monique polak

Monique Polak's Books


Kids Who Actually Enjoy Writing Exercises: Laval Junior Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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










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Back in Dumas, Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Reportage from the Salon du Livre

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

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

Okay, let me get to SOME STORIES.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back at Westwood Junior High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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









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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Happy Start to the Week -- Lindsay Place High School

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

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

Okay, on to the kids!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Say Hello to My Lovely Writer Pal Karen Spafford-Fitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Day 2 at Lindsay Place High School

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

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

How fun is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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











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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kids Who Love to Write Sometimes Grow Up to Become Authors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why am I telling you all this?

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

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


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

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

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

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

Okay let's get to the advice.

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

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


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

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

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

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In Which I Find This Mascot Sitting on a Bathroom Floor

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some highlights from our ninety minutes together.

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Adventures in Writing a Board Book

Ever heard of a board book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How hard can it be to write one hundred words?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Launch at St. Monica School!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Special Morning at LCCHS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Day 4 at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival: Westmount Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

S: Can I ask you something?

Me: You can ask me anything.

S: That's good to know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Day 1 at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival: Kirkland Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Great Start to the Week at Laurentian Regional High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another Special Morning at Mackay Center School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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"Interesting" Day at Joliette High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back at William Latter School!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reporting Back from Ikusik School in Salluit, Nunavik!!

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

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

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

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

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



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Book Recommendation: Subject to Change by Karen Nesbitt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quebec Roots Goes to St. Monica School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catchy, don't you think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hard Day/Wonderful Day at St. Thomas High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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New Year's Interview with Lucas Bully-Stomper

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

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

Lucas is now 17 and in his final year at Joliette High. As you would expect, a bully-stomper must have an interesting story behind him -- and Lucas does.

During elementary school, Lucas was bullied for five years. He turned to his mom for help; she went to the school principal, but as Lucas puts it, "no one believed me." Lucas recalls that the kids who bullied him called him "ugly" and "fat." Things got so bad that when Lucas was in sixth grade, he tried to commit suicide.

Music helped Lucas find comfort in those dark days. He knew he didn't have a great singing voice, but Lucas discovered that he had a talent for speaking quickly -- and so rap was a natural choice. Lucas now raps and does motivational speaking. Last August, he performed at the skate park in Rawdon to an audience of about fifty. And Lucas's Facebook page has had 1,000 visitors!

I asked Lucas what advice he has for other kids who are being bullied. This is what he told me: "Speak out and make yourself heard. Suicide isn't an option. What you're going through is just one point in your life. You can't let it determine your future."

I guess now you understand why I wanted you to meet Lucas. Please pass on his words to any kids you know who can benefit from Lucas's message -- and his music. Happy new year!

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Happy Morning at Lakeside Academy

I'm just home from a happy morning at Lakeside Academy. Here's some of the reasons my morning was happy. The teacher who invited me to teach -- Miss Daigle -- was my former student at Marianopolis College. How fun to see what a great teacher she is, how her students both like and respect her. Second reason -- the library felt like home the moment I walked in (even if I knocked at the wrong door first!!). Third reason -- this was the first time I read my upcoming picture book text to a class (two classes in fact) -- and I think that though the text could be a little shorter, it worked. Which goes to show you that authors should always READ THEIR WORK OUT LOUD! And there's a fourth reason too -- I got to laugh! A student named Jayden (lovely young man by the way, I could tell he's full of important stories!) asked me, "How do you spell 'Revise'?" Because I was in a hurry to tell the students all my pointers, I told Jayden not to worry about how to spell the word -- and then his teacher, Miss Jones, said to Jayden, "You'll REVISE it later!" Thanks for the laugh, Jayden and Miss Jones.

I worked with three groups of students -- they included grade sevens, eights and nines, and also students from the school's pre-work program. In the second group, a student named Austin told me, "My whole family's shy." I told Austin that I think that would make an amazing title for a picture book. Just don't forget to add TROUBLE to your story, Austin. That also made me think of another idea for a pic book -- if it was about my family, it could be called "My whole family's NOT shy!!"

The last group were Ms. McCulloch's grade sevens. These students had amazing questions. Lisi wanted to know, "Is writing like acting?" No one's ever asked me that before, so I loved her question. I told Lisi that yeah, I think writing and acting have a lot in common. Both fiction writers and actors get to be other people, to try on other lives. I think that's partly why I love writing so much. Of course, writing is better than acting if you happen to be shy (though that isn't my case). A student named Khenyan asked, "Do you use dreams when you make books?" That question got me pretty excited because I'm a great believer in finding inspiration in dreams. That's why I take so many naps.

Finally, a student named Luca caught my attention because he just looks so smart. (That's him wearing glasses in today's pic.) He nodded with what seemed to be great understanding when I talked about the connection between lies and fiction. I told the students that in real life, I'm a terrible liar -- but that I'm a good liar when it comes to making up book stories!! And when we discussed how trouble helps FUEL a story, Luca commented, "So when you get in trouble, it helps you bridge off and make stories about trouble."

Now you understand why my morning was so happy. Thanks to the students for being wonderful, to the teachers, espeically Miss Daigle, for sharing your classes with me, and to my new friend librarian Miss Jenn!

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Love is Forever -- Special Visit to Dumas, Texas

For the last few falls, I have been visiting Dumas, Texas. Not in person, mind you, but petty close to it. That's because I've been Skyping with the Grade Six students at Dumas Intermediate School. I've been invited to tell them a little about my life as a writer, but mostly the focus is on the Holocaust, and my novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp.

My mum was 12 -- the same age as some of the Grade Six students I worked with today -- when she was sent from Amsterdam to Theresienstadt, where she was imprisoned for nearly three years. I told the students that, when I was growing up, I had a difficult relationship with my mum. Things changed when I finally learned her story. I was the first person she told about her experience during the Holocaust. She had kept her story secret for more than sixty years.

In past years, my mum has been able to say hello on Skype to the students, but sadly, this year, she is quite ill in hospital. But if she's well enough tomorrow, I will read her this blog entry when I visit. Also, I chose the photo in today's blog entry for my mom. The student in the pic is named Faith and I love how her sweatshirt says, "Love is Forever."

I wanted the students to know something really important about my mom -- that despite the difficulties she went through as a teenager, that she emerged WHOLE, and that she had a great sense of humour. Also, I shared the message that, in past years, she shared with students in Dumas: that they must never give up hope. She told them that the Nazis were able to take away their food, their clothing and their homes, but NEVER THEIR HOPE. AND THAT THAT HOPE HELPED TO KEEP THEM ALIVE.

I did two presentations this morning, and there was time at the end of both for questions. I must say I was deeply moved by the students' sensitivity and intelligence. A student named Abram asked, "How does it feel to be in a concentration camp?" I answered by trying to put myself in my mother's place (the way I did when I wrote the book), and I told Abram that in my view, the main feeling would be injustice. If you're in prison for robbing a bank, well, that would make sense -- but my mother was imprisoned simply because she was Jewish -- and that's unjust. And a student named Josée (correct me Josée if there's only one 'e' in your name and I'll fix this entry) asked a beautiful question: "Was your heart broken when you learned your mother's story? And did you cry?" I told him the truth: that my heart was broken sometimes, but at other times, I felt privileged and even happy to be getting the story. THAT'S BECAUSE I'M A WRITER. We writers live for stories. And in my own way, I think I helped my mum by allowing her to finally tell her story -- and to get it out into the world so that others can learn, and be inspired by it. When I told all that to Josée, he said something super kind: "I'm so glad for you."

I asked one of the students, Nolan, in the second group to record a video message for my mum. He thanked her for sharing her story. Nolan, when I go back to the hospital tomorrow morning, and if she's well enough, I will play her your message.

Many many thanks to my friends at Dumas Intermediate for inviting me to visit again, especially to Cathy Craigmiles, who has become my friend over the years. And a special thanks, too, to the students for being such wonderful listeners and for asking such wise questions. Now get to work on your own stories! Make writing and reading your habits -- and interview the people who drive you crazy sometimes; find out what they went through when they were growing up. I look forward to reading YOUR stories.

A big hug for all of you from Monique

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Adventures at Rosemere High School

I don't want you to think that the students I spoke to this morning at Rosemere High School were NOT paying attention, but I could not resist taking this pic of a young man doing a cool trick with the bookmark I gave him! I might be able to write books, but I sure can't do that with a bookmark!!

So, I was at Rosemere High this morning to work with two of Miss Lawrence's Grade Eight English classes. There were also some extra students who got to come because they LOVE writing. Yay!

In addition to sharing every writing tip I know, I told the students a few stories. (I have a new one this week about how a long thin green leafy stick came out of my cat's nostril this weekend.) There was also time for a writing exercise and I asked the students' permission to share some of their work in today's blog entry.

Sara-Elizabeth wrote about the day she met her best friend. I love how she used sound to take us into her story: "I could hear her dad washing his car, her mom gardening, and her brother playing basketball." A student named Shanie wrote about having experienced trouble. I was impressed by the poetic quality of her words: "I could see good times disappearing.... It felt like someone had turned the sun off inside my house." Elisa had a brilliant title for her piece: "The Day I Realized I Could Never Trust Anyone Again." Hey, Elisa, I'd read that book for sure! And a student named Cedric showed me some work he had already done -- it comes from the prologue to his novel-in-progress. Here's my favourite line: "The dark empty room was so quiet, I could hear my tears dropping onto the ground."

So I'm supposed to go and inspire students, but when I look at my notes from today, and think about my morning at Rosemere, I realized they have INSPIRED ME!

If you've met me, you'll know I'm crazy about body language. Well, I collected a new example of body language today. A student named Lindsay tugged on her ear when she answered my question about whether there were any students in the class who like to play what I call "the what if game." That means they're always asking themselves "what if?" Lindsay says she's one of those people -- and I told her that will help her with her stories.

I also liked that a student named Raquela noticed there was a coffee stain in the diary entry I showed the class. Writers also need to be careful observers.

Okay, dear blog reader, I've got to zip out of here to go to my own class at Marianopolis College. Thanks to Mrs. Lawrence for the invite, and to the students for getting my week off to a happy, stimulating start!


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"I started writing a book, but I'm not that good at it"

I spent the first half of today doing four writing workshops at Lindsay Place High School in Pointe-Claire. It's Hallowe'en in case you are trying to figure out why there is a ghoul in my lap in today's pic!

The title of this blog entry comes from one of my favourite conversations I had at Lindsay Place today. A student named Krista came to chat with me after my workshop and told me that, "I started writing a book, but I'm not that good at it." I got quite excited when Krista said that because IT'S EXACTLY HOW I FEEL EVERY TIME I WRITE. I also told Krista that there is only one thing she can do -- KEEP WRITING. I even think Krista's dissatisfaction with her writing could be a sign that she's a REAL WRITER. In fact, for me, the challenge is to keep writing, keep working hard, despite the doubts I feel almost every time I sit down to write.
I worked with four of Mrs. Russell's classes -- two grade sevens, and two grade eight groups. I had met the grade eights last year, so we discussed some rather complex material, such as that hearing someone's story can be both a privilege and a burden.

A student named Owen noticed that I was jotting a lot of stuff down. He observed, "You take a lot of notes" and asked, "Do you have a notebook with you at all times?" I told him the answer was YES. I almost always have a notebook with me. That's because we writers never know when a good idea will strike. I also suggested to the students I met today that they do the same thing -- keep a notebook handy to jot down ideas and observations.

Because each workshop was 50 mintues long, there wasn't much time for the students to do their own writing. But I did manage to fit one exercise in with the group of grade eights I worked with before lunch. I asked them to access a memory (I explained that memory is an important part of a writer's toolbox). They wrote some beautiful stuff and I asked two students' permission to quote them here. Yutong Hu, an exchange student who comes from China, wrote about a plane trip to Canada and how she tasted orange juice for the first time. She ended her piece by sharing something her mum told her on that plane ride: "You will be okay." I love that line. A student named Samantha wrote about her love for books. Here's my favourite line from Samantha's piece: "Most of my books are used, so they all have personalities."

Before I sign off for today, I want to tell you one more little story that helps explain why I have a special spot in my heart for Lindsay Place. Last year, I was contemplating writing a story about an untraditional princess. Then, during a visit to Lindsay Place, I met a lovely student named Angelica. Angelica's teacher, Mrs. Russell, told me that everyone calls Angelica "Jelly." Well, that was the inspiration I needed to get that book project started. Angelica, AKA Jelly is coming out in 2018 with Orca Books! And I couldn't have done it without my friends at Lindsay Place. Special thanks to the students for being wonderful, and to Mrs. Russell and librarian Mrs. Dunning for arranging my visit today. Oh, thanks also to Principal Estok, who dropped by to catch part of my workshop -- only I thought he was the chef from the cafeteria. I guess I was so pleased that a chef wanted to learn about writing that I totally forgot it was Hallowe'en. See what I mean when I say STORIES ARE EVERYWHERE!!!

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Reporting in from Greenwood StoryFest 2016

I have always wanted to be invited to the Greenwood StoryFest -- and this year my wish came true. This small, but wonderful literary festival, now in its 15th year, takes place at the historic Greenwood House in Hudson, Quebec. This year's participating authors included Terry Fallis, Heather O'Neill, Marina Endicott, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Gail Anderson-Dargatz and Eric Siblin.

For my stint at the festival, I did a writing workshop yesterday afternoon. There were a dozen of us in all, gathered in the diningroom. We worked on "Finding the Fun in Writing." Although I LOVE my students at Marianopolis College, I must say it was a treat to work with people who were so eager to write. In my classroom, when I announce we're going to do a writing exercise, I'm used to hearing a round of groans, grumbles, sighs and "do we have to's?"!! 

So for today's pic, I decided to let you see what it looks like when a dozen people LOVE TO WRITE. In fact, I had a hard time stopping them!

We did six or so exercises to help find the fun in writing -- that's because, as I explained to the participants, writing is a curious mix of hard work and great fun. Sometimes, on a really good day, we hit the sweetspot between those two experiences. One of the exercises we did involved accessing a childhood memory. I asked some of the participants whether I could go ahead and share some of my favourite lines that they came up with -- and they said yes!

Sandy wrote about her memory of being home sick and missing a day at school. She didn't mind so much because, as she wrote, "I was afraid of my teacher in Grade Four." Don't you want to read the rest of Sandy's story?

We talked about how smells can lead us deeper into memories. Marian remembered being in elementary school and the "sharpness  [of the scent] from photocopies."

Janice shared a poignant memory of a day in a small town in Saskatchewan: "I wanted my brother to like me." That simple sentence struck me as beautiful and evocative.

Karen remembered, "my teacher's voice as she reads Red Fox out loud" and "my mother's soft fingers brushing my knees as she adjusts the hem of my new party dress." Don't you feel like you are there with Karen when you read those sentences?

I'm glad I got to take part in Greenwood StoryFest this year, and I'm especially glad I got to work with such a wonderful gang. And really, it felt more like fun than work! Special thanks to my friends at Greenwood for inviting me, and especially to Terry O'Shaughnessy for making it happen!




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Two Classes & Two Lunch Periods at Centennial Academy

Today was my last day of writing workshops at Centennial Academy. I've had a chance to work with every high school student in the school's English stream. And because I wanted the kids to have some time to ask me some more questions, or just to chat informally, I decided to take my egg salad sandwich to school and hang out in the cafeteria during the school's two lunch periods.

My day started with Miss McNaughton's Grade 10 class. She introduced them to me by saying, "They're my favourite Grade 10 class," but then she added that they were her ONLY Grade ten group. At first, the class -- all boys -- were kind of reserved, but they opened up when we started talking about how trouble fuels a story. A student named Emile told a story about his family that gave me goosebumps. Afterwards his classmate Yedidia commented, "We don't know what goes on in other people's lives, especially the people we go around with every day." And I should add, that as a special treat during lunch, Yedidia, who is a talented singer and songwriter, sang "Moondance." Thanks for that, Yedidia!

Both lunches were lively. Here are some of the highlights: a student named Stuart asked if I could sign his forehead. (I declined, but I admit that it would have been fun, and definitely a first!) A student named Nikolas told me that he loves writing, but that sometimes, he runs out of steam. "I get inspired," he told me, "but then, the next day, I lose my inspiration." I told Nikolas that for me, writing a book is like running a marathon -- you've got to keep at it even when you feel like you've got nothing left! A student named Kasi wanted to know where I got the idea for my novel Scarred. I explained that though I never cut myself, I feel like I understand the impulse behind self-mutilation. Kasi responded by saying, "You feel empathy, not sympathy" -- which I thought was a brilliant comment. That's what writers need to do, not feel sorry for their characters, but crawl inside their skin. And a student named Steve cracked me up when he said, "I read three of your books this summer. My parents kind of forced me."

I ended my day at Centennial with Miss Markies's Grade Nine class. Since I had met many of these students last spring, I did a more advanced session with them -- I reviewed my usual points, but there was time for a writing exercise. I had the students access a memory of a time when they felt they had changed. Kasi wrote a beautiful paragraph about her grandfather's death in 2013. I asked her permission to let me quote a line here. "He was the only grandparent who had cool stories and who taught me how to play golf." You know what I think, Kasi? That you should write about your grandpa -- and also play golf!

