he'll post) and I'll do a separate blog entry there. And check back here to read about next week's trip to the Gaspé, to meet another class participating in this year's Quebec Roots project.

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Another Great Boxing Book!

I stayed up too late reading last night -- that's because I could not put down Robert Sharenow's book The Berlin Boxing Club.

The book is set in Nazi Germany and some of its characters were real live people. One of them is Max Schmeling, a German boxing champion who rescued two Jewish boys on Kristallnacht. In his story, Sharenow imagines one such Jewish boy: Karl Stern. Karl is an immensely likeable boy. I was especially touched by his relationship with his little sister. In the book, Karl gets boxing lessons from Schmeling.

I also love a book where the more minor characters come to life too. Without giving away too much, another one of my favourite characters is called the Countess. In this book, as in real life, people are not always what they seem -- and this will include Schmeling, the Countess, Karl's own father, and even Karl himself.

Of course, I also gobbled up everything in the book having to do with boxing. (If you're a regular reader of my blog, you'll know that I've been taking weekly boxing lessons since July. I've got another one this evening!) When Max Schmeling traveled to the U.S., to face Joe Louis, the crowds gave Schmeling a hard time. In The Berlin Boxing Club, Schmeling explains his philosophy for dealing with hecklers: "Name-calling is part of fighting. The weakest punches are thrown with the tongue. You've got to thicken your skin against that kind of attack just the same way you thicken your muscles to throw hard punches." I'd say that's good advice for all of us -- in or out of the boxing ring!!

In his Author's Note, Sharenow gives us an interesting addendum to his story. In real life, Schmeling and Louis became close friends. After the war, Schmeling became a wealthy businessman. Towards the end of his life, Louis had financial trouble. Schmeling helped him and his family out. Schmeling was also a pallbearer at Louis's funeral. 

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Salon du Livre de Montréal 2011

I spent a happy afternoon yesterday at the Salon du Livre de Montréal. I was there to sign copies of Poupée and Pris au Jeu, both published by Courte Echelle. These books are French translations of two of my earlier titles, On the Game and All In.

Though I'm bilingual, I learned a new word: "signet." That means bookmark, and the younger kids who came by my signing booth were especially interested in picking up bookmarks I signed for them.

How 'bout I tell you a little about the pics in today's blog post?

The pic at the top of the page makes me very happy! That's because it's of two students at Ecole Paul-Bruchési -- Carol and Mégane. They were in the group I worked with yesterday morning (Read the previous blog entry to learn more about the new Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation Project, En Mots et en Images, which brought me to their school). The students told me they'd be at Salon du Livre at the same time as me -- and these two promised to come by and visit! Merci, les filles!!

In the next pic, I'm with Claudia, Kimberley and Amélie, students at Cité des Jeunes in Vaudreuil-Dorion. When I wrote down the girls' names, their friend who took the pic, said, "What about the photographer?" So, yes, special thanks to Caroline for taking the pic -- and for making me laugh!

Scroll down a little further to meet Camille, who goes to Ecole St-Hilaire. Though I know that both of the French translations of my books have been selling briskly, Camille is the first teenager I met who bought one of my books. So that was an exciting moment!

Here's Nelson. What I liked about him was that he was doing an assignment! Three cheers for Nelson's teacher at Ecole Lucien Pagée on Jarry Street here in Montreal. I have to admit that I helped him with a few answers about my book Pris Au Jeu! Hope you get a good mark, Nelson!

My favourite part of Salon du Livre was getting to spend time with young people. Here's a question for you: do you think I was observing them, taking notes for my next book? Scroll down to find out the answer!!








MAIS OUI. (Which means, but of course, YES!)

Thanks to my friends at Courte Echelle for translating my books, and for inviting me to this year's Salon du Livre!

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En mots et en images/Words and Images

Today's blog entry has a bilingual title. That's because I'm part of a team of authors and illustrators working on a fun new Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called En mots et en images/Words and Images. 

Today I met with teacher Carole Blouin and her sixth grade class at Ecole Paul-Bruchesi here in Montreal. Before I met them, the class, working together with their French teacher, wrote a 150-word introduction (in French) to a story.

In the mean time, a class at Tom Thomson School in Burlington, Ontario, were busy writing their own 150-word start (in English) to another story.

My job is to help Mrs. Blouin's class continue the story begun by the students at Tom Thomson. So far, our story involves an absent-minded scientist, his frustrated assistant Carl, and a caffeinated squirrel!

In all, I'll meet with the students five times. On the fifth session, Montreal illustrator Philippe Béha takes over the project. He's going to help the class illustrate the story I'll have helped them write.

If you think this sounds like fun, you're right!

I'll see the class again on Friday. We tossed around some ideas today (I explained that that was like tossing around a volleyball). Now we're going to let the ideas cook (I explained that this is what cooks do -- decide what kind of recipe they want to try, then gather ingredients, then stir and adjust the flavours). On Friday, we'll do more tossing and cooking and then, if that goes well, we'll begin the actual writing work.

If you're wondering about today's pic -- it's a shot of something unusual I spotted in Mrs. Blouin's classroom. After 27 years of teaching, there aren't too many things I see in classrooms that still surprise me. This is what a student named Vincent did with his eraser. Vincent, if you're reading this, I know you really were paying attention to what I was telling you guys about how stories work. A vendredi, mes nouveaux amis! (which means "See you Friday my new friends!")

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Packing Light!

We're gearing up for a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon.

Serious backpackers (meaning my husband, not me!) know that backpacking is all about packing light. There'll be a weigh station at the top of the trail and we'll weigh our packs before setting out. (I know how this works because we've hiked in the Grand Canyon twice before.)

I also know that my husband will say, "Mo, your pack is too heavy! What have you got in there?"

Then, I'll have to unpack the whole danged thing.

Then, he'll find my books (I need at least two) and my journal (and two ballpoint pens).

He'll say, "There'll be no time for reading. And no time for writing in your journal either! We're going to be hiking all day long. At night, you'll be too konked out to read or write!"

And I'll say: "If you want me to stay married to you, and if you want me to keep going on these crazy hikes, DON'T MESS WITH MY BOOKS AND MY JOURNAL. THEY'RE COMING ON THIS TRIP TOO AND THAT'S THAT!!"

The moral of this story is: writers don't go anywhere without something to read and something to write in (and two ballpoint pens, in case one runs out of ink).



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Loved Yellow Mini

I just just finished reading Lori Weber's wonderful new verse novel Yellow Mini.

One of the great things about being friends with a talented writer like Lori is that you can call her up when you are halfway through her book and say, "I'm loving it!"

So that's exactly what I did this afternoon when I was halfway through Yellow Mini!

The book is a series of poems, narrated by a group of kids who go to the same high school, but there are adult narrators who find their way into the story, too. At the Montreal launch of Yellow Mini a couple of weeks ago, Lori explained how the book began with Annabelle. Annabelle is still smarting about the fact that her former friend Stacey has dumped her. The Yellow Mini of the title belongs to a guy named Mark who Stacey is now dating.

I underlined lots of parts of the book that I want to remember. Here's some of what I underlined -- hopefully these bits will make you want to read Lori's book for yourself:

"The kitchen was completely silent/ except for the hum of the fridge/ and the drip of the tap/ and five noses breathing" 


"their shoulders tapping like glasses/ as if every word was a celebration"


"When Annabelle/ blows a hole into/ the whipped cream./ a dab of it clings/ to her upper lip./ I want/ to lick it off."

Yellow Mini, by Lori Weber. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 241 pages, $9.95


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"You need an obsession..."

"You need an obsession to move forward as a writer" -- that line comes from author Tom Perrotta. Perrotta, whose latest novel is The Leftovers, was in Toronto  for the International Festival of Writers. While he was there, he had pizza with the National Post's Ben Kaplan -- I came across Perrotta's wonderful quote in Kaplan's piece today in the National Post.

Perrotta says he's not sure where he'll go in his next book since he hasn't yet found a new obsession.

I love his observation about how an obsession helps a writer "move forward." I think it's because working on a long-term project, like a book, means we really need to be "into" our topic. In the last few months, I've been more than a little obsessed with the subject of fire! And now that I read what Perrotta has to say... well.. I feel as if I'm on the right track!

So, if you're an aspiring author, maybe you should try making a list of the things that obsess you. The subject for your book may be closer than you think!

Here's the link to the interview with Perrotta in case you want to read more about him. 

And if you're looking for more reading material, check out my business story that appeared in today's Gazette.

I'd give you more reading suggestions, but I gotta go -- I'm off to my BOXING lesson. Have I mentioned that boxing is my latest obsession?!!


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More New Friends -- One With Hair as Curly as Mine!

No, that's not my curly-haired son standing next to me in today's pic! That's Christophe, a lovely articulate student in Gayle Irwin's Journalism class at John Abbott College. Gayle invited me in today to talk to her students about my work both as a journalist and fiction writer... and it was SO much fun to be back in a college classroom!

Gayle had told me in advance that the students in her class are very keen, and that many are interested in pursuing careers in writing. So, I shouldn't have been surprised that they had many good questions. Carlie told us she is working on a manuscript and so far, she has "a bunch of characters." I told her that character-driven stories are my favourite. If she knows her characters well enough, her plot will come naturally. She just has to put her characters in interesting, challenging situations and let them respond in keeping with their characters.

There was a funny moment today, too, that made me laugh out loud. I was telling students that if, when they were little, they had a hobby they were passionate about (I explained that mine was writing) they should try to nurture that hobby as they grow older, and that perhaps it might turn into a career. "It's like watering your plant," I told the class. At that point, a student named Samia (correct me please if I've got your name wrong!) looked up at me with great interest. I felt sure I had changed her life -- that I had caused her to remember some long-forgotten hobby she could now pursue. Only then, Samia said, "You just reminded me that I have to water my parsley plant!"

So thanks to all of the students today for being so great -- and to Gayle for having me in and sharing these bright young people with me!

PS: Happy Hallowe'en! I wrote this blog entry in between handing out candy to trick-or-treaters!


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An Afternoon at The Study

I spent this afternoon at The Study, an all girls' school here in Montreal. My visit started at lunch, when I met with about a dozen bright focused young women who wanted a little one-on-one time with an author. I answered questions and did a couple of super quick writing critiques. A student named Tamar asked me to look at an assignment she'd done. It was a terrific piece of academic writing about Mark Twain's book The Prince and the Pauper. Almost immediately, I could tell that Tamar is talented and enjoys writing. But I hope I gave her a bit of a challenge when I said, "What can you do with the other side of your brain?!!" By that, I meant the more creative side. I have a feeling it's time for Tamar to work on some fiction -- just to exercise another set of writing muscles. (If you're reading this Tamar, be sure to let me know how that goes!)

