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Monique Polak's Books


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!








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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?

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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!!

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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!!!









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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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Report from Westwood High School, Senior Campus

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I'm just home from my visit today to Westwood High School Senior Campus in Hudson, a beautiful town about a forty-minute drive from downtown Montreal.

I worked with three English classes, all taught by the charming and kind Mr. Roy. It's funny how every single class has its own character. I think that's one of the reasons why, after more than 30 years in the classroom, I'm still hooked on working with teenagers! I never know what to expect and that keeps life interesting!

Here are a few highlights from today's visit. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I am hooked on interesting observations. Well, today I noticed a student named Daniel trying to melt his eraser on the radiator near his desk. I must admit that even after so many years in the classroom, that was a new one for me! Later, I noticed that a particularly bright student (I learned his name was Matt) happened to be wearing a Harvard sweatshirt. A propos, perhaps?

A student named Lilly told me that today was her 16th birthday! (That's Lilly with me in today's pic -- we are upside-down at the moment, but I'll fix that later!) Happy birthday, Lilly! She also told me she has read my novel What World Is Left FIVE TIMES! Yay, Lilly! Lilly told me she sometimes feels discouraged when she is writing. She said, "I like writing, bu when I write, I feel like I do a very bad job." That made me laugh because ... well... I often feel that way myself! I explained to Lilly that in my experience, people who are really super confident about their writing tend not to be the best writers!

I did a writing exercise with every group. Here's an excerpt from one of the best pieces that came out of the exercise. A student named Kate was remembering back to when her parents announced they were getting a divorce. Kate wrote: "I couldn't smell anything because I had a runny nose from crying." When I read that line I felt like I was in the room with Kate and her family. That's a sure sign of writing that works.

And ... one final moment that made me happy. We were talking about interviewing and I asked the students in my first class of the day, "What quality does a reporter or researcher have to demonstrate in order to get a really good interview or story?" I gave the students the hint that the answer was a verb, that it started with C and had four letters. Well, a student named Tristan came up with the answer: "Care!" he called out.

So that's my word for the day: care. If you care about stories; if you care about writing and reading -- you're on the way to becoming a writer. Thanks to Mr. Roy for inviting me to Westwood Senior, and to librarian Ute Wilkinson for arranging today's visit. And thanks to the students for being so much fun!


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Pajama Day at Kuper Academy


If you're wondering why some of the kids in today's pic are wearing pajamas, it's because it was Pajama Day at Kuper Academy. I was there to pay my third of three visits to the school. This morning, I visited another one of Miss Machaca's Grade Eight classes -- and they were wonderful.

Because I spoke a little about how important it is for authors to make observations (so that they include interesting details in their stories), I asked some questions about the pajamas the students were wearing. Several were dressed in onesies -- can you figure out my question? I wanted to know how they manage to go to the bathroom! (Admit it! You were wondering about that, too!) Imagine trying to go to the bathroom when you are wearing a onesie -- that would be a good scene to include in a story!

When we were discussing body language, I asked students to have a look at how people were holding their pens. A student named Alex observed that one of his classmates was ready to write. "Pen at the ready!" said Alex. I liked Alex's use of language -- "Pen at the ready!" sounds lively and fun, and it makes me think that Alex is the poetic type.

We talked a little about my historical novel, What World Is Left, and I told the students how the book is based on my mom's wartime experience. My mom lived in Amsterdam, but after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, she and her family were sent to a concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. A student named Wiske stayed to talk to me after class. Wiske moved from the Netherlands to Canada six months ago. We spoke about Anne Frank -- which made me realize I had forgotten to tell this morning's class that my mom and Anne Frank attended the same high school for Jewish students in Amsterdam. If Anne Frank was alive today, she would be my mom's age -- 85.

On my way out today, I stopped at the library to thank the librarian, Mrs. Mohammed, for inviting me to Kuper -- I really had a great time. The kids were super -- focused, interested, and perfectly behaved. I also had a chance to meet Mrs. Salette, the head of school. It is always fun for me to meet the administrators who run the schools I visit. And then I had a happy surprise. Mrs. Salette's son, Rob, is the school's director of admissions. And guess what? I taught Rob at Marianopolis!

Here's to interesting observations, turning trouble into stories ... and happy surprises! Thanks to all the students I worked with at Kuper. You guys were a pleasure!







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Visit to Lauren Hill Academy, Another School that's Close to My Heart


If you have read my YA novel, 121 Express, you will remember Mr. Adams. What you may not know is that the fictional Mr. Adams is based on a wonderful real-life teacher named Mr. Adams, who is now the head of the English Department at Lauren Hill Academy, Junior Campus, here in Montreal.

I met Mr. Adams several years ago, when I worked with him and his students on a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project, which ended up inspiring 121 Express. Which meant that I got to spend a lot of time at Lauren Hill's Junior Campus.

So you will understand why I was so pleased to be invited back there this morning! I am just home from doing three workshops at the school -- and the first one was for TEACHERS! Basically, I did the same thing with the teachers that I did later with their students -- shared my writing tips, and got them WRITING!

Afterwards, I worked with two large groups of students -- I think I probably spoke to over 200 students in all... and they were great. It's not easy for participants in such large groups to stay focused, but these kids were just about perfect.

I talked about the important link between our memories and the stories we need to write. During a short writing exercise, a student named Azur asked, "Can we keep it in the present?" I thought this was a sophisticated question and I told Azur, yes, absolutely, use the present. I find that when I am writing about memories, the present tense adds immediacy -- something that Azur was discovering on her own. A student named Kiki wrote about a difficult memory involving violence. Kiki gave me permission to share a few lines here: "Not again. Not another bruise. Not another day." Those are powerful words, Kiki, and they make me want to keep reading your story!

When he was introducing me to the second group, Mr. Adams said, "Writing is a life skill -- not just a school skill." I thought that was so smart and well-put that I had to write it down in my notes. See, writers are ALWAYS TAKING NOTES, even during our own presentations!

I showed the students (and the teachers) my book of "pages" -- the journal I write in every morning. After I was done with my last presentation, a student named Matthew asked, "May I read the book you write in every morning?" I had a quick answer for Matthew: "NO!"

I also got to meet the school's vice-principal. And it turns out that she has read one of my books. Plus, she has the best name for a vice-principal: MS. EXCELLENT. Ms. Excellent, you are definitely going into one of my future books!

A big shout-out to my friends at Lauren Hill Academy, Junior Campus -- thanks for being a great audience, thanks to Mr. Adams for the invite, to the other English teachers for coming to the teachers' workshops, and to Ms. Excellent for living up to her name!










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Visit to Riverdale, A School Close to My Heart...


I'm just home from Riverdale High School -- a school that's close to my heart. That's because my last book, Hate Mail, was written with the help of a wonderful group of students at Riverdale and their teacher Karen Scott. The book grew out of an amazing Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Libres comme l'art.

Today, I did writing workshops with two of Miss Blake's English classes and I must say they were both lively crews. But I also had a few visitors from Miss Scott's group. It was great to see you guys!

In today's pic, I am working with the class I saw this morning. One of the students in the pic is named Briyaunah -- when I was teaching the writing rule (I don't usually like to teach rules, but this is my one exception) SHOW; DON'T TELL, I explained how there's a semi-colon... which was when Briyaunah drew a semi-colon in the air and smiled at me. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you'll know that I am crazy about body language -- well, Briyaunah's drawing that semi-colon was very cool body language and it showed me that a) she was paying attention and b) she knows what a semi-colon is!

When we talked about revising, a student named Zac said, "I only hand in first drafts." When I asked Zac how that is working out for him, he admitted, "I might be failing English." Luckily, before I finished my session, I got Zac to solemnly promise that he will now revise and re-do his work before handing it in. Let me know if that helps pick up your English average, Zac!

THe group I worked with this afternoon was even LIVELIER -- by that I mean it was a bit of a challenge to get them to focus. But hey, they did -- and they turned out to be wonderful, too. Also, they had a ton of questions for me, which made my day more fun and interesting. My favourite question came from a guy named Jack who, when I told them that I write every single day, asked, "Doesn't writing get boring?" I responded by asking Jack a question: "Does thinking ever get boring?" and he said, "No, I like to think"... so I explained that for me, writing IS thinking.

Anyway, it's nearly time for me to head to Marianopolis to teach my own Writing for Children class. But first I need to say a special thanks to Mrs. Strano, the librarian at Riverdale, for the invite, and for making me the best lunch EVER. Thanks to Miss Blake's classes for your energy, and to Miss Scott's former students for coming to say hi.






























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Highlights of Today's Visit to Kuper Academy


I'm just back from my second of three visits this month to Kuper Academy in Kirkland. This afternoon, I worked with three Grade Eight classes -- and there were many interesting and fun moments.

I'll begin with an interesting moment: a student named Mathew told me his grandfather, who is German and whom Mathew calls "Opa" (the same name I used to call my Dutch grandfather) helped Jews in hiding during the Holocaust by bringing them food. Luckily for Mathew, his opa is still alive... so I told Mathew he needs to hang out with him and learn his stories! As I pointed out, sometimes older people are more comfortable sharing their pasts with their grandchildren than with their own kids. So get to work, Mathew!

I got Ms. Machaca's class to write about the book each of them most wants to read. Interestingly, three students wrote about soccer. Alexander imagined a story that combined soccer and aliens; Efren was interested in a story about a kidnapped soccer player; and Amrit had a story idea about a poor Brazilian kid who becomes a soccer star.

Another fun moment happened when I was advising the students that in order to get a secret, they might try giving a secret -- in other words, tell one of their own. A student named Brandon asked, "Does it work if you make it up?" My immediate answer was no -- because I think that if we want to have honest, deep conversation with someone, we need to be honest ourselves. But then I gave Brandon's question a little more thought and I decided to give him credit for even coming up with it -- since his question is really about using imagination. In a way, Brandon, all fiction writers are liars -- and now the concept gets even more complicated -- what we aim to do in our fiction is get at essential human truths!

I ended the afternoon with Miss Caughy's class. (Today's pic was taken in Miss Caughy's classroom.) You know how I love making observations and asking questions? Well, I noticed there seemed to be interesting students in the back corners and near the door in Miss Caughy's classroom ... so I asked her about it. Guess what I found out? That Miss Caughy uses a system called "four corners." Ah ha... let's just say that that's where Miss Caughy puts the students who function best with a little extra space. You know what I'm thinking? That "Four Corners" would make a great book title! Hey, maybe one of you guys in Miss Caughy's four corners should write it!

I'll be back to do one last class at Kuper on Monday, Feb. 23. If any of the students I've met want to show me your writing, I could meet you in the library at lunch and we could talk stories. Let Miss Mohammed know if that sounds like a plan.






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Happy Day at Kuper Academy


You'd probably expect a writer who just got home from doing FIVE sessions with students at Kuper Academy would be ready for a nap, but hey, I'm full of energy. I think that's because instead of tiring me out, the kids I worked with today gave me the best kind of buzz!

Okay, so you're wondering about today's pics. In the first one, I am in the library with a student named Justin. Justin had heard me speak in Miss Machaca's class, where I mentioned that writers need to be careful observers of life around them. When I finished up in Miss Machaca's classroom, I was chatting with another of her students, when I noticed that Justin was well... waiting around. So I asked him, "Do you have a question for me?" -- and he answered, "No, I'm just following one of your tips!" That was when I figured out Justin was OBSERVING! (Nothing makes a visiting author happier than knowing young writers are following her advice!!)

There is lots more I can tell you about today's visit, but I'm going to give you a few highlights. If you are one of my regular blog readers, you'll know that I have started work on a new project involving school rules. That's why I took the second pic. It's the plastic basket you find on every teacher's desk at Kuper. When students come in, they deposit their cellphones in the basket. Clever idea, no? Maybe I should get them to try it at Marianopolis College!! Anyway, it's an interesting approach to the cellphone-in-the-classroom problem... and maybe I can find a way to work it into my new story. See? That's what we writers do... spend our days collecting material, the way a bird collects stuff to build a nest.

A happy moment from my day: I was telling the students about my opa, who inspired the character of the father in my historical novel What World Is Left. I explained that during the Holocaust, my Opa had to compromise his own priniciples in order to protect his family. Then I told the class, "May the rest of us never find ourselves in a similar situation." At just that moment, I happened to look at a student named Tyus and Tyus gave me a small nod. But that nod (you may know I have an obsession with body language) showed me that Tyus is smart and has a big heart -- and that he understood exactly what I meant.

I also collect possible names for future characters. So you can imagine my pleasure when a student told me her name is Love. And she has three sisters named Faith, Hope and Peace. Love, if you're reading this, I think you need to write a story about you four sisters and whether you live up to your names. I am wondering for instance ... does a girl named Peace ever get into a fight?

Another observation: I met a student named Melina who has two pencilcases. One is for pens and pencils; the other is for other stuff like her erasers and calculator. As a writer, I am always on the hunt for interesting details ... that double pencilcase situation might make it into my bird's nest, too!

And you can imagine that I was impressed by a student named Jack, whom when I told his class that I have been writing three pages in a journal every day for 20 years (except for one day when I had a terrible flu), Jack raised his hand and said, "That means you wrote, 219,897 pages!" And Jack didn't even use his calculator to figure that one out.

I'll be doing two more visits to Kuper this month. Watch the blog for more reports.

Special thanks to teachers Mr. Welik, Miss Machaca, and Mr. D, for sharing their classes with me; to librarian Mrs. Mohammed for inviting me back to Kuper; and to my new pal, Mrs. Katz, for the excellent company during my break!






  3465 Hits

Further Adventures of the Lunch Bunch


If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember that early in 2015, I paid four visits to St. Thomas High School. I was there to talk about writing and to inspire the students, but let's just say they inspired me, too!

At the time, I told the students about my latest book idea (it had to do with school rules), and I asked students who had some insights into how school rules work to drop by at their lunchtime to chat with me. Which was how the lunch bunch was born.

It also explains why today, a snowy day in Montreal -- the kind of day when the roads are slick -- I drove out to St. Thomas to meet with the lunch bunch!I tested out the first chapters of my new project on them. Overall, I'd say the verdict was a thumbs up, though they had lots of good comments and useful suggestions for me. For instance, they like the word "revolt" more than "mutiny," and they think one of the characters I am writing about -- who happens to be gay -- would be more reluctant about going along with his peers' macho behavior.

Special thanks to librarian Mrs. Pye for rounding up the lunch bunch, and to the lunch bunch for your terrific input. My favourite part of the visit? When a couple of students asked, "Are you coming back to read us more?" The answer, by the way, is YES! Aren't I a lucky writer to have these bright young people to test my story out on?






  2454 Hits

Further Adventures of the Lunch Bunch


If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember that early in 2015, I paid four visits to St. Thomas High School. I was there to talk about writing and to inspire the students, but let's just they inspired me, too!

At the time, I told the students about my latest book idea (it had to do with school rules), and I asked students who had some insights into how school rules work to drop by at their lunchtime to chat with me. Which was how the lunch bunch was born.

It also explains why today, a snowy day in Montreal -- the kind of day when the roads are slick -- I drove out to St. Thomas to meet with the lunch bunch!I tested out the first chapters of my new project on them. Overall, I'd say the verdict was a thumbs up, though they had lots of good comments and useful suggestions for me. For instance, they like the word "revolt" more than "mutiny," and they think one of the characters I am writing about -- who happens to be gay -- would be more reluctant about going along with his peers' macho behavior.

Special thanks to librarian Mrs. Pye for rounding up the lunch bunch, and to the lunch bunch for your terrific input. My favourite part of the visit? When a couple of students asked, "Are you coming back to read us more?" The answer, by the way, is YES! Aren't I a lucky writer to have these bright young people to test my story out on?






  2016 Hits

Further Adventures of the Lunch Bunch


If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember that early in 2015, I paid four visits to St. Thomas High School. I was there to talk about writing and to inspire the students, but let's just they inspired me, too!

At the time, I told the students about my latest book idea (it had to do with school rules), and I asked students who had some insights into how school rules work to drop by at their lunchtime to chat with me. Which was how the lunch bunch was born.

It also explains why today, a snowy day in Montreal -- the kind of day when the roads are slick -- I drove out to St. Thomas to meet with the lunch bunch!I tested out the first chapters of my new project on them. Overall, I'd say the verdict was a thumbs up, though they had lots of good comments and useful suggestions for me. For instance, they like the word "revolt" more than "mutiny," and they think one of the characters I am writing about -- who happens to be gay -- would be more reluctant about going along with his peers' macho behavior.

Special thanks to librarian Mrs. Pye for rounding up the lunch bunch, and to the lunch bunch for your terrific input. My favourite part of the visit? When a couple of students asked, "Are you coming back to read us more?" The answer, by the way, is YES! Aren't I a lucky writer to have these bright young people to test my story out on?






  2267 Hits

Hard to Say Good-Bye to the Students at St. Thomas High School

b2ap3_thumbnail_photo-2_20150113-202036_1.JPG  I'm just home from the last of my four writing workshops at St. Thomas High School -- and it was hard to say good-bye. The students did some amazing work and I have to admit they provided a ton of inspiration and input for the manuscript I am hoping to start this week. So, instead of saying good-bye, I asked them whether, once I've produced a few chapters of the new project, I could come back to the library some lunch time and test it out on them. I got the distinct impression my plan might work! YAY!