I had another special treat at lunch. The head of school, Ms. Burgos, came to sit with me. I asked her what she likes most about Centennial. She told me, "You're free to be who you are. That's why our kids grow and exceed expectations." I must say that that is the sense I got, too, of the students I've been working with this month at Centennial. Thanks to all of you for welcoming me into your classes, for listening to my stories, and for sharing yours. Here's to being free to be who we are!


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Another Happy Day at Centennial Academy

You know how you can tell for sure that I'm enjoying the kids I'm working with at Centennial Academy? This coming Monday, I'm going to go and eat lunch with them -- just so I can hear more of their stories and answer questions they may have come up with after meeting me.

Today, I worked with two of Miss Markies's English classes. Also, my day started off happily (no broken fridge, no bicycle with jammed brakes!)... Miss Markies must have noticed last week that I have an aversion to holding chalk, so she gave me the perfect gift: an electric blue chalk holder!! (I will treasure it always, Miss M!)

I started the morning with Miss Markies's Grade Nine class. They cracked me up when I asked how many of them (there were 15 students in all) TELL LIES and 12 of them put up their hands! I explained that fiction writers need to tell good lies! I told the students that I've been working on a book about a princess who tells lies. I asked them, "What do you think my editor warned me NOT to do?" A student named Oscar came up with the answer: "Don't make her typical," he said. Which is exactly right. A student named Michael suggested I combine characters from two of my books. A student named Avi pointed out something I never realized: there is a boy named Todd in my book Pyro and also in Home Invader. (I guess I like the name.) "What if they turned out to be the same person?" Avi suggested. And a student named Dario told me something wonderful his mom told him about people who have learning disabilities like ADHD. Dario's mom said, "We're not defective; we're different." (I love that philosophy!)

Later, I did a workshop for MIss Markies's Grade Ten students. A student named Benjie wanted to know whether there is a connection between the writing I do in my daily journal and the writing I do for my books. I explained that the journal is my warm-up activity, but that sometimes, when I'm in what I call a writing pickle, I use my journal to try and figure out a solution. A student named Alexia told me she also keeps a journal. "I've already filled five books," Alexia said. "I write about my day and how it was -- and if there were any problems." Alexia, you sound like a writer to me!

Many thanks to my friends at Centennial for another happy day of writing workshops. Hey, don't forget that I'll be around for junior and senior lunch on Monday. Come by to say hello!


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What Happens When An Author Writes a Musical Comedy?

I'm always interested in what happens when an author -- take my friend Joel Yanofsky -- tries a new kind of writing. Which is why I'm devoting today's blog entry to Joel and his new romantic musical comedy Love U: the Grad School Musical which premieres tomorrow night at the Segal Centre here in Montreal.

Joel and I had a phone chat this morning and he told me that he's spent 18 years (off and on, of course!) working on this project. His artistic partner is California-based musician Peter Curtis. Joel says that the best thing about this project was being part of a creative team. Thanks to Infinititheater, Joel got to work with a "unit" of playwrights and actors who workshopped their projects together.

I asked Joel what he learned about writing from the experience, and he told me that the biggest lessons came from seeing an audience (the other members of the unit) respond to his writing. "You get to sit there and notice how people are reacting at the time to things like pacing. You realize where you have to make it faster," Joel explained.

Joel also pointed out that book-writing tends to be a solitary process. "I'll miss the collaborative nature of this project," he said. But Joel feels that he will take the lessons he learned from his work on this musical comedy back to his book-writing: "I have a better understanding of the importance of getting to the action."

Hey, if you're in Montreal tomorrow night, maybe you'll want to come to the premiere of Love U: the the Grad School Musical. Tickets are free. Go to the Love U: the Grad School Musical Facebook page to learn more and to reserve a ticket.

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Isaak the Human Shredder -- and Other Tales from Centennial Academy

Wouldn't YOU read a book called Isaak, the Human Shredder? I came up with that title today at Centennial Academy where I met a 10th grade student who was doing something I had never seen a student do before -- not in my 32 years in the classroom! Isaak was shredding the side of his sheet of paper. I happened to be explaining to his class how writers need to OBSERVE INTERESTING STUFF TO INCLUDE IN THEIR BOOKS -- and well, Isaak turned out to be interesting. Hey, Isaak, I'm busy writing a few books right now, so how about YOU write that book instead of me?!

I visited FIVE classes today at Centennial, but because the school is known for its small class sizes, I think I got a chance to get to know the kids -- and they're fun and open-hearted. I started the day with Miss McNaughton's Grade 11 class and I was explaining how TROUBLE IS THE FUEL THAT MOVES A STORY FORWARD. I happened to lock eyes at that moment with a student named Sarah and I asked her whether she could see in my eyes that I'd tasted trouble. Sarah said yes, and then I told her that I saw from her eyes that she'd tasted trouble too. As I explained to Sarah and her classmates, understanding what trouble feels like (or tastes like, smells like, sounds like, or looks like) has helped make me a writer.

My next two classes happened to be boys only. When I asked Miss Byron's Grade 7 class if they liked being in a class with all boys, a student named Justin cracked me up with his answer. He said: "It's the best. There's no drama that way." Later, a student named Jean-Philippe shared a story that gave me GOOSEBUMPS. (I always get goosebumps when I hear something touching or beautiful). The story was about how this summer, Jean-Philippe got to hang out in the toolshed that once belonged to his great uncle who died. Jean-Philippe, something tells me you need to write a story set in that toolshed. And a student named Luke understood what I meant when I explained that many of my novels for kids are rooted in reality. "You mean you use a story you know with a new sheet of paint?" -- and then Luke corrected what he'd just said, turning it into, "You mean you use a story you know with a new coat of paint?" I LOVED THAT because Luke was demonstrating out loud something else that writers need to do: REWRITE!

Alexandre, a student in Miss Byron's Grade 8 class (also boys only), asked about the editing process. He wanted to know what my editor's main criticism was when she first read What World Is Left. I thought that was a really sophisticated question. I explained how my editor felt I was protecting Anneke, the character whom I based on my mom. My editor, Sarah Harvey, thought the book would be better if Anneke was angrier with her father. That turned out be great advice.

When I visited Miss Markies's Grade 10 class, I spoke to the students about doing research and how sometimes, grandparents have the best stories -- and how it's up to grandchildren to find those stories out. A student named Emily had a great suggestion. She said that looking at old photographs is a good way to get people talking about their pasts. Emily got the idea because recently she was visiting her grandmother's cottage -- and they looked at old photographs together.

I ended my day with another one of Miss Byron's Grade 7 classes. I warned them not to be too cute or too smart because I already had a lot of good material for today's blog -- but they didn't listen! Several students in this class are already hooked on writing. Zachary told us, "I write for hours. Sometimes my wrist hurts." And towards the end of my visit, Zachary said something else I could not resist writing down: "Whenever you go some place, you never know what people have been through." What beautiful words to use to end today's blog entry. You know what I think? That we can use language and stories to share what we have been through, and to learn about others' experiences as well. Thanks to all my friends at Centennial for a great day. I'll be back on Friday. And I already look forward to it!

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Happy Morning at Centennial Academy -- 1st School Visit of the New School Year

I'm always delighted when I'm invited to visit a school and talk about writing (and reading)... but I am extra-delighted about the visits I am doing this month at Centennial Academy in Montreal. That's because all the English-stream high school students at Centennial had a special reading assignment this summer -- they had to read one of my books!!

In all, I'll be visiting a dozen classes at the school, which is known for its small class sizes and the special attention students get from faculty and staff. Last May, I visited two classes at Centennial -- and I realized right away that the students at this school are my favourite kind of students because they're fun and full of life and they're not afraid to say what they are thinking!

Here's my first example. When I walked into Miss McNaughton's Grade 11 English class this morning, I asked a student his name and he told me, "It's not Benjamin; it's not Benito; it's not Benoit -- it's Ben!" (Of course I wrote that down right away since it's just the kind of line I'd love to use in a novel. Thanks for the inspiration, Ben!)

Which brings me to my next subject -- novels and how to write them. I told the students that I get many of my story ideas from real life. I also told them that I am especially interested in secrets (such as the one my mom kept for more than 60 years when she was not willing to talk about what happened to her during the Holocaust). A student named Mark, who's in Miss Byron's Grade Eight English class, told me he enjoys writing. Mark summed up what he learned from my talk; he said, "I used to just write about anything that came into my head. Now I can look around me and write about that!"

I also explained to the students that writing is HARD WORK. I told them that if they read their first draft and they think it's perfect, well then, they're probably not meant to be professional writers. (I HATE my first drafts, but then I re-write and re-write and re-write some more, and somewhere during that process, the writing starts to get better!) We also talked about the fact that though despite WORKING hard, writers also need to PLAY with language. I tried out a new playing-with-language exercise with two of my groups today. I asked students to make a list of what we call "imitative words" -- like bang and boom and moo. Then we read our lists out loud and filled the classroom with words. I laughed when a student named Raquel read the word ribbit (as in the sound a frog makes). I also liked Renee's cock-a-doodle-doo and Emma's zoom.

I hope the students I met today had fun during my workshops. I know I HAD FUN. I'll be back at Centennial first thing Monday morning. I hope to meet more interesting students and to spread the word that writing and reading are great habits, that they help connect us to others, and can help us understand the world a little better. Thanks to Miss McNaughton and Miss Richter for arranging my visit, and to Miss McNaughton and Miss Byron for sharing your students with me. See you Monday!

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First Writing Workshop of the Season!

I'm happy to report that my first writing workshop of the season was a BLAST -- if I may say so myself!

Today was the last day of this year's NDG Arts Fest and I got to do a workshop called "Making Writing Fun" at the beautiful new Benny Library. I had 16 wonderful participants. In the classroom, students sometimes moan when I make them do writing exercises, but I had the opposite problem with today's group -- I COULDN'T GET THEM TO STOP WRITING!!

The participants were writers of all ages and at all stage of their writing careers. Several had published more than one book; there were poets and translators and fiction and non-fiction writers. There were also several teachers, including Professor Lewis Poteet, who directed my thesis when I was doing my Master's degree at Concordia University in the early 80s! What an honour to have my former teacher in the group today!!

The focus was on doing fun exercises to help loosen up our writing muscles. When we went around the table to introduce ourselves, many of the participants explained that they'd come to the workshop because they needed to inject some fun into their writing process. Several are already hard at work on books and they're at the point where they're running out of steam -- a normal, if uncomfortable stage in the writing process!

We wrote with our non-dominant hands; we made self-portraits with words; we made lists; and we worked with old memories and dreams. For me, the three-hour workshop went by in a flash. Thanks to the Quebec Writers' Federation for funding the workshop. Many thanks, also, to the participants -- you guys were amazing and full of energy. The writing I sneaked a peek at was REALLY REALLY GOOD. I already look forward to reading the work that may grow out of today's session. And thanks to all of you for getting my new workshop season off to a happy, FUN start!!

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Dear Kimberly

It's been a while since I posted a new blog entry... but a student named Kimberly, whom I met in May at Joliette High School inspired me to write today's blog entry. That's because I got an email from Kimberly yesterday, asking me for some writing advice. I figured I might as well turn my reply to Kimberly into a blog entry that might be useful to other aspiring writers too! So here goes...

Dear Kimberly,

Thanks so much for your email. I've been spending most of my days this summer at the computer working on a new book project, so it's fun to hear from a real live person (I've been hanging out mostly with imaginary kids!!).

You said you are interested in writing a chapter book and you wanted to know how many chapter it should have and how long the book should be. You also wanted some tips for beginning and ending a story.

A good idea when you start a project is to go the library or bookstore and check out the section that has the kind of books you'd like to write. There are many kinds of chapter books and their lengths vary. In the spring, I finished my first chapter book. It is aimed for readers who are around eight years old and it has about 8,000 words. There are about 15 chapters -- which is about 500 words per chapter.

As for where to begin, the most important advice I can give you is to begin some place INTERESTING. You can start with a funny moment or a suspenseful moment, or with intriguing dialogue. The point is to catch your reader's interest from the very start. As for where to end, I usually figure that out as I go along. I often tell my students that when I was a kid, stories often ended in a "happy-ever-after" way. Today, most stories don't end with everything wrapped up perfectly. My favourite stories end with the sense that the characters have grown in some important and meaningful way.

I hope this advice proves useful. You've got over a month before you go back to school. Use that time to get cracking on your chapter book.

Best wishes from Monique






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Some Days You Get Just What You Need... Visit to Centennial Academy

I'm calling today's blog entry "Some Days You Get Just What You Need" because that's the kind of day I had at Centennial Academy. This was my last school visit until the fall and well... what I needed... was laughter and an appreciation for stories. Let me give you some background -- I recently started work on a new book project and I've decided to tackle a sad, difficult topic. But I know that if I want my story to work, it will need humour. So I've been trying to think up characters who are funny. Then lucky me -- I got invited to work with some very funny and FUN grade eight students at Centennial.

My invitation to speak at Centennial came from Miss McNaughton -- we met when she was teaching in Nunavik! But I worked with Miss Byron's English classes. One of the best things about Centennial is that classes are small and so it's possible to really get to know the kids.

Here's some of the things they came up with that made me laugh. I was telling the students that writers need to be OBSERVANT. For an example, I pointed to a student named James who had kicked off his shoes. I asked James, "Can I take a picture of your shoes?" and he answered, "It's not the first time someone's asked me that!" (I was so busy laughing at James's comment that I forgot to take the picture. Instead I settled for a picture of a weird pencil, which I'll tell you about a little later....)

A student named Dario also cracked me up when he put on a British accent and said he sometimes likes to pretend to be an imaginary person named General Bobo. This was especially funny to me because I call my cat (whose real name is Ninja) Bobo -- but now I'm going to call him General Bobo instead. You know what, Dario? Ninja (aka Bobo) was out before and when I called him in using his newest name "General Bobo," he came right home!! (I think he feels like he is getting more respect!!)

I also laughed after I told students that according to research, IT TAKES THREE WEEKS TO FORM A GOOD HABIT (I was talking about writing in a journal) and a student named Elle asked, "Is it the same for bad habits?" When I asked Elle if she had an example of a bad habit of her own, she said it was never hanging up her wet towel -- and that drives her mom crazy. Elle, summer's coming -- and I think it's time to start a new good habit. HANG UP YOUR TOWEL!!

My favourite funny line today also came from James. I asked the class to come up with words to describe himself and James said: "I'm socially awkard and so is the whole grade!" That made me laugh really hard and made me happy too. There's nothing healthier than being able to laugh at ourselves. As I told the students, I was a socially awkward teenager myself and now I'm just happy to be me. It took me many years to get this comfortable -- but I'd say James is well on his way.

Now you are wondering why I posted a photo of a strange pencil. That's because in the second class, I observed a student playing with this pencil. I learned the pencil belongs to another student, Jordan. I've seen many pencils in my day, but this is the strangest. It looks like it was run over by a tractor. I think someone should write the biography of this sad pencil. Maybe even the autobiography!

I want to end this blog entry with a little story: I told the students that my novel What World Is Left is based on the story of my mom's real-life experience in a Nazi concentration camp. This led a student named Michael to say, "What you just said hits close to home." Then Michael told me his grandfather who lived in Morocco also has stories about the war years. On his way out of class, Michael said, "I want to be a game developer, but I might write as a side thing" -- but the real end to my story happened about an hour or so after I left Centennial. That's because I went over to check on my parents. While I was there, the phone rang and I heard my dad talking to one of his neighbours. You'll never guess who she was?

Michael's grandmother!

Isn't life full of stories -- sad ones, happy ones, ones we will never forget? I couldn't have had a happier, more satisfying school visit to cap off a busy school year. Special thanks to Miss McNaughton and Miss Byron, also to my friend and fellow writer Elise Moser who came to hear my second presentation today (I showed the students her amazing YA novel Lily & Taylor), and to the students for making me laugh and think. If my new book book project turns out well, I'll have to thank you for the inspiration!

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Loads of Stories at Joliette High

I must say it was an EXCITING day today at Jollette High School.

I was there to do writing workshops with Miss Harrison and Mr. Balassone's Grade Seven English classes. There were 53 students in all. Originally, we were going to divide them into two groups, but when I heard I could have the students for TWICE AS LONG, well I suggested we combine the two groups. Now, in case you haven't figured this out for yourselves, 53 grade sevens is a lot of kids. But I must say that overall they were wonderful, and many did really beautiful work.

We talked about how TROUBLE is the gasoline that moves a story forward. So, of course, I was super interested when I learned that one student was carrying around what he told me is called a "tracer" -- he explained that it's like a behavior report. You know what? He should write a book called Tracer! I would definitely read it!

More trouble struck at lunch time when a student may have broken his wrist. In the morning, I worked with students in the CLC (community learning centre) room, but in the afternoon, we moved to the cafeteria. Well, imagine this: a student named Emilio and I  watched through the cafeteria windows as another student (I'll call him W) got into the school secretary's car so she could take him to the hospital ... and his arm was in a sling. Of course, I'm sorry for the young man's pain, but there was another story unfolding right before our eyes. "You should write it!" Emilio told me. I thought that since he goes to the school and will be there tomorrow to find out what happened, HE should be the one to write the story!