Afterwards, I did a talk for the senior students. In about an hour, I did my best to tell them everything I've figured out about how to be a writer. Things like READ A TON, WRITE A TON, LISTEN IN A LOT, TAKE NOTES, LOOK FOR INSPIRATION IN THE WORLD AROUND YOU and REWRITE REWRITE REWRITE.

There was time at the end for a few questions. And as I told Mrs. Low, the director of the senio0r school, these young women had really smart insightful grown-up questions. During the Q&A period, a student named Alexandra told us how she likes people-watching at the Atwater Market. I told Alexandra she sounds like a real writer. I love the Atwater Market, too, (I can never be in a bad mood when I'm there!) and I'd love to read a story set there. Alexandra, you should do it!

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I also love observing students! (It's one of the reasons I enjoy school visits so much!!) Well, today, I caught a student doing something I have never seen before (not even in 27 years of teaching): a student named Latisha, who was sitting in the front row ... slipped off her shoes! I personally like to do that, too -- though I might not have the courage to do it if I was sitting in the front row of an auditorium. I decided it was a good sign -- that Latisha felt relaxed and right at home during my visit.

So thanks to all of the bright young women in today's audience, and to Mrs. Low for having me in, and to head of school, Mrs. Sweer, for introducing me... and to the wonderful team of teachers for preparing their students so well. Also, I should have jotted down the name of the gracious student who thanked me on behalf of her classmates. (Was it Michelle? Let me know and I'll adjust this blog entry.) I had a great time today! Hope the students at The Study did too!

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We Go To a Taping of The Moth Radio Hour in Burlington, Vt.

If you love stories, you'll love listening to The Moth Radio Hour. We try to listen to it every Saturday afternoon on Vermont Public Radio -- it's also available on podcasts. 

On The Moth, storytellers share true life stories in front of a live audience. So, when we heard that The Moth was taping at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont, we got tickets. And you know how sometimes you really look forward to something and it turns out to be nowhere as wonderful as you hoped or expected? Well, that didn't happen! This was amazing!

Among last night's storytellers were American authors Jamaica Kincaid and Tom Bodett. (Bodett is perhaps best known for being the spokesperson for Motel 6 -- that's his voice in the radio ads, saying "We'll leave the light on for you.") The theme of last night's show was "building bridges." Kincaid told the story of how she was sent from her mom's house in Antigua to live with an aunt in Dominica. Her mom and aunt had been feuding for years. They argued by letter and she described herself as another letter sent between the two women.

Tom Bodett opened his story by saying, "I buried my dad last May. He was dead of course." People laughed when he said that -- which set the tone for the rest of Bodett's story about his difficult relationship with his conservative, righteous father. Bodett's story was sad and funny and wise all at the same time. And he really made his details work for him. He described how his father used to retreat to his La-Z-Boy chair, how he'd raise his feet on the footrest, and snap his fingers if he wanted something. By the end of Bodett's story, I felt I knew not only Bodett, but also his father.

Ahhhh, stories! Nothing makes me happier than listening to a wonderful story (or reading one). And as the evening's host, comedian Rudy Rush pointed out, when you listen to a wonderful storyteller, the story is always a little different.

My mom is the best storyteller I know. Do you know a great storyteller, too? If you do, pay special attention to their stories and how they tell them... we can use their tricks in the stories we tell aloud or in our books.  

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Fan Letter to Rina Singh

Good morning Rina Singh,

(I should explain, dear blog readers, that Ontario author and teacher Rina Singh and I go way back. We met in 1983 when we were both studying in the Department of English at Concordia University. Rina had already published a book of poetry. A that point, I was just dreaming about being a writer.)

Two nights ago, I finished reading your latest book Guru Nanak. It has all your trademark touches: beautiful language, fascinating material and a touch of whimsy.

What I like best of all is that the story of Guru Nanak, The First Sikh Guru is not only for Sikhs. It's for all of us. I especially love the part where Nanak tells the yogis: "Religion lies not in wearing saffron robes/ ... It's not in fasting or going into trances/ or traveling to foreign lands or bathing in holy rivers/ It lies in seeing all men as equal." I think that's a message the world needs to hear!

I also love that you portray Guru Nanak as a real person. I don't want to give too much away to other readers, but in Rina's book, we learn that Guru Nanak faced his own personal struggles,  just like we all do.

Even if I didn't already know you and love you, Rina -- even if we didn't share nearly 30 years of friendship -- I'd recommend this book to every reader out there, young or old, believer or non-believer!

Love from Mo

Guru Nanak: The First Sikh Guru, Written by Rina Singh, Illustrated by Andrée Pouliot, Groundwood Books

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The temperature is cooling down here in Montreal -- and I've been thinking a lot about inside/outside.

We Montrealers are moving back inside. Today, I brought in the potted geraniums from our back garden. Soon, I'll be using the dryer in the basement, not my clothesline. Once the snow comes, I'll have to put away my bicycle too. All this means, of course, less time spent outside.

Writing fiction is also a curious mix of inside/outside. Working on a longer project like a book involves a journey inside. Mostly, I love it... but sometimes, I need a boost, some positive reinforcement from outside. Today, I got a little boost when I made a quick phone call to the Kahnawake Fire Brigade. A firefighter named Cheryl answered the phone and was able to answer a question that came up while I was writing my newest book project. When I told her about the boy in my story and what he's up to, Cheryl told me, "He sounds like a really bad kid!" Hey, thanks Cheryl, both for the answer to my question -- and also for being horrified by my narrator!!

Some days though, and this is something aspiring writers need to know, there isn't much in the way of boosts from the outside world... that's when a writer needs to turn inside and find the spark that made her (or him) want to tell her (or his) story in the first place.

Too much outside (phone calls, lunch dates, errands) can get in the way of writing, too. So here's one more goal for me, and perhaps for you, too: to find the right mix of inside/outside.


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Play Day!

Play day? But I was working!

Have you ever noticed that the best work days feel like play?That's what my morning was like today at Mother Teresa Junior High School in Laval. I worked with four groups of wonderful lively students -- you can meet some of them in today's pics.

In the top pic, I'm with Elsa, Marie-Esther and Melissa. At the end of my first workshop, I asked the students to write about a time when they felt like giving up. I explained they could keep what they'd written private if they wanted to. One of the three girls in this picture wanted to keep her writing private. In a way, I wished I could read it (I am a terrible snoop!!); in another way, I was proud and excited for her. It meant she was summoning courage to tell her story. I told the students that though I'm kind of a little-old-lady-with-big-curls and not-especially-courageous, I do feel courageous as a writer. I try to let my writing taking me to scary places -- and I recommend that young writers try to do that too.

In this second pic, you'll meet a young man named Michael and my friend, teacher Monic Farrell, who arranged today's visit. In record time (I ran out of time during the second workshop), Michael produced an impressive piece of writing (just watch for those run-on-sentences, Michael!). He wrote about hiding in a recycling bin when he was in Grade Five. He described the "wrinkly old monitors" (I love that part!)

I told students in the second group how I've been taking boxing lessons and I asked them to guess why. A student named Brandon got the answer right away. He called out: "for a story!" 

It seemed as if there were several Alex-es in today's second group. One made me laugh during my writing exercise. First, I asked the students to close their eyes and access a memory; then I asked them to write down notes... only I forgot to tell them to re-open their eyes for that part. Alex wrote his notes with his eyes closed. Now if only I'd taken a picture of that for you today, dear blog readers!

So today's advice for aspiring writers out there: WORK at your writing, but PLAY with it too. If you get stuck, keep writing and perhaps try using that word list trick we did together today.

Special thanks to Monic Farrell, and also to teacher Kelly George-Bernard, whose students participated in my second workshop. It was great being with you and your students! ... OOPS! I nearly forgot to thank librarian Luanna Venditti, who let us use her library this morning and who is also the most efficient editor of the school newsletter. Where would writers like me be without wonderful students, teachers and librarians?!!

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"Live your life! Live your life! Live your life!"

I just heard the most wonderful radio interview with children's writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak.

In the interview, Sendak shares this wisdom with listeners: "Live your life! Live your life! Live your life!"

Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air spoke to Sendak about his new picture book, Bumble-ardy. It's the story of a pig whose family frowns on fun. Sendak tells Gross about his own growing up. He recalls that his parents were a little like Bumble-ardy's. Sendak credits his older brother, Jack, who was also a writer, for "saving his life." Together, the two boys escaped into a world of stories and drawings.

Sendak talks about many important things in this interview. He says that during the creative process, "things come to you without your knowing exactly what they mean." He also talks about the difficulty of aging. For him, the hardest part is losing people he loves, including the man who was his partner for some 50 years.

Despite the inevitability of such losses, Sendak describes himself as "a happy old man." He finds comfort in the beauty of the maple trees outside his apartment in New York. "I am," he says, "in love with the world."

To hear the entire interview, click here. It'll make you glad to be alive.

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Back in the Classroom!

Since I'm on sabbatical this semester, I've been spending most of my days at my desk here at home, working on book projects. It's pretty wonderful, but well... sometimes, I get a bit lonesome for young people.

So today was a specially happy day for me since I was invited to speak to Sabine Walser's Creative Non-Fiction class at Marianopolis College (where I teach when I'm not on sabbatical). Oh it was fun to be in front of a class again! In fact, when class ended at 3:55, I wished I could have made the students stay longer!!

Sabine asked me to speak about writing book reviews since her students have to write their own 500-word book reviews for next Thursday. I told them everything I know about the book-reviewing business: always read the entire book, trust your feelings about the book, back up your points with examples from the text, and only include yourself in the review if it's relevant.

A student named Philippe spoke about how much he loves writing. He was clearly passionate about the subject -- and that impressed me. He wanted to know how to deal with the difficult feelings that come up when he writes (things like self-doubt and insecurity). I told him: "Welcome to the club. You sound like a real writer! Real writers feel self-doubt and insecurity all the time... but they keep writing through it!!"

And a student sitting at the front of the room, Mina, reminded me that I had promised to tell a painful story about a book review. So, because I believe in keeping promises, I told the group how much I suffered when a book I'd written that meant a lot to me was panned in the Montreal newspaper. It was such an awful review that my husband insisted we leave town the weekend the review was published. The book went on to win a major award -- and I learned an important lesson: you need to be tough if you want to be a writer!! 

Thanks Sabine for sharing your students with me today -- and thanks to the students for being so open and lively! Great to meet all of you!!

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Loved Robert Lipsyte's The Contender

I just just finished reading Robert Lipsyte's YA novel The Contender -- and I loved it!