Because this was my second session with the students I worked with today, there was time for a writing exercise. If you know me, or if you read this blog, you will know that I am really interested in the connection between memory and writing. That's why I asked the students to explore a memory from when they were either five or ten years old. Many of them produced powerful pieces. One that stood out for me was Stephanie's memory of the death of her guinea pig Snoopy. Her piece was written in the present tense and she included the simple, but moving line, "I pet him one last time." When we were chatting afterwards, Stephanie told me that after Snoopy's death, she could not go into the computer room where his cage used to be. I told her that that was a detail she should definitely include as she continues to work on her piece.

Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you about today's pic! That's a drawing I spotted on a student named Cynthia's hand. Pretty amazing, don't you think? Cynthia told me she did the drawing during cooking class, just before English. Cynthia is one of the students who's been meeting up for lunch with me at the school library -- Cynthia, you've been a great inspiration this week. And I think you're an amazing artist too. Do you draw on paper and canvas also, or just on hands? ;) Anyway, I hope you'll come back for lunch in a few weeks when I've written some chapters to share with you guys.

I also told the students a few stories today -- one about the Holocaust, one about a talking bird. I explained how for me, it's as if all I have to do is cup my hands (today's theme seems to be HANDS!!) and stories come to me. I think if we are interested in stories and in people and in things, then stories come to us. It's up to writers -- young ones like the ones I've been working with at St. Thomas, and older ones like me -- to share those stories.

Speaking os sharing, special thanks to the teachers for sharing their students, and birthday wishes to Mr. Katz (who helped me refine one of today's exercises), and a shout-out to Mrs. Pye, the librarian at St. Thomas, for having me back and for sharing her library with all of us.




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"Write Like A Lot"


So don't you like the title of today's blog entry, "Write like a lot"? It's a direct quote from one of the ninth grade students I worked with this morning at St. Thomas HIgh School in Poointe-Claire. This was my third of four days of writing workshops at the school, and the quote comes from Philippe in response to my question, "What do you think my first tip for you guys is?" Philippe was right -- my first tip is always to tell aspiring writers to WRITE, but I liked how Philippe put it -- and that's because he sounds like a teenager talking and not a fifty-four-year-old writer. And since I write for teens, I need to hear teenage voices in my head.

That's me at the left in today's pic. I'm with a student named Averie (she had some great ideas to share about school rules -- the topic of my upcoming book project). Next to Averie is the lovely Miss Murphy, next to her is the lovely librarian Mrs. Pye, and next to Mrs. Pye, is Matthew.

Miss Murphy and I have met before, but today, I had a chance to learn a little more about her teaching methods. It turns out she does meditation exercises with her students. Not only am I interested in incorporating some of those exercises in my own classroom, but it occurred to me that Miss Murphy would make a cool teacher to include in my new story. So thanks, Miss Murphy, for the inspiration!

I was telling the students how writers need to be curious -- and I have an example of how curiosity leads to interesting discoveries. I noticed a student named Madison was wearing a T-shirt with a chihuahua on it, so I asked her whether she has a chihuahua. Madison told me she has a Jack Russell Terrier (they look a little like chihuahuas). She also told me the T-shirt was a birthday present from her step-mom, and that her birthday was yesterday. See how much info I found out all my asking one small question!

At lunch, a lively group of students came to keep me company while I ate my egg salad sandwich. William, whom I had met last week, let me have a look at the horror story he's been writing. He's got some great names for his characters: Raith, Myst and Curce. He's also good at creating a creepy atmosphere. Averie (to my right in today's pic) took out her cellphone to show me a poem she's been working on. I made a couple of suggestions for tightening up the language, and I asked her permission to quote my favourite line: "All I know is that I crave you more than before." Beautiful work, Averie!

I experimented this afternoon with a new writing exercise (I invented it during my RUN this morning) -- I asked Mr. Katz's class to write about their relationship with writing by personifying writing. I got some interesting results. Hailie wrote: "She's the type of friend that I can rely on, yet I only seem to visit her when I'm bored." Joseph wrote: "I feel llike writing wants to be with me, but I don't want to be with writing."

Aaahh, the pleasure of reading creative, honest stuff. On days like this, I can't help thinking I have the best job in all the world! See you tomorrow, St. Thomas High!



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Lache pas la patate!


If you're wondering why the title of today's blog entry "Lache pas la patate" is in French, it's because I spent today in Beauport, near Quebec City, working with francophone students at Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie -- and I had a great time.

It was my third visit to the school, and I worked with four grade nine classes who are studying English as a Second Language. I warned them that sometimes I talk pretty quickly and to slow me down if they had trouble keeping up, but no one had to rein me in -- the way you need to do when you are riding a horse who gallops when you're in the mood for a relaxing ride!

I tried to tell the students everything I know about writing, and I also gave them a writing exercise to help them figure out if there's a story in their pasts that is calling out to be written!

I also told the students how I got into publishing books, and how I faced many obstacles along the way. I told them my advice to never give up, and then I said to their teacher, Mr. Lord, "That's lache pas in French, right?" and Mr. Lord said, "It's lache pas la patate." Which made me laugh since that basically translates into don't leave the potato. In fact, I think from now on, I will tell all the students I meet "lache pas la patate"!

We discussed how trouble is the fuel that helps move a story forward. William, a student who is into video games, explained to me that even the simplest video game has trouble in it. Simon added, "A video game is like a story." Afterwards, Simon and his friend Charles showed me a book they wrote together. Their book is called "Hashima Island" and though I only had time for a quick look, I found it funny. One of my favourite parts were the biographies at the end. Here's my favourite line from Charles's biography: "Before working with Simon, Charles wrote a book that wasn't very successful." As I told the students, it's great when you can add humour to your stories!

During my talks today, I also mentioned that though writers probably need to know what trouble FEELS LIKE, it's wise to STAY OUT OF TROUBLE. Of course, when you are in Grade Nine, trouble sometimes knocks on your door! So I suggested next time trouble comes knocking, they should say, "I can't come out now. I'm busy writing my book!"

Anyway, I'm writing this blog entry from the train -- I'm headed home to Montreal. Thanks to the Grade Nine ESL students at Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie. You were lively and fun, and I really liked your writing. I'm impressed that you can express yourselves so well in a second language. And thanks to your teachers, Mr. Lord and Miss Delgado (that's Miss Delgao in the left corner of today's pic), for arranging my visit. I already miss you guys!



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Teaching ... and Learning at St. Thomas High School


I'm very proud of today's pic. That's because it's taken at lunch time during my second of four visits this month to St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. When I visit schools, I try to stick around at lunch in case students want to come OF THEIR OWN VOLITION (!!!) and chat with me about writing. Usually, I get a handful of keen young writers, but today I had quite a crowd! I think it was because I had mentioned to the three classes I worked with this morning that I am beginning to brainstorm for my next book project which is going to involve school rules and what it's like to be a boy beginning to get interested in girls. So I told the students if they wanted to discuss any of this stuff with me, they should drop by -- and let's just say it was quite a discussion!

I went to St. Thomas today to teach about writing, but I think I learned as much from the students as they learned from me! Thanks to the lunch bunch for turning up, and for sharing your stories. I hope that in a small way, you learned some more about what I do -- keep my feelers out for interesting issues in the lives of today's teens, ask questions to the experts (meaning you guys!), and take a ton of notes.

I'll be back at St. Thomas on Monday and Tuesday next week. By then, I hope to have a story outline to show you. And I hope you'll be writing stories for me too... so I can provide some feedback. Sometimes, being a writer feels a little lonely, but not today. Today being a writer feels like it's about finding inspiration and energy in connecting with others. Thanks for that, you guys!

  2555 Hits

Teaching ... and Learning at St. Thomas High School


I'm very proud of today's pic. That's because it's taken at lunch time during my second of four visits this month to St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. When I visit schools, I try to stick around at lunch in case students want to come OF THEIR OWN VOLITION (!!!) and chat with me about writing. Usually, I get a handful of keen young writers, but today I had quite a crowd! I think it was because I had mentioned to the three classes I worked with this morning that I am beginning to brainstorm for my next book project which is going to involve school rules and what it's like to be a boy beginning to get interested in girls. So I told the students if they wanted to discuss any of this stuff with me, they should drop by -- and let's just say it was quite a discussion!

I went to St. Thomas today to teach about writing, but I think I learned as much from the students as they learned from me! Thanks to the lunch bunch, for turning up, and for sharing your stories. I hope that in a small way, you learned some more about what I do -- keep my feelers out for interesting issues in the lives of today's teens, ask questions to the experts (meaning you guys!), and take a ton of notes.

I'll be back at St. Thomas on Monday and Tuesday next week. By then, I hope to have a story outline to show you. And I hope you'll be writing stories for me too... so I can provide some feedback. Sometimes, being a writer feels a little lonely, but not today. Today being a writer feels like it's about finding inspiration and energy in connecting with others. Thanks for that, you guys!

  2032 Hits

Teaching ... and Learning at St. Thomas High School


I'm very proud of today's pic. That's because it's taken at lunch time during my second of four visits this month to St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. When I visit schools, I try to stick around at lunch in case students want to come OF THEIR OWN VOLITION (!!!) and chat with me about writing. Usually, I get a handful of keen young writers, but today I had quite a crowd! I think it was because I had mentioned to the three classes I worked with this morning that I am beginning to brainstorm for my next book project which is going to involve school rules and what it's like to be a boy beginning to get interested in girls. So I told the students if they wanted to discuss any of this stuff with me, they should drop by -- and let's just say it was quite a discussion!

I went to St. Thomas today to teach about writing, but I think I learned as much from the students as they learned from me! Thanks to the lunch bunch, for turning up, and for sharing your stories. I hope that in a small way, you learned some more about what I do -- keep my feelers out for interesting issues in the lives of today's teens, ask questions to the experts (meaning you guys!), and take a ton of notes.

I'll be back at St. Thomas on Monday and Tuesday next week. By then, I hope to have a story outline to show you. And I hope you'll be writing stories for me too... so I can provide some feedback. Sometimes, being a writer feels a little lonely, but not today. Today being a writer feels like it's about finding inspiration and energy in connecting with others. Thanks for that, you guys!

  2262 Hits

Teaching ... and Learning at St. Thomas High School


I'm very proud of today's pic. That's because it's taken at lunch time during my second of four visits this month to St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. When I visit schools, I try to stick around at lunch in case students want to come OF THEIR OWN VOLITION (!!!) and chat with me about writing. Usually, I get a handful of keen young writers, but today I had quite a crowd! I think it was because I had mentioned to the three classes I worked with this morning that I am beginning to brainstorm for my next book project which is going to involve school rules and what it's like to be a boy beginning to get interested in girls. So I told the students if they wanted to discuss any of this stuff with me, they should drop by -- and let's just say it was quite a discussion!

I went to St. Thomas today to teach about writing, but I think I learned as much from the students as they learned from me! Thanks to the lunch bunch, for turning up, and for sharing your stories. I hope that in a small way, you learned some more about what I do -- keep my feelers out for interesting issues in the lives of today's teens, ask questions to the experts (meaning you guys!), and take a ton of notes.

I'll be back at St. Thomas on Monday and Tuesday next week. By then, I hope to have a story outline to show you. And I hope you'll be writing stories for me too... so I can provide some feedback. Sometimes, being a writer feels a little lonely, but not today. Today being a writer feels like it's about finding inspiration and energy in connecting with others. Thanks for that, you guys!

  2200 Hits

St. Thomas High: My School-Away-from-School


I'm sure you've heard of a home-awy-from-home -- a place you feel so comfortable it feels like home. But I think I might have just invented the term "school-away-from-school." That's how I feel about St. Thomas High School, where I've done author visits for several years now. And this year, I'm doing four days of writing workshops with Grade Nine students at the school.

In today's pic, I'm standing next to Katarina. I met with four classes today, and Katarina was in my second group. When I told her class that reading and writing have both saved my life -- that they've always helped me get through my hardest times -- Katarina caught my eye, and I knew she was what Lucy Maud Montgomery would call "a kindred spirit." As Katarina told me afterwards, "Reading helps keep me calm. The people in my house are sometimes hot-tempered." You'll notice that Katarina is wearing a sweatshirt with a horse on it -- which led me to ask if was into horses, which led to my discovery that Katarina has two horses! See what happens when you're snoopy like me!!

I'll get to meet with the grades nines I'm working with twice -- today was mostly introductory material... I told the students how I got into writing and shared my favourite writing tips. In our next sessions, I'll get more into the nitty-gritty and give the students some writing exercises.

If you've been to one of my writing workshops, you'll know I have a special fondness for TROUBLE which I believe helps to fuel stories. So I laughed when a student named Michael called out, "Trouble happens to be my middle name." Don't you think that would make a great book title?

One of my favourite questions today came from a student named Maathangi. She asked, "As a writer, shouldn't you not stick to routine and isn't it better to write when you feel spontaneous?" I liked the romantic sentiment behind the question, but as I told Maathangi, I don't think there's much that's romantic about writing. If I only wrote when I felt spontaneous, I'm afraid I wouldn't get much done! I think discipline has a lot to do with writing. The trick for me is to write when I don't feel like writing!!

I'll be sticking around in the library at St. Thomas for lunch on my workshop days -- that way I'll have time to work one-on-one with students who are especially keen. Today, I had four delightful visitors. Christian has a great idea for a modern re-telling of a popular kids' story. Here's how Christian described himself to me: "I'm a guy who can turn a small story into something giant." Christopher, I say go for it -- and I love your idea. William is writing a fantasy with an unlikeable protagonist. I told William that's a great idea, too, but I suggested that by the end of his manuscript, readers should change their minds about the protagonist -- that once we know his story, we should like him more. Teague is a member of the Glenmore Curling Club and he'll be competing this spring in the Jeux du Québec -- I suggested he take notes for a book about teens and curling. As I told Teague, I've never seen a book on the topic and I have a feeling it would catch the interest of young readers (and older editors!). And Lauren is writing short stories about monsters. She wanted some tips for beginning her stories and I suggested she start some place dramatic, or with exciting dialogue, or with a funny incident.

You might think I'd be tired after four sessions today, but instead I'm feeling energized and inspired. That's what happens when I get to work with bright, open young people. Thanks you guys for being a great audience, and to your teachers, Mr. Cloney, Miss Ditchburn, and Mrs. Puliatti, for sharing you with me today. And special thanks to librarian Mrs. Pye, who over all these years, has become my friend. Long live stories and books!!


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Meet My Friend: Author Karen Spafford-Fitz

b2ap3_thumbnail_photo-3.JPG That's YA author Karen Spafford-Fitz smiling at you in today's pic. I just finished reading Karen's novel Dog Walker (Orca) and I liked it so much, I arranged a Skype interview so you could meet Karen too. (If you're looking for me, I'm in the bottom right corner snapping her pic on my iPhone!)

Karen was born near Kingston, Ont., but she now lives and writes in Edmonton, Alberta. Over the last couple of years, we've become Facebook friends -- mostly because we keep surprising ourselves with how much we have in common: we both write; Karen used to teach (I still do); we both run (and do errands on our runs); and we both love eavesdropping and coffee.

Dog Walker is about an attitude-y guy named Turk who comes up with a great idea to earn extra money: he starts a dog-walking business. But he's got an ulterior motive -- he and his friends want to meet girls. It turns out dog-walking is a great way to do that! I asked Karen how she got the idea for the book. And of course, her answer came in the form of another story (that's what happens when you interview an author!!). Here's what Karen told me: "In 1992, when my husband Ken and I got our first dog together, a German shepherd puppy, we noticed how people were constantly stopping us to admire the puppy. Afterwards, Ken asked me, 'Did you notice that most of the people who stopped us were female? Why didn't I think of that when I was a teenage boy?' That stayed with me." Fun, no?

I also asked Karen if she had some writing tips to share with you, dear blog readers -- and lucky for you, she did! "Besides read read read and revise revise revise, I tell students I work with when I do writing workshops to eavesdrop in order to pick up juicy tidbits that will help them build a better story. You should also inflict lots of problems on your characters. It's so much fun!"

Karen is also the author of Vanish -- I need to read that book next. She is completing a manuscript about the restorative justice process and though she doesn't want to say too much about that work-in-progress, she will say there's running in it.

Now if only Karen lived a little closer -- then we could go for a run, have a coffee, do errands and talk writing all at the same time. Aren't you glad you met her? I know I am!




  2553 Hits

"How do I make my paragraphs bigger?" -- Fun Visit to Rosemere High


That's me in today's pic with some of the students I worked with this morning at Rosemere High School. It was a special visit organized by my friend, English teacher Abigail Lawrence. My workshop was open to any students in grades nine, ten and eveln who love writing. So let's jsut say it was a pretty easy crowd to work with!

There were about 25 students in the workshop - some of them had special permission to miss math because they were with me. And I had nearly three hours with them, which was great because I got to do it all: talk about how writing works for me and where I get my story ideas, read a little, and give some writing exercises as well as feedback on the students' work. I warned the group that my writing exercises are a little weird -- for instance they start without pens and pencils. So I was super pleased when a student named Sahira announced, "It worked!"