I also talked about the importance of uncovering secrets -- and of how sometimes, it's easiest to get older people to tell us their secrets. That's because seniors are sometimes lonely and they want to tell their stories! A student named William told me about his grandfather who came from Croatia and how, when he was young, he worked building roads. And a student named Alex told me about his interesting relatives who came from Greece. As I told Alex, "Get cracking on your stories!"

I also want to say a word about my lunch hour today at Joliette High. Usually, I just hang out at the library over lunch when I am doing a school visit, but today, I had some great company -- a bunch of students, as well as Mrs. Murphy, who runs the CLC and who coordinated my visit today. Looking back at lunch time, I realize I had some of the best conversations with kids that I've had in a long time.Here are some examples:

A student named Julia told me about her obsession with Dr. Who (she was even wearing a Dr. Who scarf). When I asked Julia what was so great about Dr. Who, she told me, "The characters" -- which prompted me to tell her it's the same with novels -- great characters make a book great!

Then there was Lucas, whom Mrs. Murphy described as the school's "in-house songwriter." It turns out that Lucas is a remarkable and very talented young man. He has written songs about bullying and suicide. I asked his permission to quote a little of his lyrics -- here goes: "Get shoved to the ground/ Pushed around / That's my life." I love that Lucas has found a way to turn difficult life experience into something beautiful. Check out his Facebook page at

At lunch, I told the students who were there that I am working on a new manuscript in which I am hoping to use humour to help me explore a tough topic. That led us to a discussion of sarcasm. A student named Kaelly gave me a fun example of sarcasm. Kaelly's twin sister worries about her a lot, so this morning on the bus to school, when Kaelly's sister asked Kaelly whether she had remembered to bring her lunchbox (which Kaelly did remember to bring), Kaelly told her, "No!" Just to bug her sister! It's a small example, but I like it... so thanks, Kaelly, for this tidbit, which just might find its way into my new story.

Speaking of thanks, a big thank you to the students today for working hard and being attentive. Thanks also to your teachers and to Mrs. Murphy for making me feel so at home. I had a wonderful day with you guys!



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Back to the Source of of Inspiration: Heritage Regional High


I got the idea for my new book, Leggings Revolt, a few years ago when I was visiting Mrs. Eva's class at Heritage Regional High School in St. Hubert -- and the kids told me that they'd protested their school dress code. Today, I was back at Heritage Regional working with two spirited groups of students.

The first group was Mr. Bakali's Grade Nine class. One of the things I talked about was how writers need to pay attention to small, but telling details. In the pic at the top of this post, I caught two students with interesting body language. Nick was chewing on a wooden stick. "It helps me concentrate," he explained. And I caught Alissa twisting her hair and chewing on it. (I asked them both to demonstrate their moves for my pic!)

During my time with both groups, I tried to pack in as many writing tips as possible -- and to give each group a writing exercise. On her way out of the library where I did my workshops, a student named Vanessa told me she is writing a book about teens who have superpowers. Sounds like fun! Vanessa also said that she learned some stuff from me. "I learned," she told me, "to ask more questions." I decided that was a very good thing to learn -- asking questions leads to information, and we need information to tell a good story!

I finished the afternoon with Mrs. Eva's Grade 11 creative writing class. These students write super well! A student named Sammy wanted to show me a story he had written for Mrs. Eva in which he took the point of view of a suicidal tree. I asked his permission to quote my favourite line: "I was the sole survivor of 200 trees."

A student named Justin and I debated the use of rhyme. I told him that to my ear, most rhyme sounds forced. I jokingly told him, "Kill the rhyming monster!" -- and that made me start thinking that a story with a rhyming monster in it would be cool!

So thanks to the students I met today for being so much fun, and thanks to my dear friend and master teacher Mrs. Eva for the invite. It's nearly dinner and I should be tired, but there's something about Heritage Regional that gets me energized and inspired!

Hey, here's a pic of me with Mrs. Eva's young writers!

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Putting the Fun Back Into Writing!

It was a perfect day in Montreal -- blue sky, T-shirt only kinda weather. So, basically, not the kind of day most Montrealers want to spend indoors. But the 12 people I hung out with today weren't most Montrealers -- they were writers, all at various stages of life and work, and they all showed up to take my Quebec Writers' Federation workshop called "Putting the Fun Back Into Wiriting!" -- which explains the title of today's blog entry.

Usually, I do a lot of yakking -- but today, the focus was really on writing. I did tell the group that for me, writing is a curious mix of work and play -- mostly work, and that I, too, occasionally need an injection of fun. In fact, sometimes my editor Sarah N. Harvey reminds me, "Go have fun with your story!"

As a writing teacher, I've collected fun exercises which I use when my students seem to be running out of steam, or just to change things up in the classroom. Well, today, I pulled out all those exercises. We played with the sounds of words; we did self-portraits using words; and we tapped into childhood memories. I think it's safe to say we had fun!

I believe the participants in today's workshop learned some new tricks, but they also seemed to get the sense that they were on the right track. As I told them, if they managed to stay focused on writing from 10 AM till 4 PM (minus our lunch break) on such a gorgeous day, well then, they HAVE TO BE WRITERS!! Deborah, one of the participants told us she'd thought she'd given up writing, but then, when we were discussing how we love notebooks, she pulled three notebooks (all of them written in!) out of her bag, and said, "I realize I've been writing all along."

Special thanks to my "students" -- Vivianne, Renee, Britt, Rita, Maureen, Jeff, Cynthia, Deborah, Anne (that's Anne Renaud, my friend and fellow kids' author), Timothy, Claire and Cathy; and to the Quebec Writers' Federation for offering the workshop. It was my first time doing it and I hope it's okay THAT I HAD A GREAT TIME TOO.

Here's to hard work and happy play! May we find the sweet spot between the two in our lives, and in our writing!

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Cupcake Party at St. Thomas High School to Mark the Release of Leggings Revolt!

I'm just home from a super special celebration at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. Today's pic was taken at the school library. I was there to deliver 20 copies of my novel, Leggings Revolt, to the 20 Grade 10 students who helped me when I was reearching and writing the book. And sitting next to me in the grey sweatshirt is Mrs. Pye, the librarian to whom the book is dedicated!

I signed all 20 copies of course. In some I wrote, "I couldn't have written this book without you!" -- which is totally true. The idea for Leggings Revolt came a few years ago when I was visiting Heritage Regional High School and working with my friend Mrs. Eva's students. They told me that students at their school had organized a protest after they were forbidden to wear leggings. I was still thinking about that a year-and-a-half ago, when I was doing writing workshops with at St. Thomas. I told the St. Thomas students that I was toying with the idea of writing a novel about an unfair dress code and several of them agreed to drop by during their lunch hour to share their thoughts on the subject. That first lunch meeting was so successful that I came back several more times to have lunch and pick the brains of what became an informal focus group.

I like to think the students learned as much as I did -- and I learned a lot! They were pretty excited today when I gave them their copies of the book they had helped me write. (They were also pretty excited about the cupcakes that Mrs. Pye supplied!) As Brianna Losinger-Ross told me, "I would like to write professionally, so it was fun seeing it in real life and not just seeing videos or reading about the writing process." Averie Tucker added that, "It was cool to be able to pitch in ideas and help."

While we were feasting on cupcakes, I took the opportunity to talk to the students about the NEW project that I started this week. You will not be surprised to hear that they had LOADS of great ideas. Something tells me I'll be back at St. Thomas some lunch time soon. Huge thanks to all my friends at the school; to Mr. Abracen, the wonderful, supportive principal at St. Thomas; and to librarian extraordinaire, Mrs. Pye.

And... if you're wondering about the man with the camera -- he's from the Montreal Gazette. The newspaper's West Island section will be running a little story soon about how the students at St. Thomas helped me write Leggings Revolt!

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Follow the Clues -- from the Westmount Library

If you follow the clues in today's pic, you'll be able to figure out that I was doing another detective-story-writing workshop this morning. The event was also part of the Blue Metropolis Children's Festival and it took place at Westmount Library.

I was lucky to work with a lively group of Grade Five students from Miss Edgar's and Miss Cramp's School, as well as three visiting students from other neighbourhood schools. The ECS students were there with their teacher Miss Casement, their student teacher Madison Seller, and the school librarian Rennie Macleod.

I tried to tell the students everything I wish someone had told me about writing when I was their age -- mainly that writing is usually hard and often frustrating, and that that's why I like it so much. I guess I enjoy doing difficult things. I also told them to make writing a habit, even if they don't plan to become professional writers. When I asked how many students were interested in writing as a career, a whopping nine of them put up their hands. (Way to go, gang!)

I made sure to leave time for two detective-story-writing exercises. I got the students to imagine an unusual detective and then to come up with a cool crime scene. I also suggested that their detectives should have a backstories that might help explain why they became detectives in the first place. A student named Gunes had a great backstory for her detective: "She killed someone two years ago when she was mentally ill." You know what, Gunes? I'd read your book!

A student named Brianna came up with a great idea for a detective -- a fat butcher. Jade's detective was an undercover pastry chef. I told Jade that I thought "Undercover Pastry Chef" would make a great book title. And a student named Angel imagined a detective who is "the second daughter in a family of spies and robbers." Great ideas, don't you agree?

When we talked about crime scene investigation, a student named Megan knew that all ten of our fingerprints are different. (I never knew that until I started doing the research for Forensics Squad Unleashed). "My dad used to be a scientist and he told me that," Jade explained.

I was impressed that a student named Aneesa knew that the secret of writing is REWRITING! I liked how the ECS girls, Angelique in particular, raised their hands in a confident excited way. (I told the students that both writers and detectives need to be observant and that taking notes is a big part of both jobs.) A student named Alana asked, "Does diary writing count?" I told Alanna that every kind of writing counts. The more we write, the better we get -- and I suggested she might try writing her detective story in the form of a diary.

And then, there was a student named Serena -- whose name I am thinking of using in my next book!

Thanks to the students for working so hard and listening so attentively. Thanks to Blue Met for arranging the event, and to Westmount Library's children's librarian Wendy Wayling for organizing today's visit. What a great way to start this Thursday!

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Follow the Clues to Create Your Own Detective Story

To mark the release of Forensics Squad Unleashed, my first detective story for young readers, I've developed a new writing workshop called "Follow the Clues to Create Your Own Detective Story."

And I tried it out for the first time yesterday at the beautiful new Benny Library (which happens to be around the corner from my house!). The event was part of this year's Blue Metropolis Children's Festival. My test subjects were a group of Grade Six students from Ecole Judith-Jasmin in NDG. That's them in today's pic -- busy doing a writing exercise. (I made them invent a detective, then dream up a crime and boy! did they ever have some good ideas!) All you see are the students' backs -- that's because we weren't sure they had permission to be photographed -- but their teacher, Madame Normand, is smiling at you in the pic.

So, just like the title of my workshop promised, I shared clues for creating a detective story. We discussed the importance of establishing a setting, coming up with a personality and backstory for your detective, inventing a crime and a crime scene, and supplying suspects. I also read a little from the new book to give students an idea of how I put it all together.

All my books involve research. For Forensics Squad Unleashed, I attended a forensics camp for kids offered by the University of Toronto in the summer of 2014. I think it's safe to say that that was the most fun I ever had researching a book. I spent five days hanging out with a group of ten and eleven-year-olds and they never once complained about having a middle-aged lady tagging along!

I was really impressed by Madame Normand's students today. A student named Manshen knew all about forensics. He said, "It's people who investigate crimes and determine time of death and stuff." When I asked what the "cousin" of writing is, a student named David came up with answer I was looking for: "Reading!" he called out. Afterwards, David told me, "I read anything." And my heart really went out to a student named Paola who, during the writing exercise, WOULD NOT STOP WRITING. (That, by the way, is every writing workshop leader's dream!) I was also impressed by a student named Maya who set her crime story in a library! In Maya's story, there's a sign that reads, "Those who enter will suffer!" (She did not mean the Benny Library, of course!)

I also had a special guest -- Zahra Y., a grade three student who is being homeschooled by her fabulous mom, Amanda. Though Zahra was younger than the other kids in the group, she had no trouble keeping up. Also, since the last time I saw her, Zahra has been hard at work on her own story. 

It's going to be a busy week with the Blue Metropolis Festival in full swing. I'll try to keep the blog entries coming. In the meaning, follow the clues. And have fun while you're doing it! Special thanks to Blue Metropolis, and to Gaelle Bergougnoux and the Benny Library for hosting today's event.



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Why Holocaust Education Matters So Much

Yesterday, I was honoured to take part in Vanier College's annual Holocaust Symposium. The symposium's coordinator Marlene Grossman invited me to speak to Karen Rhodes's "Women Writers and the Short Story" class. Miss Rhodes and her students have been studying discrimination so the timing was right for me to tell them about my interest in Holocaust studies. I explained how my mum, who is 86, is a survivor of the Holocaust and how she kept her story secret for more than 60 years -- until a snoopy, curly-haired person (you guessed it -- me!) got it out of her.

As I told the class, I spent five months interviewing my mum -- and then several more months writing the first draft of the book that became What World Is Left.

One of the reasons I think Holocaust education is so important is because survivors, like my mom, are getting older. Now it's up to us to keep their stories alive.

During my talk, I told the students that they need to uncover their own family secrets. In a city like Montreal, many of our parents and grandparents come from other countries, and many have gone through tough times. A student named Alex told me that his Hungarian great-grandfather was a Jew who was used by the Nazis to do carpentry work. Alex told me he wants to interview his grandparents about their memories of life in Hungary, and what it was like to start over in a new country.

When I talked about the need to REWRITE, I caught a student named Sabrina nodding. So I asked Sabrina why she reacted to my comment. She explained that last year she did a special project with seniors about dignity. "I rewrote it 15 times," she said. Yay, Sabrina! You sound like a real writer!

A student named Janella is close with her grandmother who came from St. Vincent. But Janella told me that sometimes it is hard for her to distinguish whether her grandmother's stories are true or fantasy. I suggested that maybe Janella should try writing a story about her grandmother that combines memoir and fantasy. I'd definitely read it!

Holocaust education matters so that we can prevent the atrocities that happened from happening again. I don't know of a better way to reach people's hearts than by telling stories. Thanks to Miss Rhodes for sharing your class with me, and thanks to the students for being such an attentive, sensitive audience. Now go get the stories that matter!








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Frabjous Day at the imagiNation Writers' Festival

I am writing today's blog entry from the train -- it's just a little after 8 AM and I am headed home after a whirlwind day (and night) in Quebec City, where I was part of this year's imagiNation Writers' Festival. And was it ever fun!!

I called today's entry "Frabjous Day..." because the talk I did was about my favourite subject: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its creator Lewis Carroll. I wrote my MA thesis on the Alice books and I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that I've read Alice at lest 600 times -- and that every time I read the book, I learn something new!

The imagiNation festival takes place at the Morrin Centre in Quebec City. It's a beautiful old building. Believe it or not, it used to house a prison and next time you are in Quebec City, you must pop over for a tour. My talk took place in the library. Now, I've been in lots of libraries, but this was the most magical library I ever saw. It's not a huge room, but there are two floors of books and there are beautiful balustrades and to top it all off, there was tea in porcelain cups.

The sweet girl with me in today's pic is Emily Fiset, a student from Cegep Garneau. She was there with several classmates and their teacher Tracy Burns. Emily made me laugh when she told me, "I'm interested and the library is gorgeous -- and I heard there's tea!"

If you know me, you'll know I had no shortage of things to say about Alice, but in my opinion, the high-point came at the end of my talk when I asked the audience if they knew Lewis Carroll's poem Jabberwocky. Several people did and one brave soul, Katherine Burgess, came up to the podium to recite it with me. She made me feel like I was a kid again! Afterwards, I discovered that Katherine taught senior English for many years in Labrador, and that she's now the minister at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, which happens to be next door to the Morrin Centre.

That's not all I have to report. In the lobby of the hotel where I was staying, I met up briefly with fellow children's author Jacqueline Guest. Jacqueline was headed home to Calgary -- but not to worry, dear blog reader, I did a mini-interview with her which I am saving up for a future blog entry.

After my talk, I went to hear American bestselling author Jeffery Deaver talk about the writing process. His advice to the audience was "Outline! Outline! Outline!" An hour or so later, I caught Anna and Jane McGarrigle talking about their new book, Mountain City Girls -- and they said they never outline a thing. Which is one of the great things about a literary festival -- hearing different points of view and learning about what works for different authors.

Many thanks to Elizabeth Perreault and Jessica Kelly-Rhéaume for inviting me to the festival. I know what's most important is that the audience learns and has fun, but this writer HAD A BLAST!!

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Wonderful Wintry Day With Students from Centre Collegial de Mont-Tremblant

April 7 -- you might think winter was over in this part of the world, but it isn't. I had to drive in wintry weather on slick roads to get to the townhall in St. Jovite this morning. But it was worth it -- or in French, ça vallait la peine. I worked with three classes of students from Centre Collegial de Mont-Tremblant and they were JUST WONDERFUL. In fact, during the writing exercise portion of my workshop, I actually had to make them stop writing. (Breaks my heart to do that, but hey! there were still a few more pointers I wanted to share with them -- and stories, too!)

My invite came from English teacher Amanda Juby. Amanda and I go WAAAY back, to the days when she was working as an administrator for the Kativik School Board in Nunavik. So, part of the fun from today was meeting up with Amanda (we even got to go for lunch afterwards!!).