Published in 1967, the book is about a black teenager named Alfred Brooks. Brooks lives in Harlem and he's dropped out of school. He's got a dead-end job and though he's basically a decent kid, he's headed for trouble when he gets involved with the wrong crowd. Things change when Alfred starts working out at the local boxing club.

One of my favourite characters in the book (besides Alfred and his Aunt Pearl) is Alfred's coach Donatelli. He tells Alfred: "You have to start by wanting to be a contender, the man coming up, the man who knows there's a good chance he'll never get to the top, the man who's willing to sweat and bleed to get up as high as his legs and his brains and his heart will take him.... It's the climbing that makes the man. Getting to the top is an extra reward." (Don't you love that part?!)

There were a few spots in the book where the action got so intense I had to put the book away. But I kept coming back -- like Alfred in the boxing ring! Lipsyte, an award winning New York Times sports reporter, sure knows how to tell a story.

In a previous blog entry I mentioned how I'm taking boxing lessons (lesson #11 happens tomorrow)... and I'm thinking of writing a book about a girl boxer... so I'm going to be reading every boxing book I can get my hands on in the next year or so. Got any other suggestions for me? In the mean time, let's all make sure our legs and brains and hearts take us as high as we need to go!

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Meet Edward Kay (I Did and It Was Fun!)

After 17 years together, my husband is used to coming home and finding out I've invited someone we never met before for dinner!

That's what happened earlier this week when Edward Kay came for lasagna. Edward is a children's author currently in town to work on a TV series called Finding Stuff Out (it debuts in November on TVO).

I "met" Edward via e-mail. (I do a column for CANSCAIP news about new members of the organization... when Edward explained that he's based in Toronto, but working in Montreal this fall, I figured he'd probably appreciate a homemade dinner -- and I had a feeling I'd enjoy meeting him and talking shop.)

Edward is the author of Star Academy (Doubleday, 2009). Its sequel Star Academy: Dark Secrets was just released a week-and-a-half ago. Edward says the books are "satirical sci-fi action adventure."

Edward is also working on a historical novel for Scholastic's I Am Canada series.

Because I'm always thinking of you, dear blog reader, I asked Edward for his number one writing trick. Are you ready? Because here it comes!

"At first everyone thinks I'm kidding when I tell them this trick," says Edward. "Set the oven timer for 20 minutes. Just write. Don't do anything else but write. Tell yourself that when the oven timer goes off, you won't be able to write anything else. Pretend this is the only twenty minutes you can write."

Edward started his career as a journalist and he thinks that that's where he may have learned to break down assignments into manageable chunks. He likes what he calls 20-minutes "compartments."

So check out Edward's books and his TV show -- and test out his trick. Thanks, Edward, for being a swell dinner guest and for sharing your number one trick!

  2832 Hits

What, You May Ask, Does Boxing Have to Do With Writing?!

That woman boxer in today's pic is yours truly! So, no doubt, you are wondering what in the world boxing has to do with writing! Well, it turns out that the answer is QUITE A LOT.

I've been taking private boxing lessons once a week since July. My coach's name is Big Ron. The reason I decided to sign up for boxing has to do, believe it or not, with writing. All summer, I was working on a manuscript having to do with violence in a relationship. (Tentatively entitled So Much It Hurts, it's due out in spring 2013 with Orca Book Publishers.) Working on that project made me revisit some tough years in my life -- and it also made me think, hey, I need to learn how to protect myself... not because I'm planning to get into any boxing matches, but more in a psychological way.

And because I'm a writer, I have another plan. Did you already guess what it is? I want to do a book about a girl boxer. Not me, of course. What teenager would want to read about a 51 year old woman who takes up boxing? No, I want to write about a troubled teenage girl whose life begins to change when she learns to box. So, every week when I go to Big Ron's studio here in Montreal, I bring my notebook and a pen... and sometimes, in the middle of a lesson, I say, "Hey, I'd  better write that down for my book!"

Which brings me to the real subject of today's blog entry. Yesterday, Big Ron told me something about boxing that also applies to writing. He was teaching me the left jab, and let's just say I'm a slow learner. Big Ron could see I was getting frustrated, so he said, "Frustration is okay as long as you keep working through it." Well, this morning, when I was settling down to work on my latest manuscript, I thought of Big Ron's words. I was feeling a little frustrated...  not quite sure where my plot is going... but you know what? I took his advice and kept working through it. And now, it's nearly the end of my work day and I made some decent progress. As for my left jab, well... it still needs a little work!! So the moral of today's blog entry is: if you're feeling frustrated about something... try thinking to yourself how it's all part of the process and try to work through the frustration. Hey, thanks Big Ron!

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Shout Out to Dylan in Sudbury, Ontario

One of the best things about writing for teenagers is that, occasionally, I get to meet them either in person at school visits or through their e-mail messages.

Last week, I "met" a young man named Dylan. Late one afternoon, I got an urgent e-mail from Dylan, who is reading my book Home Invasion for school. Dylan wanted to know things like "who's the good guy and the bad guy?" and "what's the theme?"

My first thought was that Dylan wanted ME to do his homework. So I wrote back to tell him so. I suggested he answer the questions, then send his answers to me and I'd look them over.

But, as usual, the plot thickened (we writers LOVE when plots thicken!). I got another e-mail -- this one was from Dylan's uncle, who said he's helping Dylan with the assignment. At which point, I started to wonder whether Dylan really has an uncle who helps Dylan with school stuff -- or whether Dylan was pretending to be his uncle so that I would help him with his homework!

I'm still not sure what the answer is, though I'm beginning to believe there really is a kind uncle in the picture. If so, Dylan is a lucky guy. If not, Dylan has a great imagination -- which, of course, I also admire.

At any rate, today's blog entry is a shout out to Dylan and his uncle, too. You might be interested to know that I got the idea for Home Invasion after I got together with the man who is now my husband. My daughter was eleven at the time and she thought this new boyfriend of mine was a home invader!!



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Listening, Telling and Writing

TV writer and producer Lisa Melamed says she was not the kind of kid who wrote stories or kept a diary. But she loved listening: "I was drawn to people who spoke in interesting, funny and quirky ways and so I think that more than the act of writing was the act of talking and listening."

Though I never met Lisa, I have gotten to know her by reading an interview with her in a new book called Hire Me, Hollywood. (I just wrote a profile about one of the book's authors -- Mark Scherzer -- for the Montreal Gazette.)

In the book, Lisa also gives some great advice to young writers, but I think it applies to writers of all ages, and at all stages: "To a kid, I say observe the world, make friends with someone who tells funny stories, tell your stories over and over, because those will become the things that end up in your work."

Lisa's comments make me remember being a kid and hiding under the dining room table so I could listen to all the adults' stories (if I was really lucky, they'd forget I was there and then I got to hear the really juicy stuff!). And I was lucky to be raised by a wonderful wonderful storyteller -- my mum. Though she does tell the same stories over and over, her stories only improve with each telling. Who cares if, sometimes, my brother and sister nudge me and ask, "Did that ever really happen?" Let's just say that for my mum, keeping her audience captivated has always been far more important than telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth! Besides, and I know this next idea is a little complicated, but sometimes -- in fiction writing -- we need to well... embellish, stretch and sometimes even LIE... to get at the truth!

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Middle Children Unite!!

I am reading a fascinating book called The Secret Power of Middle Children by Catherine Salmon and Katrin Schumann. It's making me reflect about the influence birth order can have on our lives. The authors argue that middle children have special strengths which they must develop in order to differentiate themselves from their eldest and youngest siblings. (By the way, Salmon and Schumann say any child who is not an only, an eldest or a youngest, qualifies as a middle.)

So here, in a nutshell, is the general theory: Parents focus more on their eldest and youngest children than on their middle kids. The down side for middles is they miss their parents' attention, but there's an up side, too. Because middles are left more to their own devices, they have more freedom to become who they want to be.

There's more to the theory: Typically, eldest children tend to be bossy take-charge sorts. (I hope my big brother is not reading this!) Youngest children tend to be ... well ... spoiled. (Now I'm worried that my little sister may be reading this blog entry.) Salmon and Schumann say middle children are often creative and go out of their way to avoid conflict. They also describe middle children as "friendship specialists" -- a trait they say middle children cultivate in order to build connections outside their families.

So if, like me, you're working on a book or a story, you might think about the role of birth order in your characters' lives.

I write a about self-help books for the Montreal Gazette, and I'm reviewing The Secret Power of Middle Children for my October column. How 'bout I let you know when the column appears?

Signed, Middle Child


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Stan Lee on Writing

In case you never heard of Stan Lee, he's the 88-year-old former president of Marvel Comics and the creator of a huge cast of superheroes including Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk and X-Men.

I just read an interview with Lee in a new book called Hire Me, Hollywood by Mark Scherzer and Keith Fenimore. 

So, here's the part I totally love -- Stan says: "I really don't like writing; I like the result when I'm finished writing. It's so hard when I have to write something, I'll wait until the last minute. I talk to my wife, watch television, shine my shoes ... anything to keep from having to get started. I think I like it because I'm conceited and I just like admiring myself as I'm doing it. I think, 'Jesus that is good. You're doing it Stan, you thought of that, you're the best.'"

Thanks, Stan, for that good laugh -- and your wisdom. You are great.

PS: Watch for my profile of Mark Scherzer in the Montreal Gazette. Mark's from Montreal and will be in town on October 1 to launch the book here.



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I Don't Think I Can Live Without Working on a Story!

I can't seem to help it... I need to be working on a story.

Almost as soon as I finished my last manuscript a couple of weeks ago, I began tinkering on an outline for my next project.

Maybe I'm kooky, but I don't think I can live without working on a story!

Here's the part I love: waking up in the morning and my mind is already thinking about my characters and the situations they've got themselves into. I also love starting to write a new book (everything feels possible!) and I especially love when I begin to hear my narrator's voice. My new narrator is very grumpy. But I do like him.

On another note, my story about the Inuit students who've come to study at John Abbott College this semester was in Saturday's Gazette. Here's the link, if you want to check it out. If it's a good story, and I think it is, credit goes to the young people I interviewed for sharing what it's been like to start CEGEP in the big city. Watch for the follow-up story in The Gazette later this fall.

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Six of My Heroes are Coming for Spaghetti Tonight!

So now I've got you wondering who my six heroes could be, right?

Well, five of them are new students at John Abbott College this semester. What makes them special and heroic is that they've come all the way from Nunavik, in Quebec's Far North. For some of them, there are more students in the hallways of Abbott than in their own villages.

My other hero is named Sapina. (She's modest, so I won't tell you her last name.) What I will tell you is that my book The Middle of Everywhere, which is set in Nunavik, is dedicated to her -- and to our friend Joe. Joe won't be here for dinner because he's found himself a very good job at the Raglan Mine in Nunavik. We'll miss you Joe, in case you are reading this, and we're glad to know you are doing so well.