Some of the students shared their work with me -- and I got to read some interesting stuff. Anne remembered being a kid and building "a fort made of coats and chairs." Good use of detail, Anne! And a student named Rosalie wrote about a terrible haunting memory in which she found her cat drowned in her family's backyard pool. That could not have been an easy thing to write about, Rosalie, but as I was telling you guys this morning, it takes courage to be a writer!

I stuck around at lunch to answer individual questions and look at more writing. Rafael had a a lot of smart questions for me. But my favourite is the one I used as the title for today's blog entry: "How do I make my paragraphs larger?" I must say that question gave me a good laugh! I told Rafael not to worry about making his paragraphs LARGER; he needs to concentrate on making his paragraphs BETTER. I suggested he could add interesting details or examples.

Rafael also wanted to know if I had advice to help him "explain main ideas better." I told him that for me, writing is a way of thinking things through. So I think Rafael could clarify his main ideas by writing out every single thing he thinks about then idea, then re-reading it all to select what is most important, and trim back the rest.

I really had a fun visit at Rosemere High. Thanks, Miss Lawrence, for getting things organized and for doing every writing exercise with your students. And hey, students, if I touched any of your papers, I hope you disinfected them... I don't want you to catch my cold. Happy writing, you guys. Like I told you, it's hard work, sometimes frustrating, but hey, there's nothing like it. And if it weren't for my writing, I'd never have gotten to meet all of you today!





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Quebec Roots 2015: Outreach High School

b2ap3_thumbnail_photo-2.JPG You might get the impression from today's pic that I spent this morning in someone's livingroom -- someone who likes to read! Actually I was with photographer Thomas Kneubuhler, doing a class visit at Outreach High School, an alternative school here in NDG. Thomas (he's not in the pic since he was behind the camera) and I were at Outreach because we're helping the grade eleven class produce a chapter for the 2015 edition of Quebec Roots, a publication that is part of a Blue Mteropolis Literary Foundation project. Ten classes from around the province will each contribute a chapter to the book -- students will get to tell their stories through words and images.

I started the day off by talking a little about my writing process, but mostly, I wanted the students to get started on some writing of their own. We discussed one of my favourite subjects: TROUBLE, and how, without trouble in it, a story doesn't really go anywhere. Then later, when Thomas was outside with the students, helping them shoot photographs, I got to work one-on-one with some of the students on their writing.

And I got some beautiful stuff -- so I asked the students' permission to share a little of it here today. In a powerful piece, a student named Marco recalled being bullied when he was in grade seven. I loved how Marco ended his story with the line: "If I see him [the bully] now, I would only say one word to him: 'Why?'" A student named Karina described what it was like to battle against an alcohol problem. I was very moved by her words, especially when she wrote, "In a weird way, I am grateful for all of it." Karina wrote about how she dreams of becoming a social worker. I have a hunch she'll do a great job! Another student named Aviva took a super creative approach by writing a counting song about cutting. I don't think I'll ever forget the opening line: "Cut one: I'm not done."

I know the students had a blast taking photos. I hope they learned a little about writing, too. The writing they did today really touched me -- and I'm sure it'll touch the readers of their chapter. Special thanks to their teacher, Annelise Ogle (that's her in the stripes in today's pic, with her daughter on her lap.) Today is one of those days where I can't help feeling that telling our stories matters more than anything else. Thanks also to Mrs. Ogle's students for your hard work. I look forward to reading more of your stories!

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"Always Keep Hope" -


The title of today's blog entry "Always keep hope" comes from my mom. That's her in today's pic, and that's my dad watching her. And on the computer screen you can see 150 students from Dumas Intermediate School in Dumas, Texas. I was invited to do a Skype visit with two groups of students from Dumas -- and because I was speaking about my novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mother's real-life experience in a Nazi concentration camp, it made sense for me to do the Skypes from my parents' house so that the students could meet my mom.

It's hard -- even for a writer -- to find words to tell you about what happened this morning. My mom is 85, a little frail, and far less connected to people than she used to be. Sometimes, she has trouble finding words for her sentences, but today, well, she was amazing. I did most of the talking (about writing in general, about how I did the research for What World Is Left), but I think it's safe to say that my mom stole the show!

The students deserve credit, too. Not only did they listen attentively, but they had prepared excellent, sensitive questions. A young man named Fabian asked my mom, "Who or what did you miss most?" My first reaction was that I should have thought of asking that question back in 2007 when I was researching the book! My mom paused for a moment before answering Fabian's question and I could feel her going back in time. She did not miss anyone or anything when she was in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. "You only could think of survival," she told Fabian.

Joaquim wanted to know what my mom ate for breakfast when she was imprisoned at Theresienstadt. "It's a very short story," my mom answered -- displaying her trademark sense of humor (I told the students that for me, my mom's humour is a sign of her resilience and courage.) Then she went on to explain that breakfast was a cup of fake coffee and two slices of dark bread.

Even the school's prinicpal, Mr. Rhodes, had a question for my mom. "I hope it won't be too difficult," my mom said, joking again. Mr. Rhodes wanted to know how the Holocaust affected my mom's view of God. "Did you ever feel that God had forgotten you?' he asked. I have to tell you that the question kind of took my breath away -- it's another question I've never asked my mom. Her answer? "God must have tried to stop it, but He didn't succeed."

I am feeling very privileged that I got to "travel" to Dumas today, and that I got to bring my parents along, too. Just as the title of today's blog entry comes from my mom, I'm also going to give her the last word. Before we shut down Skype, I asked my mom to say good-bye to the students. She told them, "Thanks. It made me feel hopeful."

Thanks to the Grade Six classes at Dumas Intermediate School, to your teachers who prepared you so well, to Mr. Rhodes, and Mrs. Craigmiles for arranging today's visit.


  3641 Hits

"Always Keep Hope" -


The title of today's blog entry "Always keep hope" comes from my mom. That's her in today's pc, and that's my dad watching her. And on the computer screen you can see 150 students from Dumas Intermediate School in Dumas, Texas. I was invited to do a Skype visit with two groups of students from Dumas -- and because I was speaking about my novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mother's real-life experience in a Nazi concentration camp, it made sense for me to do the Skypes from my parents' house so that the students could meet my mom.

It's hard -- even for a writer -- to find words to tell you about what happened this morning. My mom is 85, a little frail, and far less connected to people than she used to be. Sometimes, she has trouble finding words for her sentences, but today, well, she was amazing. I did most of the talking (about writing in general, about how I did the research for What World Is Left), but I think it's safe to say that my mom stole the show!

The students deserve credit, too. Not only did they listen attentively, but they had prepared excellent, sensitive questions. A young man named Fabian asked my mom, "Who or what did you miss most?" My first thought was that I should have thought of asking that question back in 2007 when I was researching the book! My mom paused for a moment before answering Fabian's question and I could feel her going back in time. She did not miss anyone or anything when she was in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. "You only could think of survival," she told Fabian.

Joaquim wanted to know what my mom ate for breakfast when she was imprisoned at Theresienstadt. "It's a very short story," my mom answered -- displaying her trademark sense of humor (I told the students that for me, my mom's humour is a sign of her resilience and courage.) Then she went on to explain that breakfast was a cup of fake coffee and two slices of dark bread.

Even the school's prinicpal, Mr. Rhodes, had a question for my mom. "I hope it won't be too difficult" she said, joking again. Mr. Rhodes wanted to know how the Holocaust affected my mom's view of God. "Did you ever feel that God had forgotten you?' he asked. I have to tell you that the question kind of took my breath away -- it's another question I've never asked my mom. Her answer? "God must have tried to stop it, but He didn't succeed."

I am feeling very privileged that I got to "travel" to Dumas today, and that I got to bring my parents along, too. Just as the title of today's blog entry comes from my mom, I'm also going to give her the last word. Before we shut down Skype, I asked my mom to say good-bye to the students, she told them, "Thanks. It made me feel hopeful."

Thanks to the Grade Six classes at Dumas Intermediate School, to your teachers who prepared you so well, to Mr. Rhodes, and Mrs. Craigmiles for arranging today's visit.


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Working With Young Writers at Royal Vale School


I am just home from a happy visit to Royal Vale School, where I worked with Mrs. Frank's two Grade Five English classes. (That's me with students from the first group in today's pic.) When I first meet students, I always ask, "How many of you enjoy writing?" -- but I have never had so many answer "Yes" to that question. In the first group, 20.5 students out of 24 said they enjoy writing. (The .5 reflects one young man who could not quite decide!)

We talked about some of my favourite subjects such as trouble and secrets. When I suggested to the students that they try to uncover their grandparents' secrets, a student named Imani gave me a great big smile. (Imani is standing next to me in the pic, wearing a grey sweatshirt.) Later, Imani told me she and her grandmother Alanna are super close and that she happens to be seeing her grandmother later today!

I told the students how I am always on the look-out for interesting material. Two students in the first class reported that their grandparents live downstairs from them. I thought that would make great story material.

I gave both groups a writing exercise that required them to access an old memory. This is how a student named Alex started the piece he wrote afterwards: "One day, I forgot to close the birdcage and my bird flew out." As I told Alex, this beginning really caught my attention -- and makes me want to know what happened next. Hey, Alex, finish that story -- and though you've started with a real-life memory, you might consider changing things up to add even more drama -- though I do hope there will be a happy ending.

At recess, a student named Lily told me her dream is to become an author. When I asked her what she learned from my visit, her answer made me laugh: "I learned basically everything!" I don't know if I taught you everything, Lily, but you sure made my day.

One of the students in the second group has the coolest name: Vegas. I asked him if he is named after Las Vegas -- and if perhaps he was conceived while his parents were on a trip to Vegas. It turns out he is named after another guy named Vegas. You see, there I was again making up stories!

Special thanks to Mrs. Frank for sharing her classes with me, to Miss Michelle, the student teacher, for participating in the writing exercises and being such a great role model to the students, and to Mr. Timpano, the vice-principal, who helped get my visit organized. I'll end today's blog with something Mrs. Frank told me when we were talking about the importance of re-writes. She shared a line she heard on the reality TV show 19 Kids and Counting: "Practice doesn't make perfect; practice makes progress."

It was great to start my day with you guys at Royal Vale. Here's to practice and progress and writing and reading!

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Hallowe'en Visit to Mother Teresa Junior High


That's me in today's pic -- psoing with a bloody bride and a scarecrow! I'm just back from a happy visit to Mother Teresa Junior High School, where I spoke to Miss Farrell's Grade Eight English classes. I talked about how I got to be a children's writer, shared my favourite writing tips, answered questions and got the students to do a little writing exercise.

I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my morning in today's blog entry.

Well, first there were the costumes. Imagine teaching a student who is dressed up to look like a bottle of Heinz ketchup! There was also a Fidel Castro lookalike ("my beard broke," he told me), as well as many zombies and soccer players.

One of the things we talked about is how writers don't always get their ideas when they are at their desks or in front of their computers. A student named Alyssa raised her hand to say that J. K. Rowling got the idea for her Harry Potter books when she was on a train. I didn't know that -- and now I'll be able to work that info into my presentation. Thanks, Alyssa! At recess, Alyssa came back to the library where I was doing my presentation and showed me an excellent short story she's working on. "I don't really like it," she told me. So I took that opportunity to tell Alyssa she should try to speak more kindly about her own creations! I suggested she try saying, "I know my story still needs work." I think the words we use to talk about writing matter -- and it's great to know our stories need work -- mine certainly do.

A student named Alex seemed to know a lot about the writing process. This is how he described it to me: "You're on a page and it's hard to imagine what to write when you get to another page." I told Alex I feel the same way. Partly, the feeling makes me a little anxious, but you know, it's also exciting not knowing what's coming next. Sometimes, when we're lucky, we writers surprise ourselves with our own stories!

I told the students that I am obsessed with asking the question, "What if?" -- and that that question "fuels" my stories. A student named Bridget, who during the writing exercise wrote a lovely paragraph about how distressed she felt as a little girl when she lost a necklace, told me she aks "What if?" a lot too. Especially, Bridget said, when she is dancing: "I often think, 'What if that one event happened and the chain effect it could create.'"

I get invited to schools to help inspire students to write... but as you can tell from today's blog entry, it often works the other way too. I've come home totally inspired by these young writers at MTJHS. Thanks, Miss Farrell, for the invite, and Miss Venditti for sharing your beautiful, recently pruned library with all of us today!

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Meet Author Gillian Chan

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That's me and YA author Gillian Chan in today's pic. For now, we are upside down... but I am too excited to tell you about Gillian to worry about us being upside down. Besides, we look good that way!

Gillian lives in Dundas, Ont., but she was in town last week and I got to hang out with her -- and discuss life and books. I've been reading her historical YA novel, A Call to Battle, part of Scholastic's I Am Canada series, and finding it super good. Gillian is really into history, so it's not surprising that the book is full of interesting historical material, but what I like even more is how good Gillian is at capturing what goes on in her young narrator's mind. It is 1812 and Sandy MacKay is eager to fight for his country -- even if his dad thinks that is not a good idea.

I made sure to ask Gillian a few questions about her writing process so I could share them with you, dear blog reader. Heere's some of what I learned. Gillian generally writes in the mornings. She uses her afternoons to do research and for "goofing off" (Gillian's exact words). It turns out that Gillian is a great believer in goofing off. Here's why. She explained, "I get many of my ideas when I'm goofing off."

I asked Gillian if she had a little kernel of writing advice that I could pass on, and she kindly obliged. "Like bread dough," she said, "once a piece of writing is done, it needs to be set aside, to let it rise. In the mean time, you shouldn't touch it or think about it. When I come back to it, I see it with fresh eyes."

Hope you can use that advice. Here's to goofing off, fresh eyes -- fresh writing and fresh bread! Looking forward to our next visit together, Gillian!

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Happy Visit to Champlain College in Lennoxville

Lucky me! I'm just back from Lennoxville, where I did a talk for students at Champlain College. I'm lucky because not only were the students a great audience, but also because I could not have asked for a more beautiful time of year to make the visit.

Lennoxville is about two hours from Montreal and I passed through the Eastern Townships on my drive there.

I talked to a group of about 100 students. I managed to tell them just about everything I know about writing and how it works for me (of course I pointed out that every writer has a different process and that they should find the process that works best for them). For many of the students at Champlain, English is their second language, but they seemed to be able to follow me without difficulty.

One of the things I discussed was how TROUBLE makes for great stories. First, I warned the students to STAY OUT OF TROUBLE!! But then I explained that for some of us (me included), sometimes trouble comes knocking -- even when we try to stay out of trouble. So I told students that should trouble come knocking they must remember one thing: TO USE IT FOR STORIES.

As I pointed out, no one wants to read a story about a character's best day ever. We are much more interested in what happens and how a character feels on his or her worst day imaginable. I also suggested that students who keep journals might try writing a sensory account of trouble. What, for instance, does trouble smell like? Gunpowder? Cigarette smoke? Alcohol? And what does trouble feel like, taste like, look like and sound like?

After my talk, a few students stopped to say hello. One was a young man named Daniel from Colombia who is studying nursing at Champlain. Daniel told me that when he was growing up in Colombia, his mom was a nurse and he sometimes accompanied her to work. He said that as a boy, he saw a lot of trouble: "I saw too much blood." When he told me that, I got goosebumps (always a sign for me that I am in proximity of a good story). A part of me felt sympathy for the boy this young man used to be, who saw "too much blood," but another part of me couldn't help but think... if you're going to be a writer (or in Daniel's case, a musician -- he told me he makes music), then USE IT.

Thanks to Ms. Evans for inviting me to Lennoxville. Thanks to the students for being a receptive audience, and to the other teachers for bringing their classes too! And to Ms. Evans's mom for the great cookies!







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Mansfield Park -- 200 Years Later


In two weeks' time, members of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) will gather here in Montreal to spend Thanksgiving weekend discussing Austen's 1814 novel, Mansfield Park.

But in a small way, my colleague Mary Frauley and I got the conference off to an early start -- because today we did a one-day literature and creative writing workshop (officially called the J. David Grey Young Writers' Workshop) for local teens. As you will have guessed, the focus of the workshop was Mansfield Park. Mary started the day with a lecture and lively discussion about the novel. She talked about how many of the novel's themes -- friendship, romantic love, the meaning of home, how we are affected by money and social standing -- remain relevant today. As Mary told the group, "A writer has an obligation to set things up and maybe wind them, then the writer stands away."

That pretty much sums up how the group spent the afternoon -- working on their modern-day renditions of Mansfield Park, setting things up and then letting their characters take over. I had the lovely job of reading and responding to their early drafts.

I should mention that it was a perfect fall day in Montreal -- but the eight teens who turned up for today's workshop never complained about being stuck indoors at the Atwater Library where the event took place. In fact, they didn't want to stop writing... and most of them were going to go home and keep working on their stories!

Mansfield Park is about Fanny Price, whose life changes when she goes to live with her rich relatives. The fact that she is an outsider at Mansfield Park means she sees the goings on there more clearly than anyone else.

Several of the students decided to write about outsiders.

Emma, a Grade Nine student from Macdonald High School, pictured her Fanny in an insane asylum (talk about a cool setting!). Here are a couple of lines from Emma's story: "Her family left Fanny in the hands of the orderlies. She was certain that she would die of fright all alone. Then she met him." As I told Emma, those lines really catch my attention and make me want to keep reading.

Michelle, a Grade Eleven student at Heritage Regional High School, came up with a creative approach to the assignment -- her Fanny wrote a thank you letter to her best friend, a character Michelle was going to base on the novel's Mary Crawford.