Back to the highlights of my work with the students. I tried a brand new writing exercise today. Because the students come from all over the Mont-Tremblant region and many of them live close to nature, I asked them to write about the place where they feel most at home. A student named Sales, who came to Canada from Algeria when he was four years old, wrote about his family's kitchen in Algeria. He remembered his "grandmother eating fish, and the view of the Mediterranean from the balcony." Thanks, Sales, for taking me there! (I told the students that is the goal of all good writing -- to take your reader somewhere with you.)

Later, I asked students to write about a moment of change in their lives. Sarah wrote about her complicated relationship with a parent. Sarah, I read enough of your piece to know you are a good writer with an important story to share. Go for it!

Anthony is studying Pure and Appled Sciences, but I think I got him interested in professional writing. He told me afterwards that while I was speaking, he thought to himself, "Oh, that's great!"

And a student named Ninon kept writing and writing -- it looked as if her pen was flying off the page. I must say that made me very happy.

In fact, my whole visit today made me super happy. Thanks to the teachers for inviting me, to Amanda Juby and Alexandre Laplante for getting things organized, and to my former colleague Johanne Courte, and new friend Genevieve Scott, for being part of the fun today! Special thanks to the students. I loved working with you!

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Time for a Writing Exercise!

I'm calling today's blog post "Time for a Writing Exercise" because usually when I say those words to a group of young people, they groan. (I think that's because most of them know writing is a lot of work, and they'd rather just sit back and listen to an author yak!). But yesterday, when I was in Quebec City for the 2016 Performing Arts Festival, and I announced, "Time for a writing exercise," I got quite a different reaction. In fact, Marjolie, who goes to Shawinigan High School and was the youngest participant in the session, called out, "Oh good!"

What made yesterday's writing workshop so much fun was that the dozen or so students I worked with all WANTED to be there. In fact, it was hard to get them to STOP WRITING!

I was the only fiction writer at the festival. There was also a trapeze artist named Hélèna Courteau, a singer, two drummers, two magicians (one named Carl Pellerin), a potter...  to name just a few of the other workshop leaders. So with that competition, I was pretty thrilled to get any students at all to sign up for my workshop!

When I talked about how important it is for writers to read -- A LOT and ALL THE TIME, a young man named Christopher, who attends St. Patrick's High School in Quebec City, talked about the effect reading has on him. He  told us, "When I read, I use it to gain ideas and inspiration to write." I was also impressed to learn that Christopher has been writing stories since he was in Secondary I and that he has a special interest in mythology.

I showed the students the journal I write in every single morning. Because they were curious to know the kinds of things I write about in my journal, I discussed observation, catharsis, intuition and reflection -- four styles of journal writing. I told them that intuitive writing is my favourite kind of journal writing. A student named Allyson, who also goes to St. Patrick's, told us she keeps a dream journal. Oh, did that ever make me happy! Writing about dreams is another great way to tap into imagination and inspiration.

I have to admit I was a little sad when the workshop ended. It was a real treat to work with such enthusiastic young people. Something tells me that in not too many years from now, I'll be reading some of THEIR books.

Special thanks to Aurian Haller, the consultant/musician/poet who organizes the Performing Arts Festival, and to Quebec High School for hosting the event. But thanks most of all to my workshop participants -- the grown-up ones too -- you were a DREAM for this writer!!





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Writing Lessons from a Stand-up Comedian

When I invited Toronto-based stand-up comedian Lauren Walsh-Greene to visit my Stuff of Nonsense Humanities class at Marianopolis College this week, I never expected I'd learn about writing. Afterall, I've been teaching about writing for 32 years. But, not only did Lauren keep us laughing, she had some really useful things to say about writing comedy that can be applied to all sorts of writing.
Which is why I'm going to use today's blog entry to share some of Lauren's pointers.

Lauren has been studying at Second City in Toronto. She told us her teachers say: "All comedy is born from truth, real  life, surprise or pain." I think that applies to all good writing. Lauren added that, "a lot of stand-up is about being vulnerable." In the set she performed for us, Lauren joked about what it's like to be a single woman in Toronto. She used humour to share the real-life challenges she faces as a young woman in a big city.

When she writes her routines, Lauren explained that she starts with a premise and then brainstorms. "Start with something you genuinely find funny," she told the class.

She also told the students something I'm always telling them -- to carry a notebook at all times, and in the case of comedy writing, to write down every joke they think of. I tell my students to write down ideas, observations, odd thoughts... the main thing is to WRITE A LOT and ALL THE TIME!

Finally, Lauren told us: "Be provocative; be brave!" I think we all sensed that Lauren lives in keeping with those words. So, thanks Lauren, for a great, inspiring visit. I told my other two classes all about you and shared your advice with them too. Keep writing and making us think with your stand-up routine!

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It's Not Easy to Get Good Pics From School Visits

If you're an author who does a lot of school visits, and who blogs about it, you face a challenge that not too many people know about: coming up with interesting pics to go along with your blog posts. Usually, it's just a pic of yours truly with some budding writers. But today, during my second visit to Westwood Senior High School, I did better: I got you a pic of a double-jointed student named Marcus. I caught Marcus doing this impressive arm move during my talk, and because I am always thinking about you, dear blog reader, I whipped out my phone and got a pic!

Today, I worked with three grade nine groups. Many of the students had met me before when I spoke at Forest Hill, their elementary school. So, to shake things up, I talked less about writing tips, and more about what I've been up to lately as a writer. I told them about Bullies Rule, a manuscript I just sold to Orca, and which I am currently revising. All that's left on this rewrite is to fix the last chapter. That'll be tomorrow's big task. I told the students how I heard an interview with a neuro-scientist who explained that our brains are hardwired to solve problems. So instead of feeling distressed about fixing my last chapter, I am simply gong to tell my brain to have fun and get to work!

When we talked about re-writes, I asked students in Miss Havard's class if they ever handed in a first draft. Cassandra admitted that she had. Later, during the writing exercise I gave her class, Cassandra wrote a lovely paragraph about coming across an old photo from when she was ten years old. Hey, Cassandra, if you REVISE and RE-WRITE that piece, it's going to be AMAZING!

A student named Chelsea wrote a line I really liked -- and I asked her permission to quote it here: "Back to when we were happy." Don't you think that would make a beautiful book title? Hey Chelsea, write the book to go with it!

I sent Miss Phillips's class on a mini-expedition: to walk around the library and observe the other students working there. That turned out to be a fun exercise. (And I have to admit I made it up on the spot.) Being observant is an important part of a writer's job.

One of Miss Phillips's students, McKenna, showed me what she wrote later in our workshop -- a paragraph about how, when she was in Grade Three, a friend got angry when McKenna gave her a hug. "Now I hardly hug anymore," McKenna wrote. I found that line beautiful for its simple honesty.

But the highlight of today's visit -- besides meeting double-jointed Marcus -- was a little I had with a student named Olivia. "Now that I met you," Olivia told me, "I'm going to come back to the library and get a book at lunch."

Great to be with you guys today! Thanks to Miss Havard and Miss Phillips, and to librarian Mrs. Austen for the invite, and for making me tea!! Here's to reading and writing -- and stories of all kinds.


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Happy Day at Lindsay Place High School

I do a lot of school visits -- plus I have three wonderful classes at Marianopolis College -- but some school visits just make me happy. That's how I felt yesterday when I worked with two groups of young people at Lindsay Place High School in Pointe-Claire.

In the morning, I worked with students enrolled in the school's Focus program -- that means they're taking what's called a work-oriented training path. Those are the Focus students in today's pic. They were lively, fun and smart. One of them told me, "My name is Eni -- like anything." Well, I whipped out my sheet of notepaper and jotted that one down. I am always on the lookout for names for my characters and I liked the way Eni put that. A student named Cooper had particularly good questions for me such as, "Do you write about your dreams?" The answer was YES YES YES. I think lots of people find that dreams are a source of inspiration. One of my friends, a therapist, says, "Follow your dreams." I told the students how for me, that means, paying attention to my dreams and writing about them in my journal.

Oh, the Focus students' teacher is Monique Thirlwell. She is next to me in the pic. (I don't often get to meet other Moniques and this one was a YOUNG one!). I have to say I teared up a little when, just as I was leaving at the end of the school day, the young Monique stopped me in the hallway and gave me a packet of notes her students had written to me. I was zooming off to Marianopolis, but I read the notes last night before bed... and well, what can I say?... except THANKS TO YOU GUYS for being such lovely, smart kids.

In the afternoon, I worked with Miss Jackson's Genesis students. Genesis is an alternative program at Lindsay. These students were wonderful too -- and did some beautiful writing. We talked about how memory fuels stories. A student named Brandon wrote about being bullied by a teacher when he was ten. You know what I was thinking? That I've never read a story like this before. Brandon, you should write it! It's an important subject. And a student named Nick gave me goosebumps (that happens when I read or hear an amazing story) about how an adult forced him to drink alcohol when he was ten. Here's the line that really gave me goosebumps: "If I couldn't drink like a man, I'd get hit like a man." Nick is a songwriter -- and he's using that material in one of his songs. Just want to tell you, Nick, that there's a real sense of triumph in being able to transform something painful into something beautiful. You have a gift for words -- and I hope you'll continue using it.

Okay, I guess now you can tell why it was such a happy day for me at Lindsay Place. Thanks to everyone I met, and especially to Miss Dunning, the school librarian, for inviting me and for being such wonderful company. I am definitely going to write about a library that has drawing tables and art supplies!

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Lots of Characters at Westwood Senior High School

It's the last day before March break -- so you can't blame the students across Quebec for being excited. That helps explain the lively cast of characters I met this morning when I did writing workshops with three Grade Nine classes at Westwood Senior High School in Ste-Lazare.

So, let me tell you about some of the characters. Just before I started my first presentation, a guy named Jonah attempted to clobber a guy named Ryan using a vinyl pillow. It turns out there was a story behind this incident. (There is always a story!!) I thought Ryan was perfectly innocent, but according to Jonah, there was a prior attack for which he was seeking revenge. I also met a student named Elizabeth who was wearing cat ears attached to a headband. Elizabeth explained to us that her mom had made the ears -- most impressive! -- and that they are for a role-playing game that Elziabeth is into. Another interesting character was a young man named Brandon who showed genuine interest in learning about the semi-colon. (Let's just say that after 32 years in the classroom, it is unusual for me to meet a student with any interest whatsoever in punctuation!)

I worked with two teachers -- Miss Sanders and Mr. Grenier. Both teachers are keen on getting their students to write. When I was saying that reading great books inspires me to work harder, Mr. Grenier told us that he plays guitar -- and he remembers feeling similarly inspired after listening to great guitar performances.

I only had a one-hour session with each group, but I managed to cover most of my usual writing tips, and also to get the students writing. We talked about how writing can become a habit, and I mentioned some recent research I heard about that indicates you can form a habit if you keep it up for three weeks straight. I write three pages ever morning, but that is probably too much for most young people. But, as I told the students, even if you write a quarter of a page a day, or a couple of pages every weekend, well, that can turn into a habit too.

Wishing all of you a happy, healthy March break. Hey, there's good news -- we'll have plenty of time for our writing habits.

Special thanks to librarian Lynn Austin for the invite -- and the tea. I'll be back at Westwood Senior on March 19. I'm planning to stick around for lunch, so if any of you have stories you plan to work on, come show them to me!


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Back in the Basement!

When I was a kid, I used to play school in our basement. (That may help explain why I became a teacher!)

Well yesterday, about 45 years later, I taught school in the basement again. That’s because the same group of home-schooled kids who visited my Writing for Children class at Marianopolis College on Monday dropped by my house for a special once-in-a-lifetime writing lesson!

We did a lot of stuff in a little time. I gave the kids writing tips, read them from my WIP (that's work-in-progress), and got them to do some writing.

We talked about how doing research is an important part of writing a book. I knew from reading Zahra's mom's blog that on Friday, Zahra and a group of friends started working on an ice house. I suggested that because Zahra knew a lot about ice houses, she might use her experience as research for a possible story. Zahra liked the idea. As she put it, "To write a story it helps if you lived the occasion." I asked Zahra to share some DETAILS (details are also important when you write a book). She told us that she and her friends used water Zahra's mom had frozen in milk cartons. "We ripped the cartons open," Zahra said.

Don't you just LOVE the word RIPPED in Zahra's sentence? As I told the kids, I love strong verbs. Ripped sounds way better than opened, don't you agree?

We also talked about how trouble helps move a story forward. I was impressed when Neval, who is eight years old, commented about the book My Friend Flicka that, "there's too much trouble in it."

I was also impressed that ALL FIVE of the kids reported that they WRITE EVERY SINGLE DAY. Julia, who is also eight said, "I write about what happened to me and what I'm feeling."

It happened to be Sarah's 10th birthday -- sorry we didn't sing to you, Sarah! I wanted to, but then I got too busy teaching you guys stuff. And I also want to report that Dunia, who is nine, had a look around my house and said, "This is a nice place!"

Here's to young writers. Glad I got to do another class in the basement!


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Oh Happy Day!

I took today's pic this afternoon during my Writing for Children class at Marianopolis College. If Zahra, who is wearing the pink T-shirt, looks a little young to be in college, it's bcause she was one of five special guests -- a group of nine and ten-year-olds who came to pay us a visit. Class today started with a mini-lesson about using dialogue to add drama to a story, but then we moved to the really fun stuff: our young visitors responded to the picture book texts my students have been working on.

Not only did Zahra give my students useful feedback (such as "I think you could turn that story into something very great"), she also told us some awesome stories, including one about how a fox killed some of her family's beloved chickens.
I told my students not only to take notes on our visitors' comments, but also on the visitors themselves. Afterall, writers for children need to know their audience! And our visitors were pretty eager to observe teenagers. As Neval told me at the end of today's class, "I know what teenagers' favourite thing is: texting!" Neval's friend Dunia had a question for my class, "At what time do you finish your homework?" Theo, a lovely guy in my class, explained that, "it depends on the time of year."

You can expect to read more in this blog about our young visitors. That's because the five of them are coming to my house on Saturday afternoon for an extra-special private writing lesson. (I've agreed to do it because I'm friends with Zahra's mom Amanda.) Four of the kids are being home-schooled, so if there's time I have a few questions for them about what it's like to be home-schooled.

Now you know why I called this blog entry Oh Happy Day! Thanks to the young visitors for being such excellent listeners and critics. Thanks to my students for being your usual wonderful selves!!




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St. Thomas High School -- Part IV

I'm just home from my last of four visits this winter to St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. The girls in today's pic are Emelie (in grey) and Olivia (wearing a hoodie). I took their picture following a writing exercise I did in which I asked students to write about an object that was meaningful to them. Credit for this writing exercise goes to the girls' English teacher Miss Murphy. I had been telling the class the story of the monkey man charm I wear on a necklace around my neck, and Miss Murphy suggested I get the students to write about their own meaningful objects.

Must say the exercise worked! Olivia wrote about the ring she received as a gift from her best friend Clover. (I just love the name Clover -- don't you think I should use it in a book?) In the mini-paragraph Olivia wrote about the ring, she said, "I always touch it when I'm nervous and when I miss her." Emelie wrote about the silver cross she received as a gift from her grandmother in Greece. I got tingles when Emelie told me this about her grandmother: "she has memory loss so I'm not sure if she remembers me or not."

Like I was telling the classes today -- it isn't only people who have stories. Objects have stories to do. And if you ask me, it's our work, as human beings, to collect the stories that feel important to us and to pass them on.

I had lunch again in the library so that I could work with senior students who have the writing bug. One of the highlights of my day was reading dialogue by a student named Will. Will gave me his permission to quote it here. You need to know that in Will's story, a character named Mel has been shot and her friend Maksim is tending to her. "Tell me a secret," Mel says. "I love you," Maksim answers. To which Mel replies, "I said a secret." I don't know about you, but reading that gave me SHIVERS -- which is my body's signal that I am hearing or reading a really (excuse the adverb!) good story.

I hope to be back at St. Thomas this spring -- that's because I want to drop by some lunch time to celebrate the publication of Leggings Revolt, a book I could not have written without the terrific input of some students whom I worked with last year at the school -- and hey, one of those students was Will.

Thanks to the teachers -- Mr. Cloney, Miss Murphy, Mr. Canuel and Mr. Katz -- for sharing your classes with me, thanks to librarian Mrs. Pye for the invite, to librarian Mrs. Di Maulo for looking after me today, and to the students for being wonderful and working hard.

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St. Thomas High School -- Part III

You will, no doubt, be asking yourself what the point of this first pic is! I took the pic this morning, during my third day of writing workshops at St. Thomas High School. I was in the middle of telling Miss Murphy's grade nine class about how writers need to observe interesting details -- when I noticed that a student named Koby had a rather interesting eraser. (That eraser is the large blob in the pic.) Then, because part of Koby's pencilcase is mesh, I noticed he had two smaller chunks of the same eraser inside his pencilcase. At first, I thought maybe he had munched on the eraser, or that maybe Koby was the kind of person who does not approve of waste. But Koby told me that the little chunks of eraser come in handy. He also said, "I make a lot of mistakes in writing." Hey, Koby, maybe it'll cheer you up to know that I'm a professional writer -- and I make lots of mistakes too! I don't use an eraser very much these days, but I do hit the delete key on my computer a lot!!