As for Sapina, she not only graduated from John Abbott, she starts Concordia University next week. I'm so proud of her I could burst!! That's because Sapina and I have been friends since she was in her final year of high school in Kangiqsualujjuaq. I think I'm one of many people who helped support her when she was studying at Abbott. I certainly made her lots of spaghetti, didn't I, Sap?!

I've told these young people that though I'm lucky to have done quite a lot of traveling in my life, I've never lived more than a 10-minute drive from the house in which I grew up. That's why they're my heroes -- because they're brave and adventuresome and hardworking and good souls. Here's to all of you! I am trying to make you the best ever spaghetti sauce -- it's got tomatoes and onions and zucchini and green pepper and eggplant -- not to mention my admiration and high hopes for all of you -- in it!!

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My Morning at the Fire Station

What's  a nice lady like me doing at a fire station?

Why, spying, of course!!

Actually, I was at the Kahnawake Fire House just outside Montreal, interviewing firefighter John Rice. Rice helps teach youngsters who take part in the reservation's Junior Fire Brigade. Can you guess why I'm so curious about all this?

Did you figure it out yet?

Okay, I'll tell you! It's because I'm beginning to do some background research for my next book project. This one's going to have a lot to do with fire -- and I just may include my very own junior fire brigade!

Unfortunately, there weren't any local kids hanging around the station this morning, but I did put some feelers out, and I'm hoping to interview a young man who is part of the brigade.

In the mean time, I already learned a lot from Rice. I asked him how he "feels" about fire: "Are you afraid of it? D'you love it?" And this is what Rice told me: "I respect fire." Thanks Mr. Rice, for today's tour, and for giving me so much to think about!

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What Do You Think of This Book Cover?

Or should I say "couverture"?!!

This is the cover of Pris Au Jeu, the French translation of my book All In. Courte Echelle, the French language publisher, will be sending me a few copies for my personal use... but I don't  think I can wait for that package to arrive! The French translation is done by Hélene Pilotto, who also translated On the Game. Can't wait to meet you, Hélene!

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On Sabbatical!

My sabbatical from teaching at Marianopolis College began in May, when classes ended. But this week also feels like the start of my time off. That's because my friends at Marianopolis are back at school for meetings and classes begin this coming Monday.

I'm a little sorry to be away from the excitement, but mostly, I'm well... LUXURIATING... in having TIME for my writing. I thought that in today's blog entry, I'd reflect a little about time. When I was younger, I never worried about time (I thought it would never end, like the long long summers of childhood). But now that I'm 51, I understand better how quickly time passes. And I've come to understand too, that at least for me, time is as and perhaps even more important than money.

I want to try to make the most of my time off. I'm almost done the first draft of the manuscript I've been writing all summer -- and I have big ambitions for the next few months. I'm afraid to even tell you what those are (just in case I jinx myself!!).

I've mentioned here, too, that I'm working on a special writing project for younger readers. I spent yesterday afternoon on that and I was reminded how much I enjoy the creating phase. Some writers love re-writing, fine-tuning their work... but I love the white fire phase of the first draft.

And you know what else I've been doing with my time? Did I mention my private boxing lessons?!! And this week, I did something unusual for me -- I started reading a book for pure pleasure (usually I read for work). This one is called The Divorce Party, and it's written by Laura Dave. (My friend Viva recommended it. We tend to love the same books.) The young couple in the book have a special way of saying "I love you." Instead, they say, "I like you more than anyone." Which makes me wonder: who do I like more than anyone else? And who do you like more than anyone else?!!

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Meet Anne-Sophie Tilly

I spent this morning with Anne-Sophie Tilly, a smart dynamic publisher with Cheneliere, an educational publisher here in Montreal.

I first met Anne-Sophie when she was working for Courte Echelle. It's Anne-Sophie who came up with the idea for Courte Echelle's Parkour series.

For Anne-Sophie's newest project, she needs simple but fun and clever stories for elementary aged students who are learning English. So I decided to give it a go! Not because I don't have plenty of other work to do, but because I thought it would be FUN and also CHALLENGING. (I put those words in capitals because they are two of my favourite words.) Most people think that writing for small children is easy, but I know it isn't. Every word counts. Also, you have to enter the world of small children -- which is especially challenging when you're a grownup.

So I did some tinkering. That means I played and worked and came up with two stories. And  the exciting news is that Anne-Sophie likes them and even has suggestions to make them better.

We started our meeting over coffee, then moved on to lunch at the Jean-Talon Market here in Montreal. Towards the end of lunch, Anne-Sophie talked about her own interest in writing and drawing. She said something that I thought was really beautiful -- and you know me, I grabbed my napkin and pen, and asked Anne-Sophie if I could write it down (she said yes). So here's what it was: "I haven't found my voice yet in my drawings." What I like so much about this line is people are always talking about finding their voice in their writing, but it is a surprising thing to think  that artists who draw or paint need to find their voices too. Anyway, Anne-Sophie's saying that made me happy. Maybe because it reminded me of conversations I had long ago with my opa (the Dutch word for grandfather) who was an artist too.

So here's to finding our voices -- in words, in images... or in a simple conversation!

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Dutch Style

Last month, en route from Nairobi, I spent part of a day in Amsterdam. My parents are from Holland and that day, I found myself thinking how, if world history and their lives had been different, I might have lived there instead of in Canada. The thought made me a little wistful. Amsterdam is a beautiful city and I feel really good there.

A fun development in my life the last few years is that I've made some Dutch friends. One is named Frank -- he's the son of good friends of my parents -- and he kindly agreed to meet up with me (and my friend Viva) that day in Amsterdam. Frank has also been sending me Dutch books (translated into English since my Dutch is improving... but still far from terrific). The last book he sent me is Jeroen Browers's Sunken Red. But I'll get back to that book in a moment.

My other Dutch friends live here in Montreal. They are Bianca and Alice. There's also Anneke, but she has moved to Israel since I met her (though she happens to be visiting Canada and we had a great afternoon together this week too).

Yesterday, I saw Alice (that's her with me in today's pic). Her full name is Alice van der Klei and she is an instructor of comparative literature at the Université du Québec a Montreal. We worked on my Dutch while we discussed many things including Dutch style -- the subject of today's blog entry. I told her how much I am enjoying Sunken Red and mentioned how in some ways, I recognize my own style of writing in that book (this has happened to me while reading other Dutch books, too). Sunken Red is a first-person account in which Jeroen Browers recalls his early childhood experience in a Japanese concentration camp. The book is sometimes so painful I have to put it down. Here is an example of a line I found really good -- and interesting: "I think I would be a bad writer if I was 'happy': happy writers have nothing to say." (If you have been following my blog, you'll understand that this ties into my interest in TROUBLE and the essential role of trouble in stories.)

So since Alice is an expert in comparative literature and since she's from Holland, I asked her to tell me a little about the Dutch literary style (and because we were out at a terrasse on Notre-Dame Street, I took notes on the back of the bill for my lemonade!). Here's what she told me: "The Dutch style is direct. Dutch literature is often about World War II, about Indonesia and about sex. It's a beatnik kind of literature, maybe because we have all this freedom in Holland."

And you know what else Alice told me? That the first time she met me, she knew right away I was Dutch. "Dutch people," she said, "have a directness and enthusiasm." I like that -- and I hope those traits come through in my writing, too. Alice, by the way, is working hard to help organize an upcoming international conference here called Word and Image. Check out this link to learn more. She'll be doing a talk about the symbol of Ché Guevara. Sounds super interesting to me!

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Ice Cream Date with Three Celebrities

Today we walked over to the local Baskin Robbins with our friends Joel Yanofsky, Cynthia Davis and their delightful son Jonah. Thanks to Joel, all three of them have become celebrities. That's because his new book Bad Animals: A Father's Accidental Education in Autism is as much about Cynthia and Jonah as it is about Joel.

I finished reading the book last night (first I had to wrestle it away from my husband, who plays poker and watches baseball games with Joel)). One of the nice things about knowing someone whose book you happen to be reading is that you can call the person up  and say, "Hey, I just cracked up at one of your jokes" or "That part was really deep." So, several times while I was reading Bad Animals, I phoned Joel or e-mailed him; I even "facebooked" him last night.

There are lots of things I loved about this book. Number is one is that it is painfully honest, but also that it's often laugh-out-loud funny. And I also love that the book is not just about the challenges of raising an autistic child, it's also about marriage and writing books and finding the strength you need to get through rough times.

In the book, Joel refers to many other books, especially memoirs, that have explored the subject of autism. He concludes that, "The uninspiring everydayness of living with autism, its routine weirdness, its unbearable bearableness, its incremental ups and downs, is what so often goes unstated. Memoirs skip this part." To Joel's credit, he doesn't skip "this part." But he does far more than that, too. Mostly, if you ask me, Bad Animals is a kind of love song to the two people Joel loves most.

And hey, blog readers, I didn't forget about you today! While I was walking to the ice cream parlour with Joel, I asked him to tell me one of his tricks for writing such moving creative non-fiction, and he told me something I knew you'd love -- and that would get you thinking all week. Here goes: "You have to make the truth feel more true than it really is -- which sometimes requires lying."


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Happy Writing Day

The truth is... and I'm sorry to disappoint all you aspiring writers out there... most writing days are not all that happy. Mostly, at least for me, writing is hard work and takes a lot of slogging. And a lot of the time, I'm not even so thrilled or impressed with what I just wrote. (I usually start feeling a little more positive during the re-writing process.)

But today was a happy writing day -- for all kinds of reasons. The first was the actual writing, which seemed to come easily and without too much forcing on my part. I've been writing long enough to know that days like this are a special gift, and that they help to keep us going on the rougher days.

I also got a boost from various bits of good writing news. One is that a French website called Pauselecture gave a thumb's up to my book Poupée (the French translation of On the Game). Click here if your French is good and you want to read the review. I'm especially excited that Pauselecture described the book as "Superbe" -- some compliments sound extra good en francais, don't you think?

The other bit of good writing news is that I learned Junkyard Dog has just gone into its second printing. The cover is new, though similar to the original -- and well, if I saw it, I'd want to read the book (even if I didn't know I wrote it)!!

Hope you've had your share of happiness today, too. Last year, on a plane trip back from Paris, I had a lovely conversation with a man who shared his philosophy about life. He said he felt that happiness was too much to ask for -- that life is about "happy moments." What do you say to that?

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"Keep Your Hero in Trouble"

I've written a previous blog entry about Pullitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough, one of my writing heroes. 