And Ishini, a first year student at Marianopolis College, described a Fanny who had recently been placed in a new foster home. Ishini did a great job of capturing the foster home in a single sentence: "The room smells of pot roast." I thought that description was a great example of SHOWING, NOT TELLING!

So you can see why I felt privileged to spend my day with these talented and passionate young writers. They have until the end of the week to finish their pieces of writing. Then their work will be entered in a contest. In additon to modest cash prices, three winners get a very cool invitation: to the upcoming JASNA conference!

Thanks to our eight young writers, to Mary for pitching in, and to JASNA for making today's workshop happen! And to Fanny Price -- for the inspiration!





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Special Launch for Hate Mail

No time for a long blog entry today -- that's because I have a launch to get to. My own! And I need to go and buy half-a-dozen cartons of chocolate milk. Usually, people serve wine and cheese at book launches. But today's launch of my latest YA title, Hate Mail, takes place at a school (no wine allowed!). That's because I wrote the book last year with the help of Miss Scott's Grade Nine class at Riverdale High School in Pierrefonds.

If you've read my blog before, you may remember that the novel grew out of a project called Libres comme l'art, sponsored in large part by the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation. Thanks to the project, I was writer-in-residence last year at Riverdale and my task was to write five chapters of a story having to do with autism and depression. And then a wonderful thing happened: the manuscript grew and grew (thanks in large part to the students' input) and my publisher, Orca Books, acquired the manuscript. And now it's a real live book!

Yesterday, CBC Radio's All in a Weekend broadcast an interview with me and Hamza Bashir, one of Miss Scott's students. Hamza is the young man who came up with the idea behind Hate Mail. Here's a link to the interview in case you want to check it out. (And special thanks to reporter Sonali Karnick, who not only did a lovely interview, but who gave Hamza and his pals Shane and Bhahee Shan a a great tour of the CBC headquarters.)

As I said during the interview, this project was the most fun I ever had as an author. Imagine having your very own focus group -- a team of bright teenagers who told me what they liked about my story, what needed fixing, and who shared their own stories with me. Along the way, I hope they learned about the writing process -- the brainstorming behind a book, the research, the multiple drafts, and the not giving up when things get tough. I promise to post a pic from the launch later. Okay, time to get the chocolate milk!


PS: It's seven at night and I'm back home... reporting to tell you that the launch was wonderful. Special thanks to the parents and grandparents who turned up. None of this could have happened without teacher Karen Scott, principal Roger Rampersad, librarian Sue Strano and Suzanne Nesbitt from the Lester B. Pearson School Board-- and of course the students. One student, Fahad Elsabawi, made a great speech and I asked his permission to quote from it. Here's what Fahad told the audience: "Thanks to a wonderful and interesting project made possible by Blue Metropolis, we were able to help Monique write a novel. That's a pretty big accomplishment for a high school student! I can tell you I'm proud!" Me too, Fahad! Thanks so much to all of you. You made this the most fun I have ever had working on a book!








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Back in the Classroom!

It's Labour Day weekend and I've been back at school, teaching full-time, since August 20th. I was a little apprehensive about going back. Since the middle of May, I've been writing full-time, working on a new YA book project that will be published in the fall of 2016, and it was hard to let go of those long blocks of writing time. But on my very first day back, during the first class I taught, I remembered all over again why I love teaching -- because I love working with 17 and 18-year-olds who are more full of life and hope than any other people I know.

But that's not what this blog entry is going to be about. It's going to be about my favourite, most basic writing tip. In fact, the tip is only one word long. You ready?


Yesterday, in my Humanities class at Marianopolis College here in Montreal, we were reviewing a hand-out I use in every class I teach. It's full of writing tips -- and even after all these years, I still get excited when I go over it. One of the tips suggests that students write about issues and experiences that affect them personally. Which led to my telling them, "Write about stuff you CARE about!" Then I went on to explain that though the writing may not be easier, chances are it will come out better.

And because I love examples and happened to have one handy, I told my students how I recently heard from a Montreal social work professor who has written a non-fiction book about her work with aging Holocaust survivors. Her research indicates that when seniors who have undergone severe trauma age, their minds often return to these traumatic memories (seniors who have not undergone trauma are apparently more likely to focus on happy memories). I explained to my students that because my mom, who is 85, is a Holocaust survivor, I really care about this subject. So guess what? I'm going to write about it for the Montreal Gazette. It doesn't mean I won't have to work hard (I will, there's going to be a lot of research involved in this assignment); and it doesn't mean the story will be easy to write (even after all these years, writing always feels like a challenge to me). But I know already it's going to be good... really good. Not because I'm such a talented writer. But because I CARE!

Happy Labour Day weekend. Hope you have lots of things to care about!












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What Does CSI Have to Do With Writing Anyhow?

Hi blog readers!


I am writing to you today from Mississauga, Ontario, where I am busy researching for a new book project.

It's kind of top-secret, so I can't tell you too much... except that it has to do with crime scene investigation.

I was kind of surprised to learn that there are important links between CSI and writing. Yesterday, when we were at the University of Toronto Mississauga's crime scene house (a very cool place), one of the university's forensics students told us, "Slow down! Focus on one piece of evidence!" She also explained that after crime scene investigators make sure they are safe, the next thing they need to do is be organized and methodical.

All that got me thinking that slowing down, focusing, and being organized are important parts of the writing process too. Sure I am excited about my new project, but like a crime scene investigator, I need to plan and focus!

Here are some of the things I'm learning about: DNA extraction, liquid chromatography and how to locate a hidden gravesite. It's one of those weeks where being a writer feels like the best job in all the world!




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Five Tips Guaranteed to Get Kids Reading This Summer

Hello Monday morning! It’s just after eight and I’m already home after an early morning interview at Breakfast Television here in Montreal. (When the link to the interview gets posted later today, I’ll add it to this blog entry.)


Reporter Laura Casella (that's us in today's pic) interviewed me about my books, but mostly about my tips for getting kids reading this summer. So, I figured I’d use today’s blog entry to share those tips – especially since I came up with a few more on my way home!

1. Parents who want to encourage their kids to read need to model good reading habits. There is no better way to turn kids into readers than by showing them that you love to read, too!

2. Start a family book club. Agree on a book you all want to read. Read it, then discuss it at your next barbecue or family brunch.

3. Read a book; see the movie. The ideal one for this summer is John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, which recently came out as a movie. Discuss the differences between the novel and the movie. Which did you prefer? Why?

4. Start a two-word-a-day journal. This is my favourite tip on today’s list. I used to do this with my daughter when she was little, but it can be done with kids of all ages (even grown-up ones!). At the end of the day, write down one word to describe how your day was, then another word to describe how you want tomorrow to be. One of the benefits of this mini-journal is that it encourages us to evaluate our days, and to give some conscious thought to our tomorrows.

5. Take advantage of the next rainy day to check out kids’ authors’ websites. Most of us have websites where, in addition to promoting our work, we talk about how we got into writing and offer writing tips. I wish that when I was a young aspiring author that that kind of material would have been widely available … if it had been, I think I might have gotten serious sooner about becoming a professional writer!

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Meringues, Ups and Downs of a First Draft -- and Ann Patchett Comes to My Rescue

What in the world, you must be wondering, do meringues have to do with writing? Here comes the explanation: I am writing this blog entry to the background sound of my mom's old mixer -- inside the mixing bowl are five egg whites I am hoping to turn into a beautiful, delicious meringue. There's more to this story: I made a previous attempt at meringue-making last week, and it didn't turn out so well. Another person might give up on meringues altogether... but not me. I am the sort who soliders on. It is something I have learned from writing novels.

I have recently started working on what I am hoping will be my eighteenth YA novel. You'd figure that after all those other books, I'd know exactly what I'm doing, right? Instead, here I am... feeling like I am figuring out the process all over again!

I do love starting a new story. It's always a little scary, but for me, it's a time of endless possibility and of hope for great things. Unfortunately, those good feelings don't last forever. I keep writing and then, well, I begin to see the flaws and the problems and my own weaknesses. But I keep slogging, going backwards to fix up what I have already done, and slowly, slowly moving forwards.

I have found that sometimes a book comes to the rescue, even when I am not looking for a book to rescue me. Well, that's what happened when a friend, fellow writer Elaine Kalman-Naves, gave me Ann Patchett's collection of essays, This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage (Harper, 2013). Elaine had told me that though the book is partly about Patchett's marriage, it is also about writing.

So, during the last couple of weeks, after my days at the computer, I have taken solace in Patchett's wisdom. It turns out that she, too, goes through similar ups and downs when she writes. Here is, for instance, her description of writing a novel: "Novel writing, I soon discovered, is like channel swimming: a slow and steady stroke over a long distance in a cold, dark sea." Well, I keep telling myself, if Patchett feels that way too, I must not be doing such a bad job of it! Patchett also talks about working through those rough patches: "I holed up in my apartment and wrote, and plenty of times I got stuck."

I just checked on those egg whites. I wish I could say they are making stiff peaks the way the recipe says they should, but just like writing, this meringue business may require that I keep trying, working through those rough patches. Here's to fancy summer desserts, first drafts, and advice that brings comfort!





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Dear Selkirk Elementary Students


The reason I am smiling in today's pic is that I am reading the letters that came for me in yesterday's mail. They are from the students I worked with at Selkirk Elementary School in Whitehorse.

So, I thought I'd use today's blog entry to reply to you guys...

Dear Morgan, Caleb, Logan, Thaeron, Chanelle, Ritik, Ralph, Jessica, Cole, Kayden, Isaiah and Jess,

I am writing to thank you guys for your great letters. They came in yesterday's mail. I was in kind of a bad mood yesterday. You remember how I told you that sometimes writing feels frustrating and how I have to fight with myself to stay at the computer and continue fixing up my sentences and paragraphs? Well, it was that kind of a day. And guess what? Your letters cheered me right up!

I am glad that you seem to have enjoyed my visit. I also like that some of you (Isaiah, Kayden, Cole, Jessica, Ralph, Ritik and Chanelle) included drawings in your letters. Also, a couple of you made jokes about not listening to your dads -- that made me laugh out loud. You know what they say? That it's easier to make a reader cry than to make a reader laugh... so, good work!!

Jess, I'm glad you learned that writers need to leave the house to find inspiration. Thaeron, I'm happy that you enjoy writing about your personal life. Logan, don't ever give up! Caleb, it's great that my memory exercise worked for you. And Morgan, yes I remember your cool nail art!

I think school is over for you guys, but I hope that some of you will read this blog entry anyhow.

I miss the Yukon! You are lucky to live in such a gorgeous place! Look out for bears, okay? (I saw a grizzly bear with her two cubs on the day before I left.)

I will keep your letters in a special place -- and read them whenever I need cheering up. Have a great summer. Make time to read and write!

Thanks again for your letters!

Signed, Your Monique

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Meet Lian Goodall

One of the highlights of my recent trip to the Yukon was meeting fellow author Lian Goodall.

Lian writes non-fiction for kids. Her books include Photographing Greatness: the Story of Karsh (Napoleon), and Singing Towards the Future: the Story of Portia White (Napoleon). Lian was born in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, but has lived in Whitehorse since 2012. When she heard I’d be touring the Yukon for TD Canadian Children’s Book Week she got in touch … and invited me for dinner. What neither of us could have expected is that we would become fast friends. Funny how that happens sometimes, isn’t it?


Lian has many of the qualities I look for in a friend: she’s kind and fun and funny and smart. It also helped, of course, that we share a love for research and writing. I did not only have a delicious dinner at Lian’s house, I also brought along my notepad so that I could do a little interview and report back to you, dear blog reader. Here is some of what I learned from Lian.

Lian has been interested in stories since she was a little kid. “I’ve been story-izing since I was two.” Don’t you like how she invented that word “story-izing”?

When I asked her why she thinks stories matter, Lian told me: “I think storytelling is a fundamentally human act.” Lian has been researching the stories of real-life girls who were born and lived in the north – from Alaska to Greenland -- before 1900. After nearly four years of research, Lian recently began writing her first draft of the project. “Non-fiction is a long process,” she said. “You have to keep knitting your books for years. You need patience and dedication.”

Lian has found that there are hardly any books about young people born in the north. She’s trying to fix that. “My goal,” she told me, “is to give stories to kids who need these stories. Girls from the north need to read about themselves in an earlier time.”

Lian has three kids, including a daughter who lives here in Montreal. I’m hoping that means I’ll get to meet up with Lian soon so that we can continue our conversation – and our friendship. If not, I’ll have to find my way back to the Yukon – and Lian!










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Meet Allie Brennan

I’ve been home from the Yukon – where I was lucky enough to travel for this year’s TD Canadian Children’s Week – for a couple of weeks, but my heart is still there. So I decided to do a couple of blog entries about some of the interesting, creative folks I met when I was there.

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It's All About Courage -- Lessons from a Special Class

Today I thought I'd devote my blog entry to the subject of courage and tell you about a group of students who've taught me a lot this year.

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Mayo: A Little Town With Lots of Stories

Can you believe I visited 14 schools in the Yukon in five days? Today I woke up in Mayo, a little town four hours north of Whitehorse, so that I could work with grades seven to twelve students at J.V. Clark School.

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Did I Mention that I Saw a Black Bear?

Guess what? I saw a black bear today! We were on the road between Stewart Crossing and Mayo!

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Wednesday in Whitehorse

I'm feeling so at home here in Whitehorse. It could be because when I walk into the local café Baked, people say, "Hey, weren't you at my school yesterday?"!

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Falling in Love with the Yukon!

The Yukon is out-of-this-world gorgeous and every school I visit seems to bring a fresh adventure. Here's what I mean...

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Reporting in from the Yukon

I had a big day here in the Yukon. I did four school visits in the Whitehorse area, but instead of feeling tired, I am flying high!

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Hello From the Yukon!!

It’s not every day a Montreal children’s writer gets to do a writing workshop at the Whitehorse Public Library – but thanks to TD Canadian Children’s Book Week, that’s exactly what I did today.

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Sarah Harvey Comes to Montreal... and I Go to the Yukon

TD Canadian Children's Book Week officially kicks off on Monday, May 6 this year... but author-editor Sarah Harvey and I got an early unofficial start. 

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Lots to Blog About - Includ'g Blue Met & Early Start on TD Cndn Children's Bk Wk

Warning to readers of this blog entry: you might need to take a nap after you read it. I'm going to tire you out when I fill you in on all the excitement over here!

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Guess Who Came to my Writing for Children Class Today?

See the two special guests who came to visit my Writing for Children class today (they're sitting in chairs at the front of the picture)?

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Happy Morning at Westwood Junior High School

I'm just home from my morning visit to Westwood Junior High School in Saint-Lazare. I worked with nine Grade Eight English classes, and though the library got pretty packed, the students were focused and fun.

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Fun School Visit at DDO Library

I've been doing school visits for nearly ten years -- so when I was invited to speak to students today at the Dollard-des-Ormeaux Library, I figured I'd probably already visited the school they go to. But it turns out the students were from a school I'd never even heard of: Emmanuel Christian School.

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Happy Start to the Week at Terry Fox School

I'm just home from a lovely morning spent with three Grade Five classes at Terry Fox Elementary School in Pierrefonds.

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Skyping with a Reader in Baie-Comeau

I started the day with a Skype conversation with a reader in Baie-Comeau. Vickie Bouchard (that's her in today's pic) is a Sec. IV student at Baie-Comeau High School and she and her classmates have been studying the Holocaust.

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My Day Gets Off to a Happy Start: Visit to Honoré-Mercier School

I started my day today at Honoré-Mercier School, where I did writing workshops with three groups of Grade Four students. Each class had its own “character.” Mademoiselle Elisa’s students were wide-awake and focused (even though it was 8:30 in the morning). Ms. Dina’s students were quiet, but they produced some terrific writing. And Miss Angela and Madame Marnie’s students had loads of excellent questions – and made me laugh.

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Meet Amy Mathers -- of Amy's Marathon of Books

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of interviewing a real star on the Canadian YA book scene: Amy Mathers.

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Tingles Inside Our Elbows -- A visit with the 85th Montreal Girl Guides

Last night, one of my former students, Elizabeth Knowles, invited me to come and meet her girl guides troop. The girls, who are aged nine to eleven, are working on their reading and writing badges... so it made sense for them to meet someone like me -- who reads and writes A LOT!

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Happy Day at William Latter School

In case you're wondering why, in today's pic, I am reading (with a little help) from the Dutch version of What World Is Left -- it's because I did a visit at William Latter School in Chambly, and I met a student named Amber, who moved from Nijmegen in the Netherlands, to Quebec when she was eight. I happened to have Een Andere Wereld in my book bag and it was great fun to hear Amber read from it!

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Introducing Sylvia Gunnery... and Squiggly Lines

Last week, my friend and fellow teacher Mary Eva invited a bunch of kid-lit fans over to her house to meet Nova Scotia YA author Sylvia Gunnery. 

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Day 2: St. Thomas High

Today is my second day of writing workshops at St. Thomas High School this winter. By this afternoon, I’ll have met all the grade nine students here.

Some of the teachers have wanted me to do writing exercises. Other have asked me to focus on telling their students everything I can about writing.