When I was talking about how it helps to make writing a regular habit, I asked Mrs. Killorn (who was subbing for Miss Murphy) to tell us about her son Alex, who plays left wing for the Tampa Bay Lightning. "Does he only practice occasionally?" I asked Mrs. Killorn. She told us that Alex practises seven days a week. She also told us that he began playing hockey at age three. She said she knew he was going to be a serious hockey player when as a little boy, he played without any encouragement at all. So you see -- practise matters whether we are talking about writing -- or sports!

In this next pic, you'll see a group I am calling my LUNCH BUNCH. These are all students who turned up at the library to keep me company during senior lunch -- and to show me their work. Thanks, you guys, for totally making my day. I liked all of the stories I saw -- and I was impressed by how you all have a strong sense of voice in your writing. That's super important. And don't forget -- DEATH TO ADVERBS!!

I'm heading out now to teach Journalism and Writing for Children at Marianopolis College. You'd think I'd be tired -- but instead I feel energized after working with the classes (and my lunch bunch) at St. Thomas. I'll be back again on Monday for my final set of writing workshops there. Come for lunch and bring me your writing if you feel like it! Special thanks to teachers Miss Murphy, Mrs. Killorn, Mr. Katz and Mr. Cloney for sharing your classes with me -- thanks to librarian Carolyn Pye, for the invite and for feeding me delicious fruit -- and of course, thanks to the kids for being wonderful and for caring about writing and stories!!

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St. Thomas High School -- Part II

I'm just home from my second of four visits this winter to St. Thomas High School. In all, I'll be working with eight classes and I'll see each group twice -- which gives me time to talk about writing, tell some stories, and get the students writing, too!

In today's pic (sorry that it isn't quite right-side-up), I am chatting with Hailie. Like me, Hailie gets shivers when she hears a good story. Hailie also told me why she loves writing. She said, "I feel like I have so much to say and writing is the only way I can get it all out." I LOVED THAT -- BECAUSE I THINK IT'S HOW ALL WRITERS FEEL. Like we have no choice except to write! Hailie struck me as a natural storyteller. She explained how the other day she saw a picture of a blue house by the beach, and now she is inspired to write about a girl who lives in that house.

As I told the students today, writers need some talent. But I told them what my opa (the Dutch word for grandfather) told me -- that talent is only a small part of artistic success (Opa was a painter). He told me that what matters -- perhaps even more than talent -- is HARD WORK!!

With a few of today's groups, I tried a writing exercise in which the students had to come up with two characters who are opposites (we call that FOILS) and put them in an interestig situation ... and then produce some dialogue. A student named Sean was planning to write about himself and his younger brother, who is a bit of a troublemaker. I'd love to read a story about you two, Sean!

Later in the day, I was explaining that my mum is a Holocaust survivor. I asked the class, "How do you think she survived?" A student named Olivia said, "Did she have a talent?" I thought that was a great answer. In fact, it was my grandfather who had a special talent that kept his family alive.

At lunch time, I worked with two junior students -- Charlotte and Sarah -- who came to show me the stories they have been writing. Super work, you two! I gave them some basic feedback (DEATH TO ADVERBS! Show; don't tell!), and encouraged them to read each other's work. I'm hoping they will continue to exchange their writing now that they have met.

I'll be back at St. Thomas on Wednesday, and then on Monday next week. I'm planning to have my lunch at the library with the senior students on both those days -- so if any of you want some feedback on your writing, bring your lunch and come on by!

Special thanks to the students, their teachers and librarian Mrs. Di Maulo, who was filling in today for Mrs. Pye! See you guys on Wednesday!

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St. Thomas High School -- Part I

I love today's pic -- that's because you will notice that all the kids in the pic are WRITING! (There is nothing a writer and teacher likes more than seeing kids WRITING.)

Today's blog entry is called "St. Thomas High School -- Part I" because I am doing four visits there in the next few weeks. I get to work with four different classes and I'll see each group twice. I love that because it means I can get a lot done, and there is time for writing excercises!

I'm kind of a familiar face at St. Thomas. I've been visiting there for several years -- and in fact, one of my spring 2016 books, Leggings Revolt, was written with the help of a small focus group of students at St. Thomas. And guess what? The book is dedicated to my friend librarian Carolyn Pye. If she hadn't invited me to St. Thomas in the first place, well, Leggings Revolt might have been just a dream!

I had a whole sheet of notes to use for today's blog entry, but unfortunately, I think I left them on Miss Ditchburn's desk. Hey, if you're in her class, can you ask her to stash those notes safely until I come back next Monday?

Because I don't have my notes (boo!), I need to rely on my 55-year-old memory to write this blog entry. I showed all the classes today the journal that I write in every single day -- and a student in the first group (remind me of your name and I'll adjust this blog entry!!) noticed that my journal says "120 pages" on the cover. You know what? I never noticed that. And as I told the class, being OBSERVANT is an important trait in a writer.

I must say that a student named Alena in my second group stole my heart. That's because she got a little choked up when I told the story of my monkey-man necklace and how another prisoner gave it to my mom when she was in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp, during Wolrd War II.

I told the students that writers need to ask the question "What if?" in order to advance a story's plot. I explained that I can't turn off the "what if?" switch in my brain. Alena told me her parents sometimes get upset with her for asking "what if?" so much. So I told her to tell them to stop getting upset --  and simply to explain that she is a writer-in-training.

Today's pic was taken during my third session when I had two classes together in the library. To be honest, I thought it might be hard to manage such a large group, but they were wonderful. (As you can see from how hard they worked on my writing exercise!) You might be wondering what writing exercise worked so well... and it so happens that I INVENTED THE EXERCISE THIS MORNING IN MR. KATZ'S CLASS. I got the idea when we discussed the importance of trouble. I told the students that without trouble, you don't really have a story. So I asked them to remember a time they got into BIG trouble.

Last period, I asked the students why they think I bother writing in my journal every single day. A student named Anthony answered, "So it won't be as hard to write." You know what I LOVE about that answer? It's Anthony's understanding that writing IS HARD -- even if you practise a lot in a journal the way I do. But you know what else? I think I'm hooked on writing because it is hard. If it were easier for me, I might get tired of it.

So, I hope that even without my trusty notes, this blog entry came out okay. Special thanks to Mrs. Pye for inviting me back; to Mr. Katz, Mr. Cloney, Miss Murphy and Miss Ditchburn for sharing your students with me; to the students I worked with for being such a great audience; and also to some of the members of last year's focus group for coming by to say hello -- and admire the advanced reading copy of Leggings Revolt! Three cheers for all of you at St. Thomas High School!

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Happy Day in Beauport

I'm writing this blog entry from the train -- we're about to leave Quebec City. I was in town to work with three Grade Nine classes at Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie in Beauport, a suburb of Queec City. It was my fourth visit to the school -- so I must say I feel very at home there!

My morning started with a laugh when a student named Emilie (tht's her in today's pic -- sorry that it's upside-down) asked, "Why do we need to write down your tips?" My first answer was BECAUSE, but then I added that I know that if I don't write things down, I forget all about them! And I do hope the students I met today will remember at least SOME of what we talked about.

Students in all three classes I visited are reading my historical YA novel, What World Is Left -- and so, though I talked about writing tips in general, I also told the students about the story behind the story they are studying. For instance, I told them that my mum, whose story inspired the novel, knew the real Anne Frank, but that my editor felt it would be a bad idea if the real Anne Frank appeared in my novel -- so we changed her name to Eva.

I explained that one of the reasons I like to do school visits is that I believe it's important to tell the truth about writing. When I was 14 and 15, the ages of the students I met today, I never met a professional writer. So when I do school visits, I try my best to tell students what I wish someone had told me way back then! Such as that WRITING IS FRUSTRATING and IT IS NORMAL TO BE DISAPPOINTED WITH YOUR WORK and SOMETIMES YOU FEEL LIKE GIVING UP!!

A student named Fréderique wanted to know if my mum ever read the book I based on her story. The answer was: not at first, but eventually. I had to explain to my mum that I was fictionalizing her story in order to make it appeal to young readers. I know my mum would have preferred if the girl in my story did not question her father's actions, but when I told her what I planned to do, my mum gave me her blessing. She said, "Do what you need to do to make it the best possible story. But I won't read it." Only, she did end up reading the book, and in fact, last week, she told me that she was going to start re-reading it all over again.

Elodie (of the upside-down pic) wondered whether writers need to be selfish. I must say that remark gave me pause. I told Elodie that writers need to be RUTHLESS. But you know what? It's my own mum, who was an amazing storyteller, who taught me that the story comes first!

With two of the groups, I did writing exercises to help them access old memories. "Our memories are stories asking to be told," I said to the students.

And a student named Gabriel helped me to translate the only writing rule I really teach (I'm not a rules-sort-of-person): "Show; don't tell." En français, it's "Montrez; pas dire."

So, many thanks to teachers Yves Lord and Maxime Jacques-Gagnon for sharing your students with me. I had a great day with all of you. Thanks for your interest in a book that is so close to my heart. And thanks to the students -- you guys were wonderful and I miss you already!





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The Moniques Take Kahnawake Survival School by Storm!

The Moniques are back in action! That means this Monique is teamed up again with her dear pal, photographer extraordinaire Monique Dykstra! This winter, we're working with four grade nine classes at Kahnawake Survival School, helping them to produce a chapter in this year's version of Quebec Roots. The project, which aims to help youngsters across the province tell their stories through words and photographs, is sponsored by the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation.

I'm always the one who goes first. That's because -- let's be honest -- the students tend to be a lot more interested in learning about photography than writing. So Monique Dykstra is their reward after they've worked with me!

One of our goals today was to help the students brainstorm to come up with a topic for their chapter. That exercise went super well. The students had several good ideas including the prevalence of guns in their community, as well as depression in their community. But the topic that was by far the most popular had to do with the creation of their school and how it was a response to Bill 101, which limited students' eligibility at English schools. Many of the students know people who were involved in the walk-out that led to the creation of Kahnawake Survival School nearly 40 years ago.

Though I have heard Monique Dysktra do her photography workshop before, I always learn something new when she works with young people. Today, for instance, she told them, "Building a photo is like building a house. You need to start with a good design." That made me think about writing too -- and how having an outline (or in building terms, a blueprint) can help a lot!

A student named Kiana wanted to have a look at my historical novel, What World Is Left -- and next thing I knew, she was busy reading it. Later she told me, "I look forward to the writing. I like writing -- but for myself." That is something for you to think about, Kiana -- are you ready to write for others? When I start out, I am always writing for myself -- but the longer I work on something, well, the more I want to share it!

A student named Gary made me laugh when he told me that when he heard we were coming this afternoon, he wanted to skip class! But luckily, he didn't because he said, "You got me excited about writing!" YAY, Gary! He also recommended a book called Spirit Bear by Ben Michaelsen. I'm going to order a copy!

And I was impressed by a student named Luna who took a creative approach to our topic. She suggested that someone could write about what the world would have been like if their school was never created. "Maybe I wouldn't have even been here," Luna said. I think that would make a great addition to the chapter, Luna -- and perhaps a perfect concluding piece.

So big thanks to the teachers -- Jocelyn Dockerty, Heather White, Krissy Goodleaf and Christie Chandler -- for sharing your kids with the Moniques -- and to the kids for being so positive and attentive. See you bright and early on February 3 -- until then, start interviewing folks about their memories of their old high school and the walk-out... and of course, take lots of photos!


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Oh Happy Day With Special Students at John Rennie High School

Oh no, another upside down photo! (I think that means it was taken upside down on my phone.)

I'm not going to fret about the upside down photo. (Or the fact that the roofer can't figure out why my roof is leaking!) Instead I'm going to tell you about my special morning with some very special students at John Rennie High School in Pointe-Claire.

This was my last school visit for 2015 -- and I'm considering it a gift, since it was not only a privilege, but also a lot of fun to work with this gang.

These were students with special needs. Some are in John Rennie's Resource Department; others are part of the LIFE (Learning Independence Through Functional Eduction) at Lindsay-Place High School.

I took a lot of notes -- so get ready for a lively blog entry.

When I told the students that trouble helps fuel a story, Hayley, a student with long red hair and a giant smile, called out, "I'm born with that!" It turns out Hayley loves to write and has been hard at work on a short story. Hayley, turn your trouble into art! (That's what I do.)

I gave the students several writing exercises. One excercise involved accessing a memory from long ago. A student named Tevin started his piece by writing, "Lost in bushes beside swimming pool." Well, that opening certainly has trouble in it -- and makes me want to know what happened next.

A student named Maria spent recess WRITING!! She remembered an incident at pre-school when she accidentally swallowed bubbles. Maria's story had a happy ending: "My teacher fed me some grapes and I think I felt better." Maria shared her story with the class and everyone loved the swallowing bubbles part -- not only is it trouble, but it's the kind of trouble that most of us never got into. So it's INTERESTING. INTERESTING TROUBLE is better than regular trouble!

A student named William remembered Miss M, his gym teacher at Forest Hill School. William wrote: "She would make me set up the gym and she would always make me happy. I still remember her smile." Hey, if any of you blog readers out there know Miss M, maybe you could send her the link to today's entry. I also suggested to William that he write a postcard to Miss M and let her know that he has not forgotten her. See, that's the power of words for you!

I ended my session with an observation exercise. I asked the students to explore the library and find something interesting to observe. Maria found nearly a dozen things! A student named Josh discovered yellow tape on some of the shelves. Mrs. Lukian, the John Rennie librarian, explained that she uses yellow tape to indicate where the reference books are. Nice observing work, Josh!

If it sounds like I had fun, it's because I did. Special thanks to the Pointe-Claire Library for making today's visit possible and to Pointe-Claire Library's children's librarian, Madame Blanchet, for coming to the workshop -- and for being fun. Thanks to Mrs. Lukian for hosting us in your library; thanks to Margo Edwards, the special ed. tech at John Rennie who helped organize my visit; and to your team. But thanks most of all to the students for listening, for doing such a great job on the exercises and for sharing your stories. You guys are my favourite Christmas present!!


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Day 2 at Horizon School -- Success!

Okay, the picture is WRONG-side-up, but my second day at Horizon School was ALL RIGHT. In fact, it was better than ALL RIGHT -- it was WONDERFUL (well, in my opinion, anyhow!).

Horizon is an alternative high school in Pointe-Claire. The classes are small and let's just say these students have plenty of stories. I've been working with junior and senior students at the school. Yesterday, I shared a lot of writing tips and did one writing exercise. Today was mostly about writing.

We started with a couple of playful exercises (I explained to the students that for me, writing is a constant mix of work and play -- I need to work hard, but I need to have fun with words too). We started by making a giant list of words that start with w. A lot of us included the word wonder, but I especially liked how one student came up with the word withdrawal. That led us to discuss how people don't just suffer from withdrawal when they try to get off drugs or alcohol; we can also experience withdrawal when we try to get over someone who has meant a lot to us.

The next playful exercise was writing with the non-dominant hand. (I've found this is a good warm-up activity in my home office too.) A student named Elizabeth came up with the line, "Smoke the devil's lettuce." I really like how she combined the devil and a vegetable. That inspried me to write a Ray Bradbury line on the board: "Creativity is continual surprise." Good work, Elizabeth, in the creativity department!

I asked a student named Arkela for her permission to share what she wrote with her left hand -- and she agreed -- so here goes: "I am writing with my left hand/ Although my writing is all messy and ugly/ I think I am doing an okay job." Arkela seemed surprised when I told her I thought what she had written was beautiful. I tried to explain that, for me, her words are very symbolic. Maybe that's all any of us can ask for -- to think we are doing an okay job.

I'm not supposed to have favourites in a class, but a guy named Darren wrote some amazing stuff. And a guy named Tazz, who was born in Nunavik, also earned a special spot in my heart when I asked him about his experience up north and he said, "Ain't about that life." I wrote that on the board and told Tazz it would make a great book title. So, Tazz, when are you gonna get started on that book?

Today, the senior students' teacher, Miss Pion, was with us. Miss Pion and I had a short, but interesting talk about different approaches to working with students who have gone through tough times. Miss Pion says she has found that it's important for her students to take a break from the drama. Or as she put it, "I choose not to bathe in problems that are happening here, and to go somewhere else for fifteen minutes." Which led us to talk about writing as both a form of escape, as well as a way of turning our own difficulties into something beautiful we can share with others.

So... I must say the students (and teachers!) at Horizon gave me a lot to think about. Hopefully, I gave you guys some ideas for your own stories and creative projects. Special thanks to Madame Dubreuil from the Pointe-Claire Library, who not only helped to make my visits to Horizon possible, but who attended both workshops and did ALL the exercises.

On the home front, my roof is leaking and so far, the roofer has not been able to locate the problem. But hey, writing is a mix of work and play -- and living is a mix of problems and sweet moments. Overall, I'd say my visit to Horizon had more sweeet moments than problems. Thanks to the kids who participated. NOW GO WRITE!!!

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Expanding My Horizon(s)

I am just home from my first of two mornings at Horizon High School -- an alternative high school in Pointe-Claire. I was there to do a writing workshop with a group of students from grades eight to eleven. I must admit some of them were a bit of a handful -- and two students didn't make it through my entire session. (I'm still hoping they might give the workshop another go tomorrow, but who knows?)