So imagine how pleased I was to open the July 18 edition of Maclean's Magazine and find Kenneth Whyte's interview with McCullough, who is promoting his new book, The Greater Journey.

That's where I found the quote that I've used in the title of today's blog entry. McCullough says that "Keep your hero in trouble" is "an old writer's adage."

McCullough also quotes loosely from author E.M. Forster who said something like: "If I tell you the king died and then the queen died, that's a sequence of events. If I tell you the king died and the queen died of grief, that's a story." Successful storytelling, McCullough continues, involves "understanding the human equations involved."

As for me, I'm working away at the first draft of my latest YA project. Let's just say that my protagonist Iris is in big trouble (McCullough would approve, I hope). Now I'll see whether Iris can dig her way out of it.

Here's a link to the complete interview with McCullough. Check it out -- and be inspired!

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Lemonade with Nancy Gow, Picture Book Author

I've spent part of this afternoon on my back porch, having lemonade with picture book author Nancy Gow. Nancy is the author of Ten Big Toes and a Prince's Nose, which recently made the Canadian Children's Book Centre's Best Books for Kids & Teens 2011 list.

Nancy came over to interview me for the CANSCAIP newsletter -- she wants to write a profile about how I do all the things I do (I told her all my secrets!!). Over lemonade, we also compared notes on the pleasures and challenges of the writing life. For Nancy, writing has meant "following her bliss," but she also admits it can be hard work to find just the right words to tell her rhyming stories.

I have to admit I was checking out Nancy's feet and toes under our wrought iron table! That's because the princess in  Ten Big Toes and a Prince's Nose has unusually large feet -- but Nancy's are quite normal-sized. She told me she got the inspiration for her book when she was just falling asleep one day. The rhyme scheme and the refrain actually came to her -- and all she had to do was write it all down. Cool, no?

My students know I'm also a great believer in using the dream and pre-dream or post-dream state for creative work. So when you begin to doze off tonight, keep your pen and notepad handy. Speaking of which: Lala Salama (that's Swahili for sleep well)!

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Nine New Friends

I guess you're wondering who my nine new friends are! Well, I'm just back from a talk and writing workshop at the Dollard-des-Ormeaux Public Library. I met with nine young people (aged 9 to 12) who are part of the library's reading program -- and I don't know about those kids, but I CERTAINLY HAD A GREAT TIME!! (I've been saving up a lot of teaching energy and I think I dispensed most of it in my one-hour-and-a-bit visit!!)

In today's pic, you can see me SPYING (one of the tricks I recommend to starting-out-writers.) The kids were doing a small writing exercise and I spied on what they were writing. One boy named Suhas came up with a really good, really funny story -- but I'm not going to tell you more about it because well... it's a little embarrassing and besides, you'll have to wait and read about it in Suhas's book, right Suhas? (Let's just say it made me laugh out loud.)

We also talked a little about grandparents and how it is sometimes easier for them to share stories with their grandchildren than with their own kids... and it was kind of a wonderful coincidence, that many of the youngsters' grandparents will be coming to visit them in Montreal over the next few weeks. Isha's grandparents are coming on Tuesday; Omar's on Saturday, and Kevin's grandfather is coming some time next week. I say it's a sign from the universe: GET THEIR STORIES. And remember my tricks: make them a cup of tea before you ask them about how they overcame times of trouble in their own lives. (We had also discussed one of my favourite subjects: how trouble makes a good story!!)

I also met the library's very own storyteller, Michelle Wachman, who facilitates this group. Thanks, Michelle, for sharing these wonderful bright youngsters with me today -- and thanks too to Mélissa Tullio for inviting me to the library. Happy writing and storytelling to all my new friends (and old ones too!!)!!

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"Creativity is a continual surprise" -- Ray Bradbury

This lovely quote has come to mind a lot for me the last few days. That's because I've been reading a wonderful book called Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch. Birch is a British novelist who has a lovely way with words and she keeps delighting (and surprising) me with her turns of phrase. I thought I'd mention a couple in today's blog entry.

Birch describes a lion as having the "face of a scholar." What I love so much about that comparison is that it's surprising -- it brings together two things we know (lions and scholars) but in a lovely unexpected way. And can't you just see that lion's face?

Later in the novel, the protagonist, Jaffy, wonders about what his own death will be like. I know it's a gruesome topic, but don't we all wonder about it sometimes? (I certainly do.) Here's what goes through Jaffy's mind: "What sound? What sight? The sky, dark or light? The side of the boat? Would I go hard or easy? What grief. More than anything else, what grief to leave the world."

Isn't that last line gorgeous? Doesn't it make you feel Jaffy -- and Carol Birch, too? I think they're both trying to tell us something really really important: that even with its challenges (believe me, Jaffy faces many in the book), living is a privilege.

I'm reviewing Jamrach's Menagerie for the Montreal Gazette. Will post a link when the review appears.


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The Things that Keep Me Up at Night

Mostly I'm a really good sleeper. My head hits the pillow and I'm out cold.

But sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble getting back to sleep. That's when my mind takes me to places I'd rather not go in during daylight hours.

Except that's exactly where I'm going these days (during daylight hours) as I work on my latest book project.  For the first time, I'm "mining" material from the most difficult period in my own life: an unhealthy relationship I stayed in for too long.

Earlier this summer, I saw (and blogged about) a wonderful film about children's literature called Library of the Early Mind. In it, children's author and illustrator David Small stressed the importance of writing about the things that keep us up at night. Yesterday, I tried to Google the exact quote, and when I searched for the words "things that keep me up at night" I happened to come across another quote from author Jodi Picoult, who says (like Small): "I write about the things that keep me up at night."

So... if one of these nights, you wake up and having trouble getting back to sleep... perhaps you've also got material for a story that needs telling.


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Elephants in Africa -- and AJL Convention in Montreal

Well, blog readers, you'll think I'm quite the world traveler!

On Sunday morning, I was at The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an elephant orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. On Monday, I was having coffee and a croissant in Amsterdam. And yesterday, I was back in Montreal, doing a presentation at the Association of Jewish Libraries' annual convention.

In today's blog entry, I want to tell you about elephants (meet one of them and his human companion in today's pic!) and also about the AJL convention.

Okay, elephants first! You know the expression "Elephants never forget"? Well it turns out that it's based on something true -- elephants have really good memories. At the Trust, I learned that if you blow into an elephant's trunk, he will remember your smell for the next 20 years. Now I'm not exactly the sort of person who goes around blowing into elephants' trunks... but while I was standing at the gate, watching the elephants, one of them kind of wrapped his trunk around a post and I BLEW INTO IT. (This was one of the many highlights of my holiday.) It makes me happy to know that a Kenyan elephant will remember me when I'm 71!

Now, onto the topic of the AJL Convention. I had a wonderful happy time, I think because I got to hang out with librarians and writers -- and also because I got the chance to discuss my book What World Is Left. As I told people in the audience, that book has my heart in it!

My talk was preceded by a discussion of Jewish books for tweens and teens. The presenters were authors Margie Gelbwasser and Sarah Darer Littman. (That's Sarah to the left of me in today's pic.) Sarah's latest book, Life, After, is about a girl whose dad died in the 9/11 attacks. Margie, who was born in the former Soviet Union, is the author of Inconvenient, a book about a Russian-Jewish teenager.

To the right of me in today's pic is Susan Lynn Meyer, who turned out to be a kindred spirit. Susan's book Black Radishes is also based on a family story related to the Holocaust. And like me, Susan teaches English literature full-time (she's at Wellesley) and has one daughter.

I also had the opportunity to catch up with one of my favourite YA authors Sarah Mlynowski, who was in town to promote her newest book, Ten Things We Did (And Probably Shouldn't Have). Sarah was my student at Marianopolis College here in Montreal! She also babysat my daughter. Since the last time I saw her, Sarah has had a daughter of her own, so we had lots of catching up to do!

So special thanks to the AJL for inviting me to this year's convention. I hope to remain in contact with some of the people I met there!

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For a person who is hardly ever SPEECHLESS, I must say I AM and WAS!!

My friend Viva and I are back in Nairobi today after a six-day safari. We saw so many wonderful things that I hardly know where to start. But because I don't have long at the Internet, I'll tell you about the times I was speechless.

One was when two hippos crossed the road in front of us.
Another was yesterday, when we came within three feet of four cheetahs. Three were male and they were competing for the affections of a female. Unfortunately for them, she wanted nothing to do with any of her suitors!!

And I've discovered a new favourite animal: the warthog. It's true they're not beautiful. In fact, they look like big hairy pigs with huge snouts... but they love to play in the mud. And it's hard to resist an animal who's clearly having such a good time.

I promise to post pics when I'm back next week. Tomorrow we're off to a kitesurfing village in Diani Beach, near Mombasa.
In the mean time, I wish you warthog fun!!

  2297 Hits

Jambo from Mount Kenya

Jambo means hello in Swahili!

I'm writing this short blog entry today from Mount Kenya. We're staying in a nature park and from the window in front of me, I can see SEVEN ELEPHANTS!!! Did you know that elephants flap their ears to cool themselves?

I'm taking loads of pictures, but I'll wait till I'm home to post them.

I'm also reading Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa. It's great to read about a place while you're visiting it. She says "The colours were dry and burnt, like the colours in pottery" and it's really true. 

Since there's no jogging in a game park (the jogger could turn out to be supper for a lion!), I brought my collapsible hula hoop with me. And guess what? All the Kenyan ladies who've seen me use it want to try it out -- and so I've lent it to them for the afternoon.

Will try to post again before we head home. In the mean time, I've got some elephants to check out!!

  2504 Hits

Webinar & Off On Safari!!

Ever have one of those days when you're too excited to do anything except feel excited?

That's me, today.

At 2 P.M., Montreal time, I'm participating in something called a "webinar." It's run by Booklist, an American Library Association publication. Some 1,000 American librarians will be tuning in to hear me and five other speakers -- three are people who work in the publishing industry, including Andrew Wooldridge, the publisher at Orca; the other two are American YA authors Jon S. Lewis and Leanna Renee Hieber. (I'm quite looking forward to hearing what they have to say.)

However, I'm afraid I won't be able to report right in after the webinar the way I usually do after interesting stuff like this. That's because I'm off to Africa! My best friend and I are going on a safari to celebrate her 50th birthday!

I'm not sure what the Internet access will be like. But if I can, I'll try to write at least one blog entry from Kenya -- if not, I'll tell you all about our adventure when I'm back at my desk on June 20.

As one of my friends wrote to me in an e-mail this morning: "Be bold!" You too, dear blog reader.


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Report from the Imagine-A-Story Conference

How did it already get to be Wednesday?