This morning, I asked one group to remember back to when they were ten years old and to jot down details about their memories. This exercise – one I use with my students at Marianopolis College – yielded some interesting results. A student named Giovanna began her piece with the line, “I rang my friend’s doorbell.” I told Giovanna her beginning works because it has energy and the reader can’t help wanting to know what happens next. I also suggested she use the “what if?” question if she wants to turn this memory into a fictional piece. What if, for example, her friend’s parents were having a big fight? Or what if her friend was packing up to run away from home? (Notice that both my examples involve TROUBLE. As I pointed out to the students today, trouble is like gasoline -- it helps move a story forward.)

A student named Maryam remembered being at school and realizing that, “people standing away from us … [were] staring [at us].” As I pointed out to Maryam, this line, too, makes for an intriguing story. Why were the people staring – and perhaps even more importantly, how did that make Maryam feel?

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know I am obsessed with details and observations. Every time I visit a school, I look for interesting details I might be able to use in a future book. Here come two I found today:

A student named Megan has a cool birthmark on her forehead. Megan was kind enough to tell me a little about her birthmark. She said, “Once when I was camping, someone said, ‘There’s a sticker on your forehead.’” Megan says she’s used to people commenting on her birthmark; she added that there’s also something positive about her birthmark. “I find it makes me different,” she explained.

My second observation has to do with body language. There were a lot of students in my third group, which meant they were sitting close together. Well, I spotted an example of student body language I had never seen before – not in 30 years of teaching! A student was braiding her neighbour’s hair! The two students (the braider and the braid-ee) kindly agreed to be photographed for this blog, though I promised I wouldn’t divulge their names.


You know what I find? If you’re the observant sort, you’ll never ever be bored. Let me know if you have any interesting or funny observations about classroom life. Maybe I’ll use your observation in my next book. Hey, if I do, I promise to thank you in the acknowledgments!

Speaking of thank you's ... many thanks to St. Thomas librarian Carolyn Pye for inviting me to her school. Over the years, Mrs. Pye and I have become friends – one more bonus that comes with being a writer!




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In Which We Are Never Too Old for a Valentine Card Exchange...

I teach my Writing for Children class on Wednesday and Friday afternoons -- so the timing was perfect this year for us to celebrate Valentine's Day!

Last week, students drew names out of a baseball cap. Their assignment -- due today -- was to write an anonymous love letter to the student whose name they drew. 

On Wednesday this week, I gave the class a crash course in writing a love letter. I explained that this was a vital life skill! For starters, I explained that when you write a love letter, you have to indicate that you love your person for the right reasons. By way of example I told the class that if my husband wrote me a love letter in which he praised me for my calm, quiet, introverted personality... well, it would be a very bad love letter because I'm not calm or quiet and certainly not introverted.

So I went through the class list slowly and we took time to admire each student. And I explained that they had one goal: to write a letter so beautiful that one day, many years from now, when the recipient is packing up to move to an old age home, he or she will bring the love letter they received on February 14, 2014.

Students had to deposit their letters before class in my specially-made box (see today's first pic) and you should have seen people's faces when they were reading their letters. They looked TRANSPORTED! I asked how many got great love letters and I'd say about half the class raised their hands.

So if this doesn't prove the power of words, well, I don't know what does!

In today's second pic, you can see my wonderful students. This picture was taken post-Valentine's celebration and pre-test.

Happy Valentine's Day to one and all. Here's to love and language and love letters!

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"Should I throw it out?"

“Should I throw it out?” a student named Alexandra asked me this morning. Alexandra is in Grade Nine at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire, where I did a school visit today. Alexandra was considering throwing out something she had written for a writing exercise.

Of course, I told Alexandra, “DO NOT THROW IT OUT!”

I then asked if I could take a look at what she’d written and it turned out it was a super interesting set of notes about a childhood memory. Alexandra had even made my job easier by underlining the word bullied, the most important part of her story. 

It happens to be lunchtime at St. Thomas as I’m writing this blog entry and how’s this for a coincidence? Alexandra just came by to say hello! Which is handy because I was thinking how I wished I’d told her something author Tamora Pierce once told me: “No word a writer ever writes is wasted.” In other words, everything we write is part of our process. (Of course that doesn't mean you should never throw anything out -- but I wouldn't go throwing out a set of fresh notes.)

Some of the Grade Nines at St. Thomas are working on writing memoirs. I stressed the importance of including details to bring scenes alive. I also explained that writers must be good observers.

Here are a couple of observations I made at St. Thomas today….

While I was speaking to the first class, I noticed a student had turned the bookmark I had given her into a paper airplane! She had hooked the bookmark through the clip on her red pen. This invention (see today's pic!) demonstrated both this student’s creativity and also the fact that she might not have been paying 100 per cent attention to my presentation!


 Later, I OVERHEARD (writers should also be good at eavesdropping) a student named Eric say that only the IB (which stands for International Baccalaureate) students bring their books to class. When I mentioned this to the class, Mike, a non-IB student, smacked his book down on the table. That made all of us laugh and of course, it was Mike’s way of saying he is just as studious as an IB student. Also, Mike’s action tells us something about him, doesn’t it? Details like these are great for including in stories.

In addition to teaching St. Thomas students a little about writing, I couldn’t help also doing my favourite activity – hunting for stories. There was an assembly this morning to honour Miss Cyr, the principal who is about to retire. I asked some students whether anything funny happened during the assembly and they told me a good story: that when he was making his speech, one of the vice-principals said to Miss Cyr: “I was hoping you’d retire earlier so I could get your job!” Now that’s the kind of funny remark I might be able to use in a book some day!

I ended my day with a lovely, most amusing group of students. When we talked about how trouble fuels stories, I asked the class whether they should ever get into trouble themselves. I was hoping, of course, that they'd say no, but Diason answered: "Get into trouble sometimes!" And when we were talking about odd places to get story ideas, Emily and John both agreed that, like me, they get good ideas in the SHOWER. Then John added, "Or on the toilet!"

I’ll be back at St. Thomas next Monday to meet with the rest of the Grade Nines. If any of you want to show me your work, come by at lunchtime – I like to have good reading material when I eat my sandwich!

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I Smell Talent!

As you may know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I am back to being a full-time teacher at Marianopolis College here in Montreal. Life feels way busier, but also more full. And what can I say? I get a big kick out of teenagers. They're fun, they're funny, they ask good questions, and of course, they give me inspiration for my YA stories!

The title of today's blog entry is "I Smell Talent!" That's a comment I write on some of my students' assignments -- and I've been smelling a lot of talent even though we are only two weeks into the semester.

For their first assignment, I asked students in my Writing for Children class to visit either a children's bookstore or the children's section of a local library. I told them to hunt for specific details. And so, for today's blog, I'm going to share some examples of really good writing that came from the class. (I got the students' permission to include their first names.)

Here goes!

Emily wrote: "The book stacks were less intimidating -- it was as though they had lost a few inches in height." In class, we discussed why this line works so well and decided it had to do with the fact that Emily SURPRISED us. We expect people's heights to change, not book stacks!

Isabella described the scene she encountered as "a teleportation device back to my childhood." Here, Isabella shows us she is a playful writer and she manages to communicate an important message in just a few words.

Mrittika described a little girl she saw at the library: "After playing with her gum, which she later stuck underneath the table." We loved Mrittika's observation and how she managed to capture the girl's mischievousness!

Brian did a great job of describing Montreal kids during winter: "hat-hair... red cheeks and dripping nose, along with the permanent snow pants/overalls." Even if you live in the Caribbean (lucky you!) and have never visited Montreal, Brian's description will "take you there."

Laura showed us her sense of humour when she wrote: "My career goal in kindergarten was to be a cowgirl." As I told the class, they say it's harder to make a reader laugh than to make him or her cry... so great job, Laura -- and thanks for making your teacher laugh out loud when she read your paper!

Stephanie is in the Music program at school, so it's not a surprise that she did a great job describing sounds in the library, "swishing pages" and a little boy who is having trouble with the word "van": "at first stuck on the word... then forgetting he's reading, just enjoying the sound of the letter 'v.'''

I'll end today's blog entry with two students who captured a similar wistful feeling. Joyce described the children's library she visited as "feel[ing] so different. Louder. More colourful. And also somehow happier." Similarly, Amanjot described a girl she observed whose name is Mina: "Mina has a wonderful imagination which allows her to get lost in the book she is reading. I want to be more like Mina."


So... here's to teenagers learning from little kids (and of course from their teachers too). And here's to teachers taking joy in their students' talent and being inspired by them.



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It's All About ... Pierre!

So after an eight-month writing sabbatical, I am back to teaching full-time at Marianopolis College here in Montreal.

To be honest, I was a little anxious about going back to full-time teaching. I think it's because I got used to long blocks of writing time -- and now I'll need to carve out writing time whenever I can find it.

But it didn't take me long to re-discover that I really do love teaching, and that I especially love being around teenagers. For me, teens are THE MOST INTERESTING PEOPLE IN THE WORLD. They wonder about things and they ask questions and they're SPUNKY! Besides, how do you think I get all the characters in my YA novels? I find most of them in my classes and in the hallways at Marianopolis!!

Okay, now back to the title of today's blog entry: It's All About ... Pierre!

One of the courses I am teaching this semester is called "Writing for Children." On Day 1, I announced that I had a special treat -- I read the class Maurice Sendak's Pierre. If you've never read it, here's a link where you can actually hear American actress and singer Tammy Grimes reading it to you! (She does an even better job than I did!)

Pierre has a terrible problem: he doesn't care!

Which led us into a great discussion about the need to CARE. I told the class that if they don't care about what they're learning (not just in my class, in all their classes), they won't learn much. And I explained that writers need to CARE about their subjects and their characters and their readers if they hope to tell good stories. In fact, now that I think about it, I can't think of any pursuit that does not require caring!

I'm also teaching a course in Print Journalism. There, we'll be working on a very different kind of writing. But you know what I did yesterday with my class of future reporters? I read them Pierre

And I think they understood why. Here's to writing and teaching, and especially to CARING!

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Introducing Yesterday's Surprise: MISS SIMPSON!

If you happened to read yesterday's blog entry, I mentioned I had a happy surprise. Here she is -- MISS SIMPSON!

As usual, I need to TELL A STORY to explain the surprise. 

In November, I paid a visit to St. Lawrence Senior School to do some writing workshops. I was working with Grade Six classes. I like to finish my workshops with a writing exercise and because I'm super-interested in the link between writing and memory, I asked the students to remember being five years old.

While they were writing up their memories, I circulated in the library (shout out to Miss Wendy, the St.Lawrence Senior librarian!) and read what the students were writing. When one wrote about memories of being in a kindergarten class with a teacher named Miss Simpson, I didn't think much about it. But when I continued circulating and discovered that about the half the class was writing about Miss Simpson, I GOT GOOSEBUMPS (goosebumps happen to me when I am in the proximity of A GOOD STORY).

So... here's what happened next. I told the class I was going to write about Miss Simpson in that day's blog entry. Then, one of the teachers said she knew Miss Simpson and that she'd tell her to read the blog. And then... (warning, there's a lot of AND THEN's in this story!!), a day or two later, I got a lovely email from a young woman named Jodi. Jodi told me she had volunteered long ago in Miss Simpson's classroom and that Miss Simpson had read the blog and was really touched that her former students still remembered her so warmly. Jodi finished her email by adding one more detail: she was Miss Simpson's daughter!

But the story's not over yet!

I phoned Miss Simpson and we had a lovely chat -- and agreed that one day we must get together with Miss Wendy, the librarian I mentioned before. Miss Simpson also told me her son teaches at Sunshine Academy and that she heard I'd be visiting there this January. But to be honest, I kind of forgot that part of the story.

And then... yesterday, when I arrived at Sunshine, Miss Susan, the lovely librarian there, told me there was going to be a surprise for me. (I wondered if it would be FOOD!) But it was better than food!!

I was just starting my workshop with Mr. P's class when a lovely woman walked in and said hello in a way that indicated she knew me. I said hello back -- I tried not to let on I had no idea who she was. And then she told me, "I'M MISS SIMPSON!"

So, I hope the students from St. Lawrence Senior are reading today's blog entry. That's because I asked Miss Simpson if she had a message for you -- and she did. She said, "You touched me immensely. Teaching kids is my life. That's why [even though I am retired], I still go into schools whenever I can. And I'm coming to your grad!"

For Mr. P's students, who may also be reading today's blog entry, I asked Miss Simpson if she had a memory of Mr. P she might share with you, and she did. Here it comes: "He used to have an imaginary friend named Saintsouvel. One day, we had to stop to let him out of the car!"

There are many reasons why this surprise made me so happy. I got to meet Miss Simpson and her son (and get a message from her daughter). And it's all because of STORIES. And I get to pass on Miss Simpson's message to her former students who still love her, and also her message to her son's students, who seem to love their teacher too! So, today, I celebrate stories and teachers and memories ... and happy surprises! Sometimes, we get to be part of stories!! Thanks to all of you who helped make this one happen!!

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Sunshine-y Day

It's cold and grey in Montreal, but I still had a sunshine-y day -- thanks to Mr. P's, Miss Jennifer's and Miss Houlihan's students at Sunshine Academy. (Plus a really fun and surprising thing happened... but you'll have to check tomorrow's blog entry to read about that.) 

Okay, back to my sunshine-y day. I've visited Sunshine Academy several times, so I know my way around! My first stop was the library, where I chatted with my friend, school librarian Mrs. Susan. 

Then it was on to the classrooms. I met two groups of students -- both quite different, and fun in their own ways. Mr. P's students were wide awake and focused. I told them several stories, then moved on to writing tips and a short writing exercises. Many of the students already enjoy writing. Some have great stories to tell. For example, Yasin, who was born in Haiti, but who traveled last summer to Rwanda. He knows a lot about Rwanda's history and about the terrible genocide that happened there. In fact, Yasin knows someone whose mother lived in Rwanda during those years. If you know me, you can guess what I told him: INTERVIEW THE WOMAN, ASK QUESTIONS, GET HER STORY! THEN WRITE IT DOWN!

When I do school visits, of course I'm there to teach the students, but sometimes I end up learning cool stuff, too. For instance, I learned it is possible to talk and yawn at the same time (thanks, Jesse, for the demonstration!), and that Sneha (the name of one of the students) is Hindi for "affection." (I told Sneha that I love saying her name -- it's the kind of word that rolls on your tongue in the most pleasant way!)

During the writing exercise, a student named Ryan wrote about a game he used to play with a friend in elementary school. I won't say too much about it here -- except that it makes a great story, Ryan -- and I hope you'll write it!

There was a short break between my two sessions -- that's when events relating to the surprise took place -- and then it was onto Miss Jennifer and Miss Houlihan's class. As soon as I walked into the classroom, I knew it was going to be an adventure. That's because a man who looked like he could be a cop (only he wasn't in uniform!) was sitting at the back of the room. That turned out to be Mr. Garen, who was there to keep his eye on students' behavior. (I might have to use that scene in a book one of these days.)

The second group was what I'd call high-energy! But they did keep me entertained. We talked about how trouble fuels a story. Then we found a case of trouble in the classroom: a young man named Abedin happened to be coming down with a cold precisely during my talk. Poor Abedin was sneezing and sniffling, but being extremely polite about it -- and not being insulted when I started backing away from his desk!

This second group had loads of questions. Alex loves writing and wanted to know the best way to start a story. He explained that his last story begins with the classic opening, "Once upon a time." I told him "Once upon a time" is great for fairy tales, but he might shake things up by beginning with an exciting scene, or a surprising twist, or great dialogue.

Because there wasn't time to answer every question, I spent lunchtime in the library, where several students dropped by to show me their work or ask more questions. A student named Khyleigh told me she read my book 121 Express in a day -- that she even read it while she walked home and also at Tim Hortons. Daphne asked about the steps that go into making a book (great question, Daphne!) and I tried to give her a good answer, which was basically: getting the idea, doing research, starting to write, re-writing, re-writing, developing more ideas, doing more research as necessary, re-writing and re-writing! 

I'm afraid I've written a very long blog entry today, but that's because there was so much interesting stuff to tell you. Some days, school visits demand a lot of my energy. Other days, and today was one of them, I get energized by the young people I meet. (Okay, the surprise helped too -- read tomorrow's blog entry to find out what the surprise was. Hey, I didn't know I could write cliffhangers!!!)

Thanks, Mrs. Susan, for the invite. PS: You make good coffee!




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Last Day as Writer-in-Residence at Riverdale High

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know I've been doing a stint as writer-in-residence at Riverdale High School. Thanks to an amazing Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation  project called Libres comme l'art, I've been writing a YA novel with the help of Miss Scott's Grade Nine English class.

I first met the class in September, when we tossed around ideas for the story. Blue Met asked us to include the subjects of autism and depression, so that was the first challenge -- coming up with a story that would explore those subjects while appealing to teens.

Today, I read the class the last six chapters of the story's first draft.

Check out today's pic -- I think it is one of my favourite pics ever. (Thanks Mrs. Strano, for taking the pic.) The reason I love it so much is because YOU CAN SEE THE STUDENTS GOBBLING UP MY STORY. (Yippee!!!!)

There are many fun things about being a writer, but sometimes writing makes for a solitary life. We writers often try to imagine our audiences, so you can understand what a gift it was for me to actually meet my readers -- and to see them concentrating on the story I've been writing with -- and for -- them.