I started with my usual writing tips and we ended with a writing exercise. Tomorrow, I hope to focus more on writing. Today, a student named Taz asked, "Does it [meaning whatever the students might write] have to be an appropriate story?" My answer was ABSOLUTELY NOT. I don't think writers should worry about being appropriate. I think we need to worry about WRITING WHAT MATTERS. (Even as the author of many books, I still need to remind myself that this, for me, is what writing is all about: finding stories that matter to me, and telling them in a way that will make them matter to my readers.)

A student named Hayden told me, "I'd rather read than write." I shared my view that if a person enjoys reading (Hey, Hayden -- I hope you noticed that I did not say "if a person loves reading"), then that person usually also has a gift for writing. That's because reading and writing are so deeply connected. Sometimes, for me anyhow, they feel like one activity.

To be honest, it's a little discouraging when students are not open to what I have to share -- so I was disappointed to lose two of them this morning -- but I did cheer up when I read the work that some of the students did during the writing exercise. One student wrote about an old memory having to do with sports and I was deeply moved by his words; another described her memory of having an allergy attack (I suggested she ask the question "What if?" in order to develop her piece); and another student wrote about her preference for drawing over writing (I suggested maybe she could write about her earliest memory of drawing -- and that seemed to get her pen moving on paper). Hey, you can see on of this student's drawings in today's pic!

So... all this to say, it was a special morning for me. Not always easy, but always interesting. And hey, I'd take interesting over easy any day.

Special thanks to the junior students' English teacher Qaadira Decoteau for your help and for sharing some of your students with me. And thanks to the Pointe-Claire Library for making these workshops possible -- and to librarian Marie-Andrée Dubreuil who attended the workshop too. And finally, thanks to the students. Get ready for more Monique tomorrow morning!

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A Secret About School Visits: Thursday at Lindsay Place

Here's my secret about school visits: I get invited to schools to help inspire students to write... but guess what? I'm the one who ends up getting inspired!! That's what happened to me this morning when I worked with three of Mrs. Russell's classes at Lindsay Place High School in Pointe-Claire.

I worked with grade seven and eight students. Mrs. Russell's grade seven groups are doing a unit on prejudice, and some of the students have read (or will be reading) my historical novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's experience in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp. With all three groups, I started by sharing some tips about writing, but then I moved on to talk about my mum and the research that went into writing What World Is Left.

I had a great time with all three groups. The first group was the smallest and included many students who love writing; the second group was larger, also focused and bright; and the third group (they were the grade eights) had so many great questions that Mrs. Russell worried she might get a detention if she let them stay any later than she did!

Today's pic was taken at the end of my last presentation. The blonde girl next to me is Angelica and I got the impression she is very angelic -- which makes me think I should include an angelic-looking girl named Angelica in my next book! (Only I might make MY Angelica a bit of a trouble-maker, which Mrs. Russell assured me the real-life Angelica is NOT!). On my other side is a student named Melissa. I loved her answer when I asked the students, "What do you think I did yesterday when I re-read the writing I had done in the morning and found it crappy?" Are you ready for Melissa's brilliant answer? She said, "You see where it went wonky and then you work backward to see where you can fix it up." Right on, Melissa! Plus, I loved how you used the word WONKY -- which definitely describes how writers often feel about their writing!

I told all three groups that one of the reasons I do school visits is because when I was in grades seven and eight, I never had a chance to meet a professional writer. So, during my visits, I try to tell students the things I wish someone had told me long ago -- such as that writing is hard, and that we are seldom satisfied with our work, and that our first drafts are total disasters!

So, many, many thanks to the students I worked with this morning. Like I said, you inspired me with your energy and questions (and interesting body language such as sharpening a pencil!!). Thanks too, to Mrs. Russell for doing such a great job with your classes, and to librarian Betty Dunning for arranging the visit.

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Writing Lessons From a Dear Visual Artist Friend

Yesterday, a friend and I got a private showing of Thomas Kneubuhler's exhibit, Land Claim. Thomas came to meet us at Galerie B-312 in the Belgo Building downtown, where his work is being displayed. (He has a second exhibit going on now in Montreal too. More about that later.)

Thomas and I became friends when we traveled together to Nunavik for a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Quebec Roots. What I never expected is that I would learn about writing from a visual artist! And it happened again yesterday when the three of us were chatting while we looked at the photos and videos that were part of Thomas's show.

That was when I whipped out a sheet of paper and a pen from my purse (Writing Tip #1: Always have paper and a pen handy!). Thomas was explaining to my friend how he comes up with a subject for a visual art project. What he said applies to writing too -- and how we need to feel inspired in order to begin a project -- and stick with it! "There's usually a trigger," Thomas said. He explained that the trigger for Land Claim came when he heard about Raglan Mine, an iron mine in Nunavik, and learned that the company's head office is located in Switzerland, where Thomas was born. Thomas added that a subject may be "something where you have access that no one else does, something that is personal and that you have a personal connection to." Thomas also explained that there's a great deal of research behind his projects (same is true for writing stories, of course). Finally, Thomas talked about the effort that goes into his art. He never just snaps a photo or turns on his video recorder. Here's how Thomas put it: "It's often very hard work and it involves a lot of things!"

Thomas's show at Galerie B-312 runs until Dec. 19. Same for his show at Patrick Mikhail Gallery. If you're in Montreal, check them out! (I've included a link to his website at the top of this blog post -- you'll find the addresses and times for the exhibits there.) Hey Thomas -- thanks for the private tour -- and the inspiration!!

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My Mom and I Travel to Dumas, Texas

Okay, it's a slight exaggeration to say that my mom and I traveled today to Dumas, Texas -- but we were certainly there, and we certainly connected with about 200 students at Dumas Intermediate School, thanks to Skype and the miracles of modern technology.

This was "our" third "visit" to Dumas Intermediate. Our is the right word because Cathy Craigmiles, the school librarian, asked me to speak about my historical YA Novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mom's experience as a prisoner in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp -- and so I went to my parents' house to do the visit, which meant that the students could have a chance to meet my mom too.

I worked with two groups of Grade Six students -- and they were wonderful. A virtual visit can usually never compare with a real-life one, so maybe it was the students (they were really engaged and focused), or the material, or the fact that my mom made a guest appearance (so did my dad, but my mom is the real star of today's blog entry), but today's visit felt pretty wonderful. Most of the students were 11 or 12 years old, which made the experience especially moving for me since my mom was 12 when she was rounded up by the Nazis and shipped to Theresienstadt.

I could not resist sharing some writing tips, but mostly the students wanted to know more about the story behind my book. We talked about propaganda and I explained how my opa (the Dutch word for grandfather) was forced by the Nazis to create propaganda art. As an author, I am especially interested in "grey" areas because, to me, the world is never black and white. My opa could not have been glad to do what the Nazis forced him to do, and yet he must have known that his actions might help keep him and his family (including me) alive.

My mother is 86 (and-a-half), quite deaf and fragile, but she was well enough to say hello at the end of both sessions -- and to answer a few questions. Luckily for us, the students had amazing, thoughtful, deep questoins.

A student named Keaton wanted to know what the scariest part of my mom's experience was. She told him it was the transports -- never knowing if she would be on the list of prisoners who would be transported to Auschwitz.

A student named Andrea asked about my mom's immediate post-war experience, and you know what? My mom ended up telling a little story I had never heard before. She told Andrea, "I went back to Holland. I remember the first time I saw a slice of white bread. It was so bright it hurt my eyes." Hey, Andrea, good interviewing work!

Raigan wanted to know if, after the war, my mom ever saw anyone she knew from Theresientadt. I helped my mom with the answer to this question -- I told the students about an old friend of my grandmother's -- this woman had lost her husband before the war, and her only son was sent to Auschwitz where he was murdered, and yet she had it in her to be loving to my mother... and, in 1960, when I was born, the woman (who by then was living in New York) took the Greyhound bus to Montreal so she could come in person to meet my mother's first daughter -- me!

I told the students how, when I hear something beautiful, the insides of elbows tingle. And you know that happened to me today when, after my first session, my dad was chatting with Mrs. Craigmiles and he asked her, "How come your students are so interested in the Holocaust?" -- and she answered, "They've been studying it for the last six weeks." All I can say to that is -- wow, and thank you, and that gives me hope for the future.

I think it's only fitting to close today's blog entry with my mom's words. When we were about to say good-bye to the kids at Dumas Intermediate, I asked her what advice she could offer young people who may be experiencing their own hardships. She told them, "Food they can take away. But hope is in you. Hope is the most valuable thing. Nobody can take it away."

So many many many thanks to my young friends in Dumas -- for being great listeners, for opening your hearts to stories, and for caring about other people's experiences. May you open your hands to catch many stories, and may you always have hope. Thanks, too, to Mrs. Craigmiles, who has become my friend over the years.



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Heroes in My Backyard: Virtual Visit to Laurentian Regional High School

I spent part of today with a group of keen, talented Grade 11 students from Laurentian Regional High School in Lachute, and their English teacher Mrs. Vero. We are working together on a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Heroes in My Backyard. The goal of the project is for students to make a one-minute film related to the subject of war and heroes -- and I'm helping with the script.

I had two one-hour sessions with the students -- one this morning with Mrs. Vero present, and one in the afternoon with just the students. And though you might think it would be hard to do a virtual brainstorming and writing workshop, thanks to the wonders of Skype, it worked!

This morning, I shared a bunch of writing tips -- such as that it's important to make writing a habit, that reading is every bit as important as writing, and that revising is essential. This afternoon we spent our time bouncing around ideas for a possible narrator. We also have a possible title for the project. It's "Dear Future" and it was invented by a student named Cassandra. Another student, Liane, turns out to already be a talented filmmaker. A short film she posted on line entitled "NUmbers" has already had 36,000 hits! We talked about using a female narrator for the film, and Liane suggested our narrator might be a girl who becomes a drummer for the army. Since our story is set in the past, the girl would have had to pose as a boy. Which makes for all kinds of interesting story possibilities!

As yoy can probably tell, I am starting to get excited about this project. What's especially fun is the fact that it's a group collaboration. I asked the students to do a short writing exercise in which they imagined being the girl drummer. They came up with some beautiful material. Haily wrote about how the girl traveled "through nights and into city" -- which I found beautiful and poetic. Brianna pictured a scene at a loading dock, where her narrator "tastes the salt of her tears" and Brad imagined gunfire "choking" his narrator's lungs.

So... for now, we're just tossing around ideas. Playing. For me, writing is a curious mix of work and play. Thanks to the students I worked with today for reminding me of the playful part -- and for working hard. I look forward to reading more of your work and to our film project!



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Writing Workshop That's Close to My Heart

This fall, I'm doing a series of writing workshops at a Montreal centre for women who have left abusive relationships. It's a project that's close to my heart because many years ago, I fled an abusive relationship myself.


Today was the first of the workshops -- and I think it was a moving experience for all of us. I spent the first half hour sharing writing tips, but then we quickly moved on to writing exercises. (And by the way, I did most of the workshop in French because that's the first language of nearly all the women who attended.) Rather than telling you about the tips, I'm going to tell you about what some of the women said -- and wrote.

Many of the women already have an interest in writing. One of the participants -- I'll cal her V -- said, "J'écris pour mieux comprendre" -- which I thought was just gorgeous. If you need help with the translation, it's: "I write to understand better." Another participant, Eve (not her real name) really worked hard during the writing exercises. Afterwards, she observed, "I haven't expressed my emotions in writing for a long time." Interestingly, Eve explained that it's easy for her to tak about her emotions, but that putting those emotions on paper has always been more difficult.

Many authors (including me in my YA novel So Much It Hurts) have written about abuse. The challenge, I think, is to TAKE readers THERE. V did that beautifully when she told us how, after she left her abusive partner, she felt sad for her dog who missed him. That detail touched me and I know I won't forget it. V, you took us there with your story.

A little over a week ago, I was walking along the beach in Tofino, British Columbia, thinking how as a writer I need to focus on the stories that matter most to me. Today was a reminder of exactly that -- what matters most. For me, it's courage and resilience. I'm the one giving the writing workshop, but I'm aready getting a lot from it. A grand merci to the participants and to the organi2ers for bringing me there...

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Fun Morning With Students from Central Middle School


I'm just back from the Victoria Public Library's main branch, where I had a whirlwind session with three groups of Grade Seven French immersion students from Central Middle School. It's not too often that I meet anybody with hair as wild as mine -- but you'll see from today's pic, that I met my match today -- a student named Gabe. And half of Gabe's hair is GREEN! What do you think, blog readers, wouldn't a half-green-haired kid make an interesting character in a kids' book?

The best thing for me about today's session was the number of questions and comments from the audience. In all my years of doing author visits, I don't think I've ever had so much reaction from a group. And the question and comments were great. I'm going to share some of them in today's blog entry. When I talked about the importance of getting stories from grandparents (if you are lucky enough to have grandparents -- if not, borrow someone else's!), a student named Katya looked at me in a way that told me she was close with a grandparent. Later, Katya told us about her grandmother, and I hope you get started on interviewing her, Katya!

When I showed the students my daily journal, Echo asked, "Qu'est-ce que tu écris IN ça?" (We all thought the bilingual question was fun.) I told Echo that for me, my daily journal serves to keep my writing muscles limber, and that I do whatever I want in my journal -- say why I'm happy when I'm happy, complain when I'm grumpy, and try to find solutions to my writing problems when I am grappling with a story. Many of the students wanted to know whether I had read the book, or seen the movie, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I told them I hadn't, but their question made me think that maybe I should.

This was the last of my school visits in British Columbia for this week. Some people get really wiped out from doing visits and talking to groups of students, but I'm the opposite. Working with students during my visit to Vancouver Island has given me EXTRA ENERGY. Plus it's made me realize I had better get back to work on my newest book project ... how else am I going to get invited back to this beautiful part of our country?

Many thanks to librarian Sarah Isbister, for making today's visit happen, and to the students' teachers, including Mrs. Martin, who turns out to be a former Montrealer. To Mrs. Martin and her fellow teacheers, thanks for sharing your students with me. They were smart and fun. Lucky me!













The very best thing about today's session was that in all my years of doing author visits, I don't think I ever had so many questions and comments from an audience.

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En français à Esquimalt


I'm writing today's blog entry from Serious Coffee, a café in Esquimalt, British Columbia. I got walked over here by the loveliest group of grade sevens (that is them in today's pic) from Ecole Victor-Brodeur, after I did a reading/writing workshop this morning at the Esquimalt branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library. Victor-Brodeur is a French school and because these students rarely get to meet a French-speaking author, I was asked to do my presentation in French. It's also handy that two of my books have been translated into French.

I told the students how I am always on the look-out for stories -- especially ones involving trouble. For example, one of the liveliest participants this morning was a guy named Hamzah, whose wrist was bandaged up. So I asked him what happened -- and learned he'd had an accident playing soccer. That experience could go into a story, Hamzah! I also demonstrated how I use the question WHAT IF? to fuel my stories. What if, I asked the students, I kidnapped Hamzah and brought him back to Montreal with me on Wednesday morning? Don't worry, blog readers, I'm not planning to commit a felony -- just playing with story ideas!

We also discussed how, for most writers, myself included, publication only comes after numerous (often frustrating) attempts. Together, we came up with the perfect way to say this in French: "L'échec conduit succès." (Special merci to the students' teacher, Madame Carole, who contributed to that translation.) I'll be doing a second presentation this afternoon to another group of kids from Victor-Brodeur. If they are even half as wonderful as this morning's group, I'll be in for a happy afternoon.

PS: The second group was just as wonderful and fun. I don't know what the folks are doing at Ecole Victor-Brodeur, but whatever it is, keep doing it. The students I met today were bright and enthusiastic; it was a real pleasure for me to work with them. Special thanks to librarian Joy Huebert for your company -- and for ferrying me around today.

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Special Visit to North Island College in Port Alberni

b2ap3_thumbnail_photo-7.JPG Question: What happens when an energetic author-teacher who has not taught a class in five months gets invited back into a classroom?

Answer: Let's just say she causes quite a kerfuffle!

I think that's an accurate description of how things went down last night when I did a writing workshop at North Island College in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island! I haven't had so much fun in a long time!

One of the things that made the evening so special was that my "students" were a really mixed group. There were several young people from the local high school, as well as professors from the college, and a couple who traveled all the way from Nanaimo to hear the talk. Another thing that made the evening special was that it began with a welcome from Irene Robinson, a member of the Tseshaht First Nation. (That's Irene in the left corner of today's pic, wearing a grey top and waving.) Irene welcomed me to the Tseshaht territories and told us about the value the Tseshaht have always placed on stories. "Stories," she said, "are important to our people. Stories are a way to pass on knowledge and to teach."

When I do talks like the one I did last night, one of my goals is to tell the truth about the writing process (well, my writing process anyway). How it's not all la-dee-da, and how I sometimes feel discouraged, and how sheer persistence helped me get published in the first place. The group was great -- lively and responsive, and when I gave them a writing exercise, no one groaned! Grace (she was one of the people who came all the way from Nanaimo) used the exercise to remember a painful moment in her past -- when, at the age of fifteen, she discovered her mare had been abused. That was an example of something else we talked about: how difficult, troubling experiences can fuel stories.