Can you tell I'm in non-rushing mode?

Here comes my report from last weekend's Imagine A Story conference, which took place here in Montreal, and was organized by YesOuiCANSCAIP.

In addition to hosting a panel, I attended three workshops. In this entry, I'll focus mainly on the first one, which was run by one of my heroes, slightly curmudgeonly, but oh-so-talented and I think, kind, too, Brian Doyle. (You may know his books which include Uncle Ronald, Pure Spring and Angel Square.)

Brian spoke about the importance of setting. A long-time high school English teacher, he also made reference to great authors like Shakespeare and Hemingway. Brian thinks we can learn a lot from the writers who came before us: "We should apprentice ourselves to those who know what we should be doing."

Most of Brian's stories are set in the Ottawa Valley. He urged his workshop participants to find the stories that surround us: "The most interesting place of all is your place -- your yard, your front porch, your garden, your street. Use the matter that is humble in your life -- the ordinary stuff."

I found this message inspiring and encouraging both... just the kinds of feelings a person wants to get from a writing conference.

Other speakers were Ontario author Marsha Skrypuch and editor Peter Carver. Marsha shared hints for researching historical novels (she said that one way she goes about figuring out what she needs to know is by trying to imagine 24 hours in the life of her main character... a useful tip for those of us working on historical projects). Peter gave us an insider's view of the publishing business. I'm looking forward to reading Peter's new book, So You Want to Write a Book for Children?

A word about today's pics -- there's one of me with the panel. The man in the baseball cap is my curmudgeonly friend BD; Marsha's in the pink jean jacket; Peter's at the far end of the table, looking most alert. And the woman with me in the last pic (eyeglasses on her head) turns out to be the super-nice mom of one of my students. (We'll call him Eric!)

I'm off to Ottawa on an assignment today. More news from me before the end of the week!

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Visiting a Writers' Collective

A month or two ago, Amy Lord, a former student of mine at Marianopolis College, got in touch to tell me she'd started a writers' collective. Amy (that's her in today's pic)  told me a little about her group -- four or five aspiring writers who plan to meet regularly to share their work and support each other as they embark on the writing life -- and asked whether I'd be willing to pop by for a visit.

Which is what I did yesterday afternoon. In about two hours, I tried to tell the four members who were there, everything I know and have figured out about writing! I told them not to be discouraged on the days when they think their writing isn't very good -- that that is all part of the process.

Amy reminds me a lot of where I was when I was her age. I knew I wanted to write, but I wasn't sure I had what it takes to make it as a writer. And in my case, I was a little afraid to find out!

So, during my visit yesterday, I tried to tell Amy's writing collective the sorts of things I wish someone had told me when I was starting out. Here are a few more in case you're in a similar spot: Write about places you know. Write about people you know, too -- but protect their privacy by changing things up! Write about emotions you have experienced. Write about what hurts.

One of the members of Amy's collective is her brother Andrew, who works as a copywriter at a big ad agency here in Montreal. I was moved when Andrew described how powerful he finds his sister's writing. Though I've never been part of a writers' group or collective, I'd say that that mutual support and respect is vital. As I told the group yesterday, writers need tough skins to deal with rejections and re-writes and some of the less pleasant business of writing, but writers also need to be kind to each other -- and to themselves.

So here's to everyone out there who's finding their way and finding their stories. I'm one of those people, too. It's not an easy life, but on a good day, even the hard parts seem worth the trouble!!

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"Library of the Early Mind"

Last night, I saw a wonderful documentary called Library of the Early Mind. (Click on this link, to see a YouTube preview.) The movie is a kind of collage of various children's writers and illustrators talking about how and why they do what they do. Like everyone else in the auditorium at Selwyn House School, where the screening was held, I felt really inspired!

Though the room was dark, I couldn't resist scribbling down some notes for you, dear blog reader. (Also, it's true, for me, since the things I wrote down are all the things I want to remember and take comfort in as I do my own work.) 

Author-illustrator Peter Reynolds described books for kids as "wisdom dipped in language." Mo Willems, who is one of my favourite author-illustrators, talked about how writing or drawing characters requires their creators to feel what those characters are feeling, and that the reader has a similar experience. As Willems put it, "If there's anything the world needs, it would be empathy."

Jane Yolen says she doesn't like when people describe her as prolific. In fact, she doesn't understand why other authors don't do even more writing: "these stories are leaking out of your fingers." I love that metaphor! I sure hope that today, the story I'm working on will leak out of my fingers -- and onto my keyboard, and then onto the screen!

But I was most moved by author-illustrator David Small's personal story. He talked about how, in mid-life, he needed to return to a difficult early experience and transform it into art. He explained how when he drew and wrote about the people who'd hurt him, that creative experience "made me see them more more as human beings and less like monsters."

So this morning, I'm feeling really grateful to the team of people who brought the film to Montreal, including Carol-Ann Hoyte; to the film's producers Edward Delaney and Steven Withrow (Delaney was there to answer the audience's questions after the screening); and to all the authors and illustrators and author-illustrators who shared their stories. 

Try to see the movie, too!



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I Made A Good Friend Cry Today

It's usually a terrible thing if you make your good friend cry.

But that isn't the case if you write fiction!

My good friend (we'll call her E) phoned this morning to tell me she was reading my new book Miracleville on the bus this morning and that it made her cry. She couldn't even have been very far into the book because I happen to know that she lives close to downtown and the bus ride couldn't have been very long!

Anyway, it is exciting to know that your book can make a person cry -- though I've heard people say it's even harder to make readers laugh. (I think the book also has some funny moments, but I'll wait for someone to tell me if they chuckle out loud at any parts.)

I had promised to tell you a little more about last night's launch. Here is my favourite moment: my friend and local writer Helen W., brought her two lovely daughters to the launch. The little one (we'll call her A) found a cozy corner to sit in while the rest of us adults yakked and laughed and generally hung out. At one point, I went looking for my camera, but couldn't find it.

"Is your camera silver?" a little voice asked from her cozy corner. "If it is, it's on the snack table!" 

Yes, it was great to read from  the new book and see my friends and colleagues and family... but of all the many special moments during last night's launch that one pleased me the most.

May we all be as observant and clever as that little girl in the corner!


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See All These People Listening So Attentively?!

Have a look at the people in today's pic. Can you see that they are listening super carefully?!!!

Guess what they happen to be listening to?

YOURS TRULY (your faithful blogger!) reading from my new book, Miracleville. See, that's my red watchband in the bottom right corner of the pic.

We're just home from the launch party. Though it lasted 2-1/2 hours, it felt like about 15 minutes to me. (Ever notice how the fun times go really quickly?) I was very touched and pleased that so many friends and fellow writers and teachers, and even some of my favourite students (past and present) turned up to help me celebrate.

Special thanks to my friends at Babar en Ville for hosting the party. I'll write again soon to tell you a little more about how it went. For now, this writer has to go to bed... so that she can wake up tomorrow morning and WRITE!!! (How else can I ever have another launch party?!!)

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I Scrinch My Eyes When I'm Happy

For proof that I scrinch my eyes when I'm happy, check out today's pic!

That's me with CBC Radio's Dave Bronstetter. Dave interviewed me for his show All in a Weekend. The magic thing about Dave is that he makes a person forget she's being interviewed -- that's because she's having so much fun just chatting with him.

The first thing Dave asked me (this was in the hallway, outside his studio, before we started taping) was: "How's your mom?" I wasn't the least bit surprised. That's because Dave had me and my mum in studio in 2008 when my book What World Is Left first came out. (That novel is based on my mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp.) Anyway, let's just say my mum stole the show -- and Dave's heart. (She's nearly 82 now, and has not lost her way with men!!)

Today, Dave interviewed me about Miracleville, which is being launched here in Montreal on Tuesday, May 17. We had a wide-ranging conversation about everything from religious souvenirs to faith and courage.

In my Journalism course this term, we talked about what makes a successful interview. Now I realize I should have told my students that their goal should be to make the interviewee feel so comfortable that he or she forgets he (or she) is being interviewed. So, thanks to Dave for that lesson and for letting me talk about Miracleville. Thanks, too, to producer Jill Walker, for her behind-the-scenes assistance (and for taking today's pic).

You'll need to get to bed early on Friday and Saturday nights, if you want to catch Dave in action on All in a Weekend. The show airs from 6 to 9 A.M. Alert to all you sleepyheads out there: it's well worth waking up for!

PS: Just to let you know that Dave's interview with me will air on Saturday, May 14 at 8:40 A.M. If you're in the Montreal listening area, you can find CBC at 88.5 on your FM dial.

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Aislin & Co. Come to Supper

Last night, Terry Mosher, his wife artist Mary Hughes, and Sparky, their very handsome and well-behaved Havanese came for dinner. You may know Terry better by his nom de plume -- Aislin. Aislin is the political cartoonist for the Montreal Gazette. His cartoons also appear in newspapers across Canada and the U.S.

We certainly had no shortage of things to talk about! But today's entry is especially for my students -- only now that the semester is over, you guys are my former students (small sniffle noises here... I did have wonderful students this semester). Now guess what Aislin has a special interest in?

Here's a clue: something that I talk about a lot!!

Are you ready?

Did you guess yet?

Body language!!

Aislin says that when he's observing people he's going to draw -- say politicians -- he pays special attention to their body language. And then, he tries to convey that body language (for instance, a person's slouched shoulders) in his drawing. Pretty neat, no, how that ties into what writers try to do, too?

Aislin draws five cartoons a week for The Gazette. I asked him what he'd like to do when, eventually, he has a little more time to himself. He didn't have to think long about my question. "I want to keep doing exactly what I'm doing!" he told me.

It's a special pleasure to be around people who love what they do. So here's to Terry and Mary, and Sparky, who's not allowed table food, but who could not, in the end, resist a small slurp of my Pastel Tres Leches!

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Busy Week for Canadian Children's Writers!

A group of Canadian children's writers are touring the country this week for Canadian Children's Book Week. One of the authors -- Penny Draper -- visited my Writing for Children class at Marianopolis College earlier this week.

So, let me tell you a little about Penny. In addition to being a children's writer, Penny is also a professional storyteller... and I must say she had a magical effect on all of us when she told us a story.

To our surprise, Penny explained that as a child, she was shy. (See -- even shy people can turn into amazing storytellers!) But reading and writing were always important to her: "Writing was my way to understand the world."

All of Penny's novels are linked to various Canadian disasters, including the 1998 ice storm here in Quebec. She does a lot of research before beginning a new book: "One of my goals is to find interesting facts that no one knows about." But in the end, Penny's novels are about kids and how they must find inner strength to cope with disastrous circumstances. Here's what Penny had to say about her characters: "They become almost like my children, or my friends."