You know what my favourite sound was today? When I heard the students flipping from one page to the next!!! (I could tell they wanted to know what would happen next!!!) (Sorry for all the exclamation marks, but hey, I'm excited.)

During today's session, Fahad kindly helped me by reading out loud when my voice got tired. Later, I asked the students to jot down what they'd learned about writing by participating in this project. I thought you might enjoy some of their answers. Fahad wrote, "The thing I've learned in writing stories is that every story has to have a problem (or more than one) and every problem has to have a solution." Christian said, "I learned that it is very important to read your work out loud in front of people for criticism and to correct your mistakes" and Jordana said, "being a writer is writing many drafts."

Though my official residency is now over, I think I'll be visiting the students once more this winter. To be honest, I've come to rely on their ideas and feedback. For me, this project was a wonderful gift -- and I like to think I taught the students some real-life lessons about writing.

Here's to stories and teamwork and solving problems (in stories, and in real life, too)!

Special thanks to Miss Scott for sharing her class, to Mrs. Strano for sharing her library, to Suzanne Nesbitt for bringing the project to Riverdale, to Mr. Rampersad for being a super supportive principal, and to Laure Colin and the Blue Met team for making this project happen. And finally thanks to Orca Book Publishers, who'll be publishing the book in fall 2014.

PS: To my friends at Riverdale, I'll be revising the manuscript this winter. I'll make sure to blog about the process -- so check back in here if you want to know how the rewrite's going!

PSS: I already miss you guys!



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The Plot Thickens -- Latest Report from Riverdale High School

One day this fall, when I was walking into Riverdale High School, I heard a student tell his friend, "That's our writer." I must say it was one of my proudest moments EVER! This year, thanks to the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation, I am writer-in-residence at Riverdale. I'm working with Miss Scott's Grade 9 English class on a project called Libres comme l'art: I write a story and the students give me input and feedback.

Yesterday was my sixth visit to the school ... and the PLOT THICKENS. Not only did I tell the students my latest real-life story (this one is about a budgie), I read them six new chapters of the story I am calling Hate Mail.

I don't want to give too much away, but I will tell you that the idea of using hate mail in the story came from one of my star pupils: Hamza. (He is the tall student at the back of today's pic. Not the one saluting -- that's Shayne. Hey Shayne, if you're reading this, let me know if there's a Y in your name, or if I got it confused with another star pupil!) The boy standing next to me in the pic -- Jarred -- also did some great research about airplanes, another element in the story.

We had a few special visitors at my session yesterday, William St-Hilaire, president of Blue Metropolis, came to meet the students -- and so did Frédérique Belair from Conférence Régionale des Elus de Montréal and Régane Bougé from the Conseil des Arts de Montréal, two agencies that have helped make this project possible.

But I haven't told you the best news of all. This little project I've been working on -- which includes the five chapters I read to the students yesterday -- it's going to be published as a book this coming fall by Orca Book Publishers.

You know how people say, "I couldn't have done it without you"? Well, in this case, it's really true. I may be the author of the book, but this one is a real team effort. Thanks to the organizations that are making it possible, thanks to Miss Scott and Suzannne Nesbitt from the Lester B. Pearson School Board, librarian Sue Strano, and principal Roger Rampsersad, but most of all, THANKS TO THE WONDERFUL STUDENTS. (And don't worry, you guys, I will call it basketball, not b-ball!)

Looking forward to seeing all of you in January -- and reading you the end of the first draft. I wish you happy holidays -- filled with interesting stories!!!

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Belle Visite à Beauport!

Oops, excuses-moi Hélène Blanchet, I keep slipping in French words when I speak to your étudiants... I just did it again!

I'm at the train station in Quebec City, reporting in after a fun day with Hélène's three Sec. III enriched English classes at Ecole Sécondaire de la Seigneurie in Beauport, a cozy suburb just outside of Quebec City.

The students were great and I'm impressed with how bilingual they are. If you know me, you will know I'm a speedy talker and that I have a habit of telling a lot of stories... well, even though the students' first language is French, they seemed to have no trouble keeping up with me! I told them how I wish I was even more bilingual. (My spoken French is quite good, but I'd never dare to write an article or a story in French.) So, in this way, I am a little envious of the young people I worked with today!

We discussed many things about writing. I told one group how I was influenced by writer/illustrator David Small who advises writers to "Write about the things that keep you up at night" -- and I explained how those words spurred me on to write my latest novel, So Much It Hurts.

I also told the students about my interest in doing research and uncovering secrets. I explained that my historical novel, What World Is Left, is based on a sad chapter in my mum's life, events she kept secret for over 60 years. I asked the students to guess how I managed to find out my mum's story. A student named Marie-Laurence answered, "Maybe you found a book or a diary that she wrote." Though that isn't what happened, I was impressed with Marie-Laurence's answer -- it shows she has the mind of a writer. She was imagining an interesting story! Later, when I gave the students a writing exercise, Marie-Laurence got a little emotional. I told her that that's another sign she might be a writer. I shared a wonderful quote from American writer Ring Lardner: "How can you write if you can't cry?"

A student named Etienne also seems to have embarked on the writing life. Etienne has already written 70 (!!) pages of a novel -- in French. You know what I was thinking, Etienne? That it would be cool if someone (maybe you!) tried to write a BILINGUAL novel. What do you think?

Another interesting person I met today was Julie Bouchard. A graduate of Ecole Sécondaire de la Seigneurie, she is now doing her Ph.D. in linguistics at Texas A&M -- Commerce. Julie is doing research at her old high school -- taping students' conversations with each other in the classroom. If you ask me, she could probably write a novel with all that info!!

So, Hélène, thanks for inviting me back to your school -- but most of all, thanks for sharing your students with me. As you told your classes, writing is writing -- no matter what language we do it in.

A final word for Hélène's students: I'm finishing up this blog entry on the train... if it hadn't been for all of you, I might never have learned the story of the talking budgie. I'm already trying to figure out how I can find a way to include that bird in one of my books!! Remember what I told you: "Use it!" Bonne chance with your reading and your writing! Great to meet you all today!




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Falling in Love with a Class

I have to admit -- I think I've fallen in love with a class. That's them in today's pic. They're Sebastian Piquette's students from Mackay Centre School. My pal, photographer Monique Dykstra (that's her in the white sweater), and I have been working with Sebastian's class (that's Sebastian standing by the window, in a grey top), helping them use words and photos to produce a chapter in this year's edition of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. Quebec Roots is an educational program sponsored by the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation.

Several classes from schools across Quebec are participating. Each class comes up with their own topic. Sebastian's students decided to write and take photos about what life in a wheelchair is like.

I've certainly learned a lot from these terrific terrific kids.

If you've been at one of my writing workshops, you may remember that I get a lot of ideas in the shower! Well, before our last workshop with the Mackay students, I took a quick shower and came up with what I thought was a good idea -- to get the students to work together to produce a list of what they want the rest of us to know about how to treat them.

Later that morning, we did a brainstorming exercise and I was deeply moved -- and also enlightened -- by what the students had to say. We produced the following list. (It'll appear in this year's edition of Quebec Roots, so consider this a sneak preview!). 

1.  We don’t like it when you stare at us.  We are not strange.

2.  Be friendly to us. We are regular kids who happen to go to school in wheelchairs. Yeah man!

3.  If you see us struggling to pick something up or open or close a door, ask us, “Do you need my help?” Don’t just walk past us without saying anything.

4.  Be patient with us. Some of us stutter or have difficulty speaking.

5.  We are powerful. We can do everything even if it is sometimes hard.

6.  Don’t feel sorry for us. We are happy.

Now I bet you can tell why I've fallen in love with this class. And wait until you see the photos they've been shooting!

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Happy Day at Orchard Elementary School

I'm just in from a happy day at Orchard Elementary School in Lasalle. I worked with two groups of Grades Five and Six students -- and they were lively!

In today's first pic, meet Madison who, along with her friend Amanda, decorated the library door for my visit. I had to take a picture of course! And in the second pic, you can see two students engaged in my favourite activity: WRITING!

You may notice that in the second pic, the student on the right, Kayla, has a small booboo on her nose. Well, believe it or not, that ties into some of the writing tips I shared with the students today. First of all, a writer needs to be observant. Second of all, a writer needs to be snoopy. So, first I observed the booboo, then I inquired about it. Kayla told me she sometimes has trouble breathing, so she uses a nose strip -- only she put it on too tight and it left a blue mark.

This turns out not to be the end of the story. When I was leaving the school with Miss Wendy, the librarian, we spotted Kayla -- with gauze on her forehead!! So, once again, this snoopy writer asked what had happened. Well, during recess Kayla whacked her head on some ice. You know what? I just might need to include a girl like Kayla in one of my stories -- a girl who is having an accident-prone day. (Kayla, I hope you get a good sleep tonight and wake up booboo-free tomorrow!)

I told the students as much as I could about how writing works -- how it's important to make writing and reading daily habits, and how both those things have saved my life! I also explained that writing doesn't only happen at a desk, and that sometimes I write when I am in the shower or making tea. A student named Jaden remarked, "Writing doesn't always come from a pen" -- I thought that was a beautiful, creative line.

We also talked about interviewing people in order to learn their secrets. I suggested that students interview their grandparents and if their grandparents are not available, to round up someone else's grandparents! A student named Jahni said that when his grandpa was recently visiting Montreal, he stopped strangers to tell them stories. Now that grandpa sounds like a perfect person to interview!

We also talked about how trouble fuels stories. A student named Lytia asked me, "So you don't use good?" I thought that was a brilliant question, Lytia. It is true that, generally, I use a lot of trouble in my stories, but usually, the characters develop because of the troubles they experience ... and I think that's definitely a good thing.

So, I must admit my house feels kind of quiet after being at Orchard Elementary. Thanks to Miss Wendy for inviting me. And to the students, thanks for the inspiration. Don't forget to read and write -- and stay out of trouble. But if trouble happens, use it in a story!!

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Some Days Being an Author Means You Get to Go to Flying School!

Since I'm on sabbatical from teaching until January, I spend most of my days sitting at the computer, writing and re-writing until I reach my daily word quota.

Some days are a little more eventful. Like today!

Here's what happened: I am about to write a scene set at a flying school. So I googled flying schools in the Montreal area and checked out their websites. Then, on a whim, I phoned one up and a pleasant gentleman answered the phone. I told him I write YA books and I wondered if maybe I could pop by some time for a visit.

Well, it turns out the man at the other end of the phone was Philippe Gélinas, president of Dorval Aviation, and he suggested I come right over for a tour!!


So, let's just say it was one of those days when it's really fun to be a writer.

I took today's pic while sitting in a Cessna 172 airplane! (I got to sit in the pilot's seat.) Mr. Gélinas, who is himself a pilot and flight instructor, explained to me how everything works (while I scribbled notes madly). For instance, I learned that the floor pedals control the rudder, which is part of the plane's tail. I also learned you have to put something called the "mixture" to "full rich" before you can put the key in the ignition.

I took lots of notes and I saw more cool stuff: a flight simulator and this giant map of navigation airways.

When I do writing workshops, I'm always telling students how important it is to do research. But now I realize I've forgotten to tell them something else all these years: SOME DAYS, DOING RESEARCH CAN BE AMAZINGLY FUN AND EXCITING! PS: Today was one of those days!!!


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How Did My Day Go So Quickly at St. Lawrence Academy Senior Campus?

I just got home from an all-day visit to St. Lawrence Academy Senior Campus here in Montreal. I worked with four groups of Grade Six students -- and instead of being zonked out, I'm energized! 

I talked about many of my favourite subjects: the importance of reading and writing (daily if possible); the need for revising our work; where story ideas come from; and how asking the question "What if?" can help advance a story.

I also had special permission from my friend, the school's librarian, Wendy Corner, and the school's principal, Mr. Adrien, to talk a little about my latest YA novel, So Much It Hurts. Both Miss Wendy and Mr. Adrien knew that the subject matter -- violence in relationships -- is serious and difficult, but I want to thank both of them for letting me tackle the topic today. And I want to say thanks to the students for listening so kindly and sensitively and for asking such perceptive, wise questions. As Mr. Adrien told me when we had a moment to chat, violence in relationships remains a taboo topic -- and I agree with him that we need to discuss it to raise awareness.

I told one group I've been taking boxing lessons and how my coach constantly reminds me to "Protect yourself!" That's a message I want to pass on to young people, too. If you ever find yourselves in a dangerous relationship, get help. Don't try to pretend everything is fine, the way Iris does in my novel.

There was time for the classes to do a short writing exercise. I asked the students to write about a memory from when they were five years old. A student named Veronica wrote a beautiful piece about the Christmas after her grandpa died. She remembered receiving a doll she named Bella. But even the gift did not make Veronica's sadness go away. I told Veronica  I have a hunch she should be writing poetry. Go for it, Veronica!

A student named Kalvin remembered details about his kindergarten class. Kalvin described how the room "smelled like chicken fingers." As I told him, that detail really transports the reader to the classroom! Way to go, Kalvin!

An interesting coincidence: several students wrote about their memories of a beloved kindergarten teacher, Miss Simpson. Frankly, I feel as if I made Miss Simpson's acquaintance today because I read so much about her! One of the St. Lawrence Senior teachers told me she is friends with Miss Simpson, who recently retired from St. Lawrence's Junior Campus, and that she'll get her to read this blog entry. So, Miss Simpson, I want to tell you that you made a great impression on your former students -- and that they were a terrific audience today. You must be a special woman!

I asked one group to think of a word that starts with the letters "T" and "R" and that is essential to a story. The first student who picked up his hand suggested the word "Trying." It wasn't the word I had in mind, but I have to say I like it a lot! Characters definitely need to try! And when I asked the student who came up with this suggestion what his name was so I could include it here, guess what he answered?

TRistan!! (With a T and an R in case you did not notice!!)

Today's pic was taken with my 9 A.M. group -- but I must say you guys were all wonderful in different ways. Thanks for making my day fly by. Read, write, ask "What if?", rewrite, and protect yourselves! Thanks Miss Wendy for inviting me to St. Lawrence Academy Senior Campus and for hosting today's visit in your happy library!



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Visit to Brome Lake Books

I'm writing to you this morning from Knowlton in Quebec's Eastern Townships. It's a beautiful little town near Brome Lake and I'm here because yesterday I did a reading (and talk) at Brome Lake Books. My talk was part of the Quebec Writers' Federation's Writing Out Loud series.

I must say I had a surprisingly good turnout! Danny McAuley and Lucy Hoblyn, the lovely couple who own the bookstore, had set up a lot of chairs -- and most of them got taken. It also helped, of course, that Danny and Lucy supplied their own three sons for members of the audience!!


I was supposed to read from my new YA book, So Much It Hurts (and don't worry, I did), but because some of the audience members were a little young (and the subject of So Much It Hurts is a tough one -- violence in relationships), I also talked a little about some of my other books and shared some writing tips.

Danny is directing the play Sinbad, which will run Nov. 27 through Dec. 1 at the Brome Lake Theater. Many members of the audience are in the play. Danny let them finish a little early in exchange, I believe, for attending my reading. A young woman named Kira told me Danny had to cut short the dancing part of yesterday's rehearsal. "For some of us, dancing is not our forté!" Kira said.

I stayed around to chat and sign books after my talk. One of the women in the audience confided that when she was a teenager, she, too, had been in an abusive relationship. Her daughter who was with her knows the story of what happened to her mom. She explained that the sound of motorcycles still upsets her mom -- the young man who struck her had had a motorcycle.

I was very moved by that story. Since the book was only released recently, I'm just beginning to talk about all this in public. I wonder if other women will be telling me similar stories in the months to come. Talking about these things is difficult -- but I also know it's important.

A young man named Kenneth (that's him in today's pic) was also in the audience. He's the narrator as well as a Jedi Knight in Sinbad. Kenneth popped by to tell me he had made a decision. "I think I'm going to be a writer," he told me. "I want to write Medieval-Renaissance fiction."

So, what do you say, dear blog reader -- doesn't that sound like a pretty successful visit? Thanks, Danny and Lucy, for hosting me. Thanks to the kids and adults who came to listen. Thanks to the QWF for sending me to Knowlton. For tickets to Sinbad, telephone 450-242-2510!

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My Rina Singh

A little more than 30 years ago, I took the metro home with a fellow student. We were both doing our MA degrees at Concordia University -- she in Creative Writing, me in English Lit. On the surface, we had little in common. Rina Singh grew up in Ambala, in the north of India. I had spent my entire life in Montreal. Rina is Sikh; I am Jewish. She has straight black hair; I've got a mop of blonde curls.

And yet... something magical happened. We became close friends and have remained close friends all these years. And though other friends have influenced and supported me in my journey to become an author, Rina is the one to whom I owe the greatest debt.

Rina told me about an organization called CANSCAIP, of which I am still a loyal member. She told me I had to go to a conference, held in Toronto every November, called Packaging Your Imagination, organized by CANSCAIP. I listened to her -- and it helped.

Rina is also the one who cheered me on when I was first submitting manuscripts to publishers. When I phoned to tell her -- by then Rina had moved to Toronto, where she still lives -- that I had been rejected by yet another publisher, this time with a long letter explaining what the publisher liked and didn't like about my submission, Rina was the one who said, "That's great news!" And when I felt like giving up, Rina brought me a little glass statue of Ganesh, the Hindu god who is known to help people overcome obstacles. That Ganesh is still sitting next to my computer as I write this.