This was my second visit to NIC. I was there in 2006, as part of a Canadian Children's Book Week tour. That's when I met librarian Sherry Kropninski, who helped get me invited back this year. Special thanks to Sherry, and to the English Department's Peter McGuire, who also made it possible for me to return to NIC. And to Sherry's daughter Savanna, for her excellent company -- anf for letting me pick her brain for the new story I am working on. And thanks, too, to the Quebec Writers' Federation for sending me to Vancouver Island in the first place.

I'll be doing four more talks in Victoria last week... but my visit to Port Alberni will always hold a special place in my heart. Thanks to all of you who were there for reminding me why I love to share what I've learned about writing!









  1875 Hits

Special Visit to North Island College in Port Alberni

b2ap3_thumbnail_photo-7.JPG Question: What happens when an energetic author-teacher who has not taught a class in five months gets invited back into a classroom?

Answer: Let's just say she causes quite a kerfuffle!

I think that's an accurate description of how things went down last night when I did a writing workshop at North Island College in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island! I haven't had so much fun in a long time!

One of the things that made the evening so special was that my "students" were a really mixed group. There were several young people from the local high school, as well as professors from the college, and a couple who traveled all the way from Nanaimo to hear the talk. Another thing that made the evening special was that it began with a welcome from Irene Robinson, a member of the Tseshaht First Nation. (That's Irene in the left corner of today's pic, wearing a grey top and waving.) Irene welcomed me to the Tseshaht territories and told us about the value the Tseshaht have always placed on stories. "Stories," she said, "are important to our people. Stories are a way to pass on knowledge and to teach."

When I do talks like the one I did last night, one of my goals is to tell the truth about the writing process (well, my writing process anyway). How it's not all la-dee-da, and how I sometimes feel discouraged, and how sheer persistence helped me get published in the first place. The group was great -- lively and responsive, and when I gave them a writing exercise, no one groaned! Grace (she was one of the people who came all the way from Nanaimo) used the exercise to remember a painful moment in her past -- when, at the age of fifteen, she discovered her mare had been abused. That was an example of something else we talked about: how difficult, troubling experiences can fuel stories.

This was my second visit to NIC. I was there in 2006, as part of a Canadian Children's Book Week tour. That's when I met librarian Sherry Kropninski, who helped get me invited back this year. Special thanks to Sherry, and to the English Department's Peter McGuire, who also made it possible for me to return to NIC. And to Sherry's daughter Savanna, for her excellent company -- anf for letting me pick her brain for the new story I am working on. And thanks, too, to the Quebec Writers' Federation for sending me to Vancouver Island in the first place.

I'll be doing four more talks in Victoria last week... but my visit to Port Alberni will always hold a special place in my heart. Thanks to all of you who were there for reminding me why I love to share what I've learned about writing!









  1655 Hits

Special Visit to North Island College in Port Alberni

b2ap3_thumbnail_photo-7.JPG Question: What happens when an energetic author-teacher who has not taught a class in five months gets invited back into a classroom?

Answer: Let's just say she causes quite a kerfuffle!

I think that's an accurate description of how things went down last night when I did a writing workshop at North Island College in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island! I haven't had so much fun in a long time!

One of the things that made the evening so special was that my "students" were a really mixed group. There were several young people from the local high school, as well as professors from the college, and a couple who traveled all the way from Nanaimo to hear the talk. Another thing that made the evening special was that it began with a welcome from Irene Robinson, a member of the Tseshaht First Nation. (That's Irene in the left corner of today's pic, wearing a grey top and waving.) Irene welcomed me to the Tseshaht territories and told us about the value the Tseshaht have always placed on stories. "Stories," she said, "are important to our people. Stories are a way to pass on knowledge and to teach."

When I do talks like the one I did last night, one of my goals is to tell the truth about the writing process (well, my writing process anyway). How it's not all la-dee-da, and how I sometimes feel discouraged, and how sheer persistence helped me get published in the first place. The group was great -- lively and responsive, and when I gave them a writing exercise, no one groaned! Grace (she was one of the people who came all the way from Nanaimo) used the exercise to remember a painful moment in her past -- when, at the age of fifteen, she discovered her mare had been abused. That was an example of something else we talked about: how difficult, troubling experiences can fuel stories.

This was my second visit to NIC. I was there in 2006, as part of a Canadian Children's Book Week tour. That's when I met librarian Sherry Kropninski, who helped get me invited back this year. Special thanks to Sherry, and to the English Department's Peter McGuire, who also made it possible for me to return to NIC. And to Sherry's daughter Savanna, for her excellent company -- anf for letting me pick her brain for the new story I am working on. And thanks, too, to the Quebec Writers' Federation for sending me to Vancouver Island in the first place.

I'll be doing four more talks in Victoria last week... but my visit to Port Alberni will always hold a special place in my heart. Thanks to all of you who were there for reminding me why I love to share what I've learned about writing!









  1746 Hits

Q: "Why do you have to write?" A: "Because reasons"


Sorry about the upside down picture! Hopefully by the time you read this blog entry, I'll figure out how to turn it right-side-up!

I'm writing to you today from the Victoria Public Library (children's section, of course!), where I came to deliver MONTREAL BAGELS. I'm in Victoria and other parts of Vancouver Island for a book tour.

One of the many amazing, wonderful things about being here in BC is that I get to hang out with my many friends from Orca Book Publishers. In today's upside-down pic, I am with my friends/editors/authors Sarah Harvey (in the middle) and Robin Stevenson (in the cool hat). Sarah made me delicious breakfast this morning, and then we met up with Robin at the Cornerstone Café in Fernwood. And because I am always thinking of YOU, dear blog reader, I whipped out my notebook and asked them both a question I've been thinking a lot about lately: WHY DO WE WRITE ANYWAY?

Like me, Robin, whose latest YA novel is called The Summer We Saved the Bees, and who has two books coming out with Orca this spring (Pride: Celebrating Diversity and Community -- she's holding an advance reading copy in the pic -- and Under Threat), usually has a book in progress. When I asked her why that is, she answered, "Because reasons" -- and then she explained that this is something her 11-year-old son would say. I decided that that was a really profound answer! Robin added that, "Even if I'm ignoring it, I like having something to think about."

Sarah had a slightly different, but equally interesting answer. She told me, "I do not always have to be writing, but I always have to be reading." She speculated that because she spends so much time editing other people's writing (inclduing mine and Robin's!) that she needs occasional breaks from writing. When earlier this morning, Sarah and I stopped in at the Orca Book Publishers office, we visited with associate publisher Ruth Linka and Ruth passed on her copy of Louise Penny's latest novel, The Nature of the Beast, to Sarah. Well, Sarah was so glad to get the book that she clutched it to her chest. Proof that she needs to read all the time -- and that books make authors happy!

Sarah's upcoming YA novel is called Spirit Level -- both Robin and I got to read early versions of the manuscript and we loved it. For Sarah, and I think it's the same for many of us in this business, writing is not only about getting words on the page. Here's how she put it. And get ready... there are hand gestures involved! "I don't think of writing as being this [Sarah tapped at an imaginary keyboard]; I think of it as being this [Sarah tapped at the side of her head.]" ALL THIS TO SAY... I thought this was a wonderful conversation, and I hope you've enjoyed it too. Here's to tapping at keyboards and tapping into the imagination -- and to great conversations with good friends!







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When Imaginary Characters Come Alive


You know your writing is going well when someone else talks about your characters as if they are alive!

That's what happened last weekend when I met up with Raphaella -- the young writer I am mentoring as part of a special Quebec Writers' Federation Project.

Rapahella is working on a book project, and if you look carefully at today's pic, you'll notice the names of some of her characters such as Owen and Parker. If anyone was listening to my conversation with Raphaella on Saturday when we met up at a coffee shop in Laval (which is when I wrote the notes that I photographed for today's pic), they'd definitely have thought that Owen and Parker were real people. That's because we were talking about what makes these two boys tick, what their relationship is like, and whether Parker ever gets fed up with Owen. At one point in our meeting, I told Raphaella that it felt to me as if we were discussing flesh and blood people -- and that, for me, is a sign that a story is really working!

This is my second blog entry about Raphaella. The last time I told you about her and the work we are doing together, I explained how impressed I was that Raphaella is so open to comments and suggestions. Some young writers are less open to input. I had the same positive impression of Raphaella when we got together on Saturday. Lucky me!

I'll finish up today's blog entry by sharing something Raphaella told me when I asked her why she enjoys writing. She said, "I'm not expressive orally, but the writing pours out. I've always had trouble saying it out loud." How wonderful, I thought, to have the writing pour out! Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, you'll get to read about Owen and Parker too -- and find them as real as I do!



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Holocaust Stories


"Every Holocaust story is amazing," Dana Bell told me yesterday. That's Dana is the pic that goes with this blog entry. We shared a table at yesterday's Holocaust Survivor Memoirs event organized by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. I must admit that when I first sat down next to Dana, she was deep in serious conversation with someone else and I didn't expect that we would hit it off -- but you know, sometimes life brings happy surprises, because by the end of the afternoon, Dana and I were chatting like old friends. What a fun, inspiring and wise woman!

Dana is the author of Danusia: The Story of a Child Survivor. It took Dana nine years to write this book and in the end, she decided to self-publish it. (Which led us to a interesting discussion about the world of self-publishing). In her book, Dana describes what happened to her and her family after they were deported to Siberia. Dana was only two years old at the time.

Dana told me that for her, the biggest compliment is when her readers say, "When I read your book, I heard your voice in the room with me." I consider that high praise. As I tell my students, one of the hardest and certainly one of the most important parts of writing is finding your voice. For me, I always feel like my stories begin to come alive when I hear my narrators' voices in my head.

Like me, Dana enjoys doing school visits. She also speaks to visitors and classes of students at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. I hope to catch her in action one of these days. In the mean time, I look forward to reading her book. And I couldn't agree more with Dana -- every Holocaust story is amazing.

  2339 Hits

Holocaust Stories


"Every Holocaust story is amazing," Dana Bell told me yesterday. That's Dana is the pic that goes with this blog entry. We shared a table at yesterday's Holocaust Survivor Memoirs event organized by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. I must admit that when I first sat down next to Dana, she was deep in serious conversation with someone else and I didn't expect that we would hit it off -- but you know, sometimes life brings happy surprises, because by the end of the afternoon, Dana and I were chatting like old friends. What a fun, inspiring and wise woman!

Dana is the author of Danusia: The Story of a Child Survivor. It took Dana nine years to write this book and in the end, she decided to self-publish it. (Which led us to a interesting discussion about the world of self-publishing). In her book, Dana describes what happened to her and her family after they were deported to Siberia. Dana was only two years old at the time.

Dana told me that for her, the biggest compliment is when her readers say, "When I read your book, I heard your voice in the room with me." I consider that high praise. As I tell my students, one of the hardest and certainly one of the most important parts of writing is finding your voice. For me, I always feel like my stories begin to come alive when I hear my narrators' voices in my head.

Like me, Dana enjoys doing school visits. She also speaks to visitors and classes of students at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. I hope to catch her in action one of these days. In the mean time, I look forward to reading her book. And I couldn't agree more with Dana -- every Holocaust story is amazing.

  1981 Hits

104 Fewer Students than Usual


Marianopolis College resumes next week, but I won't be back in the building till the middle of January. That's because this semester I'll be on a writing sabbatical. However, it doesn't mean I won't have any students. Thanks to a special Quebec Writers' Federation project, I have begun mentoring a young writer named Raphaella.

To be honest, I was not looking for another project, but when the QWF approached me about this opportunity, I said, "I'll only do it if I really like Raphaella's writing" -- and you can guess what happened next. I liked it -- a lot!

Tonight, Raphaella came to my house for our first meeting. I had reviewed the first chapter of her work in progress -- and we went over it together in detail. We also discussed some basic principles such as the need to SHOW, NOT TELL; that ADVERBS ARE EVIL AND SHOULD BE ELIMINATED WHEREVER POSSIBLE; and that RESEARCH is often an essential part of the fiction-writing process. One of Raphaella's characters is a songwriter, and it turns out Raphaella has a cousin who writes songs -- so she is going to interview him and get interesting details to work into her story.

Not only is Raphaella a fine writer, but she was receptive to my comments and suggestions. When I asked her at one point whether she could handle more suggestions (I'd already given her a lot), she said, "This is what I wanted." That comment inspired me. Like Raphaella, I work with editors too -- and it's good to be reminded that being edited is a privilege.

Before I dropped Raphaella off at the metro station, I asked whether I had overwhelmed her -- that's because I know I can have an overwhelming effect on people and also because I gave Raphaella the attention I usually store up and give to 105 students! Here is what Raphaella answered: "You're very quirky [this could be because she saw me wipe the cat's feet when he came in from outside] and also very interesting. You cover all the bases at the same time." If you know me, you'll agree this assessment is right-on!

Next time, I'll ask Raphaella's permission to let me quote a little of her story. As for me, I'm delighted to work with such a bright, receptive and talented young writer. I expect I'll learn a lot from the process too!

  2332 Hits

Hooked on Writing Books!


The reason I haven't been such a faithful blogger lately is that I've been juggling three book projects. My last deadline was July 1st -- and I made it! Now, if I was a more normal sort of person, I'd probably be glad to have some time off from writing books. But the thing is I'M HOOKED AND I CAN'T STOP.

So, I thought I'd use today's blog entry to explore why that might be.

I love having a project on the go. And I love having an imaginary world to think about. And I also love doing research -- exploring new subjects and asking lots of questions. That's why for today's pic, I took a photo of the four sheets of notes currently on my desk. Each sheet has a different book idea. Over the next few days and weeks, I plan to start doing preliminary research on all four topics... and the one that "calls" to me most, well that'll be my next project!

And because I think it's important for authors to be honest about their work -- especially authors like me who want to help inspire others to write -- I should tell you that even after having published 17 YA novels, and with three more books due out in spring 2016, I still find writing difficult. And you know what? That's also why I'm hooked. Because even if it's hard work, and often frustrating, I think I like doing difficult, challenging things.

You may know that I am a great fan of Lewis Carroll's -- and that I wrote my MA thesis on the Alice books (and that yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the day Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, told Alice Liddell and her sisters the story that led to the first Alice book). Well, my very good friend Kevin recently sent me a wonderful new biography of Lewis Carroll called The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Writing about our need for fiction, Douglas-Fairhurst quotes Julian Barnes's novel, Flaubert's Parrot: "Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you. Life is where things aren't. I'm not surprised some people prefer books." I LOVED THOSE LINES. They also help explain why I'm hooked on writing books. I hope you are, too!!



  2649 Hits

It's Not Every Day A Former Student Invites Me to Work With Her Students!


See that sweet young woman kneeling next to me in today's pic? It's Lea Beddia -- whom I taught at Marianopolis College some 15 years ago. Today, I drove northeast of Montreal to Joliette, where I worked with Miss Beddia's Grade Seven English classes at Joliette High School. Miss Beddia (Lea to me!) is just as smart and funny as I remember her and I must say it was a special delight to see one of my former students doing such great work with her own students!! I know I shouldn't take credit... but I still do!!

I turned up at lunch time, so I got to hang out with Miss Beddia and some of the school's budding authors. Afterwards, I worked with about 40 students, sharing writing tips and, of course, telling a few stories. Then Miss Beddia divided the students into smaller groups so I could give them some one-on-one advice about the creative writing pieces they have been working on. 

Whenever I do school visits, I like to share highlights of my day -- so here they come! At lunch, a student named Chloe said, "If you write about yourself as a character, you can find out more about yourself." That comment led those of us sitting at our table to discuss the connection between ourselves and the characters we create. I think that in some way, our characters are reflections of us -- and that sometimes they represent the parts of ourselves we seldom ,if ever, get to express! Why else do I keep writing about troublemaking boys?!!

Many of the students at JHS spend a lot of time on the schoolbus. Julia (who kindly corrected some French notes I am preparing for a radio column next week -- grand merci, Julia!) told me she uses her time on the bus to "observe people and imagine their stories." Spoken like a real writer, Julia!

When I was sharing writing tips, I asked the students, "What do you think happens when I write?" A young man named Nikolas came up with a great answer. He said, "You make a lot of mistakes!" And that's totally true -- and helps explain why I spend even more time REwriting than I spend writing my first drafts!

I also met a student named Blanche. When I told her how much I liked her name, Blanche told me her middle name is Neige. For those of you blog readers who do not speak French, that translates into "Snow White." Beautiful, don't you agree?

During a short writing exercise, Sebastien wrote about the last time he saw his great-grandmother. Here's a line that gave me shivers from Sebastien's piece: "Just by shaking her hand, I knew something was wrong."

I wish I had taken notes when I was looking at the students' stories -- but I was too busy reading and trying to provide some useful feedback. But I do remember a few of the suggestions I came up with: add dialogue to add life to your writing; show -- don't tell; take the reader with you by providing sensory details; and lose the adverbs.

Thanks, Miss Beddia, for staying wonderful all these years and for sharing your classes with me today; thanks Miss Murphy for letting us use your beautiful Community Learning Centre; and thanks to the students for working so hard! You guys were great!!!










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Happy Day at Heritage Regional High School


Heritage Regional High School in St-Hubert is one of those schools I have visited so often that I feel at home in the hallways and the cafeteria -- and especially the libarary. Over time, I have also become good friends with Mrs. Eva, the head of the school's English department and a devoted creative writing teacher.