Penny told us that her own kids (the real ones, not the characters in her books!) sometimes call her "The Disaster Queen." But despite her kids' teasing, Penny still enjoys writing about disasters: "Something good always comes out of a disaster. Something's learned. Laws are changed."


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Busy Days at Blue Met

I slept over at the Holiday Inn Select, headquarters for this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival -- so I've been away from home and need to catch you up on a couple of days' worth of news! Maybe I'll start by telling you about the pics I've included in today's blog entry.

The first pic is of Cathy, one of the students from Kangirsuk, Nunavik, who was here for dinner on Thursday night (our dinner followed the launch of this year's edition of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live, which includes a chapter about Kangirsuk). The lady the student is kissing is MY MUM. My parents were out that night celebrating their 57th wedding anniversary and they popped by here afterwards to say hello to my guests from Nunavik. As you can see, my mum was, as usual, a great hit. The students were interested to learn that she had gone to school in Amsterdam with Anne Frank. At one point in the evening, I caught myself thinking how cool is it that my mum, who is nearly 82, and survived the Holocaust, now has a chance to meet young people from Quebec's far north -- and that they get to meet her and hear her story!

In the middle pic, which I took on Friday afternoon, you can see four of my favourite students (have you figured out yet that I have A LOT of favourites?!!), Matt, Maria, Caitlyn and Sebastian, chatting with my most wonderful and talented friend author Rina Singh. (Rina and I met more than 25 years ago, when we were both students at Concordia University.) Rina, who now lives in Toronto, was in Montreal for Blue Met, and she was speaking mostly about her newest book Nearly Nonsense. Though the book is written for youngsters aged 9 to 12, Rina's stories, which are based on Turkish tales, are funny and wise and sure to appeal to readers of all ages -- and as you can see from the pic, my students felt lucky to meet her.

In the third pic, you'll see Rina again, along with Governor General Prize winner Kate Pullinger (author of The Mistress of Nothing), Université du Québec a Montréal literature professor Alice Van Der Klei and me. This pic was taken at the hotel last night -- Alice came over to me and introduced her friend Kate... when I heard it was THE Kate Pullinger, I dragged Rina over for the photo. And this morning, when I went to work out at the hotel gym, guess who was in the exercise room? Kate Pullinger! So, the two of us had a very pleasant chat about life and writing and curly hair! Like me, Kate, who lives in London, teaches creative writing in addition to doing her own writing. She's also an expert on e-books and new technologies, and was doing a workshop on that at Blue Met this morning.

Rina and I took a children's writing workshop with British author Anne Fine. It's a two-day workshop and so far, to be honest, I haven't learned much that is new to me. On the other hand, Anne has confirmed certain things I already feel such as that a writer needs to write regularly, not only when she (or he) feels like it. Anne doesn't like the inclusion of dreams in literature -- I'm not sure I agree with her there! She's also down on the present tense, which I happen to like. But I'm interested in Anne's position -- she pointed out that there are 12 tenses in the English language and that we should use them!

This afternoon, my husband and I went to hear Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany. He was amazing and inspiring and oh-so-smart. Al Aswany spoke as much about Egyptian politics as he did about his own writing process. I took loads of notes, but I thought I'd include something in today's blog entry about how he gets to know his characters: "I make files for my characters. I put in every detail. The way he looks. Does he smoke? What kind of cigarettes? At some point, I feel my characters have become true and then I begin writing. At some point, the character will become independent. I see on the screen of my imagination what I see him doing." See what I mean about INSPIRING?

If I'm not too tuckered out by the end of the day tomorrow, I'll be back with another report from Blue Metropolis. If you're one of my students this semester, I look forward to hearing what event you attended and what you learned. Hopefully, you guys got inspired too!

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Another Exciting Day at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival

Today was Day Two of Montreal's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. I spent the afternoon at the launch of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. This year, the launch was held for the first time at the McCord Museum. The book features the writing and photography of students in ten schools across the province. And I had the privilege of working with students in four of those schools. So, in addition to being a book launch, today was also a very happy reunion.

I got some amazing hugs from the Grade 2 students at Shawinigan High School. (You can imagine that that doesn't happen much when you teach college!!) I was also excited to see my young friends from St. Willibrord (these students really need to be commended for all the re-writing work they did for the project); Everest Elementary in Quebec City ("Make me feel it, baby!!" -- that's what I told them one day when they were on-line at the same time as me, all of us working on their writing); and Sautjuit School in Kangirsuk, Nunavik (these students took two airplanes to get here!).

I've got spaghetti sauce cooking downstairs since the six students who made the trip from Kangirsuk with their teacher Velta Douglas are coming for dinner tonight. Also on the invite list are photographer Thomas Kneubuhler, who worked on the project with us, and Florence Allegrini, Blue Metropolis's educational programs coordinator. Three cheers for Florence, who's responsible for bringing everything -- and everyone -- together for our book.

I have a special soft spot for today's pic. Those two young men in the foreground are in my Journalism class at Marianopolis -- they came to today's launch. And behind them are two of the guys from Kangirsuk. I personally took great pleasure in seeing these talented young men all together. I know teachers aren't supposed to have favourites... but well... let's just say these guys are all pretty special to me! Hope wherever you are, you are also getting to meet interesting people and hear their stories... and that by doing that, your world is enlarged in the best possible way.

Tomorrow, my friend author Rina Singh will be presenting at Blue Met. I'll be there, and so will the gang from Kangirsuk, along with more of my students from Marianopolis... but you will probably have to wait for the report and photographic evidence until later in the weekend. Rina and I will both be taking a writing workshop with British children's author Anne Fine. Like me, Rina is a teacher, and you know what? We teachers need to get to be students sometimes too!

To all of you who participated in this year's Quebec Roots project -- WAY TO GO!! WHAT A BEAUTIFUL BOOK YOU MADE!!!!!!!

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Why Is This Student Hiding Her Writing?

The reason the student in today's pic is hiding her writing is because IT MUST BE REALLY INTERESTING and she didn't want some snoopy writer (guess who?) reading it!!

It's kind of late and I'm just just home after a busy, but super interesting day! This afternoon, I did a writing workshop at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival here in Montreal. My topic was "Making Miracles" (that's a not-so-secret reference to my newest book Miracleville!!). 

I divided my workshop time between talking about how writing works for me and giving the students writing prompts. In one exercise, I asked the students to remember a moment in their lives when they faced trouble. I also tried to get them to include sensory memories in their descriptions. While they worked, I did my usual snooping... but I did tell the students that if what they were writing was private, they should hide it from me. (Which explains today's photo.) Anyway, I love secrets and stories with secrets. Of course, as writers, we do eventually need to share our work. But here's a little tip. If the material is really sensitive, switch it up. Change the sexes of your characters or their looks or their ages. AS LONG AS THE FEELINGS ARE REAL!!

Special hello to the students who were at today's workshop and to their wonderful teachers, all of whom did the writing exercises, too! Several students made the trip to Montreal all the way from the Gaspé -- a 14-hour train ride. And three of them had heard me before (hope I didn't drive you crazy with my stories!)

Brittany who goes to Bonaventure School added a fun word to our discussion. I told students that writers need to be spies; Brittany said they need to be "NINJA spies." I'm going to add that to my talks from now on, Brittany. Another student named Janna, who also lives in the Gaspé, was the only student from her school (Gaspé Polyvalent) selected to attend Blue Met this year. I had a chance to talk to Janna at the end of my presentation. What I told her goes for all the other young people I met today, including those from Lower Canada College and Chene Bleu: "USE YOUR TALENT!!!"

Watch this space over the next few days for more news from Blue Met! And if you can, get yourself over to the festival before it ends on Sunday!





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"I'll Take You There"

Last month, on a getaway trip to Burlington, Vermont, my husband and I went to hear Mavis Staples perform at the Flynn Theater. Mavis was so good she blew us away! Mavis has been singing for SIXTY years and she is still going strong. My students at Marianopolis College here in Montreal heard all about Mavis from me. They've also heard my very poor rendition of her song "I'll Take You There." That's because I've been quoting that line over and over in my Journalism and Writing for Children classes. I keep telling the students their job as writers is to TAKE ME (and anyone else who reads their work) THERE -- to bring us into the worlds of their stories. (In fact, last week, I started humming the tune in class, and one of the students called out, "Please, Miss! Don't sing it!!" I think I've told you that I'm not exactly a gifted singer!!)

Well, this afternoon while I was driving home, I turned on CBC radio and there she was -- MAVIS being interviewed on a show called Tapestry. And though she was talking about music, I think what she had to say also applies to writing -- in fact, it applies to creative work of all kinds. Mavis quoted her dad, Pop Staples (also a renowned musician), who told her: "What comes from the heart reaches the heart."

AHHHHHHHH! I just loved that. I took Pop Staples's words as a personal message of encouragement. And I hope, whether you are one of the students in my class this term, or a reader who occasionally follows this blog, that you'll be encouraged by those words, too. That's our task -- to tell the stories, or sing the songs, or paint the paintings that come from our hearts. PS: TAKE ME THERE!!!!

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Return Visit to John Abbott College & a small something lovely

See today's picture? In it, you'll see two two CEGEP teachers having fun with the students we teach. Now you can understand why fellow YA writer Lori Weber and I can't give up teaching college! (That's Lori in the green blouse and white jacket, by the way.)

This afternoon, I visited Lori's "Writing for Children" class at John Abbott College in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. How about I don't spend today's blog entry telling you all the stuff I talked about -- such as that writing takes stick-to-it-ive-ness, that details help tell a story, and that though it might sound corny, you have to write with LOVE...

How about instead I tell you what was fun about Lori's class? You will notice two twins in today's pic (meet Adam and Paul). Now here's something else I discovered: A certain person on the left side of the pic knows the twins from high school and GUESS WHAT? She's been taking notes for years about funny things they say and trouble they have caused. Some of the things they say are a little too risqué to mention on a blog that is sometimes read by younger students!!

A student named Tara (in purple in today's pic) shared her very moving story idea with me. She asked what I thought about using her own experience in a story. I suggested: Start with the REAL, then go on and improve it, elaborate it, SPIN it, to make it AN EVEN BETTER STORY!

I had the feeling (I think I have a talent for FEELING stories in the air!!) that a student named Fatima has interesting family stories and maybe even secrets she is getting ready to share. She left the room at the end of my session, but then I was very pleased when she returned (wanting to know the title of my novel based on my mum's experience during the Holocaust.)