Rina's writing career was booming long before mine ever began. She is the author of six books for children, the most recent of which are Nearly Nonsense and Guru Nanak

This weekend, Rina and her husband made the long drive to Montreal to come and celebrate the launch of my new YA novel, So Much It Hurts. You may know the book is based on a dark chapter in my own life -- and Rina was the friend with whom I was closest during this difficult time. She helped me dig myself out of a dark sad hole.

We spent a day this weekend working together -- comparing notes, discussing story ideas, looking at outlines of our upcoming projects. I didn't tell you but Rina began her writing career as a poet. She published her first collection of poems in India when she was still in her twenties. Maybe that's why she speaks in a poetic way. (She is also very funny... one more reason why I love her.) "How did you do it?" Rina asked about So Much It Hurts. And then she answered her own question in a way that was smart and also made me laugh, "By doing it!" she said.

Rina also made a wonderful observation about outlines. I showed her my newest outline and how I've scribbled all over it. "Outlines," said Rina, "are living documents."

Anyway, now maybe you will understand why I feel so lucky to have Rina for a friend. Dear blog reader, I wish that you, too, find a friend who understands and accepts you, who supports your dreams, who shares her own struggles and dreams with you -- and makes you laugh.






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It's Not Every Day I Get To Go To Texas!

Okay, okay, I'll admit it -- I didn't really GO to Texas. Not in the flesh anyway. But I did get to do two wonderful Skype visits with students at Dumas Intermediate School.

The students have been doing a six-week unit on the Holocaust and were familiar with my novel, What World Is Left. So I had the pleasure of talking to them about this book, which is so very close to my heart since it is based on my mum's experience during the Holocaust.

The students were terrific. Both groups listened carefully and sensitively, and the students had terrific smart questions.

I did the first Skype session from my home, but I did the afternoon session from my parents' house -- which meant the students got to meet today's real star: my mum!

I tried to explain to the students why stories mean so much to me and how, even though I am a bit of a speed demon, I slow down for stories -- especially ones that make my arms tingle! I also talked about the power of secrets and encouraged those students who have grandparents to get their grandparents' stories. (Sometimes, grandparents are more open with their grandkids than they are with their own kids.)

Two students this morning asked questions I was unable to answer -- but I told them I'd ask their questions to my mum and report back on what she had to say. So, here goes! Liliana asked, "Did your mother ever come close to losing hope?" I would have predicted my mother would have said yes to that question, but when I asked her, her immediate response was, "No! Never!" Daniela had another tough question. She asked, "Did your mother ever regret being a Jew?" My mother answered yes to that question. As I explained to the students, she was only a couple of years older than them when she was first sent to a Nazi concentration camp. She once told me that she was called "dirty Jew" so many times that she really thought she was a "dirty Jew"! Even writing that makes me sad -- but I think it's important to know these things. If we know them, perhaps we can help prevent them from ever happening again.

Just seeing the students' open, kind faces moved me. I read from the book to both groups, and I noticed how still the audience was, how hard they were concentrating. I know the kids clapped for me at the end of my presentations, but really, they deserved the applause.

I feel a little bad that the morning group didn't get to say hello to my mum, so I'll do my best to arrange another quick visit one of these days from my parents' house. I think it meant a lot to my mum to know that the next generation is interested in the experience of those who survived the Holocaust. Remember what she told you: that you must never give up hope. And remember what I told you: that life requires courage, and that a sense of humour -- even in difficult times -- can be a sign of courage.

Thanks to Rhonda Artho and Cathy Craigmiles and everyone else who helped organize today's Skype visits. Now I need to find myself a way to come and meet you all in person!!!


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Home Away from Home: Riverdale High School

Today, I was back with Mrs. Scott's Grade Nine English class at Riverdale High School. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember that I am working with Mrs. Scott's class on a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation educational program called Libres comme l'art. I tell the students all about what it's like to write a book and they give me input on the book I'm writing. Let's just say, for me, it's a heavenly arrangement.

Usually, the writing part of my life is a solitary endeavor. Often, I finish a chapter and read it out loud to myself (which is a good trick, but let's be honest, it's a little sad!!) Today, I read Chapters 4 and 5 to the class and... I'm very proud to tell you that when I finished reading, a student named Sarah called out, "That's good!" (Sarah, you totally made my day.)

Of course the students also had useful criticisms. Liam pointed out that I'd called a place the Old Mission Brewery when it is actually the Old Brewery Mission. Thanks for catching that, Liam. In one paragraph, I described what a teenage boy might do if he was home alone and Jared had a good suggestion: that he might blast the sound system. That goes in the book, Jared!

My favourite moment came, however, when I was explaining how I was still grappling with one big problem in my story: the motivation behind an adult's mistreatment of one of the teenagers in the story. I asked the students to jot down their ideas ... so it was kind of a group brainstorming exercise. And guess what? I walked around the room, peeking at the answers the students were coming up with ... AND ONE OF THEM WAS PERFECT!! Special thanks to Jordana, who helped me solve the problem that's been bugging me for a couple of weeks.

In all, I'm doing seven visits with Mrs. Scott's class, but I have to admit: I'm getting hooked on working with these kids. It's true I sometimes have to shush them, give them a stern look, and even stop speaking for a while (hard for someone like me to do!!), while I wait for them to quiet down... but when it comes to bright ideas, these students sure have them.

Thanks to everyone involved in the project for making it happen -- my friends at Blue Met; Suzanne Nesbitt of the Lester B. Pearson School Board; Mr. Rampersad, my favourite principal; the wonderful librarian, Mrs. Strano; Mrs. Scott and Miss Chris; and especially the students. I've never had so much fun working on a book!

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Teaching (and Learning) at a Montreal Center for Homeless Women

This afternoon, photographer Monique Dykstra and I did our third writing and photography workshop at La Rue des Femmes, a Montreal center that provides support to women who are homeless.

Our work here is part of a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Before & After. The women's texts and photos will be included in a book that will be published in time for this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival.

My feelings about homelessness have changed a lot since we began working on this project in September. I have to admit that in the past, when I saw homeless people, I looked away. Having lunch in the community room at La Rue des Femmes, and working with some of the women on their writing has made me realize that these women are not all that different from me -- or my friend Monique. One difference, however, between us is that when I experienced my own hard times, I had family and friends to help me through. Most of the women at La Rue des Femmes are alone; many have lost everything.

I will never forget some of the poems and stories these women have produced. Two weeks ago, a woman wrote a poem about her pink sunglasses and how they protect her from "je ne sais quoi" (that's French for "I don't know what"). I can't get her poem out of my head -- which I think is proof of how powerful a writer she is.

This afternoon, a woman in our group wrote about what it's like to have nothing. I'm going to include a little of her poem here. When you read this excerpt, I think you will understand why I feel so privileged to be working on this project.


“My god, I don’t have anything.

But I don’t want to start accumulating things.

 I lost so much already,

I’m afraid I’m going to lose it all again.”


I think some readers may find this excerpt a little depressing. Perhaps it will help you to know that the woman who wrote it is working hard to rebuild her life. That she is courageous and smart. And that she was really proud of her poem.




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Writer Returns to Residence!

That's Kayla in today's pic. I photographed her READING MY NEW BOOK this morning at Riverdale High School in Pierrefonds.

As you may know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I'm writer-in-residence at Riverdale High School this year, thanks to a wonderful program called Libres Comme L'Art run by the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation.

I'm working on a story and I've got about 30 terrific assistants -- Mrs. Scott's class.

Today, I read the students Chapters 2 and 3 of the project and they seem to think it's coming along. Best of all, they've got all sorts of great suggestions. I've been telling the students how important it is for a writer to know her characters. Once you know your character, it's easier to figure out the plot since character tends to determine action. (That's a bit complicated, I know, but it's a really useful thing to consider when you are planning out a story.)

A student named Saba-Lou demonstrated that she really "got" this concept -- that's because she suggested that the main character, Jordie, might do a decent thing not so much to be decent but because he wants to impress the girl he likes. Saba-Lou, you are so right about that!

I divided students into groups and had them write notes about various scenes I want to include. One group came up with great DETAILS about their school auditorium where assemblies are held; another group worked on describing an incident that would lead to the students getting detentions, and one student wrote an account of what happens during Saturday morning detentions.

Hey, if you're one of Mrs. Scott's students reading this and you didn't hand in your notes at the end of class, can you give them to Mrs. Scott and I'll get her to mail them to me? I want to use as many of your ideas as possible as I continue writing the story.

I'll be back at Riverdale on November 5 -- with, if all goes well, two new chapters to share. Can't wait!






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The Moniques Go to the Maggies

Photographer Monique Dykstra and I are in the Magdalen Islands (commonly referred to by locals as "The Maggies"). We're here to work on Quebec Roots, an educational project offered by the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation.

We're working with Kim Clark's students at Grosse-Ile School. They're going to be producing a chapter for this year's edition of a book called Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live.

Monique is doing her photography workshop now -- so I have a little time to write this blog entry.

The group has decided to write about and photograph the sea and how it defines life here in Grosse-Ile. This morning, I did a little talk about writing and how stories are EVERYWHERE. I also gave the students a little writing exercise and I thought I'd share some of what they came up with.

Nicholas worked on piece about fishing. I loved his line: "I can hear the seagulls screaming for food." It's a simple sentence, but I think Nicholas's use of the word screaming really TAKES US THERE. (Those of you who know me will know that I'm often singing the words Take me there from the Staples Singers song.)

Courtney was describing the carved doors at the church in nearby Old Harry. She wrote: "You hear the soft prayers whisper from the rafters/ You talk to your lost ancestors -- the ones you miss." I told Courtney she is destined to be a writer!

And Lucas described people watching a shipwreck from shore, helpless, their faces "wet from tears and rain." Beautiful writing, don't you agree?

That's me looking over Lucas's shoulder in today's pic. 

Here's to the sea and to stories.... Thanks Kim for preparing your class so well. This is going to be a super chapter!

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Out for Dinner with a Clown!

I know what you're thinking -- where's the photographic evidence?

Alas, I left my camera at home. But last night, I really did have dinner with a clown -- a very smart, funny and kind one too!

My clown-friend's name is Aaron and I met him at the open house at the Ecole Nationale de Cirque here in Montreal. (He's in his second year at circus school.)

It was a working dinner (though we had fun, too). I had told Aaron that I'm writing a story set at a circus camp and there are two clowns in it. He kindly agreed to look over my clowning scenes -- and he had some super suggestions.

It's fun hanging out with a clown. For one thing, Aaron makes great funny faces. I took lots of notes so I could work some of that stuff into my manuscript. I also observed how physical clown humour is -- Aaron uses his body to make people laugh. He even told me that sometimes, when he's out with friends, he pretends to trip or bang into a wall -- just to see people's reactions. 

Aaron is the first clown in his family, though they've been supportive of his career ambitions. He says there's nothing like the feeling he gets when he makes a group of people laugh: "It's like a drug."

Next time I have dinner with Aaron I promise to take a picture. In the mean time, here's to fun research  -- and clever clowns!


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More News From Your Favourite Writer-in-Residence

Your favourite writer-in-residence? Why, that’s me, of course! Today, I was back at Riverdale High School, where I am working with one of Ms. Scott’s Grade Nine classes on a project called Libres comme l'art. I get to write a book and the students are my team of personal consultants! In return, I’m teaching them everything I know about how to “spin” a story into a book.  

Today was a big day because I’d written a first draft of Chapter 1. I handed round copies to the class, then read the chapter out loud. I have to admit – I was a little nervous. But you know what my favourite part was? When I got to the end of a page and I could hear the students flipping to the next one… I think they were curious to know more about my story. YIPPEE!

As I told the students, most writers I know write in a quiet room (or a noisy café) somewhere, and we rarely get reaction from our readers while we’re working on a story. So this was an exciting and inspiring first for me!

The class spent about an hour reacting to the chapter and giving me ideas for how to proceed with the story. Our focus was on developing individual characters. I explained to the students that the best fiction tends to be character-driven, meaning that once an author really knows his characters, then the plot becomes a function of the various characters’ feelings, thoughts, actions and reactions. We also talked about the role of foils in literature – how it helps when characters are different from each other.

Jared, one of the liveliest students in the group, thinks I should name one of the characters Logan – which happens to be Jared’s last name. When Matthew was speaking, I decided that maybe I’ll use him as the physical model for my protagonist – Matthew has blue-ish-grey eyes, light brown hair, the beginnings of a moustache and a scrape on his elbow!

And I got another idea for the book when Ms. Scott was mentioning Saturday morning detentions! (I’d never heard of Saturday morning detentions before.) That inspired me to do some research of my own. Fortunately for me, several of the students had had Saturday morning detentions. Kelly got one for missing two previous detentions (it all started when she didn’t get her French test signed). Here’s Kelly’s description of what the detention was like: “It was in the gym. There were a lot of people. You could read, but you couldn’t put your head down. I cried for half of it.” Hey, Kelly, I’m sorry you had such a bad time at detention – but look at the bright side… now you have a story to tell. And your story has inspired your favourite writer-in-residence.

I won’t see the class for a few weeks. In the meantime, I’ve got my own homework to do: I want to write Chapter 2 for them – and produce an outline for my story. Hopefully when Ms. Scott’s students hear more of my story, they’ll still want to keep turning those pages!!

PS: Lots of people to thank for making this project possible, but today, here's a special shout-out to Riverdale librarian Sue Strano. If you go to Riverdale and you're looking for a book to read, talk to Mrs. Strano. She's an expert at matching readers with books! Thanks, Mrs. Strano, for sharing your library with me for the Libres comme l'art project.


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The Moniques Visit Mackay Centre Satellite Class

The Moniques are back in action!

That means photographer Monique Dykstra (that's her in the white T-shirt) and I are teamed up again to work on a couple of terrific projects offered through the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation.

One of those projects is called Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. Teams of writers and photographers (like the Moniques!) will be visiting a number of Quebec schools, helping students to use words and photographs to describe their community. Participating students' work will appear in a book, an e-book and will even be exhibited at the 2014 Blue Metropolis Literary Festival.

We spent today with an amazingly wonderful group of students from the Mackay Centre's Satellite Class. Their teacher is Sebastian Piquette. Sebastian teaches nine students, all of whom are physically handicapped. He is assisted by several other educators, all as committed and kind as Sebastian.

I started the day by telling a few stories (when am I NOT telling stories?!) and then Monique D talked about her life as a photographer and looked at some photos with the class so they could learn what makes a photograph work.

Every time I work with Monique D, I learn something, too! Today, she told the class, "A photograph has to tell a story!" I was so excited I nearly cheered when she said that. I'd never seen photos as storytelling devices until Monique said that.

One of our main goals of the day was to help students decide on a theme for their chapter. We brainstormed until we came up with a topic that everyone in the room voted for: what it's like to be in a wheelchair. It's interesting that one of the young men in the class, Jamie, is not in a wheelchair, but because so many of his friends are, he feels he, too, has lots to write (and photograph!!) about the subject.

There was time for writing and I was impressed and moved by what the students came up with. Here's a little preview. I got to work with Abdullah, who wrote, "My wheelchair is like my brother sort of. In real life, my little brother gets on my nerves sometimes, but I like him." And Justin wrote about going to a funeral, describing the frustration of being unable to take the stairs that led into the church. He came up with a lovely description of the stairs, calling them "zigzag stairs."

I am eager to see what else the students come up with. I predict that not only will they learn a lot about writing and photography by participating in this project, but they're also going to teach readers (including us) a lot about what it is like to use a wheelchair.

Thanks to all of you in the class, and to Sebastian and the other educators. The Moniques feel privileged to be working with you!!


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Notes from a Lucky Author

I'm a lucky author because, as you may know if you've been keeping up with my blog, I'm writer-in-residence this year at Riverdale High School in Pierrefonds. I'm there as part of an exciting project called Libres comme l'art.

Let me get right to the lucky part: I get to work with one of Ms. Scott's Grade 9 classes. Together, we're brainstorming for a story I'm going to write. Today I was there for 80 minutes, and frankly, it felt like 10! That's because the students had so many interesting things to say. A special shout-out to Saba-lou and Fahad, who were both on the quiet side during my last visit, but were major contributors to this morning's discussion.

Last week, I gave the class homework: either to write about their experience with an autistic child (or adult), or else to tell me the story of an object that has significance to them. I just read their pieces and many were amazing. Shayne, who has taught swimming to autistic kids, shared his observation that one of the boys he worked with "doesn't ever keep eye contact" and prefers to "keep a routine." Awaiz wrote about a bracelet his mom received when she was growing up in Pakistan. My favourite part of Awaiz's piece was when he described how hard his mom had to work every day after school: "She had to sweep clean the house, milk the cows and study! She never really had time to play."

I'll see Ms. Scott's class again next Tuesday. I've promised them that by then, I'll have written a rough first draft of my Chapter One. (To be honest, I'm a little nervous since I want it to be really good!!)

The deal is: the students give me lots of great ideas and they'll respond to my story as I write it. In return, I'm going to teach them everything I know about writing a book.

So, can you see why I feel lucky?