Today, I did three writing workshops at Heritage -- and I thought I'd use this blog entry to share some of the high points. For me, the first high point was during Mrs. Eva's introduction, when she told the students: "You need to find your voice. You need to find what interests you." I could not agree more. Whenever I am thinking about a new book, I always asks myself a similar question -- what interests me most at this point in my life? The answer often leads to a new project!

In one of my workshops, I asked students to observe an object, but to make sure that the observation was connected somehow to an emotion. A student named Charles observed the clock on the library wall. The clock has a green Heritage school crest on its face. As Charles wrote, "it gives me the feeling of obligation." Nice obseration, Charles! Make sure you work that clock into your next story!

I talked a little about my mom today, too. I told the students how she has given me permission to talk about some of the difficulties she's had in her life, and how she once told me, "If you think it helps young people to tell them these things, go ahead and tell them." On his way out of the library, a young man named Tristan stopped and said, "Tell your mother I appreciate what she's done in her life." Will do, Tristan!

My last session was with Mrs.Eva's enriched English group. I tried to tell them the truth about writing -- that for me, it is often a difficult, frustrating process and that even after having published 17 YA novels, I still feel sometimes like I am groping in the dark when I write. So I was happy when, at the end of the day, a student named Sarah said, ""I liked that you were honest." A student named Lydia added, "When people hide you from reality, you end up getting hurt."

So, a big thanks to Mrs. Eva -- for your dedication to your students, and for being such a good host. And a big thank you to the students for being such excellent workshop participants. Now, remember what I told you: stay out of trouble, but if trouble strikes, use it in a story! And never ever stop reading and writing!








  3382 Hits

Reporting in: Day 3 at the MASC Young Authors Conference


Meet Alan! That's him in today’s pic. Alan was in my last workshop today on the final day of the MASC Young Authors Conference at Ottawa’s Aviation Museum. As you may already have figured out, Alan collects bookmarks! Usually, I only hand out one bookmark per student, but Alan collected a few extra, and when I was discussing examples of body language I happened to catch him in the act – making a fan out of my bookmarks. I decided it was photo-worthy.

So I had two more great groups of students today. In her introduction this morning, MASC’s Faith Seltzer told the students: “Pick the authors’ and illustrators’ brains and I’ll let you in on a secret: they’ll be picking your brains too!”

That’s definitely the truth!

In today’s entry, I’ll tell you about some excellent brains I picked! I learned that a student named Aashaz has an indoor rink in his basement. Though it’s made of plastic, Aashaz and his brother skate on it while wearing real skates! (I had never heard of that before, and I think it’s super-interesting and belongs in a book. Don’t you agree?)

This week I began experimenting with a new writing exercise. I asked students to use any of their five senses to observe something interesting in our room, but I told them that I wanted their observations to evoke emotion. Here’s what a student named Moumita came up with – she saw one lone marker on a shelf, and for her, it represented “one lonely person at school.” Nice work, Moumita!

If you’ve been following my blog over the last few days, you’ll know I had an amazing time at the MASC Young Authors Conference. I got to hang out with great kids, and great authors, and work with a great team from MASC and their out-of-this world volunteers. Hey, how am I going to get back to real life tomorrow?

  1929 Hits

Reporting in: Day 2 at the MASC Young Authors Conference


The young man in today's picture is named Anderson -- and he was in my workshop today at the MASC Young Authors Conference in Ottawa. See those beautiful front teeth? There's a story behind them! When we were discussing how it's important to have trouble in our stories, Anderson shared a real-life story with us. When he was out skiing, the T-bar hit Anderson in the mouth and his two front teeth got knocked out. YIKES! Luckily, the dentail surgeon was able to save both teeth -- and now Anderson sure has a story to tell! I asked whether when he was holding his teeth in his hand there was blood -- Anderson said no. That's when I gave him a good tip for fiction writing: LIE! We all agreed that readers would enjoy as gorey a description as possible -- and I even suggested he could add a few drops of blood to the snow.

It turned out that several students in my morning workshop had tooth stories of their own. A couple thought it was a sign that I should use teeth trouble in one of my new book projects.

Another interesting thing we discussed: how our shoelaces reveal something about us. That was because my shadow (meaning my personal assistant) this morning, a student named Jessica, was wearing sneakers -- and the laces on one of them were untied. We did a count, and about half of the kids in the workshop, double-tie their laces. We decided that double-tiers are probably more careful people, that they worry about tripping -- and that non-tiers like Jessica are freer spirits. This, I thought was a great moment to teach students the writing rule SHOW; DON'T TELL. Rather than saying a character is careful, consider having him or her take an action such as double-tying his or her shoelaces!

In the afternoon workshop, I asked students to come up with interesting observations about our room. Alex observed "one empty chair" -- and I thought that would make a great title for a book. One Empty Chair -- haunting, don't you agree? A student named Moira gave me permission to quote from a beautiful piece she wrote about her memory of being forced to take a nap at daycare. Here comes the quote -- get ready for some super writing! "I didn't want to admit that I slept well. I tried to think of what I had dreamed about, but the memory had already slipped away. This confused me. I thought someone had stolen my dream." I LOVE LOVE LOVE the bit about the stolen dream.

So, you can probably tell that I've been enjoying myself at the MASC Young Authors Conference. To the students I've been working with -- thanks for the inspiration -- and for your hard work!!

  2576 Hits

Reporting In: Day 1 at the MASC Young Authors Conference


It seems appropriate that I am FLYING HIGH after Day 1 at the MASC Young Authors Conference in Ottawa -- since it was held in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum!

The two groups of students I worked with were amazing. In the first group, a student named Abdel told me, "I read a lot because it enhaces my vocabulary" -- and Abdel is only ten. Then a student named Laura raised her hand to say she reads the dictionary sometimes. Which led me to discover that Natassia, Cohen, Meisha, Briana, Mikael, Oliver, Ketsia, Rebecca, Kindra and Ella are also dictionary readers!

If you are wondering what is going on in today's pic... I took it when I gave the students an exercise to write a book blurb, and a student named Kindra wanted to hide what she had written. As I told Kindra, I consider that a sign that her work must have been important and terrific. Write that book, Kindra!

A student named Allegra asked me a question that I thought was just brilliant: "What if you have so many great ideas -- how do you choose one? And what if you start one, but then you feel like starting another? How do you ever finish?" Wow, Allegra, that question makes me think you really understand what goes on in a writer's mind. You know how I finish? By sheer stick-to-it-iveness.

In my second group, a student named Brenna started writing a story that I really really hope she will continue working on. Here's how it begins: "The shotgun felt heavy in my five year old arms. My uncle holds my arms steady as he takes off the safety." Now aren't you eager to know what is going to happen next?

It's time now to go to a party with my fellow writers and illustrators. I'll keep posting about my adventures here in Ottawa over the next couple of days. Thanks MASC for inviting me, and thanks to the students I worked with today -- you guys were amazing. Keep reading the dictionary!! And writing and reading books of all kinds!!!









  2500 Hits

Authors for Indies Coming Up Soon

When I was a girl, my dad's law office was in Dominion Square Building, on the corner of Peel and Ste. Catherine Streets in downtown Montreal. On Saturday mornings, my dad sometimes let me tag along when he went to the office to do extra work. One reason I loved going was that he used to let me raid the supply closet -- I'd load up on pens and steno pads and because photocopy machines had not yet been invented, something called carbon paper. But the other reason was that on the Saturday mornings I went downtown with my dad, he'd always let me stop at W.H. Smith, the bookstore that for many years was located in the building's lobby. That's where my love of bookstores first began.

On Saturday, May 2, Authors for Indies comes to Canada. Begun by one of my favourite writers, Sherman Alexie, Authors for Indies is a way to support independent booksellers. At last count, 104 Canadian bookstores have arranged to participate. These stores will be hosting authors -- including me. For one day, we'll be volunteer booksellers, talking to customers about our favourite subject -- books, of course!

I'll be volunteering at two West Island bookstores that day. From 11 AM until 1 PM, I'll be at Librairie Clio. Other authors who'll be in-store that day include my friends Kit Brennan and P.J. Bracegirdle. Then from 2-4 PM, I'll be at Livres Babar in Pointe-Claire Village. Livres Babar has two locations -- the one in Pointe-Claire Village, and the other on Greene Avenue. We're still waiting to get the names of the other authors who'll be at the two Babar stores on May 2. The Babar stores are Montreal's only bookstores specializing in children's books... so you can understand why, over the years, I've become good friends with the Byers family, who own the stores, and with all of the stores' employees. In fact, I often run my story ideas by them!

Since the time I was a little girl, bookstores have always felt like home to me. In a bookstore, I can never be in a bad mood. There are too many books to look at, and flip through, and get hooked by... to be in a bad mood. I often tell my students that books -- both reading and writing them -- have saved my life. I know it sounds dramatic, but it's true. Books and bookstores, reading and writing are my safe place. So wherever you live in Canada or the United States, make a point of dropping by your local independent bookstore on May 2. Hey, don't forget to tell them I sent you!





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Super Fun Morning at Marymount Academy


Marymount Acadmey is in my neighbourhood -- in fact, I regularly jog by the building, but today was the first time I ever got to go inside! And I had a great time working with Mr. Harris's Grade 7 English class.

My day started with a hug -- from the school's vice-principal, Ms. Vourdousis. Thanks for getting my day off to a happy start, Ms. V! I don't think I've ever been hugged by a vice-principal before -- and it was fun!

Librarian Mr. Langdon kindly let us set up shop in his library. When I said I'd like the desks grouped more closely together, Mr. Harris asked for help from a student named Cody. Mr. Harris told Cody: "Show me your muscles." That was when a student named Tahleah who was sitting next to Cody piped up and said, "I've got muscles too!" I thought that was a great line, and I wrote it down so I could use it in a book. (Coincidentally, two characters in the story I am revising happen to be having a similar conversation.)

Hey, can you tell what we are doing in today's pic? The idea came from a student named Celeste, who it turns out is also one of the winners of the school's recent public speaking contest. Can you tell which word we are trying to "write"? If you need a clue, that's Mr. Harris sitting in front of us, doing the thing we are trying to demonstrate!

The students had loads of great questions for me. Henry had the most questions, and he also provided some sensitive, intelligent answers. Great work today, Henry! A student named Katherine asked a question I really liked and that I've never been asked before: "How do you get better at writing?" I told her the answer is by writing and reading A LOT!

It's nearly time for me to go and teach my own classes at Marianopolis College, but I also want to share an interesting observation from a student named Ebony. She thinks that the boys at her school are even more interested in their appearance than the girls are, only Ebony put it better: "Nowadays boys be the ones caring about their hair, shoes and clothes. And the girls are like, 'We don't care!'"

Both writing exercises I did with the group today went well. Three students didn't want me to read what they had written -- I always get excited when that happens. As I see it, it means that these students REALLY NEED TO WRITE THOSE STORIES.

So, thanks to the students for being great workshop participants; to Mr. Harris for sharing his class with me; to Mr. Langdon for sharing the library; and to Ms. Vourdousis and principal Ms. Cresta for making today's visit happen.






My morning started with a hug from the school's vice-principal, Ms. Vourdousis --

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"She almost made me cry... but don't tell anyone I said that"


The title of today's blog entry, "She almost made me cry -- but don't tell anyone I said that" comes from a comment overheard (not by me) in the hallway after the first of my two presentations this morning at Westwood Junior High School in Ste-Lazare.

I was at Westwood Junior to speak with Grade Eight students about how I got to be a writer, and to talk about my historical novel, What World Is Left, which many of the students had read over the summer. I guess it was my stories about interviewing my mom -- whose experience in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp, inspired that book -- that made the student almost cry.

I told the groups I worked with that when I was growing up, I had a difficult relationship with my mom. But everything changed when I learned the story of what she had been through during the Holocaust. So I recommended the students interview people in their own lives who sometimes drive them crazy. Once you know a person's story, you can't be angry with them any more.

We also talked about the importance of passing stories on -- and I told the story of my monkey man charm, and to the first group, the story of the prison guard who was kind to my grandfather after the Nazis imprisoned him in the Hague.

At recess, I met with the school's Battle of the Books team. They are hoping to make it to the final championship -- when they will have to answer in-depth questions about a number of books, including my novel, Straight Punch. It's a great project and you'll read more about it here since I am going to be one of the people asking questions on the final night of the contest, which takes place on April 23.

There were some special treats for me today. One was that Mrs. Quinn, a Grade Eight teacher, presented me with a thick white envelope -- inside are letters about What World Is Left, written to me by her students. I am looking forward to reading each one -- and to sharing the letters with my mom.

Another pleasure was that a student named Emily came to say hello to me after my presentation. (That's Emily in the white skirt in today's pic.) I have not seen Emily in many years, but I knew her and her family when she was a baby. And you know what, Emily? I'm pretty sure the first present I ever gave you was a BOOK!!

Now I'm going to do some writing. If I don't, how am I ever going to keep getting invited to visit cool schools?! Special thanks to librarian Mrs. Conroy (she's standing at the left in my pic) for arranging my visit today, and to teachers Mrs. Quinn and Mr. Savard for sharing your students. And to the students -- thanks for making my morning so much fun!

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Special Day With Special Students at John Grant High School


There are a lot of reasons why my morning was special. For one thing, I was working with special needs students at John Grant High School -- and they were terrific! Usually, I get about an hour or maybe 90 minutes with a class, but today, I had nearly three hours! That meant I could take my time and also that I had a chance to get to know the young people I was working with. These students are in the JOP stream. JOP stands for Job Orientation Program. That means they have classes on Mondays and Tuesdays, and from Wednesday to Friday, they are out doing internships in the community. I'll bet they have a lot of interesting stories about their time in the workplace!!

Another reason the visit was special is that my book Hate Mail is dedicated to David R, a student in the class. David R didn't want to be in the photograph, but he kindly agreed to be our photographer.

And another reason why the visit was special is that John Grant is located in what used to be Wagar High School -- my old high school. I haven't been back in the building for nearly forty years -- and I was surprised by how familiar things felt. Even the room numbers on the doors are still the same.

So, back to the students! We were talking about the link between writing and reading, and I asked the class if they enjoy reading. Jabbaar answered, "50-50." You know what I love about that answer? It's honest! Romy said, "I used to hate reading, but now I love it." I also noticed that Romy took amazing notes. Good job, Romy!

I told the students how hard it was for me to get my first book published. "What do you think that felt like?" I asked them. A student named Mitchell came up with a poetic answer. He said, "It must have felt like you were all alone and the walls were closing in." Mitchell, something tells me you should be writing poetry!

I ended the session with a writing exercise. Usually, I have to shush a few students at this point in my workshops, but not today! Claudio wrote a cool story about his grandmother hitting a mouse with her bare hands. And what do you think of the way William started his story: "I first heard the word 'tantrum' when I was ten years old." William, I definitely want to keep reading that story!

Thanks to the JOP students for being such focused participants; thanks to your teachers Miss Yankowsky and Miss Toffoli, for sharing you; and thanks to librarian Mrs. French for arranging my visit. I can't imagine a happier start to this week!


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More Erasers: Happy Morning at Lasalle Community High School


Hello blog readers! This seems to be eraser-week! If you read Monday's blog, you will know that during my visit to Westwood Senior, I spotted a young man trying to melt his eraser on a nearby radiator. Today, during my workshops at Lasalle Community High School, I noticed that Carissa, the student sitting next to me, was rotating her eraser and dropping it on the table in what struck me as a rhythmic way. So, because I enjoy being OBSERVANT and am CURIOUS (useful traits in an author), I asked Carissa whether she might be musical. And guess what I found out? Not only is Carissa musical, but she plays the DRUMS. Now, even though I have plenty of story ideas to keep me busy for a while, I am starting to think about writing a YA novel about a GIRL DRUMMER. So, thanks for the inspiration, Carissa!

I spent the morning working with Miss Ryan's two Grade Nine English classes. When I was talking about the importance of re-writing, and how, even after I have re-written a manuscript several times, my editor still has many suggestions for improving it, a student named Shevan had a super question. He wanted to know, "How come you can't fix your writing yourself?' I told Shevan that we writers tend to get too close to our own work -- it's kind of like trying to be objective about your own child. An editor has distance, not to mention lots of experience with other writers' work. The funny thing is that as a teacher, I do a lot of editing -- but I still need an editor to help me improve my stories.

I stayed to have lunch in the school library, where I met students on the school's Battle of the Books team (they are competing with other schools to answer questions about 14 YA novels -- and one of them is mine). That's me with the team in today's pic. (The two women at the back of the pic are librarian Miss Susan, who is wearing grey; next to her is Miss Ryan.) One of the girls on the team, Sephrah, told me that she has spent a lot of time developing an idea for her own novel. But, Sephrah says that the writing part is not going so well: "The minute I try to put it into writing, it sounds cheesy." I told Sephrah that what she feels is perfectly natural and part of the writing process. Sephrah, just get your story down -- cheesy or not. Once you have a first draft, then you can go back and make it better and better. For me, feeling dissatisfied with my writing is all just part of what goes into producing a book.

Special thanks to Miss Susan for inviting me to Lasalle Community High School, to Miss Ryan for sharing your classes, to the students for being good listeners, and to the Battle of the Books team for keeping me company at lunch -- and sharing your stories.

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