... speaking of my mum, I want to tell you a little lovely thing that happened yesterday -- now this was at Marianopolis College, where I teach. My mum and dad were coming to pick me up after school (we were going to a party for my brother, who is changing law firms) and I tried to talk them into popping into my classroom to say hello to my Journalism students, only my dad said absolutely not, that my mum (she's 81) could not handle the stairs. So I suggested to my students that they might want to come outside to meet her. And I must say I was very touched when many of them came, and waited quite a while, too, and then were so kind to my mum. They lined up to shake her hand and introduce themselves. You know what I told a friend today? That if I had a big enough house (and they all promised to be very very neat and not leave any crumbles on the floor), I'd adopt every single one of my students this term! Thanks you guys, for braving yesterday's windy weather, to come and meet my good mum. And thanks to Lori Weber and her students for being so much fun today! Wishing all of you a good weekend with time enough to get important things done, and also to do another important thing: RELAX A LITTLE!!


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Two Great Groups at St. Thomas High

It's a special treat for me to be invited for a return visit to a school. Today was my second visit to St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. Librarian Carolyn Pye was behind the invite. That's her in today's pic, wearing a white blouse and DOING A WRITING EXERCISE!! Way to go, Mrs. Pye! I think it's a great message to students when teachers and librarians do writing exercises, too. As I'm always saying, we're all writers, constantly working on our craft.

So now I'll bet you want to hear why the two groups of students I met with today were great.

The first were very special. That's because they gave up their lunch hour to work with me (okay, it's true that they also got to be dismissed, with special permission, from another class). I'd worked with some of the same students last year, and man, are they KEEN! We managed to do three writing exercises. In one, I asked them to imagine being in a library (not so hard since we WERE in a library at the time!) or a bookstore and coming across the book -- the one book in all the world -- THEY ABSOLUTELY HAD TO READ. And then I asked them to start writing! The exercise was inspired by something author Sophie Kinsella told me when I interviewed her a few years ago: "I wrote the book I wanted to read."

We also talked about how small details can reveal a lot about a person. I suggested peeking inside a woman's purse to learn her secrets... and then for fun, we peeked inside a few pencil cases, looking for surprising treasures. The most interesting was probably Penina's mouthpiece that she uses when she plays her trumpet. Second place went to Grace's broken sillyband which she has named Elephante, and which she can't bear to throw out despite its broken state.

Anyway, it was a treat for me to work with students who really want to write. I hope that the exercises may have jump-started a few book projects. Hey, you guys, if you do complete those books you started today, I want to get mentioned on your acknowledgments page, okay?!!

I spent the next period with Glenn Katz's Grade Nine English class. These students recently visited the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre and so they were eager to hear about the research I did to write What World Is Left, the book I based on my mum's experience in Theresienstadt. I read a little of the book. It was a student named Catherine who asked that I read the part about Anneke and Franticek when they are washing clothes together at the fountain. It just so happens to be my favourite scene in the book, so I was glad to comply.

Though I had Mr. Katz's class on a Friday at the very end of the day, they were terrific -- and they had amazing. intelligent questions. Only there wasn't time to answer them all. So if there's more you want to know, fire away and I'll post the answers here on my blog.

I seem to have developed a bit of a talent for "feeling" stories... and you know what, I felt a lot of stories in the air this afternoon. I hope I've encouraged you to start paying attention to the stories in the air, and in your lives, and to begin writing them down. I look forward to reading YOUR books some day soon!

Special thanks to Carolyn Pye for bringing me back to St. Thomas. Your library is a special place -- and like the students, I feel right at home there.

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Holocaust Symposium at Vanier College

After my class this morning, I zipped over to Vanier College to participate in the school's 18th Annual Kleinmann Family Foundation Symposium on the Holocaust and Genocide. First, I spoke to students in my friend Marcia Goldberg's "Short Stories for Women" course. Marcia had invited me to come in and discuss my book What World Is Left, a historical novel based on my mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp. I tried to be as honest with the students as possible -- telling them about the challenges of interviewing a relative who has suffered in ways most of us can barely imagine.

That's Marcia with me in today's first pic; in between us is a student named Anthony who, at the end of my talk, thanked me on behalf of his class. (Hey, I thank YOU GUYS for being such an attentive kind audience.)

On my way out of Marcia's classroom, a student named Nadia told me that there is a Holocaust story in her family, too. Nadia's great-grandfather, who lived in Italy, dug an underground cave to help hide some of his townspeople from the Nazis. When one of Nadia's relatives returned to the site last year, she noticed there was still a swastika on the building -- left over from the Nazi occupation, and a sign that the Nazis had searched the building. Thank goodness they never discovered Nadia's great-grandfather's cave or the people who were hidden there. I told Nadia she needs to do more investigating so that one day, she too, will be able to write her family's story.

After class, Marcia and I zipped off again -- this time to attend a Holocaust Memorial Commemoration ceremony in the college boardroom. One of my favourite people -- Esther Kleinmann, who, together with her late husband Peter, is responsible for the Holocaust Symposium  -- was there. Faculty and students read essays and testimonials, and there was a hauntingly beautiful performance of the theme song from Schindler's List, performed by Vanier clarinetist Eric Braley.

I took special pleasure in hearing Vanier student Erica Lighter read a reflection she'd written for her Humanities course. That's not just because Erica read well, but because she's my niece -- and in her essay, she mentioned how much she admires her "Oma" (my mom)! (That's Erica in the grey sweater in today's second pic.)

There are many more things I can tell you about my experience at Vanier today, but I'll add just one more thing... and that's that I felt very hopeful to see students from all backgrounds at today's ceremony. Sarah el-Khaldi, a Concordia University student who happens to be Muslim, read a moving piece about Auschwitz. Vanier student Sarah Rassi (Sarah is sitting next to Erica in the second pic) wrote a reflection about a Holocaust survivor, comparing her to Sarah's Lebanese grandmother. It does my heart good to see that it isn't only those of us whose families have been personally affected by the Holocaust who recognize that it must be remembered and its lessons passed on.

A very special thank-you to my friend of many years, Neil Caplan, long-time Vanier Humanities teacher and symposium coordinator. Thanks for a really special day -- and for inviting me to share in it.


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Hi Louisiana!

The reason I'm greeting the state of Louisiana in today's blog entry is because I read another moving review of my new book Miracleville; this one was written by Brenna, who's 15 and goes to school in Jefferson. Like some of the other teens I've mentioned lately, Brenna has been taking part in the American Library Association's Teens Top Ten Galley Review -- which explains why she was able to read an advance copy (known in the publishing business as a galley) of Miracleville.

I got Brenna's permission to quote a little of what she had to say, so here goes:

"When tragedy hits the family, secrets are uncovered that Ani may not have been ready to handle. In this small, Canadian town of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre, old lives die hard, but lead to greater hope than ever imaginable."

Once again, I am really struck by what fine writers some of these teens are. I just love what Brenna says about "old lives [that] die hard" since, though I never thought of it in quite those words (if I had, I would have used them in my book!!), it is exactly what happens to Ani, the book's protagonist. Circumstances force  her to surrender her vision of what her life once was. And I'm also delighted that despite the book's tragic elements, Brenna felt it was still hopeful ("greater hope than ever imaginable").


So,  Brenna, if you're reading today's blog entry, please know that your words have affected me. And you know what else? It's a busy time of year for writers who, like me, are also teachers, but your words gave me a little extra "oomph" the last few days... and encouraged me to keep writing in the little, precious blocks of time I have to fight to find for myself come April.

Thanks, too, to Elizabeth Kahn, library media specialist at the Patrick F. Taylor Library. Over the past week or so, Elizabeth and I have struck up an e-mail friendship -- and I can tell what a dedicated and fun librarian she is. No wonder Elizabeth won the Louisiana 2011 School Library Specialist Award!

Have a great rest of the week wherever you are... it's wonderful to feel a sense of connection to readers like you!



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Arizona Doesn't Feel So Far Away

It isn't that the weather here in Montreal is hot and dry (it rarely is). Or that the sky is huge and blue today (it's looking pretty grey right now).

The reason Arizona doesn't feel so far away this morning is because I have been in touch with a teen reader there. This development comes thanks to a program I've already written about in a previous blog entry -- the American Library Association's Teens' Top Ten Galley Review. Teens in selected libraries across the U.S., have been reading advance copies of new books, including Miracleville.

I "met" Taniya through Allison Burke, teen services librarian and media specialist at Perry Branch Library in Gilbert, Arizona. Allison forwarded Taniya's review of Miracleville to my publisher, who in turn, forwarded it to me.

I was very moved about what Allison had to say about the book, and she's kindly agreed to let me include an excerpt here: "understanding that humans cannot help the way they feel  no matter how much they try to control and better themselves.... there should not be shame in having to be human."

I'm not just pleased that Taniya enjoyed my book, I'm extra-pleased that it made her reflect about being human and our attempts to find a balance between who we want to be and who we sometimes are.

I've never met you, Taniya, but your words have really touched me... and you know what? You've made me reflect, too. Thanks for that.

Thanks also to Allison Burke (have I mentioned that I love librarians, especially ones who get teens excited about reading?) and to the ALA and to my publisher, Orca, for getting involved in this exciting program.

Wishing you all a good weekend wherever you are. Hope you'll find time to read and write!

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Je Pratique Mon Français!

Avec la traduction de mon livre On the Game (Poupée en français), j'ai besoin de pratiquer mon francais! J'ai aussi besoin de trouver la petite queue pour le "ç" en "français"!! Ou es-tu? (Merci, Gaétane, pour le bon avis -- thanks to you, I found it!)

I'll translate now for my English-only readers: With the French translation of my book On the Game just out, I need to practice my French. I speak French fluently, but my spelling is well... not so fantastique. And I can't find the little "tail" that goes on the letter "c" in some French words. (I did find it, thanks to blog reader Gaétane: ççççç !)

Aujourd'hui j'ai appris que Sophie Gagnon, comme moi, un professeur ici a Montreal, a écrit une critique de mon livre Poupée sur son site web qui s'appelle

I learned today that Sophie Gagnon, who is, like me, a teacher here in Montreal, has posted a review of Poupée on her website,

And it's a very nice review if I say so myself (check it out by clicking on one of the links in the previous two paragraphs)!

I'm especially pleased that Sophie thinks I did a good job of showing how an ordinary girl could get caught in the web of juvenile prostitution. Though the book is based on research and interviews I did, writing it also let me explore some of the tangled situations I got into when I was a teenager. So... if you're a teenager reading this... and your life feels a little tangled... just think: you can mine these feelings and experiences for your own stories. Now get writing!!

Merci Sophie. Thanks Sophie. Perhaps we'll get to meet in the real world -- and not just in cyberspace!!

Hey readers whose written French is better than mine, send me any corrections! One's never too old to be corrected -- even at age 50!!!

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