PS: For Ms. Scott's students: the author who told me "All writing is problem solving" is Joel Yanofsky. His book about raising an autistic child is called Bad Animals.

PSS: Thanks to the wonderful Suzanne Nesbitt for being there today, for helping get Riverdale in on the project -- and for taking today's pic!


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Monique Goes to Madison, Wisconsin... well, kind of!

It does sound cool to say, "I spent the afternoon in Madison, Wisconsin!" And I did... kind of!

That's because I did a Skype visit to the Mystery to Me bookstore there. The visit was arranged by my friend and fellow author Elise Moser, who divides her time between Madison and Montreal. Elise was at the bookstore to read from her beautiful new YA novel Lily and Taylor. And I had a chance to read from my newest YA title, So Much It Hurts.

Both of our books deal with violence in a relationship. Elise's novel starts off with a haunting autopsy scene. The first line of the book is one that readers will not be able to forget: "They stuffed her brain into her chest."

In the question and answer period that followed our readings, Elise explained that her book started as a short story and that the trigger for it was a friend who did an internship at a morgue. I love hearing about how novels are inspired by real life moments.

It was also exciting that two young readers -- Izzie and Celia -- were at the reading. Both girls read our novels and had insightful comments about them. 

So Much It Hurts is based on a dark chapter in my own life and I was glad that I was able to stay calm while I read. To be honest, the hardest part was seeing the audience's reaction. One woman covered her eyes while I was reading. Which makes me wonder about telling difficult stories. I think it's important to do, but there is a part of me that feels a little sorry about upsetting my readers.

Big thanks to Elise for bringing me to Madison (next time I'm coming in person! I hear it's an amazing city!) and to Joanne Berg, who owns Mystery to Me. Sharing stories -- even difficult ones -- is a bit like Skype itself, bringing us closer to others, even when they are far away.

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Guess who the new writer-in-residence is at Riverdale High School in Pierrefonds?

You're looking at her!

Today was my first day working with -- and meeting -- one of Mrs. Scott's Grade Nine English classes at Riverdale. There are 32 students in the group, and even the school principal, Mr. Rampersad (who loves to read!), came to listen to my introductory talk. FUN!

I'll be making seven visits to the school thanks to a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Libres comme l'art. Other organizations such as the Conseil des arts de Montréal and Cré are also involved in making the project possible.

Working on Libres comme l'art means I get to do something I love to do: write a book. But what's extra special is that I'll be writing this book with the help of 32 special assistants -- Mrs. Scott's students!

I had a little over an hour with the students today and we reviewed some of the basics -- how important it is for writers to read and write, why stories matter, and why some stories give people like me (and hopefully you!) goosebumps.

It looks like one of the characters in our story is going to be autistic. This means that the students and I will be researching autism and what it feels like to be an autistic student in our school system.

As you can imagine, interesting things happen when you put together a lot of brains. A student named Shayne told us that over the summer, he worked as a swimming instructor and some of his students were autistic. I'm hoping we'll learn more about Shayne's experience. Hamza suggested we include a hate letter in our story -- similar to a hate letter that made the news a few weeks ago when it was sent to the mom of an autistic child in Ontario. Good thinking, Hamza! Sabrina is in the cadets and she told us that there, autistic youngsters have integration aides or shadows -- which made me think it would be great to include an integration aide in our story. And I want to tell you about another student named Shane (no y in this one's name) who came up with a line that I thought would make a great opening line in a book. Here it is: "You can look at it from a distance, but don't touch!" Doesn't that line intrigue you? Which is, of course, what an opening line has to do.

Do I sound excited about being the writer-in-residence at Riverdale? It's because I am! I can hardly wait to read the story that comes out of this seriously cool project!

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Technicalities and the Personal Essay

Over the last two days, I have been working on a personal essay about the connection I find between running and writing.
Yesterday morning, I ran my husband to the bus stop, and as I often do, I discussed my latest writing pickle: how I was going to begin the essay.

My husband is a good person to discuss such matters with -- he's an editor at the Montreal Gazette, the local English daily here in Montreal. But yesterday, he was even better than usual.

Here's why:

I explained that I was thinking of starting my essay with the line, "I write and run every single day." But then I explained to him what the pickle was: I do write every single day (that's because, for years, I have started my days with three pages in my journal), but technically, I don't run every day. I exercise every day -- sometimes that means I lift weights at the Y or go to my boxing lesson instead. So my question was kind of technical, "Do you think I can start with that line anyhow -- even if there are days that I don't run?"

My husband thought about it for a few moments and then he told me he didn't think I should go with that beginning. He said, "Come up with a different lead altogether. If you're going to start off with something that isn't true, you're going to alienate yourself from your writing."
As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. I went home and re-worked the beginning. I came up with something that was just as good as what I'd had before -- but which was 100 per cent true. And I think coming up with a truer beginning led to a better piece of writing.

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An Afternoon at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre

Last weekend, I was one of a room-full of participants at a book fair held at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. The event was a way of introducing the public to memoirs and in my case, a novel, inspired by real-life stories from the Holocaust. Many of the presenters were older people, Holocaust survivors who understand how important it is to share their experiences with the next generation.

I have to admit I did feel a little like I was flogging my wares at a flea market! That's because we presenters sat at long tables, each of us with a small pile of our own books for sale. (Let's just say I far prefer writing books to having to sell them personally!)

But it was good to see familiar faces in the local writing community, and also to meet new ones. It turned out that my books and I were sitting next to Brenda Spigelman-Ajzenkopf. Brenda is the author of a poetry collection called Secondhand Shoes (Shoreline). Until her recent retirement, Brenda worked as a secretary in the social work department at the Jewish General Hospital. It was there she discovered that she enjoyed and had a talent for writing. "I wrote poems for parties," Brenda told me.

Brenda's parents were Polish Jews. She was born in Munich, shortly after World War II. My mum, also a Holocaust survivor, never told me about her wartime experiences until I began doing the research for my 2008 YA novel, What World Is Left. Brenda's parents were more open about what they had gone through. I asked Brenda what made her write her poems and she told me: "I had to get it out. I had it in me for so many years. I never thought about what I would do with it."

Brenda's husband, Hymie Ajzenkopf, is also the child of Holocaust survivors. He was born ten days after the liberation of Poland. Like his wife, he, too, is recently retired. I hope that means we'll get to read his story too!




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Dear Katherine D (Part I)

You must be wondering who Katherine D is.

Well, here's what I know: she is smart, a fine writer, and will be starting high school in Montreal this fall. Also she was at a camp this summer, where she met Emily, one of my former students... and they got to talking about writing and books for kids. Then Katherine D sent me an email, asking all sorts of good questions about writing -- so I thought, rather than answering in a private email, I would use her questions as the basis of a series of blog entries.

Katherine's first question had to do with finding a publisher and getting published. Just about every aspiring author has this question on his or her mind... but it's a little soon to worry about that. First comes the writing -- and lots of it!!

So, I'm skipping to Katherine's second question, and here, I'll quote from Katherine's email so you can see for yourself what a talented writer she is: "Next, characters: after a good story, they're the most important thing. How do I make them fleshed out, and interesting? Trust me, I hate dull, useless characters that are boring as beige paint."

Don't you like the bit about the "beige paint"? I do!!

Okay, so here come my anti-beige paint tips!

First of all, you really need to know your characters. You need to feel them inside you -- as if they are real people. You need to see them and hear them, not to mention smell them! An exercise I do with my creative writing students that you may find useful is to make a long long list of questions -- and answer them for each of your characters. How old is she? What colour hair does she have? Who's her best friend? What's her relationship like with her mom? What does she have nightmares about? .... Get the idea?

Perhaps most important of all is the character's voice, especially if you are writing in the first person (which I happen to like and recommend). Is your character cheerful or crabby? Hopeful or cynical? Naive or experienced... or something in between?

Here's another tip you might find useful -- look through magazines or brochures ... and try to find pictures that make you think of your character(s). I've even heard of authors who make bulletin boards using all the little clippings they can find that remind them of their characters.

Especially important questions to ask about your character(s): what does she most want? what does she most fear? what obstacles prevent her from getting what she wants?

All right then, Katherine D., I hope I've given you some tips you'll find useful for developing characters in your stories. My main advice is simple and it's just one word: WRITE! Write a lot, write often. I know I can't stop.

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First Review of So Much It Hurts

I've heard some writers say they do not read reviews of their own work. I don't think I could do it.

Seven years ago, my book All In got a savage review in Quill & Quire, widely considered the top journal in the Canadian book industry. One of my friends, author Elaine Kalman Naves (I mention her because she's going to turn up again in today's blog entry) advised me not to read the review. So I didn't -- at least not for several years. (By the way, I feel compelled to tell you that the book was later shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Crime-Writing Prize, and has been published in French by Courte Echelle. See! Even the fact that I told you all that shows I haven't quite recovered from the sting.)

Now back to Elaine... she is also the friend who once told me, "A writer needs a thin skin to be sensitive to the world around her (or him); but a writer also needs a thick skin to deal with the business of writing." Great advice, don't you agree? Only sometimes it's a little tricky to implement....

Like today when I learned that Quill & Quire reviewed my latest novel, So Much It Hurts, in their July/August issue....

Could I be one of those writers who ignores reviews? I didn't think so.

Could I have a thin skin and a thick skin at the same time? I hoped so.

It turns out that Quill & Quire's Liane Shaw gave my book a thumbs up. Here's what she had to say about it: "So Much It Hurts provides a detailed anatomy of a young girl's descent into the nightmare of an abusive relationship that is both accessible and thought provoking." 

Every book an author writes means a lot to the author. How couldn't it? We spend months, sometimes years, working on our stories. Because So Much It Hurts was inspired by true events, it's extra close to my heart. Over the next few months, reviews of the book will be rolling in. In the mean time, I will work on keeping my skin thin and thick... and on continuing to tell more stories.

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Secrets Make Good Stories

"Do you want to hear a secret?"

Can you imagine ever saying no to that question? Today's entry is a link to an essay I just wrote for the Quebec Writers' Federation about secrets and stories. Check it out here.

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Things a Writer Can Learn At Circus Camp

Lucky me! I got to spend this morning at the Ecole Nationale de Cirque's circus camp. I am researching a story about circus camp for the Montreal Gazette -- and I also happen to be working on a new novel set at... okay, you guessed it... circus camp!

In case you're wondering, that is not me doing a backwards flip into a pit of foam cubes!

I was sitting on a chair taking notes and generally trying to behave myself.

So, what can a writer learn from circus camp?

Sometimes, you have to take a flying leap.

And as Adrian Martinez, the acrobatics instructor who was working with the group of kids I was watching, told me: "These kids are very talented, but they need work. It's not only talent that matters, but also hard work."

Same goes for writing, no?

I'm going back next week for a second visit, and to watch some of the kids doing their routines.

Most of the time, being a writer is hard work, but some days ... well, you get to go to the circus!

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Meet My Friend Picture Book Author Jennifer Lloyd... and her mum

I am just home from Jennifer Lloyd's double book launch! It's a rainy day here in Montreal, but it felt sunny inside Livres Babar's Pointe-Claire store. 

Jennifer's two new picture books are Murilla Gorilla and The Best Thing About Kindergarten (Simply Read Books), both of which got glowing reviews in this week's New York Times! Talk about exciting!

The first person I met when I walked into the bookstore was Jennifer's mom, Nancy (that's the two of them in today's pic). Like Jennifer, Nancy is a modest person. She credited her husband, Douglas, for Jennifer's creativity. "He was writing all the time," she said. But it turns out that Nancy deserves some credit, too. A longtime children's librarian, she read out loud to her three kids every night. "On Friday afternoons," Nancy said, "we'd go to the Beaconsfield Library and load up on books. We spent weekends on a farm. My husband would ask, 'Don't you kids want to play in the barn?' They just wanted their books!"

Even though Jennifer was very busy signing books this afternoon, she didn't mind when I interrupted with a question. (Jennifer is a kindergarten teacher so she is used to interruptions!!) I wanted to know if she had a writing tip for you, dear blog reader. And she did. Here's what Jennifer had to say: "Keep trying. You never know how things are going to work out. It takes so much persistence." Thanks for a great tip, Jennifer, and thanks, too, for your great books -- and your big heart!


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Meet My Friend Constantina Kalimeris

My friend Constantina Kalimeris happens to be the illustrator of a lovely fable for all ages called The Apple in the Orchard. 

I phoned Constantina (she lets me call her "Tina" and I let her call me "Mo"!) to ask her a little about the work she did to produce the illustrations for the book. To be honest, I was hoping that what she'd tell me about illustrating would have some overlap with the writing process -- and it did!

So here's what Constantina told me.

Like authors, illustrators, too, need to do a lot of research. "I spent about a month doing research on the anatomy of apple trees," Constantina said. For the book, she needed to illustrate three kinds of apple trees: a pale green, a red harvest, as well as orchard trees. I got very excited when Constantina explained, "I had to give them each a character." (The reason I got excited is that this is EXACTLY what authors have to do, too. What's a story without characters -- or in Constantina's case, trees -- who come alive?) In The Apple in the Orchard, Brave Apple can only grow by taking a risk and leaving Pale Green. Only then can Brave Apple join the thriving orchard.

The Apple in the Orchard is self-published. Constantina worked closely with the book's author, Sonia Di Maulo, founder of Harvest Performance. I asked Constantina how she feels when she sees the finished product (I have a copy and it is a beautiful book). Here's her answer: "I feel a big sense of pride. It's my first book. Collaborating helped me evolve. But most of all, this book has defined my style."

If you want to have a look at the book, or order a copy, visit the link I've included at the top of this blog entry. Now I've got to go... writing this blog entry made me hungry for an APPLE!


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Guess Who's Been Sleeping On Our Futon!

No, it isn't Goldilocks who came to Montreal and slept on our futon (not too hard, not too soft... just right!).

It's Christie Harkin, publisher and children's editor at Fitzhenry & Whiteside, a Toronto-based publishing house. 

Like me, Christie was speaking yesterday at the Imagine A Story conference, organized by YesouiCanscaip, and held at Dawson College here in Montreal.

So, not only did I get to hear Christie speak (together with Toronto literary agent Patricia Ocampo), I also had the pleasure of Christie's company over the weekend.

And because, dear blog reader, I am always thinking of YOU, after supper last night (prepared by my husband, hey thanks, Mike!), I took out my pen and notepad and asked Christie whether she had something clever to say that I could share here. "Say, 'Monique has a chocolate drawer!'" Christie answered. But I knew, dear blog reader, you'd want more than that! So I asked Christie to tell me what, for her, makes a manuscript jump out from the slush-pile (the industry term for the pile of manuscripts that arrives every week in a publishing office).

Christie's answer surprised -- and pleased me.

Here's what she said:

"One thing I look for when I acquire any kind of children's book is one sentence or phrase or paragraph that just makes me stop. If I find more than one of those beautiful sentences, I'll find a way to make the book work," she said.

Then Christie gave me an example of what she meant. When she was reading a manuscript by Natalie Hyde, she stopped at the line, "But there will be cake." That manuscript became the novel Saving Armpit, one of Fitzhenry & Whiteside's greatest successes.

I'd say there's a message there for all writers at every stage of our careers: we need to give readers (and editors) lines that will make them stop...

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"Just Kidding" -- Report from Kuujjuaq

Hello dear blog readers!

Today, I am writing to you again from Kuujjuaq in Nunavik, a region in Quebec's far north.

I'm here with my friend, Thomas Kneubuhler, an artist who works with photography. We are spending the week with Cyril's Sec. V students at Jaanimmarik School, helping them put together a chapter for the next edition of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live, a book that will be published thanks to the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation. 

The reason why I called today's blog entry "Just kidding" is that that is one of the expressions Cyril's students use most. Especially the girls like Lucina and Sianna. Often, after they say something really SMART, they add, "Just kidding!"

The students are writing and shooting photos that have to do with meeting-up places in their community. I've been teaching them how to use details in their writing, how to make readers laugh and cry, and how to transport readers to Kuujjuaq! But perhaps most importantly, I want to teach these young people to trust their own voices.

One small happy moment came for me when I was putting the words, "In the old days" on the blackboard and one of the guys called out to say they'd never use that expression: "We'd say 'back in the day.'" You can't imagine how quickly I erased "In the old days" and replaced it with "Back in the day"! It does sound way better, don't you think?!

This morning, one of the students wrote about how, for him, going to the gym is more about having a healthy lifestyle than meeting people. He wrote about how he used to drink too much. Here's my favourite line from his piece: "I started to notice that people were treating me like I was a joke." Do you see what I mean about voice here? Just reading the words gives you a sense of the lovely intelligent young man who wrote them.

I have one more thing to tell you in today's blog entry! Last night, we went to the movie theater at the town hall for a special screening of the documentary Urban Inuk, made by Inuk filmmaker Jobie Weetaluktuk, The movie is about three Inuit living in Montreal. Two of them have it really rough; the third turned her life around and is now helping other Inuit in the south.

What made the night extra-special is that Jobie was there for the screening! He talked about the challenges of being a filmmaker. "I've made five films. I always say this will be the last one," he told the audience. But then he admitted that he can't stop being creative! "It's hard to give up," he said. And then he laughed -- a wonderful warm Inuk-style laugh that comes from working through hard times and still being able to find humour and joy. Can you tell why I love it up here so much?